We Will Be the Gods We Choose to Be, Not Those Who Have Been

I knew my father was an addict at a young age. I still remember the day I found a stash of tiny amber vials with white powder dusted on the inside in the back of his nightstand drawer. I couldn’t tell you how old I was or if I really knew at the time what I was looking at. But whenever I looked at him all I saw were those vials. I always wanted to ask, but never knew how. And when I laid in bed at night playing out how the talk might go in my head, it never ended well. I loved my father. He was my hero. He was everything I wanted to be. I didn’t want that to believe otherwise. So I pushed the vials to the furthest recesses of my brain. It was all denial. I tried to forget. Tried my hardest. Of course, it never worked.

Atreus. Credit: Andy Cull<small?

I thought Atreus from the newest installment of the God of War series was lucky. Atreus didn’t know truth of his father’s identity. The bearded, pale-white skinned, tattooed man that was Atreus’ father was not from their homeland. Though the man that was Atreus’ father loved his mother Faye very much, Atreus and he were never close. The man that was Atreus’ father was cold and distant. Quick to reprimand. Quick to anger. Atreus was impulsive and prone to fits of rage. Atreus didn’t know that he inherited this trait from his father. Atreus didn’t know his father was a Spartan. The Ghost of Sparta. Kratos. The God of War.

Atreus didn’t know his father was a god. I thought mine was.

God of War is the fourth installment in the franchise of the same name. This latest entry released in April of 2018 is a departure from the entries that came before. It is not a continuation of the hyper-violent festival of carnage and blood and rage that was the backbone of the original three entries into the franchise. Players no longer follow The Ghost of Sparta tearing a path of brutality and misery over the Greek pantheon that caused the death of his first family. No, this God of War is the story of Kratos. It’s the story of a man unlearning a lifetime of hatred and vengeance. Above all, God of War is the story of a god learning how to be a man. To be vulnerable. God of War is about a man learning how to talk to his son. God of War is the story that taught me how to talk to my father.

There’s a moment in God of War that I go back to every time I think about the game – or my father. It wasn’t an epic moment, like the reveal of Jörmungandr, the world-serpent of Norse myth. It wasn’t Kratos reclaiming his Blades of Chaos, the signature, god-slaying weapons that defined him in the prior God of War games. It wasn’t the adrenaline fueled, bare-knuckled brawl between Kratos and Baldur. It was a moment in the first hour of the game where we are introduced to Atreus and the new Kratos. A father teaching his son to hunt.

You could be forgiven for watching the clip above and thinking of Kratos as an uncaring father. I thought it too. This clip is the first time players see Kratos and Atreus interact. It’s the first time audiences have seen Kratos as a father. This moment follows the funeral of Kratos’ wife and Atreus’ mother, Faye. The fire illuminating Kratos at the beginning of the clip above is Faye’s funeral pyre. During the hunt Kratos acts in either one of two modes: curt and stoic or angry and loud, with no middle ground between the two. The first thing we hear Kratos say to his son is “You are hunting deer.” When Atreus, who has never been hunting with his father, asks which way to go, Kratos replies bitingly: “In the direction of deer. Hunt.” When Atreus asks Kratos why he never took him hunting before this day, Kratos simply responds with “It was your mother’s wish. And it was time.” He doesn’t refer to Atreus by name, only as “boy”. When Atreus misfires his bow, Kratos snaps and screams straight from his gut to only fire on his signal, and takes the bow away from the boy still learning to wield it. But Kratos’ quick temper betrays his good intentions. He says to Atreus early on in the scene “I need to know you can survive the journey.” The journey in question is a task Faye left to Kratos on her deathbed: take her ashes and spread them over Jötunheim, the ancient and very-much inaccessible land of the Giants, a long dead race.

Kratos, God of War. Credit: Andy Cull

Fans of the franchise know that even the Kratos we see here is a monumental shift for the character. The original God of War games were excellent, but did not have the emotional depth this game has. Kratos’ history is told through God of War 1-3, set much before the events of the 2018 God of War. Kratos is originally from ancient Greece, where he was a known Spartan warrior; the champion of Ares, the-then reigning god of war. For his prowess in battle, Kratos was given the gift of mighty weapons to strike down his foes, called the Blades of Chaos. Wielding them granted Kratos not only immense power, but also an implement to channel his rage into strength that he used to annihilate any who stood before him. Kratos’ rage and lust for battle took him and his soldiers to a small city that Ares demanded be decimated. After it was routed, Kratos found himself face to face with the slain corpses of his wife and children. Their bodies turned to ash and clung to his skin, giving him his ghostly appearance. Kratos was suddenly alone in the world, betrayed by his patron and cast away by his peers. All he had left was his hatred and vengeance for the god he once served. And so, in the span of three games, Kratos systematically eliminates the entirety of the Greek pantheon – and much of Greece itself in bloody, gore-filled fashion.

In the original trilogy of games, Kratos was a man defined by his rage and singular focus on vengeance. These games were well known for their over the top violence and brutality. We don’t get to see how Kratos escaped the ruins of Greece and found himself in the lands of the Norse gods, but we know he is a changed man. He has rescinded his title as god of war. Started a family and triedhis best to live a simple life. As the game begins, Kratos faces the biggest challenge to his god-slaying life: learning how to be a father. At the onset of this game, Kratos is experiencing something new: failure. A challenge he can’t overcome with the swing of a sword.

The moment at the end of the clip above is heart-wrenching; so much is left unsaid between Kratos and Atreus. Players see Kratos unable to deal with his own grief or the grief of his son. He can’t even bring himself to embrace his child. I watched this scene and felt my heart snap in two. I wanted so much for Kratos to talk to his son. To be open and honest. It made me think of my father.  It made me think of the vials. It made me think about Atreus. It made me think about me. Why couldn’t Atreus talk to his father? Why not tell him how much it hurts to be without his mother. Why couldn’t I talk to my father?

As I watched the last few seconds of Kratos and Atreus’ hunt, where Atreus looks like he wants to speak so badly, but can’t; where Kratos wants nothing more than to put his hand on Atreus’ shoulder but can’t bring himself to bridge the gap between them, I felt so much of myself in Atreus’ experience. I felt myself immersed in his pain, in his longing to talk to his father about what ails him but not being able to find the words and forgetting about it. The arms length between Kratos and Atreus felt just like the distance between my father and I.

I kept playing because I hoped at some point that the father son duo could bridge the gap. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was looking for affirmation. I was looking to this digital father and son to reconcile so that I could find hope for reconciliation with my own, very real father. Though the road was tumultuous, and there were moments where I thought the pair might never be able to be vulnerable, it does happen. In the game’s penultimate moment, the father and son defeat Baldur, a Norse god who had been hunting the pair for the entirety of the game. Here’s that scene:

As the father-son duo, one coming to terms with their godhood and the other with his humanity, shared an embrace and began walking towards the end of their journey I wept again. Both gods learned the thing they feared most was vulnerability. The journey Faye sent the pair on taught them to conquer their fears. To confront them head on. For Kratos, that meant accepting he is not the monster he was. For Atreus, that meant both listening to and learning to understand his father.

I saw those amber vials again…

If Kratos could move beyond his haunted past and become a better man, maybe my father could too. If my father’s journey was Kratos,’ was mine Atreus’? What did I have to learn from watching a child learn from the mistakes of his father? “We will be the gods we choose to be.” Who I was is not who you will be.” For so long I was afraid of being vulnerable with my own father. God of War taught me that I needed to stop being afraid of the chasm between us. Trust that he would meet me in the darkness between and that we would climb out together.

As the game ends and Kratos and Atreus spread Faye’s ashes over the lost land of Jötunheim, I didn’t stop to watch the credits roll. Instead I wiped the tears from my face and picked up my phone. I mustered all of my courage and called my father. It was a small conversation. If I’m honest, I barely remember it. But the next time I saw him, we talked for longer. We took a long walk. It was our own heroic journey of discovery. It wasn’t a spectacle or remarkable in any way. But it was exactly what I needed.

My father and I are still climbing out of the chasm between us. But we’re doing it together.

My father and I are the gods we choose to be.