If someone told me when I was in high school and just finishing God of War 3, a game where it’s protagonist Kratos kills scores upon scores of men and most of the Greek pantheon of gods, that one day another game in the same franchise would bring me to tears, I’d have called them insane. If someone had told me when I was in high school that one day a video game called God of War would give me the confidence to talk to my father about his addictions, I’d have asked “You mean the same God of War games that score you based on how efficiently you murder screens full of enemies? Are we playing the same game?”
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 the talk in my head it never ended well for me. I loved my father. We were so close. He was my hero. He was everything I wanted to be. I didn’t want that to change. So, I pushed the vials to the furthest recesses of my brain. It was all denial. I tried to forget. Tried my hardest. To no avail.
I thought Atreus was lucky. Much luckier than me. You see, Atreus didn’t know who his father was. 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 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 violence 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 violence and vengeance. Above all, God of War is the story of a god learning how 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 dad. 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 the smallest moment between Kratos and Atreus. Father teaching 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 you see Kratos and Atreus interact. The first time we’ve seen Kratos as a father. It’s right after the funeral of Kratos’ wife and Atreus’ mother, Faye. Atop the fire burning in this introductory scene is her body. During the hunt Kratos goes from curt and stoic to angry and loud with no in-between. The first thing we hear Kratos say to his son, immediately after Faye’s funeral 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 today, 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 hunt. But Kratos’ quick temper belies his good intentions. He says to Atreus early on in the scene “I need to know you can survive the journey.” This journey was a mission Faye left to Kratos on her deathbed: take her ashes and spread them over Jötunheim, the ancient and very-much innaccessible land of the Giants, a long dead race.
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; a champion of Ares, the-then god of war. For his prowess in battle, Kratos was given the gift of mighty weapons to strike down his foes. Wielding them granted Kratos immense power, and an implement to channeling 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 pale appearance. The only thing left to Kratos was vengeance. 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 his original trilogy, Kratos was a man defined by his rage and 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 tried 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 failing.
The moment at the end of the clip above is heart-wrenching; where so much is left unsaid between Kratos and Atreus, where Kratos is unable to deal with his own grief or the grief of his son, where 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. 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? Tell him how much it hurts to be missing 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 myself immersed in Atreus’ experience. I felt myself immersed in Atreus’ 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 may as well have been the widest of chasms. The distance between Kratos and Atreus felt like the distance between my father and I. Maybe we weren’t as close as I’d thought.
I kept playing because I hoped at some point both father and son 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 has been hunting the pair for the entirety of the game. Here’s that scene:
As the father-son duo 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. What else could two of the most powerful beings in existence fear?
The journey Faye sent the father-son duo 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 the 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.” I realized for so long I was afraid of being vulnerable with my own father. 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 journey to the lost land of Jötunheim. It wasn’t a spectacle or remarkable in any way. But it was exactly what I needed. Honest and vulnerable.
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.