I don’t know what breaks my heart more: watching Kratos try to be a single father, or listening to folks talk about how much they identified with the father-son relationship in God of War.
In the new game Kratos has moved on from his bloody past to settle down in Norway, marrying a local woman, who bears him a son. At the start of God of War, she has passed away, and Kratos is tasked with taking their son Atreus to the highest peak in all the realms to scatter her ashes.
Predictably, the journey is a means for Kratos to process his new role as Atreus’s primary caregiver. Gruff, unnurturing, and incapable of affection, he nonetheless finds his own values to pass on to Atreus, teaching him how to assess risk, maintain awareness, and fight in battle. Atreus, meanwhile, struggles both with the loss of his mother and the inadequacies of his father, defensively maneuvering around Kratos’s negative behavior. He’s afraid, he misses his mother, and he feels Kratos’s resentment hanging over him, enduring the pressure to be masculine and strong while desperately wanting to be loved. His fragility and vulnerability, and Kratos’s inability to protect it, is crushing.
It seems as though having a bad father is such a common experience, it’s almost hard sometimes to identify bad behavior when we see it. When you’re conditioned to accept less than the bare minimum, you become grateful for any amount of parenting (especially from the caretaker who has historically had the social freedom to abandon their child altogether). There’s a lot to recognize in Kratos’s failings as a father: he’s emotionally withholding, he’s resentful of his parental responsibilities, and he’s clearly in over his head. At times he resists Atreus’s naive optimism as if he’s actively trying to crush his son’s spirit. The cruelty is hard to watch.
Yet, so many sentimentalize the relationship between Kratos and Atreus. And while there’s an element of tradition and rite of passage in how Kratos teaches Atreus to hunt and kill (tapping into our nostalgia for an already existing imagery), the fact that so many of us saw ourselves in these characters is alarming. Kratos is an abuser with a deep history of violence, begrudgingly trying to raise his son despite not knowing how. Atreus, who has no idea that Kratos murdered his first wife and child, is at his mercy. Who is the player intended to identify with more, Kratos or Atreus? What’s more tragic, that Kratos can’t relate to his son or that so many folks relate to these characters?
When I see the sentimentality surrounding Kratos as a dad, I think of how much we excuse from our own fathers, and why. It’s not just that we want to rationalize and find reasons for the emotional distance of a caregiver to assuage our own pain. It’s that we’re inherently aware of the different rules and expectations on emotional expression and how they’re assigned based on binary gender roles. That awareness is among the tools we use to justify it. It’s a defense mechanism to get by.
I suspect some of the draw is that many in the audience can identify with the frustration of raising a child before they’re ready. It’s a valid perspective as a parent but saddled with additional cultural nuance when it comes to cisgender, straight men. Kratos, for what it’s worth, does seem to somewhat come to terms with that over the course of the game (and, since it seems to be headed towards a trilogy, that will probably be a major theme in the games to come) and have some moments of growth. Atreus’s awakening as a god, his ensuing arrogance, and Kratos stepping in to adjust his attitude before it gets too out of control serves as a great metaphor for puberty and the role that fathers play in teaching their sons how to be responsible with their physical strength.
But the portrayal still has its issues, mainly in how it assigns parental roles and its divide along traditionally gendered lines. This is evident especially in how Kratos emphasizes strength over compassion. While yes, a child has to be taught how to “be strong” by an adult figure at some point in their early cognitive development, strength on the terms that Kratos understands it is only a piece of the puzzle. Our definition of what strength entails is often warped by the expectations placed on masculinity. Too often the stifling of emotions, rather than addressing and processing them, is characterized as strength, when it’s actually the opposite that is true: sometimes being strong is having the courage to extend emotional vulnerability.
The social permissiveness that allows these traditional paternal roles to eschew emotional nurturing is the same tool used to dismiss the autonomy and authority of women. This is mirrored in the relationship between Kratos and Atreus’s mother Faye, who was initially responsible for teaching Atreus how to hunt. Kratos, the minute she has been laid to rest, directs his son to ignore her lessons on the value of life, then bury his emotions and dehumanize his opponents, prioritizing only his own perspective and motivations. This directive is framed as being in the interest of survival, positioning human emotion as dead weight, a cargo to be jettisoned in the process of becoming an adult. But it is anti-social, uncooperative, and inherently dismantles the sanctity of Faye’s role as Atreus’s mother by undermining everything she taught him—not to mention, a scary thing to teach a child that has the power to hold the fate of innocent people in his hands. But we ate it up, because we’ve been conditioned to value even the smallest scraps of paternal attention, to the point that we’ll project a sentimentality to it that just isn’t there.
I want to hold the game accountable for what it reinforces about binary gender roles within parenting, but it seems almost unfair to judge the writers for reflecting the only understanding of fatherhood that many of us have ever known. People can only perform the positive social behavior that has already been taught to and modeled for them. And Kratos, as a written character, is the product of a society that all of us are affected by and participate in, one that makes it difficult to normalize even the smallest amount of emotional vulnerability. God of War mirrors so many of our cultural understandings of gender and parental roles because it was written by people who have likely been exposed to that model, and only that model, their entire lives. Who among us had a good father, who knew what he was doing and had all the emotional tools to give us what we needed? Perhaps in that sense, God of War reveals its creators’ attempts to reconcile their own childhoods while negotiating their responsibilities as dads.
There are times in the game where it feels as though Atreus is raising Kratos, giving his father the resources that Kratos himself was not taught as a child, while having the tremendous pluck to challenge his father’s anger. I sympathize with him in that sense. I had to teach my dad to be a real person, too. Clearly, the writers are angling for a redemption arc for Kratos, and chose to do so through a conduit that gives a socially acceptable excuse for the softening of his demeanor (a theme that shows up in many forms of entertainment, not just this videogame). I just wish the emotional vulnerability surrounding child rearing wasn’t the only context in which men can safely express their feelings. We all deserve more than that.
I understand why so many people identify with Kratos and Atreus. I just wish we lived in a world where they didn’t have to.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer living in Seattle, WA. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.