This piece discusses depictions of violence towards women and includes videogame depictions of nudity.
Sony announced a new God of War game at E3 this year, simply titled God of War. It features an older Kratos with his son and appears to be going for a more thoughtful tone. Creative Director Cory Balrog told Polygon that in the new God of War Kratos is “figuring out how to teach this kid to not be like him, to have the best parts of him and leave the worst parts out.” The designers’ intentions seem to be to write a more relatable story than the previous tales of deicide. If they have any hope of actually accomplishing that, however, then God of War needs to move beyond its history of disgusting misogyny.
Women are treated as plot devices, not characters, from the very outset of the first God of War. Sony Santa Monica falls back on the tired and sexist “women in refrigerators” trope to drive the series’ plot and violence. Before the first game begins, Kratos accidentally murders his wife and daughter. This happens because Ares, who Kratos works for, wants Kratos to be free of familial ties, hoping that will make him a better soldier. Ares puts Kratos’ wife and daughter in a city Kratos is attacking, leading to Kratos to accidentally murder them. Throughout the entire series, Sony Santa Monica makes Kratos’ motivation either to absolve himself of the murders or to seek revenge on those he blames for his actions. His wife and daughter do not get to be actual characters; they don’t get to struggle with guilt or complex emotions. They are dead before the game begins. Sony Santa Monica uses them to drive conflict between the men of the series, Kratos, Ares and Zeus. They are merely plot devices to fuel the games’ action, whereas Kratos gets to be a character with agency.
Beyond plot devices, Sony Santa Monica saw fit to give women one other role: sexual objects for the presumed straight male player. Every God of War has a disgustingly puerile minigame in which Kratos has sex with one or several women as the player presses a series of buttons in a quick time event. Sony Santa Monica actualized a horny thirteen-year old boy’s conception of sex in every God of War game: self-absorbed, childish, and demeaning to women. These moments are also the clearest example of Kratos becoming a self-insert avatar for the player, as the frequently nameless women talk about Kratos/the player, saying things like “The gods have rewarded us. Glory to Eros, he has given us a champion,” or “Do you know how long it’s been since a real man has come into my chambers?” The player gets to be an active participant in the objectification of women. Sony Santa Monica extended the objectification of these women into the gameplay by rewarding the player with experience points (XP) afterwards. This can be done multiple times, turning the women into literal XP fountains. They are effectively interchangeable with the XP chests, except these XP sources are meant to be titillating. These women aren’t people or characters, but sexualized bodies to be used by Kratos/the player. Kratos and the other men get to be powerful while women get to be sexual objects, plot points or dead bodies. There isn’t a hint of these games treating them as human and the designers seem to never have considered the possibility of trying to be inclusive towards anyone other than a cisgendered, straight man.
Perhaps the most reprehensible and disgusting moment in the God of War series occurs partway through God of War 3. Kratos is slaughtering his way through Poseidon’s Chamber when he happens upon a mostly naked woman, chained down in Poseidon’s sleeping quarters, crying out for help. Upon approaching her, the game displays the title “Poseidon Princess” on screen, though “Poseidon’s Sex Slave” would be far more honest on the developers’ part. She realizes it is Kratos and cowers back in fear, saying she doesn’t want his help. Kratos eventually finds his way into her room. She begs him to leave her there, but he grabs her, saying “Hold your tongue.” He breaks the chains and then forces her to accompany him.
Sony Santa Monica gives Kratos, and thus the player, control over this woman to instill a feeling of power, and then exposes her breasts for titillation. Kratos and the woman travel together for a short time and eventually come to a gate operated by a giant wheel-crank. The gate quickly shuts if the crank is not held up, so Sony Santa Monica has Kratos turn the crank, then grab the nameless, topless woman, and force her to hold it up so he can get through. She begs him not to but Kratos does so anyways. The weight of the crank crushes her to death as she screams, but her eviscerated body jams it, so Kratos/the player can still get through.
This moment made me sick to my stomach. It is a disgusting depiction of misogynistic violence towards women, enacted by the player character, which the developers at Sony Santa Monica included for no discernible reason other than to depict more brutal violence and female nudity. The woman is given no agency, not even a name. She is not treated like a person. Instead she is an object that Kratos takes from Poseidon and uses for a short while. Sony Santa Monica sexualizes her, dehumanizes her and then forces Kratos, and thus the player, to mutilate her. This is representative of how Sony Santa Monica treats women throughout the God of War series, as non-human, sexual objects to either progress Kratos’ story or to titillate the presumed straight male player.
“I think, as developers, we’ve grown up,” Balrog said in an interview with Kotaku. “We’re at a different phase in our lives, we look at the world differently. It’s very different.” I hope he and his team are looking at the way they depict women differently too. Seeing Kratos trying to be a father in one scene and then pressing X to have sex or brutalize a naked woman in the next scene would be jarring and discomforting, a hindrance to any kind of story or immersion. And not to mention sexist, as if there needs to be another reason. Consider me unconvinced until I actually see if the new God of War is the same sexist trash it’s always been. The new God of War is already off to a shaky start, as it appears developers Sony Santa Monica have killed Kratos’ wife off before the game even begins. Again. The story of Kratos as a father has no chance of resonating if Sony Santa Monica chooses to dehumanize women by turning them into plot devices or sexual objects as they have done in every God of War so far.
I’ve only scratched the surface of the God of War series’ detestable misogynistic portrayals. Every game has dozens more examples to delve into. This rampant dehumanization of women reinforces harmful cultural ideals of masculinity that say men are powerful for their control over women’s bodies and women are valuable solely for their usefulness to men. Times are changing, though. Many critics and consumers understand this representation is extremely harmful and holds games back. It’s long past time God of War changed as well, or it will be nothing more than an ugly, sexist artifact and an embarrassment to videogames.
Kyle McKenney writes for Swarthmore College’s student newspaper the Daily Gazette and is an intern at Paste. You can follow him on Twitter @TotallyKyle95.