God of War: God of Games

I never played the many previous God of War games. I’ve heard they’re fun and exciting and brutal fighting games — and I love fighting games — about the Greek pantheon — and I love dead gods — so I knew they were likely the kind of game I’d love to love to talk about because I’m the kind of insufferable fool who will tell you about why Orpheus birthed Shakespearean tragedy and gave shape to thousands of years of reckless romanticism. Normally, I’m the kind of idiot who also likes to begin at the beginning of something, believing there’s something sacred about chronology, even if everyone knows your life is limited by time and there’s no point spending dozens of hours doing something just so you can finally begin the thing you actually want to do.

So I began God of War (2018) without knowledge of the many previous (eight?) adventures of Kratos and told myself it wouldn’t matter (it wouldn’t). Playing a game described, often, as the best of its generation, years after its release would prepare you to not be surprised by quality, and yet I was struck by the slow, deliberate opening of the game. A quiet, somber feeling hung over me as I became Kratos for the first time, with Bear McCreary’s violins giving texture to my first brutal axe swings into a tree. Even being told nothing, the tension and awkwardness between father and son thickened the air. The use of light and shadow, the way the camera pans but never blinks, and the softness of Kratos’ voice as he speaks to his dead wife contrasted with the harsh terseness when he speaks to his son show me, casual gamer that I am, that this was a new experience, owing much more to film and literature than to previous games in the franchise. It was as much Charles Portis as it was Coen Brothers, the true grit caught in my eye.

When I was seventeen, I watched Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark in stunned silence. I had never seen anything like it. A film without takes, without cuts, without a moment to catch your breath while movement and music take hold of you, drag you through hundreds of years of Russia, unblinkingly, unnervingly demanding you witness the last gasps of decadent beauty, of harrowing tragedy as the camera dumps you into that freezing ocean. God of War’s unblinking camera hovering languidly behind Kratos reminded me of Sokurov and Zvyagintsev and Tarkovsky and the way they wielded so much power with their cameras, revealing unfathomable depths of humanity.

God of War is a directed game, which is, even still, a rarity in videogames. Much as I love Final Fantasy and Zelda, even they have never reached this clear level of direction, as if someone else held the game’s camera as it slipped seamlessly from cutscene to gameplay throughout the twenty or so hours I spent in Midgard. Every moment, whether Kratos was under my control or out of my control, shuddered through me in the way only great films do. It reminded me, in strange ways, of reading Virginia Woolf, where the mundane and banal became hallucinogenic and surreal, imbuing every detail, no matter how small, with inconceivable depths of life.

Perhaps strangest of all was that this tight and cinematic direction never fully takes over the experience. There are other games with a brilliant devotion to narrative, to character, games that steal all the best elements of film and literature to create unforgettable gaming experiences, but, to me, many of those games are never that much fun to actually play. They’re great in countless ways, but I can’t imagine ever playing them again.

God of War, on the other hand, is a goddamned delight to play. It’s brutal and difficult, absolutely, but there’s a childlike wonder devoted to the gameplay.

I am bad at videogames. This didn’t used to be the case but it certainly is now, so I may not be the best rubric for what makes a game difficult. Anyrate, I found this game almost unbearably hard at first. I died dozens of times. At every boss battle, I died over and over again. It made exploration slightly terrifying. Around every corner was potential disaster. Violence and fear soaked my every movement. I died, died again, died again better until I made my way to the Lake of the Nine, slowly beginning to learn how useful my dear Boy was in assisting me as I clawed my way through seemingly endless enemies.

Once in the Lake of the Nine, the game opens for exploration, and here’s where the real magic of gameplay struck me. As my abilities increased, both as a player and as Kratos and Atreus, the game became less frightening and more inviting, with Lake of the Nine coming at the exact right moment. With my growing confidence, I ventured out into the wilds, with no direction. Even as the newfound freedom thrilled me, I listened to a Father tell stories awkwardly and gruffly to a Boy who listened with the desperate hope of any heartful child to any distant, restrained father. The strain of their relationship so real and on the surface, it was sometimes difficult to ignore the flood of memories of my own father, my mother, as I stumbled upon new quests, new stories that both expanded and deepened the world of Midgard. It’s a very light touch in a game so heavily directed, allowing the curiosity of the player to do the worldbuilding for the narrative.

It reminded me of the best moments of Breath of the Wild, where the vast emptiness of Hyrule brought me to a new town or some unexpected secret, leading me on a quest to help someone or to fight a dragon I hadn’t been looking for, teaching me more about the long, tragic history of Hyrule than any cutscene could have.

Effortless. That’s how playing God of War feels. Even when you’re getting absolutely annihilated by some fiery troll or a dozen monsters launching magical ice spears, it all feels natural and fluid. Every successful parry, every distracting arrow shot by your Boy, every axe severing a head or stomp crushing a skull manages to find perfect harmony with the wilds of Midgard and the many secrets held in its ghosts, its gods, its forgotten monuments. Rather than keep the game split between modes of exploration and narrative, a pitfall too common to open world games, God of War uses the generative narrative of your gameplay choices to broaden your understanding of the world, its characters, giving you space and freedom to build your own connections to Kratos, the Father, and the Boy named Atreus.

God of War sinks its emotional hooks in when you’re not looking and then tugs mercilessly on them at just the right moments. You see Kratos as a gruff man holding an immense history of violence. You see it in his posture, in his flat expression of caged rage, his tightly clenched fists, his slow, deliberate violence. Every time you swing his axe, this point is driven home. The combat is precise and brutal and efficient. He is a man who was broken by his lifetime of violence, who carries the shame and horror of everything he has done. And then you see his sweet Boy, Atreus, who lost his mother, who he loved more than anyone. You see the way he looks at you, Kratos, and sees only your fear and shame but believes it is disappointment and anger. In him. In your sweet boy who wants, desperately, to be loved and accepted by the father he has never known.

Even as I played it, I was unaware of these feelings until that first moment when Kratos believes his Boy is in danger. The way he screams his name, Atreus, desperate and furious at himself for allowing danger to find him, for being unable, again, to protect that who he most loves. The rage and fury erupting from Kratos feel exhilarating in a different way. It’s one thing to use his Spartan Rage as a tool in combat, as a gameplay crutch for when your poor decisions in battle have led to you being overwhelmed and near death. It’s different when it’s used as a narrative device, demonstrating, furiously, the depths of his attachment for his son.

The older mentor with a history of violence caring for a young person is an old trope. I’ve seen it many times and almost always done in the same way. From Portis to Coens to Abercrombie to the Mandalorian and even to a Lone Wolf and Cub, this trope never ceases to pull bloody tears right out of my wounded heart. So familiar, so deep in my teeth I can taste it. Yet it never ceases to strike me powerfully. All of us who have had contentious relationships with our parents or with only one of them — which probably accounts for almost everyone — feels the power in this kind of narrative, especially once you have a child of your own. You know the depths of love and misunderstanding on both sides of the relationship. It’s a trope designed to break us.

I remember not speaking to my father for months. I remember leaving as my mother begged me to stay, tears in her eyes, while I held mine in.

I look at my own child and wonder if, one day, my love will be misunderstood and if that misunderstanding will break us. If he’ll one day look at me and see only his fear and shame reflected there. If I will one day disappoint him and watch as he believes it’s him disappointing me.

God of War is obsessed with the choices parents make that destroy their families. Whether it’s Freya’s desire to protect her son from his insane father or Kratos hiding his past to keep Atreus from knowing the monstrousness inside him, inside them both, we see how love can destroy. We see how love can shatter us.

Too, we see how love grows. The subtle ways the dialogue between Kratos and Atreus changes. The way the Boy becomes Atreus more and more. The way Atreus stops cowering, stops fearing, and begins to poke at Father. The way Kratos stops demanding perfection, hectoring the Boy over his imperfection, and begins praising him. It’s a progression so natural and simple but so powerful that it hurts. I felt the tears clawing at my eyes during these casual exchanges between one brutal encounter with combusting enemies and the next.

My grandfathers died before I was born. My mother became estranged from her family. My father’s brothers live in different states. My father is the only father figure I’ve ever experienced and for all that he lacks, all the lack I see in him, in his life, his ideology, his hopes, I was brought to tears a few weeks ago when my mother told me that he probably won’t see my son grow up. Uncontrollable, fierce, vicious tears for a man I don’t even think I love. Not really.

How could I?

I know him. Know him too well.

I have seen him for my whole life. Made a study of what a man is by standing in the way of his anger, his disappointment in me, in my siblings. I’ve studied the times he told me he was proud and how I felt nothing. Not pride or relief or shame. Just nothing.

I’ve been told I don’t respond normally to compliments or insults. I’ve been told I have a peculiar relationship to authority, to gods.

I suppose I owe both to my father. I’ve heard, often, that fathers are our models for gods. I’ve heard, even more often, people describe the moment they realized their father was fallible.

I don’t remember.

I have always known this. Always known it acutely. Always known who he was. What he was. If he was my model for god, then what was a god? If he was ever infallible, then what was truth?

When Atreus pulled Kratos back from the bright lights of Alfheim, dead elves littering the platform, I understood. I understood it better than the first time I saw my father collapse in a seizure from the epilepsy he developed so late in life, the epilepsy that has stolen so much of what made him the man he was, the epilepsy he tried to defy through will power, through regiment. The epilepsy that crushed him, leaving him defenseless, fearing death.

My mother whispers to me that he’s dying and I hear only the terrible fear ripping through her, hollowing her out. The howling fear that she must live past him, without him.

Every time I died, the desperate cries of Atreus sent shivers through me.

When I close my eyes, I can see my father dying like a memory of the future.

I can see my son dropping flowers on my grave, hoping he remembers me fondly. Hoping he remembers me kindly.

God of War, despite its deliberate surface of brutal combat and seemingly clear morality, is one of the most subtle pieces of storytelling I’ve ever encountered in a videogame. And so much of this subtlety, so much power in this narrative, is delivered through its quiet moments. It’s not the cinematics or the epic battles, the dragons or giants or gods you fight along the way, but the simple moments of a father and son in a canoe. The way a father offers criticism for fear that the son will be defenseless without him. The way that same father offers praise instead of criticism. The simple and pure joy of watching the son learn a new language, read the name of a Valkyrie. The enthusiasm with which he copies down myths and legends, recording his discoveries in a notebook his father can’t read even as his life begins to revolve around horrifically brutal fights to the death with gods and monsters.

For all its bombast and spectacle, the genius of God of War is in crafting these simple moments between father and son that seem so narratively insignificant. And yet, they’re everything. Without these quiet moments, the reality shattering moments would be nothing but spectacle without significance.

And so it’s fitting that a game that begins in chasms of solitude between a grieving son and father ends in release and connection on a mountain painted by prophecy a reality away.

Reviewing old things.