Role-playing in an Action Game: Playing God of War Through Atreus’s Eyes
Note: The following article contains major spoilers for God of War (2018).
Sony Santa Monica struck gold with the PS4 God of War game. The action title became one of the bestselling Sony exclusives in this console era. It’s a game that bends genres and includes a lot of RPG elements, alongside a gripping story. Taking elements of traditional epic poems like Beowulf, the game stitches a bigger mythological narrative with a smaller personal tale of grief and family. And it did something I thought was impossible: it made me play a game with a main protagonist that I personally don’t identify with.
For years, I’ve known Kratos, the main protagonist of the God of War series, as this angry, beefy, tattooed man my friends said was a total badass and I avoided like the plague. I’ve heard of the silly womanizing mini-games and the gory mess he left behind after ripping his foes in half. Kratos was another one of those iconic gaming culture cornerstones that I just let be.
Something changed though, and it was obvious from the release trailer back in 2016. Fully bearded, Kratos was presented at E3 that year as a father, and the world was introduced to his son Atreus. I passively followed the development of the game but always veered away from it knowing that at the end of the day, Kratos still ran the show. But the more I heard of the game and how Atreus plays a very active role, the more interest I had.
My interest peaked after a longtime gaming friend of mine played it, and knowing which games I loved (and loathed), strongly recommend I play it. In short, he said it would be an experience that I would hold onto and cherish for the rest of my days. The reason, I’d find out, was not just because I felt a strong kinship with Atreus but I felt like God of War was placing a mirror up to my own estranged relationship with my father.
There’s a picture of my dad on a swing and I’m about three years old, light brown skin and golden-brown curls on my head and a Cheshire Cat grin on my face. I’m pushing my dad. He too is smiling but there’s nothing smirky about it. He’s happy. He’s the man I’m told who sang “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” to me back when I wore choo-choo train overalls. Most importantly, he’s sober in the photo. “Your dad was a nice guy when he wasn’t drinking,” my mom has said more than once. I find the photo bewildering because it’s clearly me but I have no memory of that moment as if somehow, my body decided that it didn’t need that memory.
He’s a man who read from a worn-out Bible. He’s a man who was born to be a pack mule because big, burly black men in 1960s Lynchburg, Virginia didn’t have the luxury of education. Their hands and arms were far more valuable than their minds. He never learned to tolerate people who were different from him. He didn’t learn how to cope with his demons. The Bible wasn’t enough, so he picked up a bottle instead.
I didn’t like him when he found his way back into my life at the age of 14. I wanted to be the only guy around, even though my power was limited. Feminine energy always lingered in the air, like a permanent fragrance. My mom was in control, as she should have been. He was a piece of a puzzle that would never fit in and after trying to be a family, he moved into his own place.
The reason why he was given another chance to be a part of the family was that he was five years sober and had a stable job. He never paid child support, so his health insurance was meant to be his “apology.”
Pepsi. Pepsi. Pepsi. So many Pepsi cans littered his house, but other than that, it was always clean. He took off his shoes when he was in his house. He ironed his jeans. Shoes were always clean. But Pepsi cans were always around, and I now know why. They were like blue and silver trophies. Each one of them was another moment away from a beer. I preferred Sprite but he always had Pepsi, so I drank it.
But that changed when I started college. What admiration I built for him, I let crumble when he started drinking again. He lost his car. He’d been seen on the side of the road. He had to be picked up from the local jailhouse. These were things I heard from my sister. I didn’t want to talk to him. But the truth was I did. I really, really did.
He never called me. I was fine with that.
He called me the day I was graduating from college in 2011. He was drunk.
His voice had a rattle to it. I hadn’t seen his face in the previous four or so years, but I imagined it was like dark, worn down leather.
I too was worn down. Worn down by the little boy who I didn’t want to remember deep down inside. That golden-brown curly-haired boy wearing choo-choo train overalls who didn’t want to be pushed on the swing by his dad, but instead wanted to push him. To make his dad smile. To do what sons were supposed to do. His hands were so big, so dark, so calloused. My hands were so small, light brown, so soft. They were strong enough to push him on the swing. But in May of 2011, they weren’t strong enough to carry the burden of a drunk father anymore. I decided it was the last conversation we’d have.
That photo haunted me as soon as I started playing God of War. Every scene from the game felt like a picturesque moment between father and son. As the story begins, Atreus’s mother has died and now he must go on a journey with his father Kratos. The journey will fulfill his mother’s dying wish which is to have her ashes spread on the highest mountain in the Old Norse-inspired realm.
The deeply personal nature of the game comes from the fact that most of the game’s screen time is focused on Kratos and Atreus. And while Kratos is the main protagonist, I found myself latching onto Atreus, as the little neglected boy inside me quickly allied with him. The mother, while not physically present in the story, has a phantasmic presence that tethered the estranged father and son together.
Kratos’s past isn’t ignored in the 2018 game. Any gamer who played through the previous entries would quickly understand why Kratos is the way he is and why he’s keeping his past as a secret in order to protect Atreus. I didn’t know his past when starting God of War. I made that decision on purpose so that I felt closer to Atreus.
What Kratos tries to hide from Atreus is their lineage. Kratos is a god. That makes Atreus a god too. Kratos killed the pantheon of gods in his realm, escaped to another realm, and lived as man. The past comes to haunt him as the sons of Odin sense Atreus’s presence and pursue them on their journey.
The mythological aspects of the game aren’t what lingered with me long after I finished playing the game. It was the more personal moments. At one point in the game, Kratos enters a dreamlike realm where he can hear some of Atreus’s words that he exchanged with his dying mother.
“He doesn’t want me. He always leaves,” were the words Atreus said when the story led him and Kratos to Alfheim. I had to put the controller down and collect myself. I remembered thinking of those things many times. I was reminded of a time when I was in the car with my mom and I was on the verge of tears, asking her why my father had broken five years of sobriety. To her, the answer was simple: he was a man who never had the chance to grow up. Alcoholism stunted his mental growth. He’d also accepted his place in society. He was born in the 1950s after all. He did what black men did in those days — dropped out of school at the age of thirteen and started to work in order to put food on the table. I’d taken his return to alcoholism personally because it felt like he was rejecting me all over again.
“He doesn’t listen to me,” Atreus said. “He doesn’t talk to me.” I felt those words so deeply that it was hard to get through that story sequence. Those fearful thoughts of if I had been stuck with my dad instead of my mom came to me and it hurts. Atreus and I are one; his voice is the voice I imagine in my head. Psychologically speaking, I feel like he is a mirror to my own fears and insecurities.
“I love him; I just wish he could be better. I know he can be,” Atreus said. And I wonder if I somehow could have done something different, and saved my own father. Could I, as his effeminate son, have done something to soften the callous attitude that he covered his entire body in?
“If he tries, I’ll try,” Atreus said. I wish I was as strong as Atreus. I wish I was as forgiving as Atreus, but I fear I am far too deep in the ice-cold realm of my heart to be the boy and son that Atreus is. By playing God of War, I am able to briefly peer through the icy shackles and remember that even though I won’t talk to my father again, I still love him, even if I won’t say it out loud.
Tensions between father and son came to a head when Atreus screamed: “Why don’t you care?!” Atreus became bitter after Kratos unknowingly left him to fend for himself while Kratos was stuck in the dreamlike, limbo domain. What was interesting was that while I understood Atreus’s perspective and even resonated with it more so than Kratos’s, I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for Kratos. He had no idea that he was gone for so long. After experiencing that moment, I wondered if my father ever realized how his absence left me bitter and angry like Atreus.
The way in which Kratos and Atreus reconcile their differences after a rather silent but intense moment of anger was enlightening and heartfelt. It showed that Kratos, as a father, is redeemable. He isn’t beyond his troublesome past…unlike my father.
A lot is revealed in the game’s last few hours. While there is a final boss fight, it’s not set up the way most games would traditionally set it up. It happened a surprising amount of time before reaching the top of the mountain and scattering Atreus’s mother’s ashes. Perhaps the RPGamer in me expected a more dramatic final moment, but in the end, I enjoyed the experience more for not being what I expected it to be.