God Of War is a great game about terrible dads

This piece was originally published May 01, 2018 and is part of The A.V. Club’s favorite features of 2018

Here’s what happens when you become a dad: You start to relate to other dads. That’s it. There’s no epiphany, no sweeping change that comes over your heart and inspires you to grow a mustache and get into craft beer. You just relate to the dad now. You see a home-insurance commercial about a stay-at-home dad and you think, dumbly, “That’s me.” You watch Star Wars and instead of seeing, you know, Star Wars, you see the saga of a shitty dad whose chickens came home to roost. You start to realize that this is the story of pretty much every story ever told: There’s a dad in there, somewhere, and you wonder if he was any good at it. I distinctly remember thinking about the absurdity of this while playing last year’s cyberpunk noir game Observer, which climaxes with a choice between imprisoning your son in a digital hellscape for eternity or allowing him to take control of your body for questionable ends. I earnestly resolved in that moment not to put myself in a similar situation. My kid wasn’t even born yet.

This is stupidity of the sort that only millennia of evolution can inspire. It is sweeping and all-consuming: You are the dad now. But despite the prominence of fathers and sons in fiction, film, TV, and so on, they’ve been historically rare in games. This is thanks in part to games’ interactive qualities, which lend the medium much more to active, surreal adventures than meditations on family. For a long time, dads in games were mostly pragmatic constructs, there to set you out on a grand post-apocalyptic adventure (Fallout 3) or to hide amulets and scrolls across a frozen tundra (Tomb Raider) or to serve as the main enemy (40 percent of JRPGs). They served a function, a reason for interaction. But a few years back, there was a wave of games, like Telltale’s The Walking Dead, BioShock Infinite, and The Last Of Us, that all conspired to treat fatherhood more seriously, creating real emotional stakes in the act of not just protecting a younger, often female companion, but of getting to know and understand them, too.

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Screenshot: Fallout 3 (Bethesda Softworks)

The reasoning for this is not super hard to parse. The people who make and play games are getting older and having kids, and now they, too, want to talk about and see things about dads. It was only natural that a crop of dad-games would arise, allowing self-identifying gamers to self-identify with hulking, ax-wielding dads. The pitches write themselves: “You’ve seen Solid Snake infiltrate oil tankers and single-handedly fell nuclear-armed bipedal robots. Now he faces his greatest stealth challenge ever: putting a baby to sleep?!”

Still, it’s preposterous that the new God Of War game tasks players with raising a baby god of war. I played the previous three God Of War games when they first came out between 2005 and 2010, a span that roughly coincided with me finishing up college and inhaling bales of marijuana for a few years in a semi-sentient haze, and they struck me as remarkably well-made brawlers with a unique relish for the sort of violence that makes people concerned about video game violence. Protagonist Kratos hung Prometheus from a chain, then knocked him into a bonfire and watched the flesh boil off his body. You got to remove Hermes’ legs individually, leaving the messenger of the gods to crawl around gushing blood on the floor; you bashed Hercules’ face in, flesh gradually becoming pulp around his teeth. In the series’ most depraved invention, you killed Poseidon from Poseidon’s point of view, eventually clicking two thumb buttons on the controller to gouge out his eyes. Then you threw him off a cliff for good measure.

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Screenshot: God Of War Collection (Sony)

The functional purpose of all of this was to underscore Kratos’ fury, which was his singular, defining characteristic. In the grand pantheon of puerile video-game power fantasies, God Of War was always the most puerile, the most powerful, and the most fantastical. Kratos was a hulking, goateed MMA fighter covered in tribal tattoos, a nu-metal roadie ripping Greek mythical figures’ jaws off their hinges. There was a sense of not joy, but preposterousness to the whole affair that made it almost mirthful, a comic sparkle to its violence that evoked the gross-out action cinema of Paul Verhoeven or Zack Snyder. And it served as a pointed case study in how quickly and easily masculinity of this variety curdles. Kratos had sex with CGI playmates with such regularity that the series’ bespoke wiki contains an entire subsection called “topless women.” In its most famously repulsive passage, you “rescue” Poseidon’s nubile sex slave, throwing her around for a few minutes before finally wedging her against a wheel to prop a door open, her lovingly animated breasts jiggling in the foreground. When you leave, the wheel pulverizes her with a wet crunch. You can go back to look at the viscera.

These and other moments led to a backlash against the series in the early part of this decade, right around the same period of time that the broader dad-ification of games occurred. Thanks in part to Gamergate, which drew battle lines in the sand among gaming’s most reactionary audiences and people who believed the medium could be defined more broadly and inclusively, there has been a wave of more introspective and representative big-budget games, like last year’s woke-as-hell Horizon: Zero Dawn or the aggressively relevant anti-Nazi sentiment of Wolfenstein II. This growing consciousness in games is rarely subtle and only occasionally successful; one need look no further than Ubisoft’s ham-fisted attempts at socially conscious games, like this year’s political but oddly apolitical Far Cry 5, for proof. But the new God Of War bravely attempts to bridge this divide. Rather than just make a whole new Kratos, it’s the same one from those earlier games, haunted by his terrible past and attempting to raise a doe-eyed, faux-hawked son. He has cast aside his life of astonishing mutilation and womanizing for a quieter life in the woods. He has a longer beard now, so you know it’s real.

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Screenshot: God Of War (Sony)

Of course, this idyll cannot last. The game begins with the mother’s death, setting off a chain of events that sends Kratos and his son, Atreus, out to do some of the old family slaughtering business. Many previous dad-games turned your progeny into helpless little agents of frustration in need of constant escort. Others made them invulnerable, wisecracking combat aids. God Of War dedicates a whole button to Atreus—press square to dad—and turns the boy’s slow development as a warrior into one of its great themes. He gradually grows stronger, bolder, and more helpful. Kratos, meanwhile, is exactly the sort of dad you’d expect: gruff, loveless, occasionally begrudgingly protective or tender to his son. He speaks in the sort of terse quotes that cops post on Facebook, stuff about honor and the might of our enemies and the nature of battle. Over time, you develop a bond based on this shared skill set. Atreus hits something like puberty, cocksure and rebellious, and eventually becomes a young man. Kratos overcomes his grisly past, and becomes something of a dad.

To the game’s credit, it turns this all into something weirdly universal. There are many definitions of good fatherhood, but one of the most essential and time-honored is that of pragmatic teacher. The dad is the rational-minded doer and fixer, he who prepares the children for their functions within the world. He is a steady hand to guide them as they learn to ride a bike or kill a cyclops or open a 401(k).

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Screenshot: God Of War (Sony)

I cannot relate to any of this, in part because my kid is still learning things like “objects exist,” and in part because I’m not sure what kind of dad I am. We are currently living through a period of massive transformation in how we perceive this very subject. If I say the word “toxic,” you auto-complete it with “masculinity”; onetime alpha-male figures like Terry Crews have earned plaudits for recognizing masculinity as a cult. In the wake of the mass shooting earlier this year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School—a shooting that was perpetrated, like so many mass shootings in American history have been, by a furious boy—the comedian Michael Ian Black wrote a searching op-ed for The New York Times about the “suffocating, outdated model of masculinity, where manhood is measured in strength, where there is no way to be vulnerable without being emasculated, where manliness is about having power over others.” On the other side is a mob of snake-oil, for-profit reactionaries like Gavin McInnes, Mike Cernovich, and Jordan Peterson, championing a return to dick-measuring machismo right as that mode of thinking collapses under its own weight. It’s enormously seductive to young men who are searching for a sense of self, who spent their adolescences ripping Helios’ head off and seeing enslaved women purring at Kratos’ feet.

The new God Of War portrays this fight for the soul of boys as one between the mind-set of Odin and Tyr. (You’re killing Norse gods now.) Odin represents a closed, hierarchical system, whereas Tyr celebrates language, other cultures, and exploration. It is no coincidence that the latter skills are exactly those that Atreus proves adept at, deciphering runes for his father and displaying an earnest interest in history and travel. The game has a real stake in this; in a rare moment of tenderness, Kratos makes his son promise to “be better than” him, conveying, as bluntly as possible, every father’s core wish for his son. It might as well be the game talking to itself, too, a series’ earnest wish for a sequel.

That seems likely; the game is a massive success, in large part because it fucking slaps. It’s difficult and visually sumptuous, and it tells its story with a corny conviction (and daring, technically virtuosic camera style) that place it in the uppermost tier of big-budget contemporary video games. Its director, Cory Barlog, posted a video in which these glowing reviews bring him to tears; in the description, he writes about weighing whether or not to post the video, then thinking of his own son, Helo:

“He doesn’t want us to be around when he is sad, opting to run in another room and yell at us if we try to come in. It has been important to us to let him know that it is OK to be sad, it is OK to cry. There is nothing to hide. I thought I would try to set a good example and show him that papa can cry in front of the world, or at least the 50 people who end up watching this.”

It has been viewed over a million times. There is no question which side of the fence the God Of War design team is on here: This isn’t a new God Of War, but the old one learning to live in a new world, one that has internalized the lessons of the past decade and is out to forge a path for a new type of action hero, and so a new type of boy. Like it or not, this represents real progress. Kratos is a portrait of regret, a video game as apology for video games, even if he isn’t that much of a changed man. Rather than the all-out fury of earlier installments, here he’s trafficking in a rueful American masculinity, the sort of hard-drinking, fuckup romanticism of American Sniper and Staind songs.

It’s not revolutionary, in other words, but it is comforting. It tells us we don’t have to be good—our kids can be for us. The reason dads so searchingly relate to other dads is precisely because they haven’t turned into Atticus Finch overnight. When you have a kid, you are still the same shitty person you were before they were born. You just determine not to be a shitty dad, too, and then figure it out as you go. The game mines some introspection out of the fact that Kratos’ dad—Zeus, you may know him—was so shitty that Kratos had to kill him, an act he undertook with characteristic relish. In the game’s typically over-the-top way, it’s saying that there’s a reason to hope here. The kids can be better.