Video games are nothing without their main characters. Commander Shepherd from the Mass Effect trilogy; Aloy in Horizon Zero Dawn—we’d never root for them if they weren’t, well, at least somewhat likable. Unlike movies or TV, video games are a place where fans get to play the protagonist—help save the world, their friends, and themselves. It’s not essential that players agree with every move their character makes. (Let’s face it, Lara Croft made some pretty poor decisions in those Tomb Raider reboots.) But it’s generally key that they have some kind of emotional connection with the character. It’s true that video game heroes frequently fit into a narrow set of molds, but generally their cookie-cutter personalities are at least not grating. Or offensive. In other words, no one wants to play the asshole.
But what happens when video game heroes break this mold? You fire up a brand-new game, get dropped into a world you don’t know, and realize you’re the antihero, someone you don’t like and would never want to be.
For many, that was the experience of playing God of War. Quite a few people recommended God of War to me, but I never checked out the original titles. So I came into the 2018 game, the eighth in the series, without knowing anything about Kratos’ history or who he was before. It was envisioned as a new beginning for the franchise—a continuation of 2010’s God of War III, but with a new setting and a revitalized story—making it the perfect entry point for a large franchise. I went in blind.
Turns out, Kratos is kind of a dick. The entire thrust of God of War is that he and his son, Atreus, are mourning the death of Kratos’ wife, Atreus’s mother, and going on a journey to scatter her ashes. It’s a simple, thoughtful story, but one complicated by the fact that Kratos is hiding his god status from his son and living incognito in the land of Norse mythology. (See? Kind of a tool.)
It’s clear from the start that Kratos’ wife was the nurturer, and Kratos himself was the sullen, withholding, and emotionally distant father, because when the game begins, he’s downright cruel to Atreus. It was honestly difficult to experience as a parent. Here’s a kid mourning his mother, and turning to his father for comfort, and Kratos just berates him again and again. It took me weeks to make it through the first few hours of the game, because, despite the fantastic story, gorgeous scenery, and thoughtful gameplay, I felt no investment in the person I was playing. It’s fantastic when studios change up the type of character you play. Creativity is good, doing something different is good. This should absolutely be encouraged—playing a by-the-numbers character over and over again in the same kind of game can get tiresome. But when it’s so different from what you expect, to the point you’re not even sure you want to keep playing this character, what do you do?
Honestly, usually I’d just accept that this game was not for me, put the controller down, and move on with my life. But something made me stick with God of War. First, I really liked playing as a parent. That’s not something that happens often in video games, and seeing a father-son relationship, even one I didn’t entirely approve of, was personally gratifying. Second, Kratos might start out as a tough pill to swallow, but he’s also voiced by Christopher Judge, who gives the character some much-needed humanity. Finally, a friend who’d encouraged me to pick up the game in the first place assured me that the dynamic between Kratos and Atreus would change.
Turns out, my friend was right. A few hours into the game, I could already see a big metamorphosis in Kratos as he came to respect his son’s abilities. (Atreus is really handy in combat.) And as the story unfolds, it becomes Kratos’ meditation on how to raise his son to be a good person—what information to impart, how best to protect him, and how to shape him into a good person. It’s quite thoughtful and beautiful, and it’s something I would have missed if I hadn’t stuck with God of War.