In my opinion, the only thing worse than developers ignoring their longtime customers is when they listen to the bad ideas of some of their customers to the detriment of their games/franchises. Recently Santa Monica Studio unveiled the newest installment in the God of War franchise. At E3 this year we were given about 10 minutes of footage with basically no in-game context. Even though we weren’t told much about what point in the game this actually is, what’s really going on, or even if this is actually a set in stone portion of the final game, the internet (myself included) has of course picked the footage apart and started debating (arguing) about what this footage actually tells us and whether or not it’s good or bad for the future of the franchise. Whatever you ultimately think about the footage, we know for sure that Kratos did not die at the end of GOW3 and he is back for another adventure of currently indeterminate length.
I am a long standing God of War fan. Dare I say it, an aficionado of the franchise. I have been playing this particular series since day one on the PS2 when the first installment was originally released back in 2005. I own multiple copies/versions of every game in the series with the exception of Ascension, which currently only exists on PS3, but just to solidify my claim, note that I pre-ordered the collector’s edition of that as well. I even imported the Kratos PS3 controller that only came with the Asian version of the game and to this day it’s still my main PS3 controller. To top it all off, I have a custom built Kratos themed DualShock 4. GOW is still one of my top five franchises of all time. So when I heard several months ago that a new GOW game was in the works, I was excited. And when I heard that footage had been shown at E3 this year I was even more excited. But because I had so much confidence in the series and in Santa Monica Studio, I wasn’t even going to watch the footage. I was just gonna pre-order the game and not spoil the experience by watching footage in advance of playing it. A practice that I would never, and have never done with literally any other franchise, ever. And that’s speaking as someone who has sworn off pre-orders except for in the most radical of situations where must have, exclusive in game content is made available only through pre-orders. I was willing to break my vow for this particular franchise. But then a friend of mine notified me that things were amiss with this newest GOW game and that I should really take the time to watch the footage. Trusting in my friend’s judgement, I took the time to watch the E3 trailer and I am sorely disappointed. Followers of the true God of War, weep, for Kratos has changed, and not in a good way.
Many people don’t play video games for the story, I’m not one of those people. But I do respect that type of gamers choice to play games based solely on the gameplay and graphics. In fact, sometimes I’m jealous of their ability to not care about the plot because it would make gaming so much easier in so many cases. For these people, the GOW series is a favorite because when it comes to hack and slash gameplay there are few games/franchises that can rival it in quality. However, the go to answer for most people I’ve debated this with is usually Devil May Cry. What I think is most interesting about that comparison is that both games received a 94 on Metacritic. Either way, the point still stands that GOW gameplay is undeniably some of the best you can find in the hack and slash genre. Many people specifically choose not to play GOW for the story even if they do care about plot in other games. Again, because the gameplay is so good that it’s just not something that a gamer who likes that particular genre can very well just pass up. I simply don’t understand these people.
I play GOW for the story. Don’t get me wrong. I love the gameplay just as much as the plot. In fact when I was a kid I thought up a game long before GOW was released that had exactly the same type of gameplay and rather than get depressed about the fact that “my idea was stolen”, I was so impressed by GOW that I couldn’t even be mad about it. I just accepted it as being my ideas brought to life by other people and happily supported the game both financially and by word of mouth. But even though the gameplay is so good, it’s the story that I have always really cared about. The reason I originally purchased the game was because I was and still am a Greek mythology buff. For me the idea of being able to play a game placed in ancient Greece and fighting legendary beings like the hydra, Medusa, and even the gods themselves was so cool. And what I had hoped for was exactly what Santa Monica Studio gave me. A game set in ancient Greece, focusing on a specific character and his interactions with famous figures from Greek mythology, written in the style of a story from Greek mythology. I played it for the story. I played all the sequels for the story. And with the exception of Ascension, I have never been disappointed or bored with the writing aspect of the GOW series. What I hadn’t realized till both I and the franchise were much older was that a fair amount of people have never been happy with the character of Kratos. I couldn’t understand this when I first heard it and while I understand the point of view today I still absolutely do not agree with it.
I genuinely like Kratos, he is well written, his character makes sense, and I believe that he shouldn’t be changed. I was against God of War: Ascension (2013) from the first time I heard the announcement. Firstly because it wasn’t necessary, GOW3 ended absolutely perfectly. It was the perfect conclusion to Kratos’ story. There were definitely some holes about reality as a whole, such as what happens to the world when the death of all the gods has literally destroyed the very foundation of the world’s physical form. But as far as Kratos’ personal story was concerned, it should have ended there. And I am not alone in that opinion.
Ascension is considered the worst console release installment in the franchise by most hardcore GOW fans and essentially all critics. While I, II, and III all get above a 90 on Metacritic, Ascension gets an 80. Even the two PSP titles outscore it across the board, and rightly so. While the core gameplay is about at level with the others, save for the magic, and it does have the added bonus of some decent enough multiplayer, the plot just doesn’t fit the mold. It’s very somber, but not the same level of motivated rage. It’s addressing issues that are not necessarily irrelevant but didn’t need addressing after playing through all the other ones. It’s a prequel that doesn’t really tell you anything that important and shows a side of Kratos that you haven’t seen before. But it’s not a side you wanted to see. He’s very depressing, but not driven to do anything about it and borderline insane but not the good kind that leads to slaying gods. In fact, one could argue that the transition from Ascension to I doesn’t actually make sense without playing Chains of Olympus (2008) which is a non-console title that came out years and several games before Ascension, further making it seem like the last installment in the franchise was tacked on and written after the fact as an unnecessary cash grab. Which is exactly how that particular game feels, and that’s not to say that prequels can’t be good. Look at Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004) as an example of a prequel done right three games into a highly convoluted franchise.
Kratos is at his best in GOW1 and that’s the same Kratos we get in GOW3, which is why those two games are still considered the best in the franchise. But that also happens to be the main reason people don’t like Kratos. They say he’s one dimensional and find the fact that he never changes boring. While that opinion is the common opinion that people have when judging modern day forms of entertainment writing, I disagree with it in this case for a number of reasons. The first being that it’s often taken as a set in stone rule that characters have to change in order to tell good stories and that stories where characters don’t change are automatically going to be bad stories. Both are incredibly false.
There are plenty of great stories where the characters don’t change, Batman is a great example. Batman has existed since 1939, in that time he has done many things. He’s saved the world multiple times, he’s had multiple love interests and he’s fought and defeated countless foes. Yet he has never truly changed. Batman (Bruce Wayne version) still doesn’t use killing as a valid means to solve his problems, he still hasn’t ever married (not counting Earth-2 alternate form), and he has never built his own prison or taken it upon himself to put the punishment of criminals in his own hands. Batman, for the most part, doesn’t change. Yet no one says Batman is a bad character. There are certainly versions of Batman that people like more than others, but he is always considered a top-tiered favorite character by the bulk of the population, both comic enthusiast and amateur fan alike.
Game of Thrones (TV series) is another great example. I’m only through season five, so if the examples I cite here no longer remain true I apologize. Yet my points are no less valid in that case because that means five seasons of good storytelling were done before a change was “needed.” This is not the story of a bunch of people who change. This is the story of mostly characters who stay the same but the situation constantly changes. Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow, and Jorah Mormont are three great examples of characters that almost never if at all really change for the first five seasons of the show. Tyrion starts off as a well-educated, fast talking, alcoholic, womanizer who greatly understands politics. While his situation changes several times over the course of five seasons, at the end of season five that same description is no less accurate, unless you want to argue he possibly gives up drinking for good in that one scene with Varys after spending way too long in a crate.
Jon Snow starts off as an overly honorable leader who is hated by his peers because his decisions are far too ethical to make sense to the people around him. He is literally murdered because of this very fact at the end of season five after several seasons of making decisions that made female viewers like him more and male viewers understand the character even less than at the start of the show. And finally, Ser Jorah the Andal goes out of his way time and time again to protect and serve Daenerys, even past her wanting him to do so. There are so many moments where he could just walk away and move on with his life, but he never does. He continually ignores logic and refuses to change into anything other than sworn knight protector of the Queen of Dragons. At least two of these three characters are show favorites. Even after Jon Snow died, people refused to accept it. Yet none of them really changed from when they were first introduced so many episodes and years ago. The point is that a good story doesn’t require characters to change to be good. It just requires change of some form. In GOW, just as in Game of Thrones, the characters never really change. But the situation does and that’s what makes the story worthwhile.
The second and much more important reason for why I disagree with the idea of Kratos needing to change as a character, is that it disagrees with the writing style of the source material. If you actually take the time to read proper direct translations of ancient Greek mythological stories that haven’t been altered for a modern audience (mostly stuff published before like, 1990) you will quickly notice that most of the key characters don’t change. Remember that Greek mythology was/is a religion. These stories, which were passed down through oral tradition long before actually being written down, were not just legends to entertain people. They were accounts of the nature of the beings they worshiped. As with religious texts today, not everyone believed in them as actual accounts of divine beings, but also as with today they were still considered texts that were useful to teach lessons of morality. The gods are all one dimensional and unchanging, they have accolades that tell you their focus for a reason. Ares is the god of war, Hades is the god of death, there is even a god of wine, Dionysus. The reason for these very set in stone personalities was to present different aspects of human behavior and how they interact with each other in order to teach people how they should live. The characters personalities don’t change because they intentionally represent an idea.
This is the same tradition in which Kratos was both literally and figuratively written in. When Santa Monica Studio created the character, they understood exactly what they were doing. Kratos was always meant to be a god, and if you play the later games you find out that he actually is a demi-god. In the same exact style of writing, Kratos represents a singular set of ideas that through all the games except Ascension, again the worst game in the series, stays consistent. He is the physical embodiment of drive via rage, vengeance, and violence. That is who he is, who he was meant to be. That’s also the reason that the game is called God of War. They could have easily picked any other god for him to usurp. Hades, Poseidon, Apollo, Mercury, among others, all would have been perfectly acceptable gods to write a story about a man going after and ultimately killing and replacing. The story would have been different as would the main character’s personality, but the same general idea would have been done. A character would have been created that embodies an idea and ultimately doesn’t change because that is the idea behind the characters in the Olympian mythos. It’s not that the developers/writers couldn’t have changed who Kratos is in GOW2, its that they intentionally chose not to because they were following the originally intended writing style of the mythos that they were writing a character into. Arguing that Kratos should have changed throughout his story not only shows a lack of understanding or experience with the source material, but also shows a complete misinterpretation or blatant disregard for what the developers were trying to accomplish when they created the original franchise.
The third reason that I’m against the idea of the character of Kratos changing is that it truly would not have made any sense in the first five games. This is the story of a man (demi-god) who literally starts off as a Spartan born (watch 300 if you need reference for what that upbringing looks like), who becomes the lead general for all of Sparta, is tricked into murdering his own family at the behest of his divine master, is tasked with killing a god, becomes a god, and then ultimately kills every other god on Mount Olympus. Except for Aphrodite, which is one of the holes left unfilled at the end of GOW3. Oh, and did I mention that he also kills off the Titans after traveling back in time to rescue them as well? How could anyone other than a man like Kratos accomplish such feats? How could anything other than pure rage and drive die several times and come back to destroy the very foundations of the Hellenic world? It would not be plausible that a character constantly changing emotions, rethinking his decisions, and ultimately gripped by the guilt of constant introspection and identity crisis would be able to accomplish such things even in the realm of a video game. We would not have believed that a character like Commander Shepard could accomplish these things with his constant deliberation and negotiating. It would be odd to see a character like Lara Croft (2013 version) with her many moments of fear and hesitation pull off these feats of violence and glory. Do you think those sex mini-games were there on accident? Of course not, they’re there to depict the kind of character it takes to kill a god without a second thought. The kind of person who can unhesitatingly use an innocent girl’s body as a wedge to stop a turn crank to hold a gate open. This is the only kind of person that could do the things Kratos ultimately does by the end of the plot in GOW3. He’s a deranged, murdering, psychopath with no regard for the wants and needs of others and that makes perfect sense. If he was constantly worrying about the morality of his decisions and not trying to offend people, he wouldn’t have made it past the courtyard sequence in the first game where he had to murder multiple innocent people for health to bring down the first cyclops. Kratos is the way he is, because he has to be the way he is to ultimately be who he is, i.e. the god of war.
The fourth and final reason that I am against Kratos changing is that I don’t agree with the statement that change is automatically good or that changes in works of entertainment should take place in order to appease a modern audience. Today everything seems to be changing. There are new groups claiming to be underrepresented minorities. New means of communication where people can complain about how they aren’t happy with certain things in games and manipulate developers into making changes to appease a vocal minority. Expanding markets that now include new groups of people that weren’t necessarily considered a potential profit base before. This is all fine with me. If women, homosexuals, and members of the trans community want to play video games that’s great because just like with black men like me, they already were for the past several decades.
Nothing has actually changed that significantly about who is really playing video games. It’s just that now companies are more aware of it and certain political groups are misrepresenting the numbers and the degree to which certain subgroups within the gaming community are offended by certain things that often appear or used to appear in video games. I am not against developers actively working to make new games more inclusive in an authentic way for expanding markets. I am also not against developers choosing to make new IPs that are meant for specific groups of gamers outside of straight, white male. They’ve been getting games tailor made for them since the beginning. There’s no justification for why feminists and other such groups shouldn’t get games tailor made for them as well. But what’s not ok is to take franchises that were made for specific groups of gamers such as but not limited to heterosexual men, and change their very essence in order to appease a newly recognized group of people. That “new” group of people doesn’t discount the existence and financial contribution of that original target audience the game(s) were made for. All it really means is that with the next franchise the developer should possibly consider doing a few things differently.
Now, I do believe that the choice ultimately belongs to the developer. If a studio genuinely feels that they want to change the direction or style of their franchise, because of in house decisions that they feel are a good direction for the next installment to take, then I support that. But too often this is not the reason changes take place today. It has become far too common for developers from all over the world to change elements of their games or choose not to release them altogether out of fear of a hashtag movement on Twitter or a single forum post by what is quite possibly a political shill. That’s not the world that any of us should want to live in. That’s not the uncensored, free America that people like my own grandfather served to defend. If developers can’t make the games they want to make and writers can’t write the stories they want to write then entertainment ceases to have any real meaning or value as an art form and devolves into the Templar-esque means of shadow government control that many people already believe it to be. Now, I can’t say for sure that the new Kratos I saw in that E3 trailer isn’t an authentic presentation of what Santa Monica Studio wanted to do with the character, but based on recent events in the gaming industry, I’m inclined to believe that it was influenced by external complaints by people who probably shouldn’t be voicing an opinion on that particular franchise to begin with.
There’s also a really bad argument circulating that a new, more human Kratos is better because he’s more relatable and makes sense because he’s a demi-god. That’s just a stupid argument for so many reasons. First, why should a Spartan general who killed all the gods be relatable? That’s like trying to make Hitler relatable. Do you actually want to be able to relate to that character? And if so, maybe you need some therapy or at the very least should be watched more carefully. Second, what does more human even really mean? There are plenty of humans who have done horrible things and didn’t have to be tricked into murdering their own wife and daughter to do them. The aforementioned Hitler is one of a long list of maniacs throughout history who slaughtered entire populations of people. Kublai Khan, Vlad the Impaler, and Alexander the Great are a few others. Even today we still have tons of moments where people kill indiscriminately without the slightest signs of remorse with not nearly as many motivating factors as Kratos had.
The week I wrote this article, a mass shooting occurred where 50 people were killed and another 53 injured. If anything, Kratos is already too human by modern standards. And third, being a demi-god in no way means that he has to act more humanely even if you believe that people aren’t violent, murdering beasts themselves. The fact that he is half man means that he could act more relatable, but in no way means he has to. In the same way that him being half god means he could act more pompous, but in no way means he has to. And by the end of GOW3 we can assume that he had obtained full god-hood so the argument is pointless regardless. Unless you want to argue that when he kills himself and releases the godly power to the world against the wishes of Athena, that he was somehow turned fully human and that the new Kratos isn’t a god or demi-god to begin with. But that’s not the argument in support of the personality change people are making.
The E3 trailer for the next GOW installment made me really unhappy for a number of reasons. The two biggest being Kratos’ new personality and the second being the RPG style gameplay elements I believe we were shown. Now, the purpose of this article is to address the personality change issues but I’ll quickly state that dealing with stats like “Tracking” and “Archery” and having to raise them in order to enhance the gameplay experience are not a gameplay change that I personally want to see in what was always a dedicated hack and slash game with a very soft and non-invasive character development system. Other than that, I was very pleased with the gameplay elements I saw in that particular trailer. The characterization of Kratos on the other hand does not sit well with me. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s not get too bogged down by the various plot issues that may or may not matter in a sequel to GOW3 set in a world of Norse mythology. At the end of GOW3 it’s understood that Kratos may not be dead because his body has been moved from where he fell after stabbing himself in the stomach. How he ultimately goes from this point to a world where Norse rules now apply and also isn’t dead has yet to be revealed, but as a writer myself I could think of a number of effective ways to make that transition without even breaking either Hellenic or Norse mythos traditions. My issue is not that Kratos is still alive and currently living in a snow covered hut somewhere in Viking territory, it’s that Kratos is a father with a very cool head, an uncharacteristic amount of patience and understanding, no uncontrollable rage even when using “Spartan Rage”, and not a woman in sight. I’m sorry but that’s just not Kratos.
There are admittedly a number of problems with looking at this footage and making the assumptions that me and basically everyone else taking part in this debate are making about the next GOW game. I am unhappy with this new character but that’s because I’m making assumptions about time. I’m assuming that this Kratos isn’t too much older than the Kratos from GOW3, that’s quite possibly all wrong. We don’t know how old this Kratos is. For all we know this is literally hundreds to thousands of years in the future because Kratos at this point is legitimately a god and may have divine longevity. If this is the case then it’s completely justifiable that his demeanor has changed. If not from experience then sheer age may have toned him down, he’s also got a kid here.
Now, I’m kind of skeptical about whether or not this is actually his biological child. There is no evidence in the trailer to indicate that Kratos is the actual father. Kratos is pale skinned because he is cursed with the ashes of the wife and child whom he killed with his own hands. But naturally, a Mediterranean would have a more bronzed complexion. We even see in flashback sequences throughout the series that before he became the Ghost of Sparta, Kratos had much darker skin, a trait that this boy does not have. He is very pale, which means, unless it is a hereditary trait; we must assume that he takes after his mother. While Kratos looks like he always did, except with a beard. The boy on the other hand, looks very Nordic, again indicating that he probably takes after his mother. Of course, we’re assuming that she’s Nordic, although no information is given to verify that in the trailer.
Kratos choice not to verbally abuse, strike, abandon, or kill this all but useless child, is about the only thing he does to indicate that his may actually be his son. He does not call him son or by name. He refers to him only as “boy.” He also refers to his mother only as “your mother” in no way showing any affection for her or this family that he may or may not legitimately be a part of, the mother is gone. We are assuming that she is dead but there is no evidence to actually support that and if the other GOW games have taught us anything it’s that she probably will make an appearance at some point in the future, but not necessarily this particular installment. What we do know is that this boy was supposedly taught how to hunt by his mother instead of Kratos. That seems very odd if Kratos is actually his biological father. Assuming of course we actually believe that Kratos has any real hunting experience considering he does literally nothing stealthy for six straight games plus a mobile app. That would kind of explain why the trailer shows Kratos gaining experience in skills he should already have mastered if he’s teaching them to someone else though. There’s just so much evidence for why this boy probably isn’t Kratos’ biological son in this particular trailer. I’m actually more inclined to believe that this is a Paper Moon (1973) scenario; Kratos showed up at some point after the kid was born and took on the mom as a lover. Then she died or disappeared and out of guilt, pity, or even just a desire to be a father again (since he never got to see Calliope grow up) he decided to care for the boy in her absence but has yet to get to the point of calling him son. It’s important to note that the boy doesn’t call him father, dad, or any other paternal term either. He refers to him as sir.
I am against this next installment for Kratos just as I was against Ascension. The character has done more than enough and rather than being slowly bastardized into some modern family version of himself that he was never meant to be, Santa Monica Studio should let him rest in peace. I’m not saying the God of War brand should be terminated. I’m simply saying that Kratos doesn’t have to be the main protagonist any more. They could very easily have made a game called God of War that completely ignored the existence of Kratos and we would have understood that it was the next generation. They could also have pulled an Assassin’s Creed and made reference to him in a number of ways as a cameo appearance. He could be mentioned in a legend within the game through a mural or monk’s tale. He could have acted as the god of war and been summoned by the new protagonist to grant him power just like he summoned Ares in the first game. He could even have been a boss in the game. But there was no reason to make another Kratos story. And other than the fact that it’s an easy sell, it seems like Santa Monica Studio felt the same way because there’s nothing in that trailer that goes back to the old games, other than Kratos himself and the name “Spartan Rage”, which is in no way similar in behavior to the “Rage” moves from the original games. He doesn’t have any old weapons from past games, none of the magic spells, and is never even called Kratos in the trailer. They could have produced that exact same trailer with any other character and it still would have had the same effect from a gameplay standpoint and made perfect sense. The only difference would have been the loss of wow factor that comes from showing an ashy, bald, white man with a red mark down his body on screen, even the voice actor is different. Still a black guy playing a white guy, just not the same one. While this change in the characterization of Kratos may not be a detriment to the gameplay, it is a detriment to the legacy of the character. The next generation of gamers will not know Kratos as the mad Spartan who toppled Olympus by sheer force of will and drive. They’ll know him as the video game version of Joe West from Flash. The character deserves better than that.
Now there is one possible argument that validates or at least justifies on a mythos level of why Kratos can and should change that’s actually grounded in some logic. This new GOW is set in Norse mythology. While I am very well versed in Greek mythology, I have only just above surface level knowledge about Nordic religious tradition. In fact, I probably know more about Nordic beliefs from Marvel films and the Syfy channel than from actual books or excerpts I’ve read on the subject. If it is traditional cannon that characters in the Norse mythos do change personalities at least every so often and that they don’t represent consistent ideals like the Greek gods do then it’s at least arguable to say that Kratos has changed in this new world where gross changes in divine figures actually do occur as a regular part of the tradition. While it doesn’t change the fact that Kratos is still technically a Greek god and doesn’t necessarily have to agree with Nordic principles of divinity, it would be a justifiable argument to say that the developers wanted to run the same gambit with this next generation of GOW games by writing a story in the tradition of the Nordic source material and felt that it was not only justifiable, but necessary to tell this new story in hopes of conveying an entirely new cultural tradition of writing and character presentation. Now again, I’m not equipped to confirm or deny such an argument but if that is the case and someone with the background knowledge of Nordic mythology can confirm it in a thoroughly written argument then I would happily withdraw at least some of my complaints on this issue.
I haven’t lost all hope just yet. I’m almost certainly wrong, but until we are given more information there’s still a chance that Kratos’ legacy hasn’t been destroyed. That trailer was given no context. For all we know it’s not even really part of the game. It could just be a tech demo similar to the Final Fantasy XV Platinum Demo (2016). It’s also quite possible that what you’re actually seeing is the prologue of the game and that Kratos is only featured in that part. It’s very possible that the boy is the main character and that you only play as Kratos in this one sequence. It would be very easy and very sensible to pull a “10 YEARS LATER” and suddenly we see a grown warrior who has been taught by Kratos off screen and is now ready to go on his own adventure against the Norse pantheon for whatever reason. Maybe they kidnapped or killed Kratos and he’s seeking revenge. The recent interviews on the game don’t sound like that will be the case, but it’s extremely possible that the representatives of Santa Monica Studio have been asked to lie to keep it a secret. They have already had to deal with a leak months prior to the E3 announcement and it wouldn’t be the first time a game developer totally tricked the public. I have no problem with the change from Greece and I take no issue with the change from divine gifts to runic magic as the main source of power in the franchise. I simply don’t want to see Kratos turned into something he wasn’t meant to be because a bunch of uneducated whiners don’t like the way Greek mythology was written. It’s called God of War not Dad of War. And making Kratos into Danny Tanner (look it up) is kind of like making Goku into a responsible father, i.e. absolutely ridiculous.