My most enduring memory of the previous God of War games is an uncomfortable university gaming session, wherein I sat amongst a group of men, watching a half-naked Aphrodite seduce Kratos.
“Even though you are no longer the God of War,” she purred, crawling across her bed toward him, “you can still share my bed.”
I’d been trying to integrate myself into the gaming club for some time, posting on the group’s forums and attending club activities after classes. The others weren’t unfriendly, and at least one other woman had managed to establish herself in the group.
But there was still a constant feeling of being on the outer that I couldn’t quite shake.
Aphrodite writhed atop the mattress. “Do you know how long it’s been since a real man has come into my chambers?” she pouted, rising to her knees.
The reviews for God of War 3 had been complimentary across the board. It was the latest big thing, a well-executed, highly-anticipated release in a much-loved franchise. If your opinions on games were worth listening to at all, God of War 3 could do no wrong.
I looked around me at the men with their eyes intently fixed on the screen.
“Now, I ask you again Kratos, will you stay?”
NSFW. Video: God of War 3 (2010)
God of War 3 was, in many ways, a good game, and I have fond memories of the series. The combat felt powerful and fluid, the puzzles engaging. In that, it was a satisfying experience.
But for me, the great gameplay was wrapped in hostility toward the player. The hypermasculinity threaded throughout, and the hypersexuality of the women depicted therein, was alienating.
I couldn’t connect with the depiction of Kratos as a hero. In one scene he’d be protecting a young girl. The next: Hauling terrified women around and quite literally using them as objects, discarding them to gruesome fates once they were no longer useful.
Even his protection of others seemed borne less out of genuine affection than because they were “his things”.
Women relentlessly threw themselves at him, yet he was completely unappealing. Whenever a nameless, bare-breasted woman squealed and pleaded with Kratos to either bed her or leave her unharmed, I felt pushed further away. The zeitgeist of games at the time was, perhaps unintentionally but no less effectively, inhospitable to those outside the stereotypical gamer paradigm.
I liked the game. It just didn’t like me.
The new God of War released eight years after God of War 3. When I first heard Kratos would be returning, I wondered how his particular brand of boobs and bloodshed would fit into today’s more socially-conscious world. After all, weren’t these defining characteristics of the character and franchise?
However, Kratos has returned a changed man. Violence still defines him, but he is self-aware enough to know what he has done and what it has done to him, and is doing his utmost to instead change himself into the man he wants to be: A man of self-restraint and consideration, one capable of guiding a young boy’s growth to adulthood.
“None of us as human beings can forget our past in order to move forward,” said Aaron Kauffman, Senior Community Manager and Marketing Producer at Santa Monica, to me in an interview last month.
“We have to deal with the tragedies and sacrifices, all the different moments that come into our life, and Kratos is dealing with that.”
Kratos is thus portrayed not as the pinnacle of virile, masculine perfection, but as a deeply flawed figure trying to learn from his past actions and ensure he never repeats them. And, just like the girl who doesn’t know she’s beautiful in One Direction’s 2011 hit song “What Makes You Beautiful”, him thinking he isn’t an aspirational figure transforms him into one.
Games such as Uncharted: The Lost Legacy and Horizon Zero Dawn are broadening the roles of women in games. But, perhaps more subtly, the roles for men are evolving as well. There is growing room for men to have complex emotions, to fight for things other than glory, vengeance and self-interest.
“Games have matured,” Kauffman said. “Without getting into comparison, there's a lot of games in the action/adventure space that are creating characters who are more relatable, storylines that are far more interesting than just a god on a path of vengeance.”
Historically, masculinity in games has been characterised by ripped, aggressive men killing everything in their path. Women may swoon or try to seduce them. They are powerful, commanding, and know exactly what they are doing at all times.
In contrast, Kratos, while still muscle-bound and capable of cutting a swath through his enemies, is plagued with uncertainty and fear. Rather than battling corrupt authorities or rescuing kidnapped loved ones, his biggest concern is raising his son and keeping him safe.
Like most fathers, he is trying to mould Atreus into someone better than himself and has little idea of how to go about it.
Meanwhile, Atreus himself is an example of the next generation of men. Within the game’s first few minutes, he displays a reverence for life that is unlike Kratos and indeed atypical of most video games.
While this could easily be attributed to the fact that he is a child, he's also consciously learning what it is to be a man, looking for guidance from his father. Whether this is a aspect of his personality that will be nurtured or discarded is up to Kratos.
Kratos and Atreus are emblematic of societal growth and sophistication in understanding masculinity. Though Atreus is compassionate and Kratos is afraid, their ability to feel these things does not impede their masculinity. Instead, it drives both to think about their actions, to understand their weight, to make better decisions and to become better people.
God of War demonstrates that men do not need to give up their power fantasies. They can still be the strong, muscle-bound figures of their dreams, fight gruelling battles, and conquer swarming enemies.
But to be truly strong, one needs to understand why they act, and know when and how to use their strength.
In some ways, it’s jarring to hear Kratos speak of Atreus’ deceased mother with reverence and respect. Historically, the value he placed upon the lives of others appeared limited to how they served him - his narrative, his goals, his desires. Even his previous wife and daughter were “his”, idealised figures rather than independent characters.
Kratos’ relationship with women in the new God of War is perhaps the clearest indicator of his newfound maturity. He treats them with respect, acknowledges their strength, and never discounts them.
They are portrayed as powerful characters in their own right, with concerns unrelated to sexual pursuits.
Playing through this year’s God of War, I have yet to see a single exposed female breast. Ironically, the removal of this mature content has contributed to a more mature game. It is akin to clearing out the box of Playboy magazines from beneath a teenager’s bed, or scrubbing the graffitied genitalia off a desk.
God of War is more secure in its masculinity, and is no longer afraid of emotional complexity.
Kratos’ evolution has turned him into a more powerful and compelling character than he has ever been. He still has his Spartan rage, but he has harnessed it and is able to control and direct it, rather than give himself over to it.
While God of War is still concerned with masculinity, it now explores an evolved, more mature form. One that is constructive rather than destructive, slow to harm, and is actually capable of recognising when not to resort to violence. This healthy masculinity fosters inner contentment rather than turmoil. It’s no longer about how many heads you can rip off with your bare hands, but how to care for your son.
Instead of the selfish, wild aggression of the past, God of War concludes that men’s true strength can be found in nurturing and protecting others, and in knowing and controlling themselves.
Kratos has fought many fearsome enemies throughout his storied history - gods and monsters and men. But by far his mightiest display of strength and power is his hard-fought command over himself and his own rage.
After all, what more formidable opponent could Kratos ever face than Kratos himself?