First and foremost, a warning: I will be discussing various aspects of the game, including story elements which will contain spoilers. If you do not wish to spoil the narrative, do not read this.
Much has been made of Kratos’s reformation and newfound maturity in the newest God of War title. Many are saying it is a rebuttal to the previous games and their toxic masculinity. While this is partially true, there is another argument to be made from the new game’s narrative that many seem to be ignoring. It is not only a thematic struggle for Kratos and his son, Atreus, to help one another discover the proper balance of masculinity within a violent world, but also a morality play on the repercussions of masculine repression and the damage done by over-protection.
While Freud is not taken so seriously today as he once was, he did create many useful terms with which our species may discuss its various psycho-behavioral trends and inclinations. The term “return of the repressed” is a useful notion for understanding the “sickness” Atreus alludes to throughout the game. Kratos resists telling his son of his origins, and thus Atreus’s own heritage. To deny him this revelation is to deny him reconciliation with such a heritage, and thus denies him the path toward controlling it rather than have it control him. This is dangerous repression. In other words, unknowns can have dire consequences. Knowing and acknowledging a coming storm means the capacity to prepare for it, and there are no greater storms in the whole cosmos than those of the human heart, particularly during times of grief and transitional phases. Atreus is growing from a boy to a man quickly, necessitated by the death of his mother. The journey to bring her ashes to a place of rest also goads his maturation, as does the dangerous world in which he lives. If he is to weather this storm, and learn to sail its gales, he must first learn about that internal storm, and so he must know about himself. Yet, in an attempt to prevent his son from succumbing to the same “Spartan Rage” that took him, Kratos does not explain to Atreus his heritage. To put it plainly, Atreus’s godhood and “Spartan Rage” were denied to him, and so he consequently deteriorated. This is not to say that GOW implies the necessity of Atreus’s full embrace of his heritage, and its more toxic aspects, but that the acknowledgment is crucial for his well-being and reconciliation. This will be further examined and contrasted with the character known as the Stranger, as well as Kratos himself and the spectrum of masculine experience.
The Stranger, who is later revealed to be Baldur, is an embodiment of a safe space and mollycoddling. His mother, Freya, literally grants him invulnerability, her love driving her to protect her beloved son from everything. Yet, as a consequence of his invulnerability he cannot “feel anything”. He cannot feel pleasure or pain and so cannot sympathize with others. He becomes a psychopath. Once he regains his emotions— or is liberated from his permanent Safe Space— he tries to kill his own mother to avenge himself for a curse brought about by misguided love. Ingratitude is her reward, in other words. But that is not to belittle Freya or to dismiss her parental motivations. Nearly all parents on earth right now, if given the choice (without foresight of the consequences) would grant their child invulnerability. It is not Freya’s fault that her parental love should push her to corrupt her son by trying to protect her son from the world. Yet, we do not condone her actions, nor condemn them. We must learn from them. Contrast Freya’s wishes with those of Atreus’s mother, Faye, whose last wish is for Kratos and Atreus to take her ashes high upon the mountain. It is crucial to observe that she knew the dangers entailed in such a journey. She knew the risks. But she also knew the risks of not taking risks. She did not want to shield her son from the world; she did not want to overprotect him. She knew he needed to endure the journey and its many crucibles in order to grow stronger and become ready for the world and its diverse hostilities, as well as to reconcile with his father. She was not a “helicopter parent”. She was a good parent. She loved with wisdom. Faye knew that she could harm Atreus by sheltering him; by protecting him from the world. And she knew it would do her husband much good, too, to go upon that journey with their son; she knew that it would make him stronger and prevent him from shutting himself down emotionally after her death. Her final wish, then, was not that her ashes be returned to her homeland among the Giants, but that the journey would make better men of both her husband and her son. She was a wise, and loving, matriarch.
That is not to say that her wisdom is immediately evident, especially to Kratos. At the beginning of the game he is reluctant to bring Atreus with him upon the journey to the mountain. He is not afraid that Atreus will be harmed, but that Atreus will not be able to control his Spartan Rage. This is evidenced after the first troll battle when Atreus attacks the presently dead troll in a fit of rage (brought about by fear). Kratos sees the anger displayed by his son and fears that his son will be consumed by the same toxic masculinity that consumed him and his loved ones in his previous life. His Spartan Rage is not unlike a campfire which, untended, can become a wildfire that burns away everything and everyone around him. Yet, that Spartan Rage (and his godhood) are Atreus’s heritage and to deny them would be to sicken him, just as to deny Baldur vulnerability perverts and sickens him. As the game progresses, Atreus comes to terms with his godhood and his violence. There are moments when Kratos has to restrain his son, and elucidate him as to the downward spiral that such dizzy bloodlust can cause. He takes from his own life and its mistakes the lessons needed to help his son cope with his powers and compulsions. In a world of violence, he wants his son to control his violence, not for the violence to control him. Many reviewers have observed this, and think it the primary theme of the game. But the flip-side of that theme is the theme of overbearing protection, and especially protection against oneself. At the heart of this theme is the issue of trust: do you trust your loved ones? Do you trust yourself? Faye obviously loved and trusted Kratos very much, and loved and trusted her son. Why else would she send them along a path directly in conflict with the gods?
I must confess that I never cared for the original God Of War titles. Kratos grated and chaffed like a WWE roid-head about to bust a vessel in his brain as he spouted self-righteous fury into a microphone right before a long awaited Grudge Match. His attitude was repulsive. That said, the cartoonish violence did not bother me. I had been playing Mortal Kombat from a very early age. Kung Lao bisecting Baraka vertically was as violent as anything the original God of War titles had to offer. No, the power fantasy, the literal “god complex” aspects, and the childish notions of violence repulsed me because while the Mortal Kombat development team seemed self-aware as to the absurd measures of ridiculous violence in their games, the God Of War developers seemed utterly oblivious to the puerility of its own ultraviolence and sexual gratuity. That is not to say that they were not aware— they may have been very cognizant of it, both from a business standpoint and from a standpoint of creative defiance— but it was not evident in what I had seen of the games. (And I am not disparaging the developers or the fans of the original games because everything in the series seemed impressive to me, too, from the monster designs to the environments and whatnot; it was simply not my cup of tea).
But regardless of that, the developers have always had a keen sense about the cycles of violence in human history. They do not fall prey to the Ought-Is Fallacy. They know the world will always be a dangerous place, and that violence is fundamental to the mechanics of Evolution, and to the evolutionary psychology of Man. We must acknowledge the cycles to work to control them, but we must also not neuter ourselves and our competitive nature. We must learn to sublimate the violence and the sexual urges (Freudian Id) into other things; things such as Art, Music, Literature, Invention, etc. Some reviewers lament the “celebration” of violence in the new GOW title. They accuse it of hypocritically preaching while also seeking the same old sins that it wallowed in before its baptism. They say it cannot have it both ways. Well, I assure you it can— it can have it both ways by acknowledging the impulse for violence in Man’s heart while granting Man a harmless outlet for that violence. In other words, GOW is the peacekeeper vying against the violence it relishes in. This paradox is wholly true. Only the infantile would equate violence against 1’s and 0’s in a computer program to real violence perpetrated against real people. Nor does GOW promote a “culture of violence”. It satisfies a need for violence without harming a single real world person. Virtually. Vicariously. True, tempers may boil over when playing a video game—mine can, especially when playing Dark Souls— but no more than when being outwitted in a game of chess or watching your favorite basketball team losing on the court. The violence is inherent in Man, and smashing a controller or smacking a chessboard off a table are infinitely preferable to pummeling someone to death or stabbing a spear into someone’s gut. Thus, GOW can preach against violence as it helps satiate a need for violence, much like any other popular modern, or ancient, medium of entertainment. It can hold the player at a distance from violence by letting the player indulge in virtual violence. It is not a contradiction. It is merely a tiered prioritization of the sublimation of violence. The world is bettered when a young boy with anger issues works through his rage by shooting a virtual construct than a real person. It is a vicarious divestment of real-world potentialities.
As for those individuals who attack real world people, video games did not contribute to their “crazy”. Crazy will always be crazy so long as fallible meat gives rise to human consciousness. Emergence from imperfection leads to flaws, including tragic flaws. Kratos is a prime example. As they say, “the gods must be crazy.” To fault violent games is no different than to fault violent tv shows or books. The inherent violence in Man begot such avenues of entertainment, and they do not promote more violence; rather, they are domesticating it; rendering it docile and imaginary. The human species has never been so domesticated and pacified in all of its history. This time of relative peace is unprecedented in our history. It is an anomaly. Sadly, it will eventually depart like a tranquil breeze upon the scented heather. There are always storms on the horizons of hearts and nations. Yet, the next dark age will not occur because of video games or any other form of entertainment. It will occur simply because the cycles of violence in our species are inescapable; as inescapable as our own faulty psychologies. We do not break the cycles of violence— we only survive them. That, too, is a lesson in the new GOW game. Atreus must learn to survive in his hostile world because one day even his father will be dead and, like his mother, will no longer be able to protect or guide him except in lessons already learned.
In conclusion, let boys be boys. Roughhousing is, paradoxically, good domestication. Referee, if you must, but don’t neuter your kids with “safe spaces”. They must learn to compromise their own primitive natures with progressive ideals, and not to radicalize one way or the other. They must internalize the struggle and learn to direct the violence harmlessly, whether it be upon a punching bag, a soccer ball, a sheet of paper, or a video game controller. And there will always be those with aberrant pathologies given to uncontrollable violence. Progress starts with acknowledgment, not denial. If Kratos can start a mature rumination on the defects of his character and how to compensate for them, then we can for our species.
“Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.”— Lao Tzu