Toben Racicot is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Waterloo. Toben’s research focuses on role-playing games, adaptation theory, and comic book narratives. He is examining player-to-character interactions when characters are adapted from another storytelling medium in Spider-Man and Tomb Raider. Toben is the co-host and producer of The Games Institute Podcast, interviewing student and faculty researchers from the Games Institute and The University of Waterloo. And he writes a fantasy sci-fi comic series Crown & Anchor.
In his book, Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us About Ourselves and Our Society, Danny Fingeroth discusses a common opinion about Superman as an immigrant alien to Earth. He argues that his immigrant status creates an underlying need for Superman’s dual identity: Clark Kent the man, and Kal-El, Superman, the god. The benefit of both identities is reciprocal: “He can use what he’s learned as Kent to enhance his life as Superman, and vice versa” (Fingeroth 56). Each identity is useful in obtaining knowledge and informing the immigrant about the new space they inhabit. The struggle of identity formation and integration is at the core of God of War (Santa Monica Studio, 2018). As I demonstrate in this essay, an examination of characters and mechanics that the game introduces reveals key components that help Kratos (and players) integrate into a new world as an immigrant and navigate a dual identity as both a father and a god.
The game addresses these themes by introducing two main helper characters to educate Kratos: Atreus, Kratos’s son; and Mimir, the Norse god of wisdom. With enough knowledge, Kratos is able to unite both halves of his identity, god and father, and form an identity connected to his new home and family. Analyzing the aid Kratos receives from Atreus and Mimir reveals how the game implements mechanics to educate Kratos, underscores the importance of language in the game, demonstrates that knowledge is the greatest asset immigrants need to integrate into a society, and facilitates identity formation. Therefore, reading Kratos as a fictional, superpowered immigrant, like Superman, not only highlights useful design principles for sidekicks in games but also reveals how the game demonstrates the immigrant struggle to integrate into new spaces and cultures and how helper characters can impact that process of integration.
Kratos is a pilgrim in the strange land of Midgard, unaware of the culture, history, and deity politics at work. Kratos would much rather live in solitude with his family, hunt, and stay isolated from the rest of Midgard. But upon his wife’s death, Kratos and Atreus are thrust out of their home and on a grand adventure to spread her ashes from the highest peak in the realms. Out of his element, Kratos needs to learn quickly about this new place he inhabits. Knowledge about a land is important: it empowers citizens to make choices, engage in or avoid situations and, in Kratos’s case, it is the locus allowing him to recognize threats and protect his son. Rather than front-load the game with a Norse mythology lesson in a cut-scene or opening crawl, God of War provides two characters to educate Kratos and players as they complete the game: Atreus, Kratos’s son, and Mimir, a severed head and god of wisdom. These characters aid Kratos by providing language lessons, recounting historical events and cultural ideologies, and explaining the past and ongoing conflicts between the various sects of Norse gods. The knowledge they bestow develops the world and characters and establishes the conflict between the antagonists—Odin’s family—and Kratos and Atreus.
Kratos does not speak the languages of Midgard, nor can he read the runes that are found throughout different locations, but Atreus does. Atreus’s role in the game is more than a bow-and-arrow wielding sidekick. His affinity for the languages of his mother and his ability to understand runes allows him to help the player solve puzzles while also providing context and background information on the game’s lore. Cory Barlog, Creative Director at Santa Monica Studio, mentions in a Game Developers Conference talk that teaching is a key element in the narrative pillar. Just as Superman had friends and family to help educate him about Earthly ways—such as his adoptive parents, Lois Lane, and his recently introduced son Jonathan—Kratos teaches Atreus to be a god, and Atreus, in turn, teaches Kratos to be mortal.
The main focus of Atreus’s teachings is language, the runes of the Nine Realms. While Atreus does aid Kratos in battle, his main usefulness is puzzle-solving, which allows their journey to progress. Atreus serves as an interpreter in segments where Kratos would otherwise be lost. Atreus relies on Kratos for physical protection and Kratos relies on Atreus to open paths towards their goal. Through its puzzle-solving mechanics, God of War highlights the importance of language. The puzzles that block their way require knowledge of runes to unlock. Previous games in the series placed Kratos alone in the world, relying only on his own brute strength, item collection, and platforming skills to move towards his goals.
But God of War makes Atreus more than a passive sidekick who requires escorting. Instead, Atreus is a vital part of Kratos’s journey. Without Atreus, Kratos would be stuck, unable to progress in his quest because he does not know the language. Without Atreus, Kratos’s rage and strength would impede his progress. The way Atreus is vital to puzzle-solving reveals the designers’ emphasis on language and its impact on the story. It empowers Kratos as an immigrant to integrate into the settings and challenges of this new space. And this, of course, extends to the player as they explore a new world and engage in new challenges.
Additionally, Atreus embodies both the knowledge of his mother and the strength of his father. Atreus’s name is a connection to Kratos’s Greek origins, though the final revelation about Atreus’s name very much grounds him in Norse mythology—his lineage is both Norse and Greek. In these ways, Atreus is the bridge that helps Kratos integrate into Midgard and accept his role as a father.
Atreus helps educate Kratos about the languages and runes of the nine realms, but Mimir fills in knowledge gaps about the vast history of the place and those who rule over it. Neil Gaiman, writing about Norse mythology, describes Mimir as “the wise one, the guardian of memory who knows many things” (45). Mimir is essential because he serves to inform players about the version of Norse mythology that Santa Monica Studios constructed for this game. Atreus helps solve intimate micro problems, Mimir develops the macro, filling in the history of the entire nine realms.
Mimir’s education is paramount for the gameplay experience because it impacts Kratos’s perception of this new land’s history and the choices Kratos makes throughout the game. For example, Kratos learns that the Norse gods suffer from the same follies and hubris as the Greek gods. Mimir most often recounts history and mythology during boat travel on the Lake of Nine. Ian Bogost comments about world travel in games, stating, “a story’s plot is mapped to the physical traversal of a landscape” (48). In this case, a world’s history is mapped to the traversal of a landscape. Traversing a game’s world, especially without combat, is often seen as a dull activity. God of War turns travel into meaningful content by having Mimir recount the tales of the Norse gods. These sessions occur during downtime when no combat takes place. If desired, the player could sit in the boat and listen to the entirety of Mimir’s story. If in a hurry to arrive at the next locale, however, Mimir will pause his story with a “More next time then,” and when boarding the boat anew he will begin with, “What was I talking about? Oh yes, Odin and the giants…” He then carries on exactly where he left off to ensure players receive all the necessary content to understand the machinations of Norse gods. As cultural guides, Mimir’s stories help inform Kratos but also flesh out the other characters the player interacts with throughout Midgard. Mimir tells the stories so that players are not reading journal or codex entries, although they can, but instead remain fully engaged in the play experience while receiving a constant flow of information.
The information Atreus collects and the stories and histories Mimir passes along ultimately serve to empower Kratos and, by extension, Atreus, in dealing with the dual identity of being both mortal and god. It is his hope for a family and a normal mortal life that exemplifies how “The immigrant wants to excel but stay anonymous” (Fingeroth 53-4). Fingeroth explains that immigrant characters want to see themselves or family members succeed, but not to draw the eye of local authorities or figures that would challenge their way of life. For however long he’s lived in Midgard, Kratos has maintained his dual identity; favoring the mortal persona with the reasoning that, “It will protect my loved ones from my enemies,” a typical mentality when it comes to assuming a secret identity as a superhero (Fingeroth 52). With their journey underway and Kratos learning from both Atreus and Mimir, Kratos realizes that to excel, to enact change, he cannot be anonymous any longer.
As a god, Kratos has the power to enact change through force, combating Odin’s tyrannical leadership. As Atreus’s father, Kratos recognizes that Atreus—as a blend of Greek and Norse deity—stands as a symbol for change and must be raised as such. Throughout the adventure, and with some prodding from both Freya and Mimir, Kratos takes time to educate Atreus about his true nature and the responsibility gods have to be better than mortals. Analyzing Kratos and Atreus’s relationship and bilateral teaching, Jason Cash observes that “Kratos can only save his child by affording him the knowledge he needs to exert self-determination … [Atreus] need[s] guidance and patience, and affording Atreus greater agency helps Kratos grow as a father.” For both their sakes, education is paramount and results in a closer bond and catharsis. Thus, educational relationships exist between all characters and influence everyone’s identities, particularly when Kratos eventually reveals Atreus’s identity and the name his mother desired for him.
Kratos and Atreus’s relationship is evidence of Fingeroth’s initial analysis of Superman’s immigrant identity: “He can use what he’s learned as Kent to enhance his life as Superman, and vice versa” (56). Kratos can use what he’s learned as a god to teach Atreus to follow a better path. Atreus uses what he’s learned—namely, language and kindness—to teach Kratos to be a mortal and a loving father. Though Kratos relies heavily upon Atreus and Mimir to aid his immigrant life in Midgard, Kratos ultimately uses his secret identity to shape his son’s future, and potentially the future of the entire Norse pantheon. Knowledge can influence an immigrant’s experience in a new world and help construct and refine their identity.
In a new world, Kratos isolated himself from society, not making an effort to learn about the languages, history, or culture of Midgard. Through interaction with his son, Atreus, and the head of Mimir, Kratos accumulates sufficient knowledge to integrate into this new land. Kratos finally accepts his role as god and father, retiring his dual identity, and unifying the two halves to prepare Atreus to “be better.” Players see that navigating a new space is challenging, but with sufficient, correct information the world becomes less frightening and players navigate the space feeling empowered. Therefore, Atreus and Mimir are invaluable assets, both in terms of gameplay mechanics and educational resources to benefit Kratos’s integration into Midgard. The design of these helper characters is not intended to burden the player, or even to overwhelm them with information—they are designed as characters first, and tools of aid second. That design choice helps players connect with them and feel their importance, thereby centralizing them as essential figures in the game alongside Kratos. These characters embody engaging storytelling and gameplay mechanics to create immersive experiences where players too can feel like immigrants in a new world, and through knowledge acquisition, become empowered enough to “be better” through play.
Barlog, Cory. Reinventing God of War. Game Developers Conference 2018, YouTube. 9 Apr. 2019.
Bogost, Ian. How to Do Things with Videogames. University of Minnesota Press, 2011.
Cash, Jason. “We Must Be Better: Hegemonic Masculinity and Dadification in God of War (2018).” 2019. First Person Scholar.
Fingeroth, Danny. Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us about Ourselves and Our Society. Bloomsbury, 2014.
Gaiman, Neil. Norse Mythology. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017.
Santa Monica Studio. God of War. 2018, PlayStation 4.