Jason Cash is an Assistant Professor of English in the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY Delhi, where he teaches literature, film, and composition. He earned a Ph. D. in English from Lehigh University in 2015, and he splits his research focus between Irish literature and popular culture. His work has appeared in both New Hibernia Review and The Canadian Journal for Irish Studies, and he presents regularly at the Popular Culture Association conference in the Game Studies area. He is currently planning a co-edited collection of essays on Final Fantasy VII.
In an interview with Polygon, Cory Barlog, director of God of War (Sony Santa Monica 2018; hereafter GoW4), notes that the studio’s explicit goal is to address the underlying social implications of the franchise in order to “pull [Kratos] back from the brink” and make him “whole” (Plante, pars. 8 and 9). The interview’s headline says it all: “God of War’s director on toxic masculinity and why Kratos had to change.” Barlog attributes this impulse to redeem Kratos to his own experiences with fatherhood and a desire to prevent the continued dominance of problematic notions of masculinity: “This lesson that I hoped to pass on to [my son]: that the concepts of strength and emotional vulnerability and the ability to sort of be free to feel the range of emotions, that these are not two warring or diametrically opposed concepts” (qtd. in Plante, par. 7). Simply put, the team set out to use Kratos to challenge toxic masculinity – or what R. W. Connell originally called hegemonic masculinity – in gaming. Like many studios, such as 2K Games with BioShock: Infinite (2013) and Naughty Dog with The Last of Us (2013), Sony Santa Monica’s (hereafter SSM’s) method for adding emotional complexity to their protagonist was to reemphasize his role as a father, a logical continuation from his established in-game biography, which begins with the Spartan devoting himself to Ares, god of war, in order to overcome his enemies and, as a result, murdering his wife and child before beginning a cycle of vengeance and emotional suppression that ended with the brutal murder of his father Zeus. The team had its work cut out for them; however, as I demonstrate in this essay, the game largely succeeds in redeeming the character.
This essay highlights some of the common criticisms directed at paternal narratives in video games and details several key ways in which GoW4 resists them. In particular, I argue that the game’s rejection of paternalism, demonstrated in the increasing autonomy Kratos affords his son Atreus, and the encouragement of transgenerational communication about how systems of oppression continue – evidenced in the dialogue following the game’s climax – suggest that a socially just form of paternal masculinity may be possible even within AAA game narratives.
Historically, “dad games” have been mixed in their success. This “dadification,” as Jess Joho termed it, or as it was originally identified by Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo, “daddening,” of video games has been going strong for a decade. Dad games tend to have a lot in common: there is usually a daughter non-player character (NPC) whose primary function is to encourage the player to sympathize with the male protagonist or to demonstrate his emotional or moral growth, and they feed into the cultural assumption that women have value primarily or exclusively in relation to men. A number of critics, including Joho, Mattie Brice, Gerald Voorhees, and Sarah Stang, have noted the shortcomings of dadification. Stang highlights a number of these collectively and argues that these narratives are “simply another means for developers to valorize violent male agency,” they turn daughters into the new “damsels-in-distress,” they privilege male agency at the expense of the daughters’ right to self-determination, and they both “marginalize” and “vilify” mothers (163). The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite go as far as to tell stories about “failed fathers” (and therefore “failed men”) in which the “redemption of the father is clearly framed as more important than the psychological health of the daughter” (Stang, 170). One might argue, in fact, that dadification’s goal of rounding out male protagonists simply reconfigures hegemonic masculinity by hiding it behind sentiment.
However, SSM’s decision to dadify Kratos is largely successful in addressing the hegemonic masculinity of the previous games. Terry Kupers offers a succinct and helpful crystallization of Connell’s ideas as they have developed through subsequent research: “[a]ccording to Connell, contemporary hegemonic masculinity is built on two legs, domination of women and a hierarchy of intermale dominance” and in its current North American and European iterations “includes a high degree of ruthless competition, an inability to express emotions other than anger, an unwillingness to admit weakness or dependency, devaluation of women and all feminine attributes in men, homophobia, and so forth” (716). The previous games in the series are built on virtually all of these tenets, with the possible exception of homophobia; though heteronormative, the games do not contain overtly heterosexist content as found in other representations of Sparta in popular culture like Zack Snyder’s 300 (2007). Because the games were released out of story chronology, the narrative of Kratos’s Greek years is incredibly convoluted. The core of the story, however, is fairly straightforward. Kratos, a Spartan demi-god born of the human Callisto and god Zeus, is embroiled in a cycle of revenge and patricide that begins when he pledges himself to the god of war and ends with his murder of the entire Greek pantheon.
GoW4 sees Kratos in Northern Europe, a widower once more and on a mission with his son Atreus to spread his wife Faye’s ashes from the highest peak in the realms. Baldur and other Norse deities stand in their way for unknown reasons. Along the way, the developers attempt to rehabilitate Kratos and establish a new paternal paradigm for him. There are some heavy qualifications – the continued emphasis on violent men and arguable mistreatment of Faye and Freya chief among them – but the game succeeds in several ways at addressing the hegemonic masculinity of previous games. For example, the overt misogyny and hypersexualization of women is virtually gone and the conversation about Atreus of Sparta at the game’s conclusion, which emphasizes camaraderie and happiness over competition and war, pushes back against intermale dominance. Most significantly, the game widens Kratos’s emotional range and sees him escape the melancholic loop of emotional suppression and come to terms with his own actions.
The game’s approach to dadifying Kratos makes at least two key revisions to previous approaches. First, rather than centralizing paternalism – a criticism directed frequently at one of the most canonical dad games, The Last of Us – it makes the rejection of paternalism necessary for Kratos’s growth as a father and as a human being. Although he does not get it right every time, Kratos grows to respect his son’s autonomy and allows Atreus to make his own mistakes – and learn from them. Second, the game emphasizes the role that the privileged must play in ending systemic oppression. While coded problematically in terms of Kratos’s and Atreus’s godhood, the mantra “we must be better” serves clearly as an authorial commentary directed at the presumed target demographic for the game: men and boys.
Kratos’s internal conflict in the game is largely built around his relationship with paternalism, as he spends much of the narrative hiding the truth of his godhood from Atreus. Although Kratos is hiding the truth of his nature from his son ostensibly to protect him, any time Atreus’ own godly powers manifest, he grows deathly ill. Kratos is therefore confronted with the reality that his intentions of preventing Atreus from becoming like him – but denying and repressing aspects of himself rather than learning how to manage them – are killing his son. Whereas previous dadification narratives like The Last of Us attempted to generate sympathy for the male protagonists only to elide the agency of their children, Kratos can only save his child by affording him the knowledge he needs to exert self-determination.
This means letting Atreus make mistakes. Though Atreus need not share his father’s fate, he does need guidance and patience, and affording Atreus greater agency helps Kratos grow as a father. As Atreus grows arrogant on the fumes of his own godhood, Kratos does little-to-nothing to stop him. Sometimes, the consequences stemming from the latitude he affords Atreus are mild. At one point, for example, he berates the dwarf Sindri for complaining, telling him that he and his father have “had enough of little people’s little problems,” a notable reversal from his prior eagerness to help. As the game uses godhood as a metaphor for masculinity, Atreus has effectively begun to shift in his gendered behavior. Kratos looks on, somewhat thoughtfully, perhaps reflecting on his own impatience with and belittling of the game’s NPCs. As the two progress, however, Kratos questions his son, ultimately telling him that his words were “needless and unkind.” The moment is subtle, woven into the gameplay, but it reveals a shift in Kratos both as a character and a father. In explaining, patiently, the power of words to his son, he is also exploring the moral underpinnings of his own interactions with those around him and adopting a mildly counternormative attitude.
In other instances, that latitude has greater consequences, as with the murder of Modi. Although it also becomes a teachable moment and an opportunity to expound upon the shift in philosophy the game takes regarding violence, Kratos could be more assertive in the exchange; when Modi, son of Thor, is beaten, Atreus expresses a desire to kill him. Kratos tells him not to, but Modi taunts Atreus into doing it anyway. Kratos accuses his son of losing control, and Atreus coldly responds by asking his father, “Haven’t you been teaching me to kill?” Kratos, however, sees the killing they have done as necessary to survival, as being gods makes them targets. This is a significant revision on the revenge narrative of earlier God of War games. Atreus, in this moment, is fulfilling Kratos’s fear of become like his father. For the sake of personal satisfaction, what Kratos calls an “indulgence,” the boy takes a life that need not be taken. Kratos could push his explanation further, as he still obfuscates when confronted about the “consequences of killing a god,” but it is an important moment for both father and son as it highlights the need for self-control informed by self-knowledge.
The final way in which God of War leverages dadification against hegemonic masculinity is through the emphasis on the responsibility of those in power to instigate change. Late in the game, Kratos finally reveals to Atreus that he killed his own father, and Atreus is understandably shaken, asking his father if murder is the inevitable outcome of godhood. Kratos’s godhood has been primarily tied to rage and vengeance, two pillars of the series’ entanglement with hegemonic masculinity. In effect, the brutal form of godhood we see in the game functions as a metaphor for masculinity. By asking if this is the inevitable outcome of godhood, Atreus is really asking a question about gender essentialism: is he, as a god (man) destined to repeat the sins of his father?
Kratos’s answer to the question is unequivocal and reflects the emotional journey he has himself undertaken: “We will be the gods we choose to be, not those who have been. Who I was is not who you will be. We must be better.” Hegemony is, by its very nature, an enacting of power through one’s conformity to expected social norms. Kratos suggests that gods (men) are not bound by patterns of experience. Kratos’s words reflect the sensibility with which sociologist Allan G. Johnson approaches power relationships in Privilege, Power, and Difference. In an early chapter, Johnson emphasizes the systemic nature of oppression and its transmission over time: “The trouble is rooted in a legacy we all inherited, and while we’re here, it belongs to us. It isn’t our fault. It wasn’t caused by something we did or didn’t do. But now that it’s ours, it’s up to us to decide how we’re going to deal with it before we collectively pass it along to the generations that will follow ours” (15). While Johnson observes that the oppressed, including women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community are inherently “on the hook” as victims of the system, the privileged have a number of mechanisms by which to downplay their involvement with the perpetuation of oppression.
Central to the solution of ending systems like patriarchy and male privilege, in other words, is for men to “get […] off the hook by getting on” and see the “hook they’re on, not as some terrible affliction or occasion for guilt and shame, but as a challenge and an opportunity” (Johnson, 135-6). Once someone recognizes their implication in the system, they have both the means and the need to do something. Kratos positions himself as part of not only the problem, but also the solution. Though players cannot ascertain, at this point, whether Kratos will be successful in moving beyond his troubled and troubling past, they are left with an implied future mission. The game’s denouement, especially the conversation between father and son about the name “Atreus,” an anomalous Spartan whose humanity and good humor defined him, in contrast to Faye’s intended name Loki, the bringer of Ragnarok, suggests that this tension will not be resolved quickly and may remain a focus for future games in the series.
Although it has some shortcomings, GoW4 makes great strides towards its developers’ explicit goals of rehabilitating Kratos and addressing the games’ legacy of hegemonic masculinity, as well as the implied goal of a more nuanced fatherhood narrative. While the means is not as grotesque, and while Faye’s legacy is very much alive in Atreus’s writing and personality, she is still effectively “fridged” in the same way Lysandra and Calliope were in the original series. The conventions of the genre, as well as the need to connect the persona of Kratos to his representation in previous games, also leave unaddressed the tendency that dadified games have, in Stang’s words, to “valorize violent male agency” (163). While critical distance is necessary, there is value in recognizing the game’s accomplishment and what it might portend for future titles. In “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” Frederic Jameson argues that all works of popular culture have an ideological function as well as a utopian impulse, expressions of “our deepest fantasies” about how life “ought […] to be lived” (146). Noting the critical tendency to emphasize only what a cultural production does to reinforce dominant ideology, he calls on critics not to dismiss a text’s potential contributions to a more socially just world and encourages critics to adopt a mode “capable of doing justice to both the ideological and the Utopian or transcendent functions […] simultaneously” (Jameson, 142). God of War is no utopian handbook and leaves much to be desired in several key ways, but its success as a high-profile game that is attempting to disentangle hegemonic masculinity from fatherhood narratives points to greater future possibilities for more nuanced ludic storytelling.
Connell, R. W. and James W. Messerschmidt. “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept.” Gender & Society, vol. 19, no. 6., 2005, doi.org/10.1177/0891243205278639 pp. 829-59.
God of War. Sony PlayStation 4, 2018.
“God of War 4 – Kratos Tells Story of Great Spartan Warrior Atreus.” YouTube, uploaded by Zanar Aesthetics, 5 May 2018.
Jameson, Frederic. “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture.” 1992. The Jameson Reader, edited by Michael Hardt and Kathi Weeks, Blackwell, 2000, pp. 123-48.
Joho, Jess. “The Dadification of Games, Round Two.” Kill Screen, 11 Feb. 2014. Accessed 20 June 2019.
Johnson, Allan G. Privilege, Power, and Difference. Mayfield, 2001.
Kupers, Terry A. “Toxic Masculinity as a barrier to Mental Health Treatment in Prison.” Journal of Clinical Psychology, vol. 61, no. 6, 2005, pp. 713-24.
Plante, Chris. “God of War’s director on toxic masculinity and why Kratos had to change.” Polygon, 27 April 2018. Accessed 29 April 2019.
Stang, Sarah. “Big Daddies and Broken Men: Father-Daughter Relationships in Video Games.” Loading… The Journal of the Canadian Game Studies Association, vol. 10, no. 16, 2017, pp. 162-174. Accessed 16 April 2019.
“Stuffed Into the Fridge.” TV Tropes. Accessed 20 June 2019.
Totilo, Stephen. “The Daddening of Video Games.” Kotaku, 9 February 2010. Accessed 29 April 2019.