"All I remember is what I have lost."
God of War III ends with Kratos having finally achieved his vengeance, and in doing so, seemingly destroyed the world, or at least Greece. At the time I found this ending, in which Kratos finally realizes that all he's done is destroy, and attempts to kill the one thing he hasn't yet, himself, to be fitting for the series. In the eight years since playing God of War III, this ending morphed in my head into something that it isn't, and never was. I remembered the parts I liked, and forgot about all the hokey stuff with Athena wanting the literal manifestation of Hope from Kratos, forgot about the game using a young woman (Pandora) as a shameless stand-in for Kratos' dead daughter, forgot how violent that game as a whole is, not just toward literal monsters, or gods, but to people in general. All I remembered was the part where Kratos realized he had done harm, and tried to kill himself.
I'm glad I went and rewatched that ending, and a few choice clips from other parts of GoW III to refresh myself on that game. It's only helped to reinforce how stark the differences are between that, those games in general, and the new one. GoW III attempts to end with Kratos realizing his wrongs, but it was too little, too late. Especially considering that 2 (two) prequels were released after that. Only one of which I played because I had a PSP, and was bound and determined to play every noteworthy release for that thing, so I wouldn't have spent all that money just to play Peace Walker. I, as did many, had my fill, or more than my fill.
But the new God of War starts with that idea from the end of GoW III: Kratos realizing the wrongs he's committed. And just like the end of III, where Kratos' response was to run away from those wrongs by killing himself, the new game begins with the premise that Kratos survived, and if he couldn't figuratively run from his past, he would do so literally. And north he went, until he wound up in fantasy Scandinavia (or Iceland, if the occasional use of the Icelandic language is any indication). After settling down with Faye, who sounds like every bit the warrior Kratos is (just without the blood lust), building a log cabin in the forest, and starting a family, Kratos was finally given a second chance to be the best family man he could.
So of course he squandered it by brooding in the woods instead of helping raise his son. Then, God of War begins, not with any of the bombast of the previous games. No giant monster to slay, no leading an army of titans up Mount Olympus. It begins with Kratos chopping down a tree for firewood; to build a funeral pyre for Faye. Faye is never heard from or seen directly, but the impact she left is felt throughout the game. Kratos, a god who never had the maturity or desire to use his powers responsibly, is lost without her. And Atreus, just a boy, has to deal with not only the loss of his mother, but now only having a man who seemed more interested in anything else as his caretaker, and only companion in a cold world.
Faye left them with just one wish: That they spread her ashes from the highest peak in all the realms. And though Kratos would probably rather sulk in the woods, he knows he can't deny her that wish, but also knows the journey will be long and perilous. So he says that he needs to see if Atreus is ready for that journey, even though he knows he himself is not. And after a hunt that turned into a fight with a troll, Kratos says Atreus isn't ready, and they return home, only to have their home intruded by a stranger with the power of a god. After this man wouldn't leave, Kratos resorts to his old ways, and after a long fight, snaps the stranger's neck, leaving him for dead. Left with no choice, and knowing neither he nor the boy are ready, they set off for the mountain.
And what follows is a game that left a much bigger impact on me than I expected. So much bigger than I ever thought was possible for a God of War game that I almost can't believe it. It made me care about Kratos, not as a god, but as a person. Caring about Atreus is one thing, he's just a kid doing his best, in the way that all kids who want their parents to love them do. But Kratos? The character who was the living embodiment of every sophomoric power fantasy in the book? The one whose defining characteristic was not only his violence, but the absurd lengths his violence went to?
Really, the thing that made me empathize with Kratos is that I can relate to him. Not to the violence, at least not directly. I enjoyed the violence of the previous games as much as anyone. I remember mashing buttons to tear Helios' head from his body, and loving the detail of the bits of flesh and bone left dangling. I remember loving the pun of turning him into a literal headlight, and frankly part of me still does enjoy that because I love word play. Like Kratos, I never really stopped to think about how cruel and needless his violence often was, because they were "just video games." My only criticism back then was that I thought the sex minigames were crass, and immature.
I'm obviously not a god, or a murderer. I'm not even a father, which is definitely the thing that has gotten a lot of people's attention around the game. No, I relate to him because I've spent the last few years of my life hiding from my own problems. I know I've never done anything even a thousandth as bad as Kratos. That doesn't mean I still don't torture myself over the mean things I've said and done to people I used to care about; the people who used to care about me. Former friends I haven't seen or heard from in years, specifically because of my mistakes. Family I'm distant with, and know I should be better about reconnecting with, while I still can. Hiding behind the shield of my "health problems," when really I'm just afraid of the world, all the while knowing I should be doing something to move my life forward.
And yet I don't, despite knowing I should be better.
"You must be better than me."
God of War knows that people do bad things, make mistakes. We all have. I have. And over the course of the game, Kratos realizes he can't run or hide from his past forever. All he wants is impart one lesson onto his son. "Be better."
He doesn't just tell his son that, and continue to be the monster he once was. I mean, yes, he still kills a lot in this game. It is a big budget action game, after all, of course he's still going to rip and tear his way through countless monsters and undead (there's a Trophy for killing one thousand).The combat is deeper and more fun than ever before, and the primary weapon, The Leviathan Axe, is one of my favorite weapons in any game I've ever played (video games being about the only context in which "favorite weapon" is a thing I could ever seriously say). But this isn't the Kratos who took pleasure in brutalizing anyone he could, or even the Kratos that sees killing as the only option. Yes, he tried to kill the stranger at the start of the game, and one other god (in self defense) midway through, but by the end, he does his best to show mercy. To give his enemy a chance to be better.
And yes, when Baldur (the stranger from the start) does not take his chance to be better, Kratos steps in and actually kills him, but only to save someone else's life.
Kratos wouldn't have striven to be better himself were it not for Atreus. For all his faults, and all his inability to show it early in the game, Kratos truly does love his son, and want what's best for him. Or, at least what he thinks is best. It takes a resurgence, worse than before, of Atreus' illness for Kratos to really show it, and realize how far he is willing to go to save his son. The illness and its cause is a little contrived, but I'm willing to overlook that in a world of gods and dragons, when the emotional part works. Seeing Kratos finally, honestly put someone else ahead of himself was touching.
Atreus, right at that age between the blissful years of childhood innocence, and the moody years of teen angst. Just a boy wanting to prove himself to his father, and do right by the world, even when Kratos scoffs at anything that won't directly benefit himself, or the boy. And he spends most of the game doing his best, being kind, and pushing his father to help others when they're in need.
That is, until he learns he's a god. His initial reaction was almost adorable. "Does that mean I can turn into an animal?" The sort of cute question only a kid would ask. But, as the story continues, despite Kratos' repeated mentions of how all gods do is take care of themselves, and take it out on everyone else, Atreus lets it go to his head. First just a few comments, then he begins showing complete disrespect for the friendly dwarven blacksmith Sindri, and eventually this even manifests itself in the game play. For a chunk of the game, Atreus starts disregarding what Kratos says, and sometimes even what I, the player, was telling him to do. Things like casting magic summons when I didn't tell him to.
That part of Atreus' arc really stuck with me because it's a good example of just how easily, and how quickly power, or even just the idea of power can change people. Nothing actually changed with Atreus. There's moments in the game where he gets new abilities, like the magic summons, or different arrow types, but this wasn't one of them. Simply the idea of being a god changed Atreus' way of thinking, and definitely for the worse. Until he finally realizes it, and like Kratos kept trying to impress upon him, he did all he could to be better, not just in order to complete their quest, but in life as a whole.
Ultimately, Faye's wish to have her ashes spread had as much to do with her realizing that journey was what Kratos and Atreus needed, as much as it was for her to return to her home, one last time. While it is a bummer that she's never directly seen or heard in the game (though I could certainly see an argument where that's intentional to make the players feel her absence), she had the foresight to realize what her son and husband needed to be better than they were. I'm just sad she didn't live to see that day.
Maybe she's due for a cameo in Valhalla in the sequel? I'd play a whole game starring her, honestly.
If there's any message to be taken from God of War, it's that we all need to be better than we are, and better than those that came before us. We might not live in a land of petty gods, where the undead and monsters roam the realms, but it can sure feel like it at times. And if Kratos could find it in himself to change, and be better, then I think we all can.
We need to.