Yannick LeJacq

God of War Week

God of War III is still the furious, unflinching pinnacle of the series

Looking back on a classic, 10 years later.

“The death of Olympus means the death of us all.”

Poseidon issues this warning at the beginning of God of War III, shortly before Kratos gouges his eyes out.

“Then prepare for your death, Poseidon!” Kratos shouts back. It’s not the most lyrical or witty rejoinder, but at this point in Kratos’s story, it's impressive that he manages to speak at all, as opposed to grunting or barking.

Video game sequels tend to progress incrementally, adding some more bad guys, new weapons, and steadily improved visuals. God of War III, released ten years ago on March 16, 2010 for the PlayStation 3, had all the improvements you might expect.

But It also did something more profound. It took Kratos and players through a singular and harrowing descent into madness. In the process, it changed the series forever.

God of War week is Inverse’s celebration of all things Kratos, in honor of the 15th anniversary of the first game (March 22) and the 10th anniversary of the third (March 16).

Sony Santa Monica

Kratos was never a particularly nice guy. His motivation in all three original games is the same: revenge. In the first, it’s framed sympathetically. He’s mad at the original Greek god of war, Ares, for tricking him into killing his wife and son. By God of War II, that premise was starting to come apart at the seams. Kratos was mad at Zeus for killing him, even though Zeus did so because Kratos wouldn’t stop wreaking havoc.

There’s a kernel of an idea here that Kratos refuses to submit to divine authority and the proscriptions of fate so he — and, by extension, everyone else who lives under their domain — can instead chart his own path in life. But God of War II doesn’t explore this in any particular depth.

By God of War III, Kratos is just mad. Mad that he still hasn’t managed to kill Zeus, now revealed to be his father. Mad that someone, anyone, would have the audacity to not die at his hand.

His journey in God of War III, which is very conspicuously no longer that of a hero, is a fever dream of bilious, all-consuming rage. He finds and dismembers every available member of the Greek pantheon one by one, piece by piece. He tears the head off Helios with his bare hands. He severs Hermes’s legs while dangling the sprite upside-down by his feet like some hapless turkey. And he does these gruesome deeds while his victims implore restraint with ever-deepening anguish.

As he brings down Poseidon in the game’s earliest moments, it’s clear getting rid of the gods is Kratos’s way of taking out the rest of the world, too. Poseidon’s death causes the oceans to bleed onto land. Helios’s decapitation blocks out the sun. Every time this happens, we see small glimpses of the waves of innocent people doomed to die along with Kratos’s targets.

But he doesn’t care. Or maybe he just can’t control himself enough to stop.

Sony Santa Monica

A Spartan’s fury

Cinematic, story-driven games often struggle to make their gameplay comport with their narrative and thematic elements. God of War III overcomes this with its rapid, frenetic gameplay that emphasizes combos and frantic button-mashing. Combining light and heavy attacks in various sequences makes Kratos execute ever-more elaborate feats of balletic violence, prancing around his enemies while his signature “Blades of Chaos” spring out from his hands and zip through the air to slice into their targets. It’s all punctuated by quick-time events (QTEs), where the game presents you with a series of button prompts to, say, jump onto the head of a cyclops and tear his eye out.

These explosive finishers have always been a defining trait of God of War, one of its chief selling points in the overcrowded marketplace of hyper-violent action games that love to describe themselves as “visceral.” It’s still part of the franchise today, even with all that changed in 2018’s reboot. You follow a short script and then you get your gory reward — Kratos killing someone or something in especially spectacular fashion.

Sony Santa Monica

God of War III changes that script right at the very end. After a protracted final boss battle against Zeus, the world in shambles all around them, Kratos drops his Blades of Chaos to the ground and starts punching his father in the face. The game prompts you to press Circle to perform these punches, one after another.

Circle, punch. Zeus’s head flops one way.

Circle, punch. It flops the other way.

Circle, punch. Kratos throws a knee in there.

Circle, punch.

The icon for the circle button keeps pressing down on the screen, as is typical when the game wants you to do something specific to advance the action. But this is different than the other times. The circle never stops flickering, urging you ever onward.

The screen fills up with blood until all you see is red. The prompt continues to insist that you punch and keep punching. Your controller keeps vibrating to announce the delivery of Kratos’s blows. All you hear are the wet, slapping sounds of his fists and periodic grunts.

You can keep doing this for as long as you want. Five minutes, fifteen, an hour. Unlike every other QTE and prompt, the game never interrupts itself so Kratos can complete a specific action. Instead, you have to make the decision yourself once you realize you’re too disgusted or tired of his brute force display to continue.

There’s a surface-level story in God of War III about “hope” being some discrete, supernatural force Kratos can tap into by acquiring the right artifacts and performing the proper rites. It involves opening Pandora’s mythical box and Kratos releasing the force of hope for all mankind by stabbing himself through the chest with a giant sword once he’s done defeating Zeus. (Sure, I guess.)

This is what the game is telling you on one level. On the other hand, it’s completely out of step with everything God of War III has actually made you experience. Even Kratos seems to admit it makes no sense — what of mankind is left to benefit, he asks Athena, when he’s placed the world in ruins?

The real climax of God of War III is sheer incoherence, a series of loud crashes and violent tremors, signifying nothing in particular beyond the might of its own cacophony. When I think of Kratos in these final moments of the original trilogy, a quote has always come to mind. It’s the opening line from the poet and queer activist David Wojnarowicz’s 1992 book Memories That Smell Like Gasoline:

Sometimes it gets dark in here behind these eyes I feel like the physical equivalent of a scream.

Kratos’s vision has long been distorted by a volatile mix of emotions, but at the end of God of War III it’s quite literally covered up. You can’t see anything as he pounds away at Zeus’s face. You can only hear the thudding consequences and grunts of Kratos’s persistent vexation.

God of War III has always struck me as a powerful meditation on mental illness, on the post-traumatic stress disorder Kratos suffers from but never reckons with, and the core nihilism of his pursuit. The game doesn’t just show you a broken man, it lets you experience life inside his fractured self.

This anger is so totalizing, it’s ultimately oppressive. That’s the point. But after giving players something so singularly and stiflingly driven, it was unclear where God of War could really go next. How do you advance again, incrementally or otherwise, from such a powerful and naked expression of rage? Make Kratos even angrier, somehow? What would that even look like?

Kratos and his son, Atreus, take on some undead Draugr.Sony Santa Monica

Back from the brink

Series developer Santa Monica Studio managed to produce another installment in 2013 with God of War: Ascension, which was technically a prequel. But by the time it came out, even God of War’s creators acknowledged that something had to change on a fundamental level.

“Calm him down,” co-creator David Jaffe said of Kratos in an interview with Wired’s Game|Life podcast in 2012. “Have a little bit more nuance. Kratos is Kratos. He’s the Hulk. But the best Hulk stories… there’s still a sense of humanity you could get to.”

According to fellow co-creator Cory Barlog, that’s exactly what Santa Monica Studio spent the next five years doing with 2018’s reimagined PlayStation 4 installment God of War. “There’s very little humanity that he had left [after the previous God of War games],” Barlog told Polygon in a post-release interview that year, “but I do not believe that anyone is so far gone that they don’t have some way to pull them back from the brink.”

Barlog said he wanted to “actually do a game where we focus in on [Kratos’s] desire to do something different. To make some better decisions, instead of complain and blame everybody else.”

But how much really changed, either about Kratos himself, or our appetite for him and his anger? The latest God of War seeks to redeem Kratos by performing a well-worn blockbuster trick: making him a parent. But even Barlog admits in one Polygon interview that the incorrigible grouch hasn’t been a very good father. Kratos’s new spouse, Faye, did most of the heavy lifting in raising their son Atreus. Kratos was “busy spending a lot of time out in the woods, trying to figure out how to get control of the demons inside of him — the monster inside of him that we, as his creators, allowed to be out all the time.”

Presumably, spending time “out in the woods” means Kratos was busy punching the bark off trees, which is progress compared to continuing to rip his enemies’ faces off. Still, I’m reminded of the first thing Poseidon said to Kratos at the start of God of War III: “No matter how many gods fall, there will always be new ones to stand against you.”

“They will fall as well!” Kratos responds. Did God of War change mythologies and locales to its new Norse setting simply because Kratos had already killed literally everything he possibly could in Greek mythology?

The series continues to prop up new things for him to keep killing. Kratos may have switched to an axe from a sword in the new God of War, but he’s still using the same fundamental tools — those of violence.

His redemption arc is mitigated by this limitation. There’s no reliable button on the PS4 controller that makes Kratos hug Atreus. Or hold his hand. Or, I don’t know, teach him how to shave and tie a tie. The layout of the buttons has changed to be more intuitive for modern gameplay sensibilities, but pressing them still leads to the same destructive things.

Sony Santa Monica

The impossibility of absolution for one’s sordid past and the longing to move beyond paralyzing anger are among the overarching themes in 2018’s God of War. Kratos’ mixed feelings at seeing his son display these same traits are among the story’s most powerful beats. Tellingly, one trait that carries over from the past games is Kratos’s ability to supercharge himself with something called “Spartan Rage.” As in his final confrontation with Zeus in God of War III, triggering this ability in the 2018 God of War makes Kratos drop his weapons and pummel his enemies with his bare hands. There’s just one difference: eventually, the superpower wears off. Kratos runs out of steam, even if the player doesn’t.

And maybe that’s a good thing. Not every game has to bring you right up to the brink. “Doing better,” a goal Kratos sets for himself and his son at multiple points in the new God of War, can just mean doing fewer destructive things.

For all the beauty and richness and newfound nuance of God of War’s current incarnation, I’ll never forget the enormous power and terrifying emotional clarity of its predecessor. God of War III truly pushed the limits of its bold vision to the very edge. Only then could the series try to pull Kratos, and everything else, back.

God of War week is Inverse’s celebration of all things Kratos, in honor of the 15th anniversary of the first game (March 22) and the 10th anniversary of the third (March 16).

Related Tags
Share: