Toxic masculinity is a loaded phrase.
It either elicits a repulsive fear, a knot in the stomach tied to grim reality, or becomes an eye-rolling trigger. It’s a flag that says someone doesn’t understand what you understand, a snowflake’s label for your dissenting views on biology, culture and gender. To be clear, toxic masculinity exists. It can manifest a myriad of ways, proactively or reactively. It can be violent. Single-minded. Misogynist. Or it can be the start of a storied gaming franchise, as it was back in March 2005.
When the original God of War launched for PlayStation 2 on that fateful March 22, it celebrated violent, misogynistic, single-minded vengeance with a game so literally epic it allowed us to challenge the gods themselves. I reveled in it. So did millions of other men my age in dorm rooms, basements and messy studio apartments the world over. We revered our protagonist, Kratos.
Were we toxic? Was he?
I’d argue that yes, we were. Kratos certainly was. The creative minds behind 2018’s God of War clearly think so. Director Cory Barlog has spoken at length in dozens of interviews about the “irredeemable” Kratos and the challenge of making people empathize with him again.
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).
The list of his toxic sins, in and out of the game, is long. Franchise highlights include the infamous orgy quick-time-events (for health orbs!), an achievement originally titled “Bros Before Hos” earned by curb-stomping a female enemy, and using dead women as literal props for solving platformer puzzles.
So how did Barlog and the team at Santa Monica Studios redeem a toxic man? They did the thing that redeems many of us once-toxic men. They made Kratos a father.
God of War to Dad of Boy
That’s why 2018’s God of War hit so hard. It departed from the past style of the franchise, which had drenched itself in vengeance, sex and violence. Instead, it championed a thoughtful responsibility that would’ve been anathema to the focus groups of 2005. The gaming audience then was largely seen by marketers as young, male and aggressively horny, and God of War’s success proved them right.
But 15 years is a long time.
“Things have become so politically correct that I was really jazzed about doing what was more a throwback to that more animalistic, kind of brutal Conan the Barbarian kind of vibe,” series creator David Jaffe told Eurogamer in 2005.
It’s hard to look back on a pre-Obama, pre-#MeToo, pre-Cancel Culture world as “so politically correct,” but Jaffe’s comments speak to the oppositional nature of toxic masculinity. It is ensconced in a “me vs them” mentality, where the world conspires against your desires and there can be no compromise in the face of existential oppression.
Kratos exemplifies this across the trilogy leading up to the 2018 game’s release. That the forces conspiring against him are capital-G Gods provide a reasonable enough cover for his actions. For players, it’s an escapism that’s hard to deny. Male power fantasies sell. Kratos is a man who takes what, and who, he wants. He is unstoppably righteous, his power the only moral authority.
What does that audience want now? Still God of War, apparently. The most recent installment moved more than 10 million copies. Former college dudes who loved QTE orgies have kids now. We loved “Dad of War” for this reason.
During a transitional moment where you feel your old life slipping away, it was nice to see an old world change with us, not against us. Now older and wiser, Kratos must raise his son Atreus alone after his mother’s untimely passing. His strange journey from the Greek God of War to a single dad in an unknown country mirrored our own from toxic men to capable fathers, and also as more mature gamers.
Getting better all the time
So, as gamers, do the original God of War games still hold up? Are they too problematic to enjoy? Depends on who’s playing it. If I fired up some old-school God of War right now I’d have fun. The gameplay holds up, even if I might cringe more than cheer during the graphic bits.
But if my son was a teenager (he’s only two right now) and he played it, what would I think? If I sat there and watched him delight in violence against women or wanton sadism, what would I say?
I would say a lot. This is the value of God of War’s relationship with toxic masculinity. And our own.
At its core, my most toxic masculinity was vulnerable masculinity. It was defensive, evasive and isolating. It is impervious to judgment; judgment, in fact, feeds it. So it’s hard to confront toxic masculinity head-on. It’s best examined in contrast, and that’s what the God of War franchise provides us. It’s a chance to say, “I can’t believe I thought this was awesome.” The early titles celebrate toxic masculinity, while the latest reckons with it.
“Who I was is not who you will be,” Kratos says to Atreus near the end of God of War. “We must be better.”
I got a little weepy during this scene. Like, “Cat’s Cradle” weepy. At the time, I was a brand new father, rifling through piles of anxiety about what that new identity meant. Fatherhood and manhood are intertwined in uncomfortable ways, and I found myself wondering what it meant to be “man enough” for my son. The God of War team did, too.
"Strength coexists with emotional availability and vulnerability. Life is not a Hemingway novel. We are better as people — as a society, as a humanity — when we are open to the concept of everyone experiencing the range of human emotions," Barlog told Mashable in 2018.
To their credit, the ancient Greeks thought about this a lot, too. The source material for God of War is rife with tales about god-awful fathers. The Titan Cronus ate his kids, until Zeus escaped and cut him open to free them. Then Zeus ate some of his own kids, including Athena, who grew so big in his skull he split it open with a hammer to let her out. (Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, never had kids.) As much as the brooding, toxic men of Mt. Olympus loved their rage and rape and revenge, the mythology is full of cautionary tales about precisely this behavior.
Fifteen years ago, I never would’ve thought of God of War as a cautionary tale. Yet it is. There’s the in-game story, Kratos as a tragic figure consumed by revenge. God of War III is notable for just how extra Kratos is in his assholery; it’s clearly consumed him and made him worse than the gods he vilified.
Then there’s the real-world cautionary tale. Fans disliked Kratos by the time that story was over; they had had their fill of the toxic anti-hero, and the franchise was stagnant.
The cure for toxic masculinity is growth, as the ascendant new God of War franchise demonstrates. It doesn’t rewrite its history, and neither should we. You shouldn’t ignore the shameful shit you did in your past; if you’ve grown, you should lean in to the contrast and be able to say that’s not who you are anymore. And if you’re lucky enough to be a father, you have to show your child it is not only possible, but necessary, to grow.
As Kratos says, we must be better.