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The Ghosts of ‘God of War’

For the author, playing the fabled franchise’s latest installment, which centers on a father and son, wasn’t about button-mashing; it was cathartic cause to reflect on his own history with the dad he recently lost

Getty Images/Sony Interactive Entertainment/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

A week after my dad died, I got God of War. In the disbelief phase that had followed the late-night, crying call from my mother, who had delivered the unexpected news, I’d looked forward to getting the game and mindlessly mashing buttons, submerging myself in the screen as I had a few years ago when I’d watched all of The O.C. after my aged childhood dog had died. Mercifully, The O.C.’s only dog, Dustin, disappeared without a woof after the first few episodes, never to return, which left nothing to remind me of my own dog during each 44-minute reprieve from the pangs.

Given that 2010’s trilogy-concluding God of War III had ended with its iconic main character, Kratos, beating his own dad to death, I probably should have known better than to expect to get through the franchise reboot without thinking about anything but triggering the next checkpoint. Despite Kratos’s fraught father-son situation, though, the old games were never known for their emotional depth. In the God of War franchise, death and loss were little more than excuses to mash more buttons, doing damage to every obstacle that stood in the way of whatever predictable reckoning would come in the closing cutscene.

The franchise’s focus on kinetic combat dependably induced flow, a state of mental immersion that the magazine Byte once called the “TV trance.” Flow would make me unfeeling, an appealing alternative to sadness. I wanted to turn off the brain region that masochistically returns to a tender subject, the way one’s tongue keeps compulsively feeling for the unfamiliar gum exposed to its tip when a tooth falls out. But after you lose someone, you start seeing them in places you never expect. Even, apparently, places like an action-adventure game starring a reimagined Kratos, who’s no longer the same Spartan demigod who slashed and slaughtered his way through six previous PlayStation titles.

Kratos, a tattooed, 6-foot-6 killing machine motivated mostly by vengeance, had never before reminded me much of my dad. (For one thing, my dad never would have worn that goatee.) In God of War’s original trilogy, Kratos was a father, but he wasn’t much of a father figure. In fact, he’d killed Calliope, his daughter, along with his wife. (He didn’t intend to, but still.) But by the time the God of War released this month begins, Kratos, whose goatee has grown into a gray-flecked beard, has relocated, remarried, and fathered a son, an impressive fresh start considering that his cursed skin is still coated with the ashes of his murdered former family. Talk about baggage from a previous relationship.

God of War III began with one of the set pieces that the series is famous for: an assault on Olympus, featuring Kratos climbing a Titan and dispatching skeletal soldiers as a combo counter climbs and laudatory text—“BLOODTHIRSTY!”; “VICIOUS!”; “SADISTIC!”—flashes on the side of the screen. In the new God of War game, the player’s comparatively quiet first task is to build a funeral pyre for Kratos’s just-deceased second wife, Faye, who has died, evidently, of non-Kratos causes. The Spartan’s son, Atreus, is down to one parent, and not the one he would have chosen to survive. When Atreus was younger, we learn, Kratos was rarely around.

God of War didn’t make me think of my dad because we’d ever played games together. Given our age gap, there weren’t many interests we shared. He was much older than my friends’ fathers, and when we went out, strangers assumed I was his grandson, which irrationally made me feel further removed from him. I liked the cold, and he liked the sauna. I read sci-fi and Stephen King; he read business books, biographies, and Holocaust histories. “Anything good?” he’d ask when he’d see me buried in a book, and I’d reluctantly turn the cover toward him, feeling frivolous and knowing he’d inwardly wonder why I was wasting my time. I watched shows he hadn’t heard of, and he watched the news and the stock market. I obsessed over baseball, and he paid attention to golf; sometimes we would dutifully follow each other’s sports so we would have something to talk about, or meet in the middle and watch tennis. I majored in English, but he never stopped suggesting that I take an accounting course. I registered for one, went once, and withdrew, just as I’d tried working on Wall Street one summer to placate my parents, then decided never to do that again. My dad told my mom that I didn’t understand money, which was true, and which made me want to make some to show him he was wrong, the way Atreus tries to prove he’s strong enough to survive after Kratos says he’s not prepared for their journey. “I’m not like you,” Atreus tells Kratos in one scene. “I know I was never what you wanted.”

We found common ground where we could: We played Monopoly, listened to Frank Sinatra, watched World War II movies, and made fun of my mom. We had similar senses of humor and a shared distaste for delays, indecision, and excessive small talk. Once a summer, and sometimes twice, we went fishing, which I learned to love. Catching fish was fun, and if a silence stretched too long, there were ways we could cover it: scenery to stare at, naps to take.

Like Kratos and Atreus, my dad and I weren’t together most of the time. I grew up with my mom, and my dad lived on the opposite side of the continent. We would talk every few days, usually just for five minutes; a few times a year, I would visit him, or he me, or we would take a trip to neutral territory. He always made it to major life events, but we were rarely, if ever, in the same place for more than one week at a time, which meant that whenever we were together, we were always transitioning to or from an extended absence, getting reacquainted with the rhythms of each other’s company or bracing for the next separation. As we got older, each trip would be punctuated by a Serious Exchange about what I would or should do with my life, which I dreaded and which always ended with me making noncommittal noises and attempting to explain that I liked what I was already doing. The pressure to cram our conversational quota into limited time made our interactions slightly stilted.

Although the latest God of War’s scope expands to encompass the usual battles between deities for the fate of the world, the new installment starts smaller than usual, with Kratos and Atreus setting out to fulfill Faye’s final wish that her ashes be scattered from the highest peak in the nine Norse realms. It’s the first time that they’ve spent so long together with no maternal buffer between them, and neither knows how to act. Kratos calls Atreus “boy” and avoids physical contact. Atreus calls Kratos “sir” and recklessly runs into danger, trying to demonstrate his bravery but betraying his inexperience instead. Atreus wants to explore and do sidequests, while Kratos insists on sticking to the plan and not helping or talking to anyone. My dad was generous and enjoyed helping people he liked, but he could be brusque in certain settings—not with me, but with waiters or drivers or, most reliably of all, fishing guides, each of whom he would invariably (and often audibly) label a “putz,” a “basket case,” or “clueless” as soon as we settled into a spot where the salmon weren’t biting. At those times, I’d pretend I hadn’t heard or adopt an apologetic “I don’t think you’re a basket case” smile, distancing myself from my dad. Atreus, too, tries to smooth over the ruffled feelings of the eager-to-please people Kratos encounters.

Midway through the game, Atreus and Kratos travel to Alfheim and discover a column of light that they have to harvest to return to Midgard and continue their quest. When Kratos enters the light, time slows, and he has a vision of Atreus talking to Faye before leaving home, his head bent on her burial shroud. “He always leaves. He’s never here,” Kratos hears Atreus say. “I don’t know him and he doesn’t know me.” My own internal monologue had sometimes sounded similar. But Atreus continues: “If he tries, I’ll try,” he says. My dad did try, and I thought of how happy he’d been when I’d tried, too, calling him instead of waiting for him to call me. I also thought of the old voicemail that was still on my phone, from a week last year when I’d been busy and had either missed his call or opted not to pick up. After he died, I’d been happy to find it and learn that I could still hear him whenever I wanted, but the pleasure wore off when I pressed play. “Ben, haven’t spoken to you in ages,” my dad had said. “Just wanted to see how you’re doing … so give me a call when you get a chance.” Why was that the one message still saved? At least I’d called a few days before he died.

As the game goes on, Kratos softens. In one sequence, an angry Atreus questions why Kratos doesn’t sound distraught about losing Faye, and Kratos, equally angry, rebukes him. “You do not know my ways,” he says. And then, remembering what he overheard in Alfheim, he pauses. “Why would you?” he says, to himself as much as Atreus.

Some truths had eluded me also. I’d always assumed that my parents had divorced when I was young. They hadn’t said so, and I hadn’t asked—my family tends to be tight-lipped, and that could have been an uncomfortable conversation—but based on what I’d heard from my friends, I thought divorce was always to blame when living parents weren’t together. I knew this was hard for kids who’d grown used to two parents under one roof, but divorce didn’t bother me. I was healthy and happy, and I’d never known anything else.

When I was about Atreus’s age, in fifth or sixth grade, my friends and I discovered search engines. Each of my friends had his own search site of choice—WebCrawler, Lycos, AltaVista, AskJeeves—but I was loyal to the latest one, Google, which always seemed to come closer to the mark. Google was good. So good that when I Googled my parents, as all kids probably do—won’t that be fun for millennial parents who’ve lived their lives online—I discovered something I didn’t know. My dad was older than my friends’ fathers because they were on their first families, and he was on his second. My parents had never been married, but my dad had been married with kids years before my mom and he had met.

Throughout the first half of God of War, Atreus occasionally coughs or looks weak, and he and Kratos refer a few times to an old illness. After a knock-down, drag-out boss fight with Thor’s sons Magni and Modi, Atreus takes a turn for the worse and finally falls unconscious. To keep Atreus from dying, Kratos has to go somewhere, kill someone, and come back with his heart. For him, that’s the easy part. The hard part comes next: He has to tell Atreus the truth. Kratos hasn’t told Atreus who he is, where he’s been, and what he’s done. Because Kratos is a god, Atreus is also, and his immortal body and mortal self-image have come into conflict. Atreus doesn’t understand what he is, and it’s hurting him. A healer tells Kratos that he has to come clean. “It is not so simple,” Kratos says.

Atreus awakes, alive but listless. While regaining consciousness, he hears Kratos tell the healer that Atreus is cursed, and he misunderstands what he means. Kratos has to tell him. “When I came to these shores, I chose to live as a man,” he says, looking away from Atreus. “But the truth is I was born a god. And so were you.” Atreus takes this in silently, then poses a couple of questions. “Why did you wait so long to tell me?” he asks. Kratos turns to face him. “I had hoped to spare you,” he answers.

As parental revelations go, “Yo, you’re a god” doesn’t seem so bad. Atreus is psyched. “I’m … Can I … turn into an animal?” he asks, adding an awed-sounding “I’m a god.” The knowledge of his nature empowers him; for a time, in fact, he feels his oats a little too much, killing another god just because he can. What Atreus learns makes him feel more in control, more confident—more, well, legitimate. What I learned briefly made me feel less so.

When my mom noticed me moping, she asked what was wrong, and I explained what I’d seen in a torrent of tears—partly true tears, and partly tears I conjured because they made me sound wounded and, I hoped, made my mom feel worse about the Google-guided tour of my family tree. We talked about it briefly. They thought I had known. Hadn’t I heard conversations, seen certain photos in frames? Maybe I had, but whether willfully or naively, I hadn’t realized what those clues were pointing to. When you’re young, you make incorrect connections or fail to make correct ones until they’re right in front of your face, like the time I heard someone say “misled” and had the embarrassingly belated epiphany that the word wasn’t pronounced “my-sulled,” as I’d always strangely said it in my head.

My dad came to town, and we went away for the weekend. He laid out his history and told me to ask whatever I wanted, which wasn’t much. Life returned to normal, and we mostly went back to not talking about potentially sensitive subjects. I reminded myself that nothing had actually changed. The alternative to having been born into an unusual family unit, I told myself, was not having been born at all. I was happy with how I’d done in the gene pool. Many people never know their dads or have bad dads who are always around. I had a dad who loved and supported me, even if it was often from afar, and even if we didn’t do archetypal father-son things like play catch or watch football. Still, it was one thing to think that no one had known my dad any differently than I did. It was another to know that someone else had gotten more of him: met him first, known him longer, had him around the house.

In God of War, the long-delayed revelation helps thaw the freeze between father and son. I don’t think it made much of a difference for me and my dad; in our case, the secret wasn’t making me sick, and the truth didn’t make me better. In one of God of War’s last scenes, Kratos unwraps the cloths that cover the welts that were seared into his forearms when he made his oath to Ares. “I have nothing more to hide,” he says as the cloths float away on the wind and the music swells. I noticed, though, that while Kratos had told Atreus about his godhood, about being a bad dude, and even about killing his father, he hadn’t said anything about his first family. Maybe he’s saving that for the sequel.

Just before the credits roll, as Kratos and Atreus reach the summit that they (and the player) have spent dozens of hours seeking, their Hallmark moment comes. Atreus hands Kratos Faye’s ashes. “No,” Kratos says, looking Atreus full in the face and embracing the shoulder that his hand had hovered over at the beginning of the game. “We do it together …”—wait for it—“… son.” The full-circle scene is neither surprising nor subtle, but I wasn’t in the mood to call it corny or saccharine. My years with my dad weren’t quite Atreus-Kratos complicated, but it was still special for him to say “son.” I’ll miss hearing him say it and feeling the weight of his hand, whether on my shoulder or on my own hand, where when we sat at a table he would press my palm against the surface, lift up each fingertip in turn, and let it fall to the table with a satisfying, physical thwack that couldn’t be questioned.

God of War didn’t give me the numbness I’d wanted, but it turned out I needed the non-numbness more. When my dad died, I didn’t have any actual ashes to scatter or cathartic quests to undertake. I had a controller, and Kratos, and Kratos’s son. I don’t know if video games are good grief counselors, but they’re no longer only lines of code we can use to distract ourselves from feelings. Kratos was good at distracting us a decade ago, but while the warrior was away, he and we and games like God of War grew up.

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