Single-Player Parenting: God of War and Stories of Childhood

In order to throughly examine this work and provide fair criticism, this article contains spoilers.
You have been warned.

I couldn’t read, but that hardly mattered. The story of Pokémon Red Version was not vital to my enjoyment of it, and I could generally memorize the collections of symbols needed to parse my Pokemons’ different moves. But I did need direction. I could infer, surely, which caves I needed to traverse and which Pokemon were weak to which moves, but that only got me so far. At four-years-old, gaming was behind a latched fence. I could see through it, maybe I could even squeeze a hand in, but somebody had to undo the latch. That person was my mother.

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I can recall hours of sitting on the couch with her, as she would read each and every piece of dialogue or text that showed up on screen. For me, she was a narrator and a translator. I needed her to help me understand this game, much like she had done for everything I had learned up to that point, but I’m only now beginning to see just how much her interests had informed mine. My mom has always been a lover of fiction, a quality that she instilled within me as well. From the time that I was in elementary school, she would make it a point to watch the same shows or read the same books as me. Our shared love of The Hunger Games, The Gone book series, and The Walking Dead constituted the bulk of our quality time while I was growing up, and we still frequently touch base on Game of Thrones.

I remembered this relationship again when I began God of War just a couple of nights ago. As a life-long mama’s boy, the threat of losing my own mother makes me feel sick, and fiction tends to produce that fear in me just as effectively. Since Atreus’s mother dies prior to the start of the game, we are left devoid of any established relationship between the two. The way Atreus acts around Kratos, however, gives us a glimpse.

Atreus’s mother was a storyteller. Not only did she provide him with the vast knowledge of the Norse pantheon, but she also explained why and how the gods interacted with mortals. It doesn’t seem as if these lessons were particularly frightening, and Atreus’s fascination with the gods tells us that he wasn’t made to fear them. What was true for me and my mother growing up is true for Atreus and his mother. She instilled within him not only a notion of the fantastic but also an appetite for delving into fantastic worlds. Listen to the way he talks about the Jotnar Shrines that he and his father find throughout the game. He is excited to share these stories with Kratos. Meanwhile, Kratos is adamantly disinterested.

While my mom acted as sort of my oracle for fiction growing up, my father recognized the silliness. As hardworking as he tried to be for the family, mine and my brother’s interest in games, among other things, was not particularly recognized or valued. This general disinterestedness would eventually contribute to my parent’s divorce, which resulted in my mother retaining primary custody, and my love for storytelling remaining unhindered.

My gaming habits continued as I grew up, with either support or permission from my mother and general apathy from my father. By the time I was ready to admit my interest in games was a passion that I wanted to pursue professionally, I told my mother in earnest. Mind you this was probably 4 years ago now, and I still have not told my dad the same thing. Seeing Atreus’s earnestness in God of War be constantly trampled upon is painful in a way. It makes me wish that we had gotten those moments with his mother. I haven’t progressed far into the game, and perhaps more backstory will be given, but I have heard that Faye doesn’t make an appearance in a super meaningful way. This is a missed opportunity to show the effects of these stories in a more meaningful way. Atreus’s ideas are challenged with little development, and while the narrative does a good job at contextualizing his attitude, the lack of any prologue or established relationship is that we have to rely on the worldview of what we know—the worldview of Kratos.

Atreus seems to be clinging to a child-like bliss that we only see as deteriorating. To be clear, that is what his relationship with Kratos is based on, destruction of childlike habits and growing up. And while the game still has a lot to say about the process of growing up, it has as of yet not displayed any willingness to relent on its pessimism. Kratos says that all the gods are out to get you, and that generally seems to be the case. For a game that at least initially seemed interested in confronting the actions of its main character, it doesn’t establish the antithesis to his thesis particularly well. In God of War, violence is the answer and violence is the question.

What I can’t get over every time Kratos puts down Atreus is this child’s lack of a guardian. Every inch that Atreus gives his father makes me notice that process of creative annihilation. I see the love in the relationship, don’t get me wrong. But as I have learned in my own life the expression of that love matters. Kratos’s willingness to stomp out the wonder that Atreus has for the world makes him intensely unlikable. I suppose any improvement over literally murdering your last kid is still technically an improvement, but thus far I can say that I was hoping for more.

Faye seems like a fascinating character in contrast to her husband, and while this new “dadification” of games has been taking place, we’ve seen portrayals of father-figure characters in numerous games that manage to not emotionally, physically, or mentally abuse their children, even in apocalyptic scenarios. God of War doesn’t have to be a good dad simulator. I don’t need a Pokémon on the couch moment. But just don’t make me keep crushing this kid’s dreams.