God of War and Grief
Grief is a monster you cannot kill. You have to find a way to live with it.
I avoided God of War for a long time because I wasn’t ready to play a character that was so casual about death. I replayed the original God of War, then II, and III back in January in anticipation of the new game and despite the spectacle of II and III, I came away feeling really dirty. I felt like an accomplice to a rage-fueled murderer, who, even though he got fucked over, really took things a bit too far and destroyed the world.
The first three God of War games were about rage, unmitigated anger, and violence. It almost felt like the over-the-top violence was the point because in the effort to have a consistent yearly franchise, Sony milked Kratos and his story so there weren’t very many directions in which it could realistically go. III especially with its spring toward Mount Olympus was excessive in its brutality.
I’m not someone who cringes at violence. I was raised around violence, I’ve committed violent acts, and confrontation isn’t something that is new to me. Maybe that’s why I didn’t find anything compelling about ripping someone’s head off or going into first-person mode in God of War III to beat someone until their face was no longer recognizable. It all felt like it was just gore to be gory, a video game for the people that grew up watching Saw and Hostel. In other words, it just wasn’t my jam.
So I didn’t pick up the new God of War when it came out because of the reaction I had with III. I wasn’t going to play that same style of game again, one that reveled in fury and anger, just with a snowy background this time. I was dealing with enough anger and rage in my own life. I’d been watching my mom slowly be eaten away by cancer for the last two years. She’d originally gotten her first diagnosis back in 2013. She underwent radiation therapy and was declared cancer-free in 2014. Then it came back with a vengeance in 2016. There were numerous surgeries, different types of treatments and hours and hours in hospital waiting rooms. I couldn’t find comfort in most things that would have brought me comfort when life got hard. I had to put my dog down in February because of cancer. I had her since she was eight weeks old. She helped me get through the early stages of my mother’s cancer treatments and then cancer took her too. Fuck Cancer.
They told my mom she was cancer-free in March of this year. Two weeks later they found a tumor in her jaw. They couldn’t radiate it. Her only option was surgery. That surgery would remove her lower jaw and reconstruct it with bone from her leg. She’d be in the hospital for about a month and afterwards she’d have to try to live life that way, compromised. That’s the thing with cancer. It compromises you.
My mom lived with those compromises and dealt with them like a champion. After her first radiation treatment she lost her ability to taste anything. She couldn’t swallow so they put a tube in her stomach and she had to be fed that way. We had a really rough time finding food that didn’t make her sick or cause other problems. Can you imagine? All these normal things we have in our lives that are part of what we do everyday can be taken away. Something as simple as not being able to taste something can upend everything.
She was always tired. After she beat cancer the first time, she was able to take out her stomach tube, but her ability to taste things never came back. She still struggled to eat but when she could eat it was something to be celebrated. She would still come over for Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, and everything in between. She’d still eat with us even though she couldn’t enjoy it. She insisted we continue on doing what we would do normally because she didn’t want to make things harder on us. When my mom’s cancer came back, they operated on her throat for seven hours and afterwards she had to eat food through a stomach tube again because she couldn’t swallow anymore.
Through all the compromises in her life, my mom never missed any holidays, any birthdays, or any special events. She showed up. My mom was a fucking beast and she fought as hard as she could through pain and compromises that most of us will never have to deal with. She showed us that strength wasn’t about rage or fury or anger. It was about getting up every single day and just trying to do your best.
My mom died on June 2, 2018. We had her funeral on June 10. In a lot of ways, I haven’t dealt with her loss. It’s always on my mind but I haven’t DEALT with the loss. Death isn’t something that’s new to me either. I’ve been down this road many, many times, but I’ve never had a death hurt as much as this one. The initial shock is over. The big feelings of emptiness and loneliness have given way to much smaller moments where I find I’m not whole anymore. But not because there’s a huge piece missing, there definitely is, but instead because there are thousands of tiny little holes inside of me now. Like her death was a shotgun blast and thousands of little pellets have done damage that I can’t even comprehend. I find myself wishing more and more for those little holes to be filled and to heal but knowing that they never will.
There’s a lot of things you miss when someone you love dies. I find myself missing her voice. Or the way she sounded when she laughed. When she’d REALLY laugh, it was pretty contagious. I miss the joy I’d see in her eyes when she spent time with my son. And I miss just talking to her. Even if it was about something that didn’t really matter like how my day was. Those little things that I don’t have anymore have led to a level of grief that I can’t comprehend most of the time. So I just try and deal. I keep moving forward.
As I said above, the last time I played a game with Kratos was God of War III–an incredibly violent and bleak gore fest that, while graphically impressive, felt empty. It felt empty because the rage the first game was built on seemed to fade to cynicism and spectacle. Horrible mutilation and excess gore seemed to be the order of the day. And that’s not a shot at or a slight against the creators either. The God of War series was made at a time that’s very different than the one we’re in now. I feel like the world has changed more dramatically in the last 10 years than it has in the previous 20. I loved the violence in the first God of War. Now I doubt I’d ever play it again, or replay God of War II or III.
After my mom died, I was in a fog. I missed out on a ton of podcasts here at SmashPad. I was struggling to keep up with work, and struggling to figure out what to do with my mom’s stuff. My basement basically became her apartment. Even now we have a bunch of her things here that we don’t really know what to do with. At this point I dove into escapism and tried to find things that wouldn’t make me feel like shit. My mom was one of the reasons I got into games. She and my grandparents got me my original NES with R.O.B. the robot. My mom used to take me to the arcades once a month. I loved it. She’d give me a bunch of quarters and I’d spend hours there while she’d sit and read. Turns out part of the reason she did it is because it was cheap. We didn’t really have a lot when I was growing up but I could go to Cyberstation with two bucks and do pretty well. Later she told me it was incredibly cheap to take me to the arcades rather than come up with some other form of entertainment. She’d take me to Toys R Us every once in a while, even though we were broke, so I could buy an NES game. This was back when Toys R Us had paper tickets for their games and you had to grab the ticket and take it to a cage up front to get the games. My mom encouraged my gaming even though I don’t think she liked it that much. One year when we were so broke I don’t think she knew how she’d pay the rent, she asked me what I wanted for Christmas anyway. I told her I wanted Chrono Trigger. I showed her an ad for it from Toys R Us and she balked at the price. It was $79.99. That’s like 4 holjillion in today’s dollars. We couldn’t afford that. But it’s all I wanted for Christmas. I didn’t know how she pulled it off but Christmas morning came and Chrono Trigger was under the tree. Turns out she sold some stuff just to get me that game because she knew it would make me happy. I STILL have that copy of Chrono Trigger. If my house was on fire right now, I’d grab my wife, my kid, the dogs, and Chrono Trigger on the way out.
Gaming was always a great comfort to me but I just couldn’t find anything I wanted to play. Everything felt violent or hollow or unengaging. I needed something I could escape into because things fucking sucked, which brings me back to God of War. God of War was NOT the game I expected I’d want to play but a friend suggested it, and a lot of things I’d read about it amounted to “This isn’t the God of War you’re used to.” Everything I read basically amounted to “THIS ISN’T YER DADDY’S GOD OF WAR!” That turned me off, honestly. But then I was told that this incarnation was different and I might actually find some catharsis playing it because of the themes present in the story.
So I bought it. I don’t remember when I bought it because most of this year is a blur. But I did. And I didn’t play it for a few months after I bought it. I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t play anything. I wasn’t enjoying a fucking thing and I had to break out of that rut. I finally sat down with God of War in September I think it was, and I sat down with it because I needed to do, something that wasn’t about tying up loose ends or dealing with whatever issue was coming up at work. So I dove in, and the opening 45 minutes of the game hit me like a truck. I actually put the controller down for about 20 minutes after I finished the opening. I was overwhelmed.
The game opens up with Kratos standing next to a tree with a golden hand print on its trunk. He leans down, touches the tree, and closes his eyes. You can see that he’s in pain. He gets up and the game tells you to swing the Leviathan Axe and cut down the tree. With each swing Kratos seems to be filled more and more with grief. He cries out with each swing, and with the final swing lets out a scream, not in rage but in pain, and the tree falls. Kratos’ son comes out with some flowers in his hand and says, “I found some.” Kratos picks up the tree with both hands and tosses it over his shoulder. He, or you, rather, walk down a path to a stream and a boat. You drop the tree and tie it to your boat. You and your child make small talk as you row to another shore downstream. Kratos’ son, Atreus, says “The forest feels different.” Kratos replies, “Everything is different now.” You exit the boat, grab the tree, and make your way up a hill in the snow. A few moments later you reach an area with a house and Kratos sets the tree down. The camera moves from Kratos and follows Atreus as he opens the front door a bit and lingers there for a moment. The camera focuses on a body wrapped in cloth with flowers on top. Atreus grabs a candle from the table and walks to the body, lights the candles around it, and says a prayer. He has tears in his eyes and spreads the flowers he found earlier over the body. The camera then shifts to Kratos, who is standing in the doorway. He walks to the body, leans down and whispers, “Find your way home… you are free.”
Kratos picks up the body and takes it outside and lays it on a pyre built from the tree you cut down earlier. He leans down and sparks a fire with his axe.
Holy shit. That’s Kratos’ wife. That’s Atreus’ mother. This guy lost his wife, again. Holy shit. What did I just sign up for?
Later on, there’s a scene back at the house where Kratos is scolding Atreus over losing his temper. Their argument is cut short as they hear a rumbling above them and they hear a voice outside their door. Kratos hides Atreus beneath their floor and goes outside. There is a small man with tattoos all over his chest demanding Kratos give him what he’s looking for. Kratos says he doesn’t have whatever the stranger is looking for and to leave his home. The stranger doesn’t leave, and instead hits Kratos in the face. This was the point I expected the game to devolve into RAGE RAGE RAGE KILL KILL KILL but it didn’t. To my surprise, Kratos doesn’t react. Instead he repeats himself. “Leave my home.” The stranger goes berserk and hits Kratos again and again and again until finally Kratos grabs the man’s fist, and says, “I warned you,” and hits him back. I was completely taken aback by this because the Kratos that I knew from the other games would have killed this guy just for knocking on his door. Instead the Kratos that’s here now doesn’t want to fight. He doesn’t want to be violent. He just wants to mourn his wife.
Kratos mutters, “I warned you but you didn’t listen,” and tries to end the fight there. Instead the stranger hits Kratos so hard he gets knocked over the roof of his house. From there it’s obvious the stranger is a boss, so you do what you do in video games and you fight the boss. Unlike previous God of War games, you’re not having this fight because Kratos is blood thirsty, but rather because this man is a danger to Atreus and their safety.
I keep going back to that. Kratos didn’t want to fight. The old Kratos was a vengeful motherfucker who would kill anyone who got in his way. This Kratos was a person who was weighed down by his choices in his previous life, and wasn’t interested in taking the path he’d taken before. He also has a son, after losing his daughter in the first God of War trilogy and his rage seems to be replaced with restraint.
Holy shit. What did I just sign up for?
From the start of the game we see a grief-stricken Kratos, and a child he has no idea how to relate to BECAUSE of his grief. I wasn’t expecting how personal all of this would feel to me, and how much of it reflected what I have been feeling since I lost my mom. I watched as Atreus and Kratos, both grieving, try to find a way to fill the void that Faye left in both of their lives. Kratos has an immense amount of trouble relating to his son specifically because of the horrors that Kratos committed in his previous life. Instead of celebrating those acts, they become shackles around his neck–shame that weighs him down. He doesn’t want his son to know the darkness that’s inside him. Kratos doesn’t want his son to follow the same path that has filled his life with regret. He doesn’t want Atreus to make the same mistakes he made. He wants Atreus to be better than his father. That’s something I relate to immensely.
I don’t have any issues with relating to my son, thankfully. We are on the same wavelength most of the time. We’re the complete opposite of Kratos and his son. I actually played most of God of War with my son next to me. He’d help with the puzzles, and I’d take out whatever enemies were in our way so we could move forward. Just like Kratos and Atreus do in the game. It was an interesting dynamic to see play out both in game and real life. I have found that over the years I’ve been hard on my son in similar ways to the way that Kratos is with Atreus. I’m stern but not as distant. I don’t want my son to walk the path that I did. He’s very much the best parts of me and my wife with very little of the bad. If I can accomplish anything it would be to help set him on a path that begins with him standing on our shoulders, so he can reach higher than we ever could. He’s struggled with the loss of his grandmother, and so has my wife. We all miss her tremendously and we miss our dog, Georgia, too. She’d been with my son since he was four years old and was his guardian. Grief has overwhelmed our family this year and we’re just doing what we can to move forward, but it’s hard. Really fucking hard. Grief has been the villain of my life this year.
The thing about grief is that it’s insidious. It slips into the cracks that form when you experience loss and it erodes you from the inside. It makes something that was strong turn into something weak. It breaks you down totally all at once and then leaves the foundation of who you are cracked and crumbling.
The quest you go on in God of War isn’t for some magical McGuffin that will bring back Kratos’ wife and mother of his child. Instead you go on a journey to fulfill her last wish and spread her ashes atop a mountain. In the midst of that journey there’s a lesson about learning how to move forward knowing you can’t bring the past with you. That’s an especially prescient point because Kratos is still the God of War, but one that wants to put his past as far behind him as he can. And in the mix of this journey and his grief we learn that you can’t run from who you are. You can’t run from the things, the actions, and people who have shaped you. That in the horrible darkness of loss there is light. The people around you, the people you love, can be the light. If grief and loss are pitch black waters, your family and those who love you are the life jacket that will keep you from going under.
The premise of spreading his wife’s ashes leads Kratos on a journey that takes him back to what shaped him but also leads him down a path to be who he NEEDS to be for his son. Something I’m very familiar with. When you have a kid, the world becomes so much bigger and so much smaller at the same time. You can see the worst of yourself and the best of yourself in the little one in front of you. Kids are sponges, they soak everything up. If you act wrong, your kid will imitate you. If you do the right thing, your kid will try do the right thing. And when you see that it, it can paralyze you. It makes you question your actions. It makes you question yourself and your motivations. It makes you wonder if you’re just a giant fuck up that’s going to royally fuck up this beautiful thing you brought into the world. Having a kid is like having a part of your heart that is running around outside of your body, 24 hours a day. Atreus is very much his mother’s son, but also has his father’s rage. Kratos sees this and tries to guide his son away from the same things that poisoned him. Experiencing that in a game while I’m also dealing with that in real life was a surreal and incredibly personal experience.
I’m hard on my son. I want so much for him to be a good person. He’s already a GREAT person, and it’s my job to prepare him for a world that isn’t going to give a fuck about his feelings, his wants, or his desires. And I have to balance that with not wanting to squash the innocence he has.
One of the best parts of being a parent is that having a child gives you fresh eyes with which to see the world. You see more good out in the world than you did before, but, conversely, you see a lot more of the bad. You see a world that you cannot protect your child from. You see your own helplessness because you can’t always protect them. Kratos experiences this first hand when a Norse god shows up to try and take his son and again when his son is kidnapped later in the game. This is how my mother must have felt when I didn’t come home on time because I was out late and wanted to rebel. Only now do I understand how afraid she must have been and it makes me feel like a complete asshole.
That’s the part of this game that I keep coming back to. I’ve never had a game make me feel the way I do in my normal life. All the struggles I’m dealing with now I saw reflected in this game. I’m struggling with grief, how I’m raising my son, and with my place in the world around me. I know EXACTLY who I am but I don’t know if that’s compatible with the world I’m living in. That’s something Kratos deals with in God of War. He’s a relic of an age and a time that’s moved on.
In God of War, Kratos is given many of the vulnerabilities, failings, and limitations that we all have. He’s still a god, but even a god cannot stop death. Even a god cannot protect his child from the world. But in that same world, the one Kratos wants no part of, his son sees the good the world has to offer. He believes in trusting people and trying to help. Seeing how Atreus sees the world cracks Kratos’ stone exterior, and does it in a way that was impossible to do previously. In the original God of War trilogy Kratos was driven by rage and not by love. Love is what makes the journey possible to spread his wife’s ashes. Love is what makes Kratos struggle with his past and later overcome it. He changes because of who’s watching him. Love is what builds the bonds between him and his son. Love makes him dive into Hel to get his son back when he’s taken from him later in the game. Love, in the end, is what conquers fear. Love conquers the fear of his son’s judgement. Love conquers the fear that Kratos can’t be anything but who he was before Atreus and Faye. Love is what makes Kratos continue to move forward. Love is what makes the whole game work and what drives it forward, even in loss. Love gives strength when all you have to give is weakness.
I went into God of War expecting to play a murderous rage monster and instead I found a story of a father trying to deal with the loss of his wife and trying to figure out how to regain his humanity and love his son. I found a story of hope and of love. Despite Kratos’ wounds, he does what he has to. He keeps moving forward. Just like I have to. Just like we have to. Just like we are.