For the last thirteen years, the world has seen Kratos as a flat character. He’s been the butt of a million jokes aimed at his rage, brutality and inability to speak with an inside voice. Few saw him generate dynamic emotions in response to everything around him, instead opting to rip his enemies to shreds and fill the world of Greek mythology with more blood than it could hold. He’s rarely been seen as a well-developed character outside of those who looked closely and followed his character arc over the course of six games, but even then, there was surprisingly little development during the sheer volume of story told.
The problem has never been Kratos’ motivation. Before becoming the Ghost of Sparta, Kratos met the love of his life Lysandra and they had a daughter Calliope. Calliope was afflicted with a plague and Kratos risked his life acquiring an elixir to save her. Sometime later, the God of War Ares tricked him into murdering his own wife and child in a blind rage, resulting in a village oracle binding the ashes of his slain loved ones to his skin. Kratos consequently suffered from unrelenting nightmares of this fateful moment. Even after killing those he felt were responsible, including Ares himself, the nightmares would not abate. Kratos became the next God of War, but with all the tragedy in his life still fueling him, he became a stagnant character, obsessed with bloodlust.
The Pantheon of Greek gods came to regret their decision, as Kratos began initiating constant warfare, so Zeus sapped Kratos of his godly powers and killed him with the Blade of Olympus. From this point on, Kratos became one-dimensional and single-minded: he wanted to kill Zeus and any god, creature, human or otherwise that got in his way. He slaughtered the fates, ripped off Helios’ head to use as a lantern and eventually reached his goal – he murdered Zeus, his own father. There was depth to Kratos, and some genuinely well-plotted motivation in parts of the overall narrative, but the perception of Kratos being this angry brute wasn’t entirely uncalled for. There was sorrow and suffering inside of Kratos, but this was all overshadowed by his Spartan rage.
Warning: spoilers for the new God of War follow
Flashforward an indeterminate number of years and travel from Greece to Scandanavia, and Kratos is still the same character, but with a much more dynamic range of emotions. In the new God of War, Kratos begins his journey by cremating his second wife Faye with the assistance their son Atreus. Which feelings he allows to come to the surface are minor and highly muted at first, but they show far more depth to his character than ever before. He gets angry at his son for being reckless when hunting, yet he holds back his rage, clearly deciding internally that this isn’t the best way for him to teach his son the lessons that must be taught. He struggles to show affection, restraining himself from placing a comforting hand on Atreus’ shoulder, but with the camera hovering close by, the player sees his desire to do so.
The entire game is a real-time exercise in growing as a parent. Kratos remains the gruff man he’s always been, but instead of showing explosive rage to the outside world, his actions are far more deliberate. He can still rip the jaw off a werewolf like it’s a zipper, but he chooses when to do so. There are a couple of specific moments in the narrative when Atreus is in danger that Kratos dramatically enters his Spartan rage mode, showing that he’s willing to be that same monster he used to be in order to save the thing that’s most important to him. He’s just not screaming to the heavens 24/7 anymore, constantly professing his hatred for the gods. He’s got his kid with him, after all.
It isn’t his newfound control that makes Kratos more interesting than ever before – it’s his open tenderness. He spends the entirety of God of War teaching Atreus lessons, hoping to make him a better and more compassionate god than he could ever hope to be. He’s terrified to tell Atreus the truth about his godhood, knowing how much pain it’s brought him in his life. It’s his greatest secret, but once it becomes clear that Kratos must tell Atreus about this dark part of his life in order for Atreus to survive, he makes the hard choice and comes clean. Atreus initially doesn’t take this news in a healthy manner, growing self-obsessed and power-hungry in just a couple of hours, but with some tough parenting (and a rough trip through Hel) Kratos manages to break through to his son, showing him that being a god is much more than just being powerful.
The strongest moments of emotional resonance come at the end of the game’s campaign, where the father and son square off against Baldur and his mother Freya. Freya was trying to protect her son, too, when she took away his ability to feel pain – something almost any parent would do for their child if they had the choice. This is, of course, foolish, as his inability to feel pain extends to his ability to feel anything, and he ultimately wants to kill his own mother for this – and Freya being a mother would die if that is what it would take for him to get better. Atreus doesn’t understand either person in this dynamic, but Kratos has some surprisingly profound insights on the matter. He plainly declares that he would sacrifice his own life to save Atreus, and in that moment, it becomes clear that Kratos has grown far beyond what any fan could have expected from him after the first six games.
There are a lot of gamers who have never played a God of War game or only dabbled in a couple before playing though this new entry. Their perception of Kratos was likely to be what has already been described: that of a one-dimensional, rage-filled brute. That wasn’t far off from the truth, but in just one game, that’s not the Kratos the world sees anymore. He’s compassionate, calculating and capable of substantial growth. Most importantly, he’s a god filled with love for his son – something that’s entirely antithetical to what had transpired previously in the series.
The internet has taken to this new Kratos warmly, poking fun at his idiosyncratic behavior, like his constant referral to Atreus simply as “boy” – which, let’s be honest, never stops being satisfying even after he says it 24,000 times. People have been calling this “Dad of War,” and that’s not entirely off-base. Kratos being a dad is his new defining quality, not his rage or violence. What this grows into in subsequent games is uncertain (but if you want our thoughts on what the next God of War will look like, look no further), but with an impending scene that will likely see Kratos die in Atreus’ hands, these themes of fatherhood, growing into a god and more will likely become even more impactful in the future.
Kratos has always been interesting, but now he’s a round, dynamic character. SIE Santa Monica Studio has managed to change Kratos’ public image for the better and that’s a resounding win for the series.