[Having contributed his knowledge of literature and mythology to Sony’s official God of War: Unearthing the Legend documentary, writer Zoran Iovanovici examines - including story spoilers along the way - how the brutality of God of War’s lead character Kratos is humanistic, in its own bloody way.
There is no shortage of video games based on ancient Greek mythology, but few have made quite the impact as the God of War
series. While God of War
is not the only series to look at ancient Greek myth for inspiration, it is the manner in which the source material is handled that has propelled the series’ lead character Kratos to pop culture recognition.
Part of this success is due to how the series incorporates some of the best elements of Greek tragedy and myth but refrains from use them simply as a blue-print for a modern video game.
Many ancient Greek myths employ the age-old theme of mortals who, despite their heroism and accomplishments, are inevitably at the mercy of the gods.
God of War
turns this paradigm on its head by putting Kratos in a position of power to shape events in a constant struggle for freedom and control while presenting the Olympian gods as petty and flawed.
Every major narrative turn and gameplay device in the God of War
series revolves around this idea of empowerment, from Kratos’ overcoming of various trials, his slaying of mythical monsters and beasts, and the overall theme of usurping the gods of their power over humanity.
The Ghost of Sparta
One aspect of Kratos’ character that clearly stands in the forefront is his sheer brutality. Although a minor figure in Greek mythology, the few stories that involve Kratos describe him as the embodiment of power, the son of Pallas (the embodiment with war) and Styx (associated with death). This characterization is fitting considering that the God of War
series centers around the idea of power, rebranding Kratos for a modern audience to deliver a very distinct and deliberate message about human freedom and independence.
More importantly, this characterization acts as a motif that establishes Kratos as a dominating predator in relationship to others around him. The cries of mercy and the screams of panic at Kratos’ presence throughout the game not only give players a glimpse into his past but also subtly reveals that Kratos possesses exemplary power capable of performing the unimaginable.
One Athenian soldier goes so far as to lock himself in a cage in fear of Kratos, preferring imprisonment to death claiming: “I know who you are Spartan! I know what you've done. I'd rather die than be saved by you. The Ghost of Sparta! Stay away from me!”
There Will Be Blood
Perception is one thing, but backing it up is another and God of War
certainly doesn’t fall short in this department. Here the gameplay shines by emphasizing power through sheer brutality. Not only does Kratos plow through countless enemy soldiers and classical monsters/creatures of Greek mythology, but he does so in a decidedly indulgent and violent fashion. The creativity and originality of many of these fatal flourishes are a major factor in drawing players to the game and countless YouTube videos
have sprung up displaying the macabre artistry with which Kratos dispatches his foes.
Even more impressive is Kratos’ ability to defeat some of the most iconic and horrifying monsters in Greek mythology with relative ease. Where God of War
differs in its reception of these classical figures is through simple multiplication. While Greek myth tells of a single Minotaur and only a trio of Gorgons, the game depicts them as entire species. The same can be said for the Harpies, Sirens, Satyrs, and Centaurs that all make similar appearances in packs, often overwhelming unskilled players.
When Kratos first encounters a new monster, he typically faces off against a single opponent, allowing the player to learn how to overcome the creature in terms of strategy. As the game progresses, it’s not uncommon to see Kratos fighting against a trio of gorgons as a Minotaur rampages among them and a flock of Harpies threaten from the sky above.
While their numbers may seem overwhelming at times, skilled players can turn the tables in rather gruesome ways by performing flashy instant-kills that showcase Kratos’ ability to overcome adversity through sheer strength and battle prowess. It all leads to one thing: a cycle of overwhelming odds in which Kratos brutally slaughters everything in sight, far beyond what any mortal would be capable of. It’s an incredibly satisfying gameplay feature that provides an unrivaled sense of empowerment for players.
From Servitude is Born the Desire for Freedom
Looking beyond the mythical creatures that Kratos must face in his journeys, his chief rivalry in the first installment is with Ares, the ancient Greek god of war. However, even this is just a small part of a much bigger picture, one that highlights how humans are at the mercy of the gods. Here we must consider the theme of empowerment once again: if one’s power is limited and dictated by the whims of petty gods, then how much power does one mortal truly have? That is a question that Kratos continually struggles to come to grips with and it eventually leads him to forsake the very gods themselves.
Through flashbacks and vignettes the series reveals that Kratos’ own wife and daughter were lost as a result of his zealous patronage to Ares and it was Ares’ warlike ways that led him to wander across numerous battlefields amidst the chaos of ravaged Mediterranean cities. Throughout the course of the first game Kratos slowly realizes that all his pain and anguish is a result of his servitude and patronage to the gods and that the impact of the gods on human affairs often leads to devastating results.
We see this disdain for servitude very early on in the first game when Kratos approaches a statue of Athena and pleads: “Ten years Athena! I have faithfully served the gods for ten years. When will you relieve me of these nightmares?” His plea, however, is met with little remorse or compassion. The gods, unwavering and demanding in their ways continue to impose their will on Kratos as Athena commands Kratos to rescue her patron city of Athens from a siege by Ares.
This helps illustrate the characterization of the Olympians in the series where Kratos is at the whim of the gods, caught up in the petty conflicts that the gods wage against each other. The bitter struggle between Athena and Ares highlights a classical Greek trope of gods arguing amongst themselves and settling rivalries with humans swept up in the chaos.
In God of War
, we see the involvement of the gods often bringing lives to ruin. Sometimes the gods seek to help humans and other times they interfere for their own selfish interest or whims. Kratos is but one of those mortals and instead of seeking to be a hero of the gods, he decides to defy them, to potentially upend Zeus and the Olympians in order to prevent their personal conflicts from continually spilling into human affairs. Starting with Ares in the first God of War
before moving on to Zeus in the sequel and eventually eliminating Poseidon, Hades, Helios, Hermes, and Hera like a row of dominoes in the third installment.
Control = True Power
Perhaps the cruelest irony that Kratos must endure in the series is being ‘rewarded’ with a seat on Mount Olympus as the new god of war for ending Ares’ reign of chaos. It not only puts him in a position where he must endure the countless war and battle that he has been looking to break away from, but it sees him sitting amongst the gods in the very hierarchy he has come to find so distasteful.
This newfound perspective sees Kratos becoming more embittered than ever as he begins to initiate plans to usurp Zeus of his dominion over humans. Here God of War
makes use of a commonplace theme in classical Greek myth and drama – that of patricide. In Greek myth, patricide (whether literal or metaphorical) was more than the visceral murder of one’s father; it represented breaking free of the old tradition and establishing a new order.
As such, Kratos’ intended usurping of Zeus is not a simple revenge tale against the very god he discovers is his true father. Instead, control of one’s own destiny and control of one’s own fate is the true power that Kratos seeks for all of humanity. By killing Zeus, he can end the gods’ petty rule over humanity, effectively putting the reigns of history directly into the hands of humanity.
Shaking the Pillars of Olympus
Not being able to challenge Zeus directly, Kratos sets out to gain power by undermining the very foundation that the ideals of Olympus are built upon. The game readily establishes how Kratos defies the classical Greek hero tradition of seeking glory in the name of (or with the aid of) the gods.
Classical Greek myth and drama is full heroes who build and dedicate shrines to deities and are rewarded with legendary god-like status amongst mortals. It is only fitting that Kratos would face off against the Olympian heroes Perseus, Theseus, and Jason throughout his journey as these heroes owe most of their success to the aid and favor of the Olympian gods.
The manner in which these Greek heroes are presented in the God of War
series is suggests the flaws of past heroes who relied on the gods to achieve glory. During their battles with Kratos they constantly invoke the aid of the gods to little avail and, upon defeat, each of the heroes cowardly pleads for mercy. It suggests, above all else, that their time has passed and that a new hero has risen to take their place: a hero of the people, not of the gods. This is doubly evidenced by Kratos’ victory over Hercules who still clings to the old order, hoping to one day rule as an Olympian himself. Defeating these vanguards of the old tradition is effectively an act that tears down the pillars of Olympus.
Who Needs Fate and Destiny?
Kratos’ most significant play for power involves him going after the Sisters of Fate and removing any chance of the uncontrollable notion of destiny from acting as a deciding factor in the outcome of his impending battle against Zeus and the remaining Olympians. As the Sisters of Fate hold dominion over both humanity and the gods, there is a slight feeling of futility wherein Kratos fights and endures hardships but has no real control over the outcome.
Going after the Sisters of Fate is not then just a way to obtain his own thread of fate and ensure he can kill Zeus, but also a way to put humanity in ultimate control of its destiny. With the sisters out of the way, humanity gains true freedom to build the world as they see fit without the trappings of fate. It’s also a way for him to liberate humanity from the random and chaotic control that the fates impose on human history.
With the fates out of the way at the end of the God of War II
, the stage becomes set for Kratos’ eventual annihilation of every remaining Olympian in God of War III
. It’s no surprise that the final installment plays out in a violently indulgent slaughterfest where Kratos’ earlier struggles come to fruition as he not only kills the remaining Olympians, but exposes their greatest flaws of jealously, cowardice, arrogance, selfishness, and avarice. In many ways it justifies the wave of violence that Kratos rode throughout the series for the sake of freeing humanity from the flawed Olympians who hold their own interest above all else, often with complete disregard for humanity.
Whether the end justifies the means by which Kratos accomplishes his goals is eventually up to the player, but the God of War
series certainly makes a strong humanistic
case for the unfortunate necessity of bloodshed in fighting tyranny for the sake of freedom.