Arguably, there is not a single video game franchise out there that represents “toxic masculinity” more than Sony’s God of War, now that the former stronghold, first-person shooters, has completely sold out and put lesbians with pink hair and a prosthetic hand into a game that is set during World War II. The old God of War games even had mini-games where your avatar, Kratos, bangs two women at the same time. Of course, for propriety’s sake, the camera angle was changed, so you didn’t see any sexual intercourse on screen. Instead, your skillful input led to a crescendo of intertwined moans and shaking furniture.
I’ve played the original God of War and its sequel on PlayStation 2. I thought that the first game was a very competent hack ‘n’ slash game, while the sequel was, at that point, arguably one of the best action games of all time. Those games were bloody and violent. They glorified destruction and vengeance to a degree where it almost felt alienating to play them. God of War III on PlayStation 3 was too much, in my opinion. The display of violence was oftentimes genuinely off-putting, such as when Kratos indulges in cutting Mercury’s legs off. There is also a gross scene where you push the eyeballs of your opponent into his skull to blind him, shown from the perspective of the victim. I was quite taken aback by significant parts of that game, largely also due to the much-increased graphic fidelity the PlayStation 3 offered. I think the series creator, Cory Barlog, left Sony afterwards and joined Crystal Dynamics to work on the reboot of Tomb Raider. Presumably, he burnt out of making God of War games.
There was a prequel to God of War with the title God of War: Ascension, which proved that the graphics weren’t even the main selling point of that game. It was by far the best-looking game of the series, but it didn’t play very well. I couldn’t even bring myself to finish it. The God of War series dropped off the radar afterwards, but quite recently it reemerged on the PlayStation 4, this time again with Cory Barlog at the helm. It leaves the world of Greek mythology behind, presumably because Kratos has killed every single Greek God or mythological creature in past games. Instead, it is set in the world of Norse mythology. Overall, Norse mythology isn’t nearly as rich as Greek mythology, but there’s probably enough material for two or three games as well. From now on, there will be unmarked spoilers, so if you haven’t played God of War on PlayStation 4 yet, you may want to bookmark this post for later. Anyway, Kratos is now killing Norse gods; the game even ends on a cliffhanger, hinting at a future conflict with Thor.
In previous God of War games, women were quite certainly objectified. Yet, the main character, Kratos, was also little more than an object, a force of destruction, for women involved in the story, such as Athena, or Gaia, so it presumably all evens out in the end. In the latest God of War game, Kratos is likewise sent out into the world because of a woman, namely his dead wife. The game opens with Kratos chopping down two trees for the pyre on which he is going to burn the corpse of his deceased wife. It was her last wish to have her ashes scattered from the highest mountain in the country. So far so good. However, what I found most interesting is that Kratos chopping down those few trees sets the story in motion because, as we later learn, they were part of some protective magical stave that kept out monsters. Early on in the game, your little sidekick, your son Atreus, points out that monsters have never been so close to the settlement. Later, when you get an overview of part of the map, you see that a protective magical barrier has gaps where those trees used to stand. Interestingly, the story does not give a good justification as to why Kratos’ wife wanted those trees to be used for her pyre. From all you can tell, those were simply strong trees, which she may well only have picked for aesthetic reasons. After all, you’ve got to look good, even if your dead body is placed on top of a pyre. The connection to the Genesis story of Eve taking the apple is obvious. In both cases, the shortsightedness of a woman ruined peace and quiet for the men involved.
There is a second dimension to her request, with a twist later in the story. As Kratos and Atreus make their way up the mountain, they face extremely dangerous monsters, and the occasional Norse gods who want to kill them as well. Yet, it is a journey they wouldn’t have embarked on themselves. Instead, they do it in order to respect the wish of Kratos’s deceased wife. At one point, one of the two protagonists even remarks that “her request is more complicated than she could have foreseen.” If I recall correctly, the context is that, standing on the tallest mountain, they learn that there is an even taller mountain. There is a twist to that as well because — spoiler alert — Kratos’s late wife has foreseen this! Thus, she carelessly risked the life of her husband as well as her only child. To the observant player, this surely gives the impression of being an incredibly selfish request. Of course, this could be salvaged by claiming that the trial she sent Kratos and Atreus on is necessary for the development of the latter. The counter-argument to that is that Atreus is sick and, as Kratos himself repeatedly says, “not ready.” Well, God of War (2018) would be a much different game if you’d have the option to keep living a peaceful life, in the spirit of Harvest Moon, I mean, Story of Seasons.
There is another strong woman in the story, Freya, who is depicted in a rather negative light. There is even some foreshadowing in the story. The central conflict of the game is between Baldur and Kratos. Baldur is invincible. However, the spell that makes him invincible can be broken with mistletoe, and Freya takes arrows made of that material away from Atreus without providing any justification. I picked up on that but since standards in video game writing are so incredibly low, I didn’t assign any meaning to it. Later on, the game reveals that Baldur is Freya’s son. Freya pretended to help Kratos, but she was aware that Atreus’s weapon could kill her son, so she intervened and removed a weapon that could kill him.
The relationship between Freya and Baldur also gets quite some screentime. The game hints at Freya mistreating Baldur. Baldur consequently leaves her mother behind and doesn’t speak to her for over one hundred years. Only fate brings them together again when their paths cross due to the fight with Kratos. As the game later reveals, Baldur didn’t seek out Kratos but his wife who he assumed to give birth to Loki, who was prophesied to kill him. Baldur isn’t aware that Loki is alive — it’s Atreus! You could also point out that Baldur went is own way and only due to the prophecy of a woman sought a conflict that would eventually kill him. This is, by the way, a motif known in Greek mythology: protagonists who want to change fate don’t escape it. They may only fulfill it differently.
The backstory of Freya is that she left her husband Odin and afterwards raised Baldur, very poorly, on her own. Baldur turned out highly mentally unstable, and he also ended up hating his mother. The game is explicit about this as you get exposed to Baldur being tormented about a vision of him and Freya from the past. Maybe it’s just me, but this seemed like a very clear societal criticism on single mothers. Even if you have no interest in playing this game, do look up the first encounter between Baldur and Kratos online. I think the acting of Baldur is spectacular. It beats anything I’ve seen in movies in years. The tone is similar to The Joker in The Dark Knight, but it is, in my opinion, even better. Baldur sounds indeed highly unstable.
Frey is not only depicted as untrustworthy. She’s also shown to be at least a little bit crazy. This comes out the last dramatic scene of the game, which entails what you rarely, if ever, see in mainstream media: a depiction of the female double bind. Here’s what’s going down: Baldur strangles Freya, wanting to kill her. At that point, Freya is an incredibly unlikeable character, and I would have very much liked if the game had given me the choice of just letting Baldur finish what he started. Instead, Kratos interferes, which is of course colossally stupid because he afterwards has to deal with both Freya and Baldur. Things would have been a lot cleaner if Baldur got to kill Freya, followed by you slitting Baldur’s throat from the back, but such common sense actions wouldn’t lead to as much drama, presumably.
So, Kratos interferes and saves Freya’s life. Then he kills Baldur. Yet, once Baldur is dead, Freya wants to kill Kratos because he killed her son, i.e. she wants to kill the man who killed her son who wanted to kill her. Freya uncontrollably spits out a hate-filled monologue that reminded me of what used to come out of the mouth of my bipolar ex-wife. Yes, I think that Freya is depicted as being bipolar. A clear indication of this is her begging for forgiveness after the fact, pleading with Baldur to win him back. She messed up Baldur’s life, but she promises to make things right if he only forgave her. That’s the quintessential strategy of the bipolar woman.
Below is a screenshot of a scene that left me agape. Baldur says to Freya, “You still need to pay for the lifetime that you stole from me”. Now, think about when you last saw a mother, let alone a single mother, being depicted negatively in mainstream media! Yet, here we have one of the biggest video games of the year showing a single mother who is responsible for raising a genuine monster, and the player even gets to sympathize with him because the game points out that Freya fucked him up. You can of course shame Baldur for not having been strong enough, but the game does not resort to such SJW-like virtue-signaling. Instead, Freya has been an incredibly shitty mom.
Soon afterwards, Baldur clutches Freya’s chest and is about to kill her. As written above, sadly this doesn’t play out. Yet, when was the last time you saw violence against women, in this case clearly justified violence based on vengeance, a lifetime that she stole from her son? We really don’t see this much on screen. In the 1960’s, James Bond slapped women on screen if they were too bitchy. Since that, it’s basically been half a century of women on screen who could act with impunity. Yet, in 2018 Sony jolts mainstream media out of this soyboy narrative and presents a genuinely evil woman who (almost) got to pay the price for her past actions.
I can’t recall the last time I have seen women depicted in such a negative light as in God of War. Instead of being portrayed as little angels that do no wrong, the player gets exposed to selfish, crazy, irresponsible women. Of course, this has nothing at all to do with the angels and paragons of rationality we encounter in the women we come across in real life. Excuse my sarcasm. I couldn’t help it. Oh, and if you are wondering if the latest God of War is as grotesquely violent as the previous games, I have to say that it is. It’s closer to God of War II than God of War III, thankfully. Amusingly, at one point Kratos tells Atreus that killing is only justified in self-defense, and never something to indulge in. Yet, moments later you get to tear monsters in half. If you only want to enjoy some violent entertainment for a few hours, interspersed with the atrociously bad puzzles this series in infamous for, God of War (2018) has you covered, but you can also view it as sober commentary on women and gender relations. Overall, it’s pretty great.
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