And another thing: Oh, Kratos, what have you become?

God Of War

When did Kratos become such an unlikable douche?

The other week my other half had to work over the weekend. Sad for her, I know, but good for me because it gave me two days to catch up on some games that I haven’t had time to play yet. One such title is God Of War III, which I started and never finished, as I didn’t get to do the review for it. (In light of some of the responses the review did get, it’s probably just as well). Still, on the day my better half went to work, I found myself reluctant to boot up God Of War III and this was because I didn’t fancy the idea of voluntarily spending any time in the company of its main character, Kratos.

The fact that I found Kratos to be such awful company in God Of War III surprised me a little bit. After all, I was and am a huge fan of God Of War I & II and while Kratos wasn’t exactly a fluffy bunny in either of those two games he didn’t repel me as much as he does in God Of War III. The fact is, that the Kratos in God Of War III is one of the most unlikable protagonists I’ve ever encountered in a video game. It’s not that he’s a violent, vile psychopath – Lord knows I’ve enjoyed tons of games which have anti-heroes who are just as brutal and unhinged as Kratos. No, it’s the fact that in God Of War III, Kratos comes across for the most part as dull and one-dimensional – and a petulant hypocrite into the bargain. Far from resembling the tragic anti-hero of earlier games, Kratos is a boring, petty thug.

It’s a little difficult for me to pinpoint exactly when during the game, the writers succeeded in morphing Kratos into such an unlikable douchebag, but I think the first hint of this came at the end of the battle with Poseidon. Kratos finishes off the sea god by beating him to within an inch of his life, gouging his eyes out and then snapping his neck. What makes the scene so ugly and nasty is that Kratos’s sustained attack on Poseidon is viewed from a the first-person-perspective of the victim. The whole thing feels like a juvenile shock tactic. I’m sure someone in a developer studio somewhere will make the argument that it lends the proceedings a certain visceral appeal. However, I’d argue that it does God Of War III a slight disservice, because it goes a long way towards eliminating any sympathy one has for the main protagonist. To wit, it’s hard to get behind someone who is capable of such a brutal and merciless attack on a defeated and defenceless enemy. Poseidon, by the way, is only the first in quite a long line of individuals who die horribly at the hands of Kratos, after lengthy, protracted beatings.

Now before anyone thinks I’m backing the anti-violence/anti-gaming lobby here, let’s clear a few things up. I realise that the God Of War series of games are incredibly violent. I also realise that as technology has allowed for more detailed and precise visuals, the series was inevitably going to get more graphic. But all of this blood-letting would be easy to stomach – as it was in the earlier GOW games – if there was some point to it beyond hammering home Kratos’s bad-ass credentials. It’s almost as though the developers think that more they portray Kratos as a amoral psychotic, the more the audience will like him. I can’t speak for anyone else, but as far as I’m concerned, all it does it highlight how one-note the character has become.

For a moment, let’s leave all of the grisliest scenes of violence to one side and focus on Kratos. The Ghost Of Sparta is on a quest for revenge against the gods for betraying him. In a way he’s like the Lee Marvin character in Point Blank. Single-minded to the point of almost being robotic, Kratos wants revenge and he doesn’t care what it costs anyone else. Like Lee Marvin’s character, Kratos also expresses himself in a series of grunts and bellows, although Marvin didn’t have the irritating affectation of turning every single line of dialogue into a macho pronouncement like Terrence Carson (Kratos) does.

The thirst for revenge is an understandable urge. It’s something anyone can identify with (unless you’ve lived an incredibly charmed existence and never experienced it). But righting a wrong is one thing; tearing down everything and everyone in your surroundings is quite another. It’s difficult to have empathy for a protagonist’s cause if it become’s apparent that he or she believes said cause is justification to lash out at not only those who have wronged them, but at anyone in their path. And as God Of War III progresses it become harder and harder to have any sympathy for Kratos, because his single-minded urge exposes him as a dull, pugnacious thug. Aside from ripping heads, legs and other appendages of some of the gods he comes across, Kratos actually kills a character who was trying to help him – Peirithous, who offered him a weapon in exchange for some help – and at one point, he kills a woman by jamming her into a set of gears to keep a door open.

Over the course of the game, Kratos cuts a bloody swathe across creation, reducing the world around him to a plague-ridden hell-hole with every god his slaughters. And his reason? The gods betrayed him. Well, in case he’d forgotten, the reason they did this was because he bloody deserved it ; after he replaced Ares as the Olympian war god at the end of the first game, Kratos decided the best way forward was to lay waste to the entire world.

It’s almost as though, really, revenge isn’t his real motivation; Kratos always wanted to simply drown the world in blood and he just needed a convenient excuse. If that’s the case, then I see no evidence of it in his exchanges with the other characters. From the way the gods and titans behave towards him, it’s clear the developers want us to side with Kratos, which is damn near impossible for the reasons I’ve just mentioned.

There’s a rather telling exchange just beyond the half-way point in the game which beautifully highlights Kratos’s flaws, when Hera berates the God Of War for the hell he’s unleashed. Hera is a drunken, spiteful, nasty shrew but in this cut scene, she makes more objective sense than Kratos does. She puts his entire quest into perspective and then slinks off for more booze and it’s not even clear from Kratos’s face that anything she’s said to him even registers.

No, the only time he stops and listens to her is when she hurls a defiant slur on Pandora’s name at him at the 3:10 mark to get a rise out of him. The fact she actually succeeds in this only highlights what a bone-headed clutch-plate he is. (You pratically hear frat boys across the land yelling, “oh no she di’nt!”)

Oh Kratos, you used to be so much more fun…

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