I love Kratos. He’s probably one of my favorite characters in modern gaming. Not because he’s in any way relatable or because I secretly wish I could act like him (except perhaps when attending pop culture conventions), but because I am compelled to keep playing his games just to see what boundary he’ll overstep next. I’m pleased to report that he continues to perform quite nicely throughout God of War 3. Ripping off heads, pulling out eyeballs and pounding Hercules until his face becomes concave, all rendered in minute detail. It’s the eternal love story between a man and the internal organs of various other bigger men.
Kratos stands as a sort of human counter-argument to the notion that every property needs a character that the audience can identify with. I’m reminded of a story I once heard about The Young Ones, the anarchic 80s British comedy about (fairly typically for British comedy) a bunch of quirky, unattractive people being unpleasant to each other. The show remains a cult classic and was instrumental in pushing the new wave of anarchic, alternative comedy in a country that had grown used to toothless suburban sitcoms about middle class housewives burning middle class pot roasts. And when the show was exported to the US, networks over there asked the creators which character in it was supposed to be the “hero” that the audience identified with. To which came the obvious response that none of them were, and that was kind of the point. There are some characters you like, not because you think you’re like them or because you want to be them, but because they’re car-crash fascinating to watch.
The “relatable hero” thing is an idea that a lot of people in mainstream media seem to have gotten hold of, and which seems to infect a lot of games. That an audience needs to be able to project, and so the central figure should therefore be this blank, predictable everyman. The bog-standard “protagonist.” And I find it a little offensive that story writers think I would relate to most of the bland, personality-deficient bubble-people that take this role so often. An entity who isn’t allowed to be interesting in themselves, because (s)he has to have an appropriately relatable expression of slack-jawed disbelief when interesting stuff happens to them.
I concede that such a thing may be necessary in your fish-out-of-water drama or your sci-fi/fantasy epic where the story is more about the world than the characters and the audience needs someone to experience it with. But I want to see more game stories where the plot is driven by the actions of the main character, rooted in conscious decision for complicated personal reasons. Rather than just having them stumble upon adventure, or get sucked up into space on their way home from the chip shop.
Getting back to Kratos. There’s one thing I don’t like about his character, and that’s the fact that he’s inconsistent between God of War 1 and 2. To be brief, he becomes like Batman. Watch with awe as I explain that sentence.
Kratos in God of War 1 is a character that suffers tragedy, rather than being the source of it. He’s also a bit more of a pussy. Not that you’d still want to say that to his face, but on the Girl Scout to Jason Voorhees scale, he’s slightly closer to the mint thin brigade than he is in later games. The guy commits suicide as his very first on-screen action, for god’s sake. He sometimes points his big slab-like brow downwards in remorse for what he has become. There are a few moments when people run away from him, calling him a monster and the direction implies we’re supposed to feel sorry for him. And most importantly, he actually manages to converse and deal with a few individuals without cutting their arms and legs off. Throughout the course of the game, we learn the event that made Kratos so guilt-ridden and determined (not really a spoiler since the third fucking game is out): That he was tricked by Ares into murdering his own family. Ares was counting on Kratos’ not being able to stop for two seconds to look around the room before he started swinging his choppers about.
At the time I wasn’t sure how they were going to get a sequel out of it. The story reached its natural end – Kratos slew Ares, taking vengeance for his family (although, weirdly, he only did it because Athena told him to). Then he became the new God of War. There’s even a monologue at the end that sounds for all the world like a wrap-up (“From that day forth, whenever man acted like a dick to man, Kratos was there to balooby booby bah” etc). And yet, the words “KRATOS WILL RETURN” appeared after the end credits, bold as brass. To do what? Avenge his family some more?
So God of War 2 came out, and here’s what they went with: Kratos is being a dick, so Zeus gives him a time out, so Kratos decides to move in a general direction towards Zeus’ house and murder everything on the way. The whole “seeking redemption” excuse is lost because Kratos already got all the redemption he needed, and any closure or character growth Kratos might have had for seeing his family’s murderer brought to justice (the indirect one, that is) is canceled out by the need to maintain the status quo. So now Kratos is a murdering dick simply because that’s what he is.
This is why he’s like Batman. You see, Batman is not a character anymore. He is an event. A plot device. When he’s around, you know that something is going to get fixed by punching it a lot. Batman set out on his road after his parents were (spoiler alert) shot, but he’s been going at it so long now that it has long since ceased to hold up as an explanation. The simple fact is that Batman will never stop running around on rooftops in his romper suit because that’s all he is. He will never develop as a character because his only purpose is to be a vehicle for seeing various flavors of bad guy get punched.
And that’s what Kratos has become. A parody. A cartoonified version of his former self. His actions are no longer rooted in any actual motivation, but the simple reason that he’s that wacky guy who enacts violence upon everything that slightly deserves it. There’s still a mention of the family thing in GoWs 2 and 3 every now and again but they seem awfully token, like when Batman occasionally flashes back to two well-dressed cadavers in an alleyway to remind himself to stay miserable all the time.
And I object to this because the character ceases to be interesting. As I said in the Arkham Asylum review, Batman is the least interesting part of anything he’s in. You know damn well he’s not going to do anything weird like get tempted to the dark side or fall in love with a goose, he’s so unerringly righteous and predictable he makes me want to spit. And similarly, ever since God of War 2, you know that if Kratos ever leaves a room with anything left alive inside it’s only because he’s coming back later once he’s found something sufficiently big and spiky to shove up its bum.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.