If there was ever a video game character that needed to go into therapy, it's God of War star Kratos. Even David Jaffe, one of his creators, has said that the guy should calm down.
But can you really blame him? He lost his entire family before the original God of War even started. And no matter how many things he killed since then, bad stuff kept happening to him in turn. That's always been a big part of what's made the PlayStation series so oddly compelling: it story makes it seem like an overwhelming tragedy, but its famously gory combat won over countless players with an incredible power fantasy.
Marianne Krawczyk, the lead writer for the original God of War trilogy, touched on this recently in a recent interview with fellow game writer Richard Dansky. Maybe it's just the God of War fan in me talking, but I found their back-and-forth fascinating. Dansky suggested that her games are unique because they put the protagonist in the starring role in a dispiriting Greek tragedy—one "that is explicitly about the hero's ultimate failure." So what makes the game so much fun? Besides their insane over-the-top combat, I mean.
"You bring up a point that might be the bane of all game writers, and that is how do you raise the stakes for the character (often done through failure), while still offering victory conditions to the player," Krawczyk responded. "Kratos never fails in his mission," she continued. "A few times he has failed when we need him to end up somewhere – like in [God Of War 3], where he can't hang on to a branch and falls into the underworld – but usually he is steadfast in his goals, and he uses any means necessary to stay on task."
Blockbuster games often feel like they're required to give players an inflated sense of achievement. And the God of War series delivers that sensation better than most other games. But Kratos himself never seems to end up any better for it. I remember just feeling...bad for the guy by the time he got around to punching his dad in the face repeatedly at the end of God of War 3.
Krawczyk suggested that the God of War developers might've been able to get away with such a dark message because the games are set in a mythical version of Ancient Greece, "where tragedies were invented." Plus, anything Kratos actually said often ended up being drowned out by all the blood and viscera involved in what he's actually doing at any given moment. But then she gets at what makes Kratos such a great character, and an intriguing protagonist for a game like this.
"Kratos' entire story just felt organic to the desires and flaws of his character," she said. "There was simply no other way to go with him. I think it would have felt false to try to make Kratos classically heroic or talk about the triumph of the human spirit with his story. Kratos has always had this resonance where he is telling us his story rather than us trying to foist goodness and light (or anything else) on him. And you know, he's a big guy with crazy-ass weapons. When he speaks, we try to listen."
When he speaks, we try to listen. That's what I've always loved about God of War. There's an emotional force to Kratos that transcends any of the game's narrative or genre-specific trappings. Playing as the guy is an enthralling experience. You might not always like what he has to say, but you'll always remember what he said.
So yes: God of War makes Kratos out to be a failure in some sense. Someone playing as him might even feel like they're "failing" in turn. But his sheer presence as a character is strong enough that it overpowers anything bad that comes from that.