December 14th, 2010
Many times during God of War III I felt that the game was trying to make commentary on Kratos’ role, not as an anti-hero but as an actual villain and eventual redeemer. Although it’s obviously intended that Kratos looks and acts like a complete bad ass, God of War III occasionally oversteps this mark, portraying him as a cold-blooded killer. The game’s villains (various gods), through their dialogue, all explicitly state that Kratos has stepped even outside of his own bounds and become consumed by his own revenge.
The God of War series is about the spectacle, not about the politics so this commentary puzzles me. The objective lens is turned on far too frequently in God of War III to be considered unintentional, yet come the end of the game, the conclusion regarding this critique is unclear, giving me the impression that the objectification is perhaps misplaced or under-realised. I’m left thinking that Sony Santa Monica tried to be serious about its protagonist in the same way it tried to create a meaningful ending, and as we know from the last post, the ending was a complete train wreck.
In any case there is a thread to follow on how Kratos is portrayed as a villainous murderer consumed by his own revenge. Let’s follow this thread and see how it establishes Kratos’ role throughout the game.
“The measure of a man is what he does with power”
The above quote kicks off God of War III, giving the player something to ponder and ponder I did. If “The measure of a man is what he does with power” and Kratos’ power can be interpreted as his sheer strength then clearly his slaughter of those around him defines him as a villain, if nothing else. Maybe this quote at the start of the game is a little preempt given that we haven’t seen what Kratos does with his power yet or maybe its trying to set a precedence.
A Bloodied Hero
The technology of the PS3 allows Kratos’ body to become stained with blood as he tears through his enemies. This touch of realism quite literally paints Kratos as a more brutal character. Furthermore, aside from the blood washing away in water, the player can’t respond to the blood and neither Kratos in the cutscenes. Therefore, through the player’s inaction Kratos accepts such barbarism as normality.
Watch this video from 2:50
I would argue that the point of view in the cinematic here (the first battle in the game) has a stronger impact than any of the other prior God of War cutscenes entirely. The series has always been brutal, but Kratos’ meeting with Poseidon, as viewed in first person through the eyes of the victim, indiscriminately frames Kratos as a bully, murderous, bordering on cruel and barbaric.
Change in Tone
If you watch through to the end of the above video, you’ll notice another change in Kratos’ character: his tone of voice. God of War III‘s story is re-aligned to suit mood of the original God of War instead of its boisterous sequel and, as such, Kratos speaks softly at times, presenting him as a more rational character. The narrative also returns to the topic of Kratos’ origins and the death of his family. These sequences which attempt to rationalise Kratos’ quest for revenge seemingly falter with the high contrast of Kratos’ personality when beating the gods into submission. For example, the fact that Kratos doesn’t just kill Poseidon in one go, that he tosses him around and lets him scramble while walking slowly up to Poseidon ignoring his pain and pleading all put forward the impression that Kratos wants to cook him slowly. It’s hard then to see his brutality as justified simply because of his prior circumstances.
The confrontations with the other gods are similarly cruel. In the battle against Hermes for instance, Kratos chops off one of his legs and then, in the player’s control, Kratos can only walk slowly towards Hermes as he backs away with one leg in agony.
But then that seems to be the point of God of War III, to paint Kratos as a man which has pushed himself past all reason, consumed by his revenge. As the narrative continues it only pushes us further towards this idea.
Zeus plants this supposition early on when he states (first video above):
“Athena is dead because of the rage that consumes you Kratos. What more will you destroy?”
Every other god in the game invariably echoes the same sentiments. This affirms the interpretation that God of War III is portraying Kratos as a man consumed by his own revenge.
Saving the World
In this cutscene too, we see Kratos’ clear ignorance of everything around him bar his revenge for Zeus:
Athena: “As we speak, the war of Olympus rages on and mankind suffers”
Kratos: “Let them suffer, the death of Zeus is all that matters.”
On the other hand, Athena also convinces Kratos that “as long as Zeus reigns, there is no hope for mankind”.
This cutscene sends mixed messages to the player. It says that Kratos doesn’t care for mankind and is letting it suffer, yet is perhaps, at the same time, letting it suffer now knowing within himself that he will enact his revenge and, as a consequence, there will be “hope” for mankind. This “hope” that Athena speaks of is vague but becomes important later.
It’s hard to tell what Kratos is thinking as most cutscenes are opaque when they delve into Kratos’ thoughts beyond Zeus. Here is an excellent example of how Kratos avoids any form of expression:
When Hera confronts Kratos and questions him on the problems he is causing, Kratos doesn’t make a single utterance, making it difficult to construe his thoughts. We have to therefore understand him through his actions and at this stage he appears to be disinterested in anything aside from his revenge plot.
Killing the World, Saving it, or Neither
As Kratos destroys the gods, each death affects the earth in some way. This can be seen in gameplay.
- Poseidon – Water levels rise
- Hades – Hell’s souls are released
- Helios – Sun is gone and storm rage the earth
- Hermes – Plague is unleashed on the world
- Hera – All plant life dies
Kratos Kills All Allies
Kratos kills bothe of his major allies throughout the game: the titan Gaia and Hephaestus. Gaia is killed because she abandons Kratos, leaving him to again confront Hades in the underworld and then demands that he stops intervening in a matter for the titans. Gaia herself wishes to kill Zeus on behalf of the titans and because Kratos is only interested in taking the honours, Gaia is removed. Of course, she is brought back to life, climbs Mount Olympus and is killed again. Hephaestus is killed in self-defence.
What we can gather from these 2 characters is that if they aren’t willing to aid Kratos, then Kratos will forcibly remove them for good. Continuing the theme of “barbaric man consumed by revenge”.
Gaia is also a reflection of Kratos’ dogmatism in being the first and only person to kill Zeus. The death of Zeus is not suffice, Kratos must do it personally. Hephaestus shows a Kratos’ lack of remorse towards such a pitiable character.
Pandora’s Box and Retconning
Athena reveals to Kratos that Zeus can only be destroyed by acquiring the power to kill a god found in Pandora’s box. Of course, Kratos already used this power in God of War to defeat the final boss Ares, but supposedly there’s more pixie dust inside; he just has to open the box again and find it. And so starts a convoluted story retcon which requires the player to be hit over the head with exposition (ala more talky cutscenes) just to get the general point across.
In short: after the great war, Zeus commissioned the blacksmith Hephaestus to create a box to store the evils of the world (hate, greed and fear)–and Athena slipped in hope without Zeus knowing (secret plot twist!). When Kratos opened the box in God of War, he unleashed the fear which ultimately created the conflict between Kratos and Zeus.
Fortunately, the core family of titans, gods and other characters are all mixed into the retcon. For most, the fear in Zeus has wrecked there lives and left them pissed off with Kratos (Chronos, Hephaestus, all the bosses) for opening the box. Kratos is pretty unremorseful to these people, which helps create situations of conflict to further exacerbate Kratos role as chief bad dude. (I know that I’d be annoyed if someone pulled this trick on me and then everyone else hated on me for it).
While the story as it leads into the second half of the game becomes continually more tangled in this nonsense, at least the retconning brings Pandora into the equation and henceforth we can continue to follow this thread.
Pandora is the last key part of Kratos’ good/bad guy characterisation before we see whether or not this villain can be redeemed or, alas, save himself from his own rage. Pandora’s role is as an overworked metaphor for Kratos’ daughter. Naturally, Kratos has some affection for the freckly-faced teen, but it takes a while for it to sink into Kratos’ head (and even then we don’t know if he really cares). This is surprising given her unabashedly direct saturday morning cartoon dialogue. See lines like:
“Hope is what makes us strong. It is why we are here. It is what we fight with when all else is lost.”
I think that Kratos ultimately does care for her as he refuses to sacrifice her to the flame as seen in this sequence:
One could also infer that Kratos treats Pandora well because of some possible remorse for Hephaestus or just for the purpose of defeating Zeus, but it’s clear that his refusal to sacrifice Pandora contradicts the latter.
Zeus: “Don’t confuse this object, this construction of Hephaestus with your own flesh and blood.”
Kratos: “This has nothing to do with her”
Zeus: “It has everything to do with her”
First (and only) Sign of Change
The very first time Kratos responds to the assertions made about him throughout the game (and the ideas we’ve been following up until now) is right at the end. Athena demands that Kratos hand over what was in Pandora’s box, but as Kratos states, the box was empty. It seems that Athena is after the “hope” that was either in the box or somehow passed over to Kratos through Pandora (it’s never made clear). Kratos must know that he has this “hope” because his hands and eyes are the colour of Pandora’s spirit, blue. Again, maybe he doesn’t; the game is vague.
In this final scene, Kratos looks over the world from Mount Olympus and possibly takes the moment to consider the consequences of his all-consuming vengeance. Then, in his last act he says to Athena that Pandora died “because of my need for vengeance” and then states that he will put an end to his vengeance and kills himself. Kratos could not die prior to the existence of the gods (as we find out at the very end of the original game), so now he seizes the opportunity.
Kratos’ epiphany is short lived before he takes the easy way out and sacrifices his life. So has he really learned anything? On the other hand, despite finding the hope in his own near-death subconscious and everything Pandora has said to Kratos, he still kills Zeus. The world is destroyed, Athena was shafted, the gods are dead and there’s blue sparkles all over the place. The player, who by this stage has been side-lined to a viewer, doesn’t know:
- if the world is saved (by Kratos apparenty unleashing his “hope” on the world) or doomed
- how exactly Kratos came back to life
- why he killed Zeus after seemingly being endowed with “hope”
- if Kratos’ suicide is a brave or weak act
- has Kratos found his peace
- what does Kratos’ suicide and the blue sparkles of “hope” mean
- whether he was planning on killing himself to begin with
- does the blood trail at the end equate to more franchise milking?
In the end, has Kratos learnt anything? Was there really any rational point in the destruction of the planet just because Kratos was angry? The ending is vague on answers, probably because it lost so much direction by basing the plot around a retcon and then introducing a major new character for the second half of the tale.
Kratos’ exit from the game without any explicit response to the commentary the game shares ultimately renders the commentary itself as ineffective or Kratos as having learnt nothing. There is no closure on the story. All we know is that Kratos was obviously driven by hate and because of it the world is in ruin. Nothing was learnt or gained. What an unfulfilling story.
Pinpointing the problems with God of War III‘s narrative has been a lesson in frustration and some of that frustration has affected the writing. If you got more from this article than God of War III‘s narrative, then consider my mission complete.