Gaming’s most savage antihero Kratos has no problem stabbing a hulking cyclops in the gut, leaping atop its back, and – without a moment’s hesitation – ripping its lone eye from its socket with his bare hands. Yet, in the closing scene for the new God of War (opens in new tab) shown during Sony’s E3 2016 press conference (opens in new tab), he cannot muster the courage to comfort his own son with an encouraging pat on the back. Kratos is well-versed in the meaning and methods of taking a life, but he is helpless when it comes to consoling a boy who’s distraught over killing an animal, even if it’s for food. Making a connection with his son is the one problem Kratos can’t solve with violence – and that emotional endeavor should do wonders for God of War’s protagonist and plot alike.
This God of War, sans number or subtitle, is shifting gears from Greek to Norse mythology, but it’s still unclear if this game is canonically linked to previous games or rebooting the franchise with a clean slate. If it’s the former, then we already know Kratos comes from a pantheon full of terrible fathers. The titan Cronos tried to eat his own offspring, Zeus, who would eventually banish his father into an eternity of torment. Zeus, in turn, became consumed by fear at the thought of this patricide cycle repeating, and attempted to kill his son Kratos only to be slain by him in the end. The Ghost of Sparta’s tragic origin story is no better, seeing as Kratos unknowingly murdered his wife and daughter in a fit of blind rage. They’re all more than deserving of a ‘World’s Worst Dad’ mug.
But the PS4 God of War is giving Kratos a shot at redemption. We don’t yet know if the mildly scarred child in the trailer is Kratos’ biological son, but it seems unlikely based on Kratos’ apparent unfamiliarity with his mother (based on dialogue exchanges) and the way Kratos refuses to call him by name, opting for dismissive grunts of “boy” instead. Still, they do live together, and the youngster does refer to Kratos as ‘father’; regardless of blood relation, these two are undoubtedly going to be at the heart of God of War’s story.
There’s evidence that there are actual gameplay mechanics to get you invested in the boy’s well-being, on top of the emotional attachment. As Kratos and his son hunt for deer, a ‘Knowledge Gained’ message pops up whenever the boy picks up on how to follow animal prints in the snow, or the proper method for firing a bow. These skills are trivial to a hardened veteran like Kratos, so there’d be no point in tracking them other than creating a record of what you’ve taught your progeny thus far.
Another hint at a world of sentimental possibilities is so minor, you might’ve missed it: when the boy’s arrow first misses the deer and scares the beast away, Kratos loses his temper. As he verbally lashes out at his son for the mistake, we can faintly see his Spartan Rage meter at the top left of the screen steadily rising – the same one that activates a troll-obliterating special attack later in the demo. That Spartan Rage ability would have no purpose in a carefully paced scene like this, but we’re given a clear illustration (and possibly a choice, in the finished game) of Kratos’ anger welling up in that moment, and breathe a little sigh of relief when Kratos pauses at the boy’s dejected look, lowers his voice, and adjusts his tone from ‘seething hatred’ to ‘stern discipline’.
Until now, Kratos had a pretty foolproof formula for overcoming any obstacles: scream at them real loud, bust out the Blades of Chaos, and start slashing until he’s the only one left standing. And frankly, that version of Kratos is pretty played out by now. You can only watch him go berserk so many times before that rage becomes his new baseline, and his brutal displays of power all start to blend together into a red blur. Is pulling on someone’s head until their neck bursts open more awful than punching them until they’re nothing but a bloody pulp? Does it even matter? The God of War games were stuck in a loop of trying to one-up each gruesome execution, to the point that the only thing left to do was mimic Mortal Kombat’s M.O. of fatalities so obscenely homicidal, they become darkly comical.
Kratos’ son is the catalyst that can break the series’ cycle of ever-escalating, ultimately meaningless violence. At long last, Kratos has someone to care about other than himself. The need to protect a child who wouldn’t last a day in this troll-filled world on his own is a purpose far more virtuous and relatable than revenge against Ares, Zeus, or any number of deities. Instead of whiling away his cursed life thinking up new ways to eviscerate his adversaries, Kratos has a chance to shape his son into a man who’s prepared for violence but not ruled by it – the man Kratos never could be. In the new God of War, it looks like your successes are measured in the number of life lessons you can impart, not the tally of intimidating enemies you defeat. It will be the most difficult trial Kratos has ever had to face – and in the end, overcoming this new challenge will mean so much more.