God of War and Revisionism

God of War (2018) is available on PS4.

I wasn’t sure I was going to like last year’s reboot of God of War.

Sure, it had been getting rave reviews from both the critics’ and the consumer’s sides of the fence, and in hindsight it may seem a little silly to even put that into question considering how it’s absolutely rolled over “Best of 2018” awards lists everywhere from The Game Awards to your local mom-and-pop blogs. But on its face, from a distance, it still wasn’t a done deal – to the point that I only played it because a good friend loaned me his copy (thanks, Jake!).

I’d had serious problems latching onto this franchise in the past – not the least of which being that “protagonist” Kratos feels like he’s about as deep as a puddle between his constantly-burning temper and the backstory that exists seemingly only to justify this one personality trait. In short, he’s a colossal prick, which is definitely different from your garden variety of duty-bound or good-hearted heroes, but that still didn’t make him especially compelling. He felt more like the kind of two-bit vengeful antagonist that the real villain would send after you in the second act, not so much someone empathetic enough to take a starring role.

Luckily, the 2018 “soft reboot” truly feels like a reboot in that its main character is nearly unrecognizable. Kratos definitely the same guy; it shows in some brief direct references to the first trilogy of games and moreso in how he’s still subject to – and often has to actively restrain – those worse impulses. But his characterization has undergone an even harder from-the-ground-up makeover than how the game itself plays.

And that point has been talked and praised to death, for good reason. I don’t believe that the recent God of War would be anywhere near as well-regarded nor widely-recognized if it wasn’t prepared to disassemble its own foundations and leave reams of material on the floor in favor of what makes it really work.

That goes every bit as strongly for its take on Norse mythology itself.

Which was one of my other hang-ups, to be honest. While Greek mythology is obviously full of great concepts and epic stories to draw from – it’s even the first thing that many people will associate with the region, aside from the Olympics and maybe gyros – the Greek gods have never been especially my cup of tea.

Norse mythology, on the other hand, absolutely is. In spite of their supposed wisdom, the gods are every bit as petty, fallible, and prone to bone-headed ideas as any human – something that their power more often aggravates than alleviates. Their schemes are equally as likely to outwit a giant as they are to utterly sink and lead to the pragmatic fallback plan: have yourself a big ol’ brawl. And everybody has more distinct characteristics than just their symbolism, from Odin’s cunning to Loki being the default cause of everyone’s problems to how it permanently codified the image of dwarfs as stout and stalwart blacksmiths. It’s the kind of colorful cast that makes for a great set of tales, even if they to get seriously warped in most retellings.

And the new God of War at times might take some of the most liberal interpretations of Norse myth it can get away with – but it’s doing so in all the right places.

It’s certainly not the first high-visibility bit of storytelling to do so in recent years – Marvel’s take on Thor is so far removed from oral and written tradition that they’re not even worth comparing. But the fact that God of War comes so close in a lot of places makes the divergences it does make that much more distinct and worth considering. Heck, the game even underscores this by using moments of downtime to relay mythological anecdotes that are mostly right in line with the accepted canon, which just invites us to take a closer look at where the writers are making their edits.

I’ll try and remain vague going forward – just enough that those who have played the game should be able to catch on without revealing anything explicit about the story to those who haven’t. Still, if you want to avoid even that, plot discussion will commence on the other side of the image.

The game’s shrines in particular are generally direct recountings – those not involving Tyr, anyway.

One of the more notable changes is with a character who doesn’t even appear in the game properly, but whose presence is still felt throughout. Established a villainous force motivating the problems plaguing this pantheon, one of the most recognizable members of the Norse pantheon effectively a different being entirely in God of War from most of his attestations. He’s shifted notably away from his associations with culture, wisdom, and benevolent leadership – and instead toward paranoia, jealousy, and outright cruelty. He feels less like Odin than he does a continuation of the series’ reading of the Greek gods as egotistical and cruel, but there’s a bit of allowance in there considering an action series’ usual need for an ongoing antagonist of sorts (though I would question the necessity of that).

Similarly, we meet a god around the end of the game’s first act who is explicitly not the same character as portrayed in Nordic legend, but more borrows the same name and role. It’s not directly important to the story of this game, but making this change broadens the horizons of the series going forward in a way that doesn’t distract from what’s currently at hand. It’s an elegant little switch, and hard to begrudge considering how it adds potential longevity and depth to the series, even it may read as a touch arbitrary.

Much more pertinently, the primary antagonist of this game’s story is the subject of extensive re-imagining; even his visual design runs contrary to his by-the-book depiction, where he’s anything but antagonistic. Instead, God of War makes him miserable, tortured by the whims of other gods, and generally a reflection of all of the problems that plagued Kratos’ characterization in previous entries in the series. And, to be fair, not only does it fit naturally into the elements of his story that the game does retain (those passingly familiar with the myths would likely never notice that anything had been changed), but it also sets Kratos up for a direct conflict with an embodiment of his previous self, the rejection of which is one of the two biggest themes running under everything in the story.

Then there’s one of the very final scenes in the game – happening so late within the story that the credits will begin to roll in only seconds later. While observant players may well have figured it out some time earlier, in its very final moments God of War plants its flag in the ground and, in a particularly unambiguous line of dialogue, discards around a third of the lore it’s adopted.

And do you know what? By that point, I was completely on-board with it.

Because the change they’ve made is at odds with the text for the right reasons. It’s a perfect thematic match for the series’ re-invention of Kratos from a hulking anger-being to a plagued, tragic hero earnestly fighting the man-vs-self battle that’s at the heart of so many traditional tragedies. It takes assumptions we already have about well-trodden stories and tells us that, despite the circumstances, they can still turn out better.

Norse mythology in particular is famous for its fatalism, with its eddas and retellings laying out in clear terms the end of the world that has yet to happen. There’s more of a declarative tone in its stories than in those of nearly any other pantheon, and one hardly even questions that this is the way that things will be.

Yet here’s God of War, which uprooted its own very identity as a hyper-violent action-brawler to give us something more nuanced and close to the heart, telling us that everything remains open to question and change. We believe that it can uproot huge swaths of Norse mythology because it’s spent not just the entirety of its story, but the entirety of even the game’s development laying the groundwork to make that claim.

It’s not just making changes where it’s a convenient shorthand, to enhance the spectacle or just for the sake of a shock moment. Everything time God of War takes an editor’s pen to the existing stories, it does so with the intent of serving its own story and structure, deepening its mission statement, and better-making its moral arguments.

It’s so much more thoughtful than I ever expected from God of War.

And, on some level both within and without the text itself, that’s exactly the point.

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