Monday, September 25, 2023

It’s hard to play a character who’s a dick, but it’s worth it

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Video games are nothing without their main characters. Commander Shepherd Mass Effect trilogy; Aloy in Horizon Zero Dawn– we would never encourage them if they weren’t, well, at least somewhat sympathetic. Unlike movies or television, video games are a place where fans can play the protagonist – they help save the world, their friends, and themselves. It’s not essential that players agree with every move their character makes. (Let’s face it, Lara Croft made some really bad decisions in these Grave robber reboots.) But it’s usually essential that they have some sort of emotional connection to the character. It’s true that video game heroes often fit into a narrow set of molds, but in general, their cookie-cutter personalities are at least not squeaky. Or offensive. In other words, no one wants to be an asshole.

But what happens when video game heroes break that mold? You launch a whole new game, fall into a world you don’t know, and realize that you are the anti-hero, someone you don’t like and would never want to be.

For many it was the experience of playing God of the war. A number of people recommended God of the war to me, but I never checked the original titles. So I entered the 2018 game, the eighth in the series, without knowing anything about Kratos’ history or who he was before. It was envisioned as a fresh start for the franchise – a continuation of the 2010s God of War III, but with a new setting and revitalized story, making it the perfect entry point for a great franchise. I went blind.

It turns out that Kratos is kind of a dick. All the push of God of the war is that he and his son, Atreus, mourn the death of Kratos ‘wife, Atreus’ mother, and set out on a journey to scatter his ashes. It’s a simple and thoughtful story, but complicated by the fact that Kratos hides his status as a god from his son and lives incognito in the land of Norse mythology. (See? Some kind of tool.)

It’s clear from the start that Kratos’ wife was the nanny, and Kratos himself was the brooding, restrained, and emotionally distant father, because when the game begins he is downright cruel to Atreus. It was honestly difficult to live with as a parent. Here is a child who mourns his mother and turns to his father for comfort, and Kratos berates him over and over again. It took me weeks to get through the early hours of the game, because despite the fantastic story, gorgeous scenery, and thoughtful gameplay, I didn’t feel any investment in who I was playing. It’s fantastic when the studios change the type of character you play. Creativity is good, doing something different is good. This should definitely be encouraged – playing a character by numbers over and over in the same genre of game can get boring. But when it is so different than you expected, to the point that you’re not even sure you want to continue playing this character, what do you do?

Honestly, usually I would just accept that this game wasn’t for me, put the controller down and get on with my life. But something made me stay with God of the war. First of all, I really enjoyed playing as a parent. It’s not something that happens often in video games, and seeing a father-son relationship, even one that I didn’t entirely approve of, was personally rewarding. Second, Kratos might initially be a tough pill to swallow, but he’s also voiced by Christopher Judge, who gives the character a much needed humanity. Finally, a friend who encouraged me to pick up the game in the first place assured me that the dynamic between Kratos and Atreus would change.

Turns out my friend was right. Within hours of starting the game, I could already see a great metamorphosis in Kratos as he came to respect his son’s abilities. (Atreus is really practice in combat.) And as the story unfolds, it becomes Kratos’ meditation on how to raise his son to be a good person – what information to pass on, how to best protect him and how to turn him into a good person. It’s quite thoughtful and beautiful, and it’s something I would have missed if I hadn’t stuck with it God of the war.


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