Content warning: this post will touch on themes of trauma in general, alcoholism, abusive parents, loss, and grief.
Spoiler warning: everything after the first paragraph is going to have spoilers for God of War: Ragnarok’s main plot thread and conclusion, including major twists along the way and the conclusions to character arcs.
After getting through my initial reaction to the end of God of War: Ragnarok (sort of, since the post-credits portion of the game also has a lot of stuff to do and some of it’s own plot points that I’ve yet to reach the end of), I’ve decided to take a small victory lap. In the end, the game really was about the relationships between people. Between parents and children, parents and other parents, survivors, overburdened children, and even siblings. There’s a little bit here for everyone. Additionally, since the overarching plot was relatively simple and not exactly subtle, it left tons of space to explore character growth, what it means to heal, how to be better, and how generational cycles of trauma, abuse, and neglect can be fought not just by a single person deciding to end said cycles, but by an entire family attempting to heal together. If that feels like a lot to fit into one game, then you’re absolutely correct but they went ahead and did it anyway. Not only that, they did an amazing job of it and I have nothing but effusive praise for the overall writing of the game. Some bits here or there didn’t land super well (one of the characters talking to himself felt a little “you might be wondering how I got into this mess” style cliché, but it was only groan-worthy at its worst, never truly bad).
I can’t write about it all without turning this into an entire week’s worth of blog posts that I’d have to do a bunch of research on (to get screenshots, quotes, etc, which I might still do someday, when I’m hankering for a big project), so I’m just going to focus on the highlights. The things that stood out to me and why. Which, surprising probably no one who closely follows my blog, are the two families we see in the game attempting to heal from generational trauma. The first family is, of course, the protagonists, Kratos and Atreus.
Kratos was clearly abused as a child, even if he probably wouldn’t call it that, but he makes it clear that he sees his childhood as something horrible that no one else should endure, even if it was the basis on which he built the rest of his life. Which, you know, involved an incredible amount of additional trauma, suffering, and on-going rage issues (I found it very interesting that the first alternate “rage” ability you earn in this game is one that lets you do a burst heal and remove status conditions on yourself, which was something I liked so much thematically that I used it for the rest of the game), so it’s not like it set him up for success. Atreus, Kratos’ son, lost his mother at the start of the previous game and was left with his emotionally unavailable, distant, and (at best) very curt father. By the second game, Kratos has opened up somewhat, telling Atreus a bit about his past, about the world Kratos left behind, but keeping most of the details to himself. He is afraid to spill any of his trauma and the awful truths of his life onto his son, who seems destined to make a huge pile of mistakes despite Kratos’ stern fatherly advice.
After this burgeoning conflict blossoms into the open, Atreus rebels to do what he thinks he must to protect his father while Kratos tries to restrict Atreus even further because that’s what he thinks he must do to protect his son. Atreus flees while Kratos denies a part of Atreus’ identity the teen is trying to explore, ending the conflict as the two of them are separated. Eventually, though, they’re reunited in a moment of stress and conflict as Atreus returns to find his friends and family dealing with the consequences of his actions. In the hours that follow this moment, Atreus learns that his father will always be there for him no matter what and Kratos learns that he needs to trust his son’s intuition more than he already does. Kratos shows that he has learned to allow his son the freedom to make his own mistakes and learn his own lessons since what matters most is that Atreus will come to him for help when he needs it.
It was an incredibly touching moment, the two of them taking a moment to sit and talk to each other after doing what they could to address a mistake Atreus had made. Kratos was open about his feelings, Atreus showed that he was learning the lessons that Kratos had been trying to teach him all this time, and the two of them promised to not only be more open, but to be better. To listen to each other even when they’re not around. Atreus would listen to his father’s voice of caution and strength while Kratos would listen to his son’s voice of empathy and care. It marks a turning point in the game, as the two take the necessary steps to repair their relationship, and the things they said to each other in that moment are echoed throughout the rest of the game, even as Kratos tries to to help the other family dealing with generational trauma that got a lot less screen time.
In the first game of the this iteration of the God of War series, you killed two gods named Magni and Modi. Sons of Thor and Sif. Thor shows up early in Ragnarok to extract his blood payment from Kratos (marking each debt paid not by blood drawn from Kratos but by wounds on Thor’s person that lingered even through his final appearance), and then his presence largely fades away. He shows up a couple more times throughout the game, where it becomes clear to the player that he’s trying to address his drinking problem, since it seems that he was the one who beat one of his sons nearly to death in the first game. It also becomes clear that, despite being one of the most famous and legendarily accomplished gods, his father doesn’t care about him at all. Every time Odin speaks to Thor, he is yelling at him. While he only seriously strikes Thor once in the game that I recall, the way he moves around his much larger son feels to me like he definitely used to beat him regularly.
During these times, one of the characters you meet as Atreus (who has left his allies behind to go to Asgard in an effort to save his father by learning enough from Odin to prevent Ragnarok from claiming Kratos) is the daughter of Thor and Sif, Thrud. Thrud is a young woman who seems to flipflop between open hostility to one of the people who helped kill her brothers and uncle and open desperation for a friend outside her family. This conflict makes a certain amount of sense, given the amount of casual conflict that seems to course through her daily life and the way that everyone seems to hide the root of it from her. Eventually, Sif reveals everything to Thrud, telling her how bad Odin is, but not before Thor has fallen off the wagon again and caused a scene with his drunkenness (which felt a little inevitable given that Odin kept saying that he liked Thor more when he was drunk and that, despite always doing what Odin says perfectly, Thor is immediately dismissed and insulted by his father).
At the end of the game, after watching Thor, Sif, Thrud, and Odin react to each other in small ways, we’re finally given a chance to reach out to Thor. After all, we’ve already allied with Thrud and Sif, thanks to Sif intervening when it looked liked Atreus would need to fight Thrud. Turns out Sif was as ready to topple Odin as Kratos and Atreus were, but had hoped that Thor would be the one to stand up to the Asgardian patriarch. When Kratos fights Thor, just two angry fathers duking it out as Thor yells about Atreus ruining everything and Kratos tries to communicate that their children are friends, it eventually ends with Thor defeated but spared. Kratos does not kill him, instead telling him that the two of them, a pair of gods bathed in the blood of their past crimes and legendary rages, must be better for the sake of their children.
It was a really touching moment, second only to the moment of bonding and healing between Kratos and Atreus, that hit me deeply. After all, I’ve been dealing with some issues with my own parents, so it was a more than a little heart-wrenching to see a pair of dads not only aware that they needed to change, but doing their best to change for the better despite their past failed attempts. I found myself wishing my own parents put forth even ten percent the effort and earnestness that these two video game characters showed in this moment. A moment that lasted only a couple minutes because, when Thor finally stood up to Odin, Odin simply disposed of him and then began trying to shift the blame onto Kratos and Atreus.
As the game ends, you find in Thrud and Sif (part of a contingent of Asgardian refuges now that Asgard has been destroyed) a mirror of Kratos and Atreus. The two of them have been talking through the conflicts between them, now that Sif has been open about why she opposed Thrud becoming a Valkyrie (she didn’t want another child serving as a pawn to her father-in-law) and Thrud has learned about the dynamics at play that she hadn’t fully understood before (but had noticed, of course, because no child in that home could have grown up without noticing them in some way or another). It was a nice moment to see, on a smaller scale, the same growth that had occurred between Atreus and Kratos.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game make the claim that generational trauma is best faced not just by the most recent generation trying to put an end to it, but an entire family working together to be open and honest with each other as they attempt to heal. It was a really surprising theme to find in a game ostensibly about killing a god and toppling an abusive power structure that had wrapped an entire set of realms into itself… Well, maybe not that surprising, since it was all the same pattern just repeated at different scales. Honestly, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen better thematic work in a video game. Or any kind of story, for that matter. I mean, there’s litterally a point in the game (that I refuse to spoil) that had me trying to indignantly tell my screen that someone’s assertion was wrong only for me to realize that, by the very nature of the way quests and errands and video games in general work, this character was undeniably right to feel that way. It was a huge blow to me to realize how right they were to say that, and how, even in the most charitable light, it was still true enough to make me feel awful.
I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a game this much, even if it wound up representing a lot of personal problems I’d been avoiding in a way that had nothing to do with the game and everything to do with me using the game as an unhealthy means of escape only to find myself confronted with the same kinds of problems I was trying to escape. I will be thinking about this game for years to come and I am already considering a back-to-back replay of both games so I can immerse myself in the story enough to do some fun critical analysis of the themes, writing, and characters over the pair of games.