Before the long-running God of War series was reestablished with a 2018 entry that moved the story from a mythological ancient Greece to a mythological ancient Scandinavia, its protagonist, Kratos, was an unparalleled jerk. Mouth fixed in a permanent sneer, hell-bent on revenge against the pantheon of gods who tricked him into murdering his family, the earlier Kratos roared, growled, and ripped apart every deity in his way until he’d toppled an entire civilization’s metaphysical framework.
With God of War’s Norse reimagining, though, Kratos started to grow up. In Santa Monica Studio’s new vision, he was depicted as a sullen widower now left to forge a relationship with his son, Atreus, after heading north to escape his past. Its being an action game starring a living god means it isn’t long, of course, before that past catches up to him and he’s forced to reckon with his child, learning the family history and protecting him from the unwanted attention of the Norse gods. Over the course of the story—which tones down much of the previously over-the-top gore and does away with the goofy, rhythm game sex scenes of the Greek series—Kratos eventually learned how to talk to his son in more than monosyllables and grunts, becoming something like a functional parent over the course of their journey to scatter his late wife’s ashes.
The recently released Ragnarök is a direct sequel to that game, picking up after its predecessor revealed that Kratos’ son, Atreus, is actually the Norse god Loki, and that the mythological end times— Ragnarök—are upon them. With Odin hunting for Atreus/Loki, and Kratos now desperate to find a way to keep his son safe while allowing him to embrace his divine identity without helping bring the world to an end (typical parent stuff, really), the stakes are much higher for the protagonist on both a personal and existential level. Naturally, then, Kratos’ role as a father and a character in general continues to change too. Though the 2018 God of War had established him as a kinder, gentler sort of bloodthirsty musclebound warrior—one capable of forming a proper relationship with his son—the sequel poses a follow-up question: How does Kratos behave once that relationship is put to the test by his child growing into an adult and being brought into confrontation with the Norse gods?
Santa Monica Studio, Ragnarök’s creators, knew that their latest game would continue to show Kratos move further away from his original character. In an email interview with WIRED, narrative director Matt Sophos writes that his team “definitely knew we wanted Kratos to continue to evolve” in both big and small ways. He cites a line from the end of the previous game in which Kratos tells Atreus that the pair “must be better” as something that the character truly meant—a central philosophy guiding his further development.
Ragnarök tests this sentiment by intensifying the interference of Odin and the Norse gods in their lives, and also by showing the strains in the father-son relationship when the adolescent Atreus goes against his father’s will in pursuit of his own identity.
Sunny Suljic, the 17-year-old voice and motion-capture actor who portrayed Atreus in both God of War (2018) and Ragnarök, explained over email that this aspect of the character was relatable for him, especially since he and Atreus are “about the same age.”
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“Because I grew up playing Atreus, it was a little bit easier to embody and feel the role,” he says. “I think I resonated most with his eager desire for a sense of self-dependency.”
That exploration of self, in Ragnarök, sees Atreus grappling with his own need to understand his place among the Norse gods and Kratos’ equally strong wish to keep his son from becoming embroiled in the kind of divine machinations that saw him leave the Greek pantheon a bloody ruin in the original series. The conflict between these two deeply felt desires is at the heart of the story, even as the plot deals with the Norse gods’ intrigues and Atreus’ role alongside them in embracing or thwarting the seemingly inevitable arrival of Ragnarök.
With the stakes so high, Sophos says that Ragnarök’s story needed to focus on “questions of motivation” in its continued exploration of more intimate character dynamics. He explains that the Norse God of War games are concerned with “smaller and more personal” stories where Kratos, haunted by his past, “really doesn’t want to be involved in the affairs of the gods.” Regardless of the plot’s structure, the game’s writers worked to keep the story’s primary concern—a relationship between father and son—in focus. “Everything else has to fall in line with that approach, keeping the heart of the story about Kratos and Atreus’ evolving relationship,” says Sophos.
Part of this involves Kratos being less centered in the story, allowing the rest of the cast to influence the plot as much (and sometimes more) than he does. Sophos says that this decision “was a part of Kratos’ growth arc” that saw him stop being “closed off to everyone except his immediate family” and trust more in others, like the beheaded god Mimir and the dwarven Huldra siblings, Brok and Sindri, whom he first met in God of War 2018. “He’s now trying to be more open, having a true friend in Mimir and allowing the Huldra brothers into his family,” says Sophos, explaining that Kratos’ deepening understanding of these characters and his own son means he stops referring to them with dismissive nicknames: “Head” for Mimir, say, or “Boy” for Atreus.
Suljic, as Atreus, consequently had a more demanding role as the new game’s plot concentrated on his character’s growing independence. “The sole focus is no longer about Kratos the god,” Suljic says. “It’s about Kratos as a father and how he handles watching his son become a man.” Suljic continues, explaining that he “wanted to set the bar even higher for my performance this time around” and work “to understand Atreus on a deeper level than I had when shooting the last game.” He sees the last game’s Atreus as “more naive and dependent on Kratos” and the sequel’s maturing character as driven by a desire to “understand what and who he is becoming.”
Both of the Norse God of War games function as a kind of belated coming-of-age story about a man whose past as an unthinking, rage-driven agent of violent death is put into a plot where he’s finally asked to think about people (and gods) other than himself. The distance between the original Kratos and the Norse Kratos is vast, and the games they appeared in are similarly disparate in tone. In earlier entries, players weren’t encouraged to view the protagonist as more than a vessel through which to pummel and slice apart mythological figures. Now, the audience is asked to accept that this same man is capable of regretting his selfishly motivated violence and thinking deeply about how his propensity for mindless rage affects those close to him.
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Sophos said that Kratos’ history as the Greek god of war and destroyer of its pantheon wasn’t something to be discarded or downplayed in writing the character’s evolution, but a built-in opportunity to demonstrate how much he’s changed over the series. “Without the original depiction of Kratos, we don’t get to this point,” Sophos says. “He certainly feels like a different person, but that’s largely because he is.” The older games and the original Kratos were something to build from rather than dismiss as artifacts from a previous era. “I feel like it was a gift to be given a character with such a rich history to build off of, allowing us the opportunity to reflect on all the things Kratos regrets and can try to do better,” Sophos continued. That past also serves as a constant reminder, to both character and audience, that, as Sophos puts it, Kratos “knows the path that unbridled rage leads to,” and it provides context to his desire not to give into it again.
Suljic sees the same qualities reflected in Atreus, too, calling him a character who “never lets failure or a mistake deter him from reaching his goals.” He writes, “It made me realize that our mistakes and problems will always play a part in our lives, but it’s up to us to learn and grow from them.”
Neither God of War (2018) nor Ragnarök are the most emotionally complex games—both depict the challenges of repairing strained familial bonds a bit too neatly. But their writing shows a clear interest in the characters’ interiority, which makes them more engaging than the pulpy tales of the original series. That a mainstream game can transition from an adolescent fantasy about a god-killing lone wolf into one about how that same warrior struggles against the odds (and gods) to raise a son who’s better than him is a testament to developers’ interest in richer narratives.
This approach has yielded—and will continue to provide—blockbuster games whose appeal doesn’t rely entirely on the quality of their action and audiovisual prowess alone. While there will always be a place for the straightforward pleasures of those games, the fact that a series once tied so strongly to its protagonist’s one-note anger can grow into one that looks deeper into his psychology is a telling sign of how the medium’s mainstream continues to grow and expand.