Two weeks ago I wrote about the new Tomb Raider game and my feelings about it’s revised, more human protagonist Lara Croft. This week, I’d like to bring to your attention to another famous video game character, Kratos, the protagonist of the God of War series of games. Kratos is in a lot of ways the polar opposite of the new Lara. He’s an extremely violent and angry anti-hero that in 8-years of existence has never changed.
For those unfamiliar with the God of War series, here’s a little backstory; the games are loosely based on Greek mythology and as such take place in locations meant to look like ancient Greece. The main character throughout the series is Kratos, a Spartan warrior who gets tricked into killing his wife and child by the Greek god of war, Aries, who he served at the time. As a result, most of Kratos’ body is permanently covered with the ashes of his dead wife and child (thus his white skin tone) and the rest is covered with a striking red tattoo. To kill his enemies, Kratos uses the “Blades of Chaos,” a pair of chains that are fused to his forearms with blades on the end. I’ll spare you most of the soap opera-esqe twists and turns that occur over the series’ 7 games and give this brief plot summary; After realizing that Aries tricked him into killing his family Kratos vows revenge against Aries. Kratos eventually kills Aries and becomes the new God of War (then finds more reasons to continue killing gods, titans, mythical creatures, and damn near anything else that moves).
Seven games later, players know what to expect from the award winning God of War series: Amazing graphics, great game play, extreme violence, a bit of sex and of course the opportunity to control the eternally angry and vengeful Kratos. And boy is he angry. It’s pretty much the only emotion the character ever displays. Okay, he does occasionally approach sadness and longing when remembering his family, but those half attempts at emotional depth are quickly replaced with more anger, more yelling, more killing. Watch this video of game play from the latest game in the series, God of War: Ascension and you’ll see what I mean (the video is 30 minutes long, so I suggest jumping around a bit to get a sense of the series’ tone and mechanics if you don’t have 30 minutes to spare):
If you know your tropes, then you’ll recognize Kratos as the Crusading Widower; the guy who hunts down and kills those responsible for the death of his family, in this case Aries, and anyone even loosely associated with him. It’s a pretty standard tale of motivation for hyper-masculine types. A plot device that fills these men (and occasionally women) with the righteous anger they need to go on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge (minimal plotting, lots of bloodshed) while allowing the viewer/gamer to be okay with it… it is “justified” after all. And the bloodshed? As I said before, the violence in God of War is extreme. Kratos is constantly tearing heads and limbs off bodies, cutting enemies in half or in the case of cyclops, pulling its eye right out of the socket… all in gory detail.
So what does Kratos do when he’s not eviscerating enemies on his hunt for revenge? The same thing all hyper-masculine stereotypes do silly… he’s having sex! It’s another series hallmark. Usually once per game Kratos will stumble upon a brothel and players can choose to enter or not. If they enter the brothel, on screen instructions lead players through a series of button presses and control stick rotations while the screen shakes, giggling women moan and angry Kratos yells. Each scene lasts less than a minute yet he supposedly leaves these women satisfied… can you say male fantasy? Check out this orgy scene from God Of War: Ghost Of Sparta to see what I mean:
As you can see, Kratos arrives, does his business, then leaves to do more limb splitting. The women in these scenes are trophies, a reward to the conquering anti-hero for making it that far and a rest stop before moving on. Players in the real world benefit as well. By engaging in these scenes, players are rewarded with experience points that they can use to upgrade Kratos’ weapons and attacks.
Okay, so far we have graphic violence and meaningless sex. Think you can guess what comes next? If you guessed sexualized violence or violence against women then you are correct! I like to call it the hyper-masculine trifecta. Now, defenders of the series will point out that God of War games are generally violent, then ask; “why should women be spared from said violence?” While I think there’s some truth to the notion that “an enemy is an enemy, is an enemy,” this logic only makes sense in a vacuum if you ask me. It ignores the larger cultural context that depictions of violence against women occur in and it even ignores what happens in the game.
Let’s stay in the game to discuss this point; Kratos’ wife and daughter fit the Disposable Woman trope. They only existed in the story long enough to be killed and give Kratos a reason for his anger and revenge seeking. We do see female gods and monsters but in typical Greek myth fashion they’re highly sexualized. The only other women we see in the game are prostitutes. As for male characters, we of course see gods and monsters as well, but men also make appearances as Spartans and other regular humans that Kratos interacts with in non-sexual ways.
Additionally, in his post on Kotaku.com, writer Stephen Totilo points out the sexualized way Kratos goes about killing some of his female enemies in God of War: Ascension. In one scene he splits open the breasts of a Gorgon (woman up top, snake down below) with his blades, yet he never does something comparable to (full or half) male characters. Finally, you have the controversy over the “Bros before Hos” trophy in God of War: Ascension (trophies are virtual awards given to players for achieving certain in-game accomplishments. Earned trophies are visible to others in a gamer’s online profile). How do players earn the trophy? By boot stomping a female character’s head in. Game journalist Adam Sessler does a great job calling out the game’s developer for the misogynistic trophy here:
It should be noted that due to complaints received, the trophy’s name has been changed (via downloadable patch) to “Bros Before Foes.”
Kratos in short, represents the apex of unhealthy, harmful masculinity. He’s angry. He rarely talks (and when he does talk, the voice actor who plays Kratos, Terrence T.C. Carson [of Living Single fame] gives the character the stereotypical gruff voice we’ve come to expect from the manliest of men). When Kratos’ wife and child are killed by his own hands, he responds with extreme violence towards everyone around him. He’s sexually violent toward women, visits prostitutes and he’s bad in bed but he thinks he’s good… God of War developers I beg you; please follow the lead of Crystal Dynamics (makers of Tomb Raider) and revamp your main character. Make him multi-dimensional and more human or just do us all a favor and put this dated hyper-masculine stereotype out to pasture for good.