(*Please note SPOILERS ahead concerning God of War, The Last of Us, Horizon: Zero Dawn)
There is a moment early in the quest, where Kratos and his son Atreus look towards the peak of the mountain they must scale to scatter Kratos' wife's ashes. Kratos reaches towards his son's back to console him with the firm hand of paternal support - but he stops and recoils.
It's a powerful visual storytelling moment because in this seemingly small act there are multiple messages, which I will discuss, but one that stands out. Namely, if he squeezes his son's shoulder in support, like a father would do, then he will become attached to his son and vice-versa. And in this game’s world where death is around every corner and nearly everyone is trying to kill you, attachment is a weakness that might get you killed. Therefore, for Kratos it is better not to attach yourself to anything, a creed that has kept him alive in a dark world where nobody is to be trusted.
It is poignant because when he doesn't do it I felt angry because I was on Atreus' side. He has just cremated his beloved mother and yearns warmth and love. Meanwhile his absent father has never been there for him, and now, when he has a chance to encourage him - he doesn't take it. This cold attitude continues for much of the later journey too – but writing this moment into the early part of the game by the narrative writers additionally serves as classic foreshadowing. We are almost certain that somewhere late on the journey Kratos will bond with his son – and we know that one day his hand will caress his son. It will be the day his son becomes a man and Kratos a father.
But I believe the moment points to another important underlying message: that Kratos was rejected by his own father Zeus. Thus all he knows about fatherhood is that it abandoned him and rejected him. In the classic sense we often talk about Mother Nature representing nurture, earth and life, therefore in some regards could Father Nature represent a silent protector and a stoic steward of their progeny’s destiny? For Kratos, he was denied these wonderful and natural gifts from the world and didn't learn any positive lessons from fatherhood. It must also frighten him, because what if he repeats the sins of his father? One of the greatest sins of all.
Kratos is essentially the bastard son of Zeus. So here in this scene, there's no doubt an element of “I did it all on my own,” and have survived countless battles without the support of a father so surely that is the best life lesson for this boy. Additionally as a result of his experience Kratos may think a warrior-god father could be poison to an innocent boy like Atreus. Given Krato's life story, maybe he is right.
This strikes home for many players of the game. Many of us think our elders will come to our aid and get us out of a scrap. For those who didn't have the fortune of having a father or mother growing up, you really do harden yourself to the world because you think, rightly or wrongly, no one's there to physically protect you, and you become fearless and sometimes reckless. But you never give up and you have to learn to fight for everything. And because Kratos grew up like that, he might think it is the best lesson to give his young son, so that he can defend himself if his father should die on the perilous journey ahead. Why weaken him with the fleetingness of love? Why betray him with the uncertainty of mortality?
I have another, more philosophical theory about the scene. Maybe Kratos doesn't trust who he is himself yet. It's quite funny imagining a navel-gazing Kratos in deep epistemological thought about his meaning in the world, and fortunately we won't see him do that. But in this scene and gesture on the mountain shelf, we clearly see his vulnerability – because he is torn between what to do, and maybe he doesn't really know what is right or wrong – hence the hesitation.
This moment and the God of War game as a whole is indicative of first class narrative storytelling. Be it in film, game or book, great characters make decisions that have life-changing consequences that affect them both externally and internally - which in turn imbues the story with natural pathos for the players or audience. This is evident in other exceptional narrative-led games, for example when Joel decides to let Ellie go alone on a mission in The Last of Us, or Aloy sacrifices Gaia for the survival of humanity in Horizon: Zero Dawn.
The choices don't actually need to be given to the players (although there is a move towards choice-based branching narratives in games like CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher 3 and recently announced for their upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 ), what is important is that the decision is true to the character’s core motivation and has equally high stakes. I think this builds credible pathos and investment for the player into the story which should also be unnoticeable. You feel the pathos along the journey of God of War which means the writers have carefully mined the truth behind the character and woven it seamlessly into the story. So ultimately you cannot tell if a particular moment is radiating emotion from character to player, or soaking it in from its rich world into the character.
I believe good narrative driven games ensure you are taken on a fantastic journey where you know where you're going at all times. Santa Monica Studios Game Director of God of War, Cory Barlog said something really instructive in an interview about the game, that he wanted to “tell a simple story with complex characters.”
“tell a simple story with complex characters.”
There is no quest confusion in this game but you still feel free and in control. It's a delicate balance in narrative games because you have to tell a story with the authority of an author but balance it with immersive gameplay where you handover narrative control to the player. If the gameplay, combat and in-game text and lore is all borne out of the core story, then even when the player is in control, they are immersed in the world and become storytellers for themselves.
There is a nice example of gameplay converging with story in the game, when the Leviathan Axe and Atreus' bow are upgraded from the spoils of defeating an enemy rather than just from gaining XP. In the game, when you defeat a giant dragon and remove his tooth, it adds magic to Atreus' bow and gives him a completely new type of arrow. It connects a fallen enemy to an upgrade feature and the game's lore in one neat move, which helps to root you deeper into the story.
To conclude, this moment I chose to write about in the game is just one beautiful tile in a near-perfect mosaic tessellated between gameplay, visuals and storytelling. It's no surprise the game has been so well received and won game of the year in 2018. More importantly for the gamers, it's another milestone for story-driven games and an important beacon for future game writers.
I believe the foundation of good narrative design shows us the unvarnished truth and reveals the hardest choices for their heroes, and does this with or without words - such is the case here. It's brave storytelling, as it should be, encapsulated here in the recoil of a man's hand from his son - letting the subtext tell an entire story of its own: the failure of a man to become a father but an unyielding, silent promise to be a godly protector.
P.S. I would highly recommend the God of War behind-the-scenes documentary you can see for free on YouTube here to get an inside look at the making of the 2018 game of the year.