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God of War’s director on toxic masculinity and why Kratos had to change

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Game director Cory Barlog reflects on how and why Kratos has evolved

Kratos is pulled into a column of light in God of War. SIE Santa Monica Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

The new God of War is the first entry in the core series to not feature a sex scene. Even though the minigames have composed a fraction of the series, they’ve encapsulated the approach with which previous God of War games portrayed women as objects and their antihero as the brooding, entitled meathead. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with sex, in or outside games. The issue in God of War was the gratuity and the presentation, which was, at best, tasteless, and at worst, contributing to the culture of toxic masculinity.

Likewise, it’s not particularly interesting that God of War’s creators cut sex from the new game, but that they try and largely succeed in scrapping gratuity. Kratos’ bad behavior now has meaning and purpose. It serves the plot rather than titillating the player. Yes, Kratos definitely has that grating air of “now that I have a child, I see the error of my former ways.” But the game’s creators make a genuine and applaudable effort to grow upon the series, rather than erasing its history.

I recently spoke with God of War director Cory Barlog about this shift. Here’s what he had to say:


Polygon:

Playing the game, I kept thinking of the ongoing conversation about how we raise sons to not be utter garbage humans. How do we not intentionally or inadvertently teach them toxic masculine behavior? I’m curious, what conversations were you having in the office while you were putting together this story and the relationship between Kratos and Atreus?

Cory Barlog:

Oh, so many. This relationship developed over so many years. But I think I say it a lot better now. As we were figuring all this stuff out, I kind of had my very crude straw man version [of things].

Knowing that five years was going to go into this [game], I knew that we’d have an incredible megaphone. We have the ability to say something with what we do, right? Which I think is awesome. And I think perhaps I didn’t take advantage of that so much when I was starting out [in games]. I was so, sort of, enamored that I didn’t really think too much about the things below it, right?

That’s not to say I hate the work I’ve done before, because I love all that. It’s just, I feel like as I get older, I’m looking at things a little bit differently. This lesson that I hoped to pass on to [my son]: that the concepts of strength and emotional vulnerability and the ability to sort of be free to feel the range of emotions, that these are not two warring or diametrically opposed concepts.

That it is what makes us the whole human, right? And who better to be a canvas than a person who is so broken, who is so much of a fragment of a person, whose life was so traumatic? At 8 years old, [Kratos was] entered into the most fearsome military training program in the history of mankind. The Spartans were turned into machines, instruments of war, and to have that be the way that you’re ushered into your formative years, it will absolutely turn you into what Kratos became.

There’s very little humanity that he had left [after the previous God of War games], but I do not believe that anyone is so far gone that they don’t have some way to pull them back from the brink. I think it’s been a fantastic, dramatic chance to be able to take that on for Kratos.

[There’s this] idea of him not knowing how to do these things, but his son not knowing any different, right? Because [Atreus] wasn’t fully raised by Kratos. [His mother] Faye did a lot of the work initially. [Kratos] was spending a lot of time out in the woods, trying to figure out how to get control of the demons inside of him — the monster inside of him that we, as his creators, allowed to be out all the time.

So we are, in a large portion, were responsible for the fact that [Kratos] is the monster at all times, and now we are in turn taking our responsibility to help him balance these things. The journey is that he’s not very good at it in the beginning, and that’s what’s so fascinating, right? That a young kid, a 10- to 12-year-old child, can teach this guy who’s lived for hundreds of years? Who’s ascended to the throne of the pantheon of Greek gods, and been responsible for the downfall of so many of these deities. He has so much learning to do.

Honestly, if that can be taken away, if people look at it and they can see there’s a complexity to being a human being ... and also that there’s different ways [to behave], not just the way it’s been done before.