Consulting the Norns: Fate and Free-Will in God of War

***Full spoilers below***

God of War 2

Fate is a lie told by the gods.”

Such stands out as among the most memorable of the many pieces of fatherly wisdom passed down from Kratos to Atreus in the new God of War by Cory Barlog and Sony Santa Monica. But on this occasion at the tail-end of a journey nearly as long as Jörmungandr – and, incidentally, in this particular point of the plot literally inside the belly of the beast – these words are being uttered by the boy. In response, Mímir quips, “You truly are your father’s son.”

It’s a powerfully poignant observation, drawing into clear relief both the story of this individual entry and the story of the series as a whole. Just as this soft reboot of the franchise finds Kratos a very different character, far more well-rounded, the unknown years since God of War III’s ending having tempered his temperament, so too does Atreus’ arc evidence a similar progression.

In the early hours of the game, Atreus is childishly naïve and sickeningly saccharine in his attitude, almost overly so a la Anakin Skywalker in Phantom Menace, like whom Atreus offers to help everyone in need with no thought of reward other than it’s the right thing to do. His character changes most drastically immediately after (not coincidently) Kratos’ stirring scene in which he realizes he himself has not and perhaps never can change (expressed narratively and ludically by him taking back up the Chains of Chaos). After using the Chains to pilfer Hel for an antidote to Atreus’ illness, bringing the boy back from the brink of death, Kratos finally confides in the child that both are gods.

Upon this revelation, Atreus evidences all the arrogance of every real-life individual ever to claim divinity, often offering variants of dialogue to the effect “We’re gods, we can do anything we want,” and immediately losing all care and concern for the lives of mortals. But more tellingly, it is here that we find Atreus in closest semblance to the familiar Kratos of past entries, rather one-note as he rages on and on and seethes with senseless anger, even so far as to take up his father’s former hobby of deicide when he kills Móði, the son of Thor (it’s no coincidence that many of the Norse gods in this game are similarly defined by their parentage). Atreus is only finally humbled when a near fatal clash with Frigg’s boy Baldr – who proves less so Kratos’ antagonist and more so Atreus’ dark double –  dispels him of the notion that gods can and should act with violent indifference.

This dialectic of initial simplistic sweetness and subsequent sadist savagery finds its synthesis in the more mature and nuanced temperament that Atreus takes up from that point forward, especially as father and son soon come to learn more about Týr, whose capableness in combat but propensity for peace is presented as the ideal god of war (so much so that there were times I was wondering if he’d secretly been the titular character of the game all along). It is here that Atreus is most “truly his father’s son” as we’ve come to know his father in this particular entry.

Which brings us back to Atreus’ echo of his father’s philosophy: “Fate is a lie told by the gods.” Such is, seemingly, the whole thesis of the game. Or, as Kratos will surmise soon after this moment, “We will be the gods we choose to be, not those who have been. Who I was is not who you will be. We must be better.”

Kratos is wrong.

God of War

What seemed to be the message being put forth – that the sins of the father need not be passed on to the son, that you’re free to forge your own future – is mere moments after Atreus’ articulation of this sentiment immediately undercut. A violent tremor shakes the great snake and the serpent spits Kratos and Atreus out onto the mountain. Baldr is back.

Baldr who, being fated to die, his mother Frigg through spells and sorcery ensured his invulnerability to all things great and small (like an overprotective helicopter parent, and, like many such tiger mothers, breeding resentment from her offspring). All things, that is, save for one: mistletoe. It is beyond any conceivable coincidence that it just so happens that Atreus has a mistletoe-tipped arrowhead holding together the straps of his quiver at the exact spot of his chest that Baldur’s haymaker hits. And with the spell of protection down, Baldur leaves Kratos with no choice but to kill the god of light, despite Kratos’ best attempts to walk away without executing his enemy. Neither chance nor choice can explain the events that lead to Baldur’s death. The takeaway is clear: Baldur dies because he was destined to do so.

That Kratos’ aforementioned lines affirming free-will come immediately after fulfilling Baldur’s fate should cast a clear irony in the mind of the player at this moment. Of course, Kratos delivers these with such conviction that we’re tempted to believe him yet, despite the evidence to the contrary. So the game doesn’t let up. Immediately after this, it’s finally on to Jötunheim. In a game overflowing with hauntingly beautiful setting like mead from a horn, Jötunheim is by far the most majestic and altogether fitting for the finale. But beyond it beauty, Giantland is also the source of the jötnar whose shines Kratos and Atreus have been uncovering throughout their journey; shrines which tell stories of what has been, and what will be. The hall they find in Jötunheim is much the same, its walls lined with a tale of things past, present, and still to come, but with one important difference. Looking at the images, Kratos sees it for what it is, telling Atreus, “This is your story.”

It’s easy to take such as merely a metanarrative moment, recontextualizing the game in the player’s mind, forcing one to realize that the monomythic heroic journey taken here was not by Kratos but by Atreus. God of War is indeed his tale. But it’s more than that. Though Atreus overlooks it, Kratos and the player are given a glimpse of how Atreus’ story is fated to end: standing over the body of his father, the cursed ashes flying off Kratos’ corpse and entering Atreus. The implication is clear: the patricide which defined Kratos, and which defined Kratos’ father Zeus, and which defined Zeus’ father Kronos, will one day define Atreus as well. It even defines their unseen adversary throughout: Odin, Bör-son and Bör-slayer.

Earlier, after the final fight with Baldr, Atreus asked, “Is this what it is to be a god? Is this how it always ends? Sons killing their mothers, their fathers?” Despite Kratos’ curt “No,” upon initially seeing the mural in Jötunheim, the player wonders, for just a moment, whether maybe the answer might be “yes.” But one only wonders for a moment – then one knows for sure.

After finally spreading the ashes of their respective wife and mother – Kratos’ and Atreus’ whole reason for the epic journey – the son asks his father: “I guess there’s just one thing I don’t understand. My name on the wall – the Giants called me ‘Loki’?” It is a revelation that recontextualizes the entire narrative. While ignorant of his identity, the player, like Kratos, really can believe that this boy can break the cycle of violence perpetrated and perpetuated by his father and forefathers. Buy by knowing his name – Loki – we know his whole future. For even as much as the God of War series takes liberties with the mythologies it adapts, the broad brushstrokes remain fairly faithful. And indeed, the whole gravity of this great revelation comes from the weight of expectations which surround that name: Loki, frequent friend and final foe of the Æsir, who on the day of Ragnarök will lead an army of jötnar alongside Hel and her damned souls, Jörmungandr and Fenrir wolf, Hrym and Surtr and the whole host of Muspelheim, and all of the Æsir – as with the Olympians by the blade of Kratos – will die.

Like father like son.

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