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From Pixels to People: How God of War’s Depiction of Relationships Effects Real World Change

In 2019, I did my thesis/dissertation on God of War, and Cory (the director) was kind enough to congratulate me on it, the Studio retweeted it, and many other staff personally congratulated me. I can finally share it with you all. It is pasted below for your convenience, but you should really read it on Google Docs. I had to wait for a period of time to be able to publicly share this, and I had to modify and shorten it to comply with some regulations, but I hope you guys enjoy it nonetheless.

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From Pixels to People: How God of War’s Depiction of Relationships Effects Real World Change


Video games have the power to make the player feel and empathize, and well-written games invite the player to form bonds with the characters in them. While film and television have long been considered to have these qualities with series like Game of Thrones and LOST, video games have not always been seen as on par. However, developments such as the Writers Guild of America introducing an award for Outstanding Achievement in Videogame Writing in 2010 signify the legitimization of video games in this regard. While it is clear that players can care about video game characters, it is less obvious whether they affect players in the same way and scope that other forms of media affect viewers. Specifically, this question will be elucidated in this paper in the scope of the simulated father-son relationship between Kratos and Atreus in the celebrated PlayStation exclusive God of War (2018). Video games can have very real positive effects in how players think about and deal with their own relationships contrary to the notion that they cannot affect players in the same way that film and television do.

As filmed entertainment is generally considered to be the closest form of media to video games, it is useful to see research done in those fields on the effects of the bonds that viewers form with characters. One study on the effects of relationships depicted in television says: “it is reasonable to imagine that TV viewing may serve not simply as a potential source of painful reminders of life’s trials and tribulations but also as a potential resource for coping and comfort…” As such, relationships in filmed entertainment can be used by viewers in order to better deal with their own relationships. In addition, “identification with characters has been defined as a multidimensional construct, its basic dimensions being cognitive and emotional empathy, and the sensation of becoming the character or merging.” Considering this, it can be said that filmed entertainment invites the viewer to incorporate the character in how they act in their lives and that viewers often take on or “merge” with these fictional characters.

While there is more research akin to the previous studies in film and television, there has not been much similar work done in the field of video games. They are only (relatively) recently beginning to be the subject of serious academic inquiry with respect to their narrative qualities. As such, looking at a specific case of a video game that has meaningfully affected people is prescient. The God of War franchise has been characterized as “a creation which is both a work of adolescent wonder and adult seriousness” and is one of the most successful gaming franchises of all time, with over 27 million copies sold. With a rich narrative and complex plot structure, the franchise is generally considered to be one of the greatest video game series ever.

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The anti-hero protagonist of the series, Kratos, was largely a rampaging god for the first three games in the saga, fueled by rage against the Greek pantheon after being tricked into murdering his daughter and wife by Ares. The fourth main entry in the series, God of War (2018), saw Kratos drastically change and become a father again, leaving behind the bloodthirst and vengeance he once harbored. The player takes on the role of Kratos, now in the domain of the Norse pantheon, as he seeks to raise his son, Atreus. God of War was immensely successful, selling over five million copies in its first month of release. 7 In addition, it also won hundreds of “Game of the Year” awards and reviewers hailed it as one of the greatest games of all time for its emotional depth, particularly its father-son relationship.

In light of this, God of War is a perfect case to analyze whether or not strong relationships in video games help players reconcile their relationships with their real friends and family, in this case, sons and their fathers or vice versa. Cory Barlog, director of the game, related Atreus to his own son: “So much of it reflects our relationship, and my desires,” he says. “I would love to go on an adventure with . I hope that he would want to – that we wouldn’t have this awkward relationship that unfortunately we have right now, because I work so much. Because Kratos wasn’t around much in Atreus’s early years, Atreus interprets that as, ‘You don’t love me, you don’t want to spent time with me, it’s obvious that I don’t live up to your expectations.’ I’m trying to be better for my son. And regretting every moment that I’m not spending with him.” As the game was made with real relationships as inspiration, it is not surprising that it has affected real people.

One writer says, “I sympathize with … I had to teach my dad to be a real person, too. I understand why so many people identify with Kratos and Atreus. I just wish we lived in a world where they didn’t have to.” Another reviewer writes: “it's an effective metaphor for the stretches we often make to connect with a distant father… I couldn't help but relate to Atreus as he helps Kratos aim the boomerang-like Leviathan axe and bravely watched gruesome killings just to try and connect with his dad.” In an open letter to Cory Barlog, a Reddit user recounts how markedly the game affected him while he played it as his father was gravely ill: Years back I've made peace with the man my father used to be, I've let go of what I could and buried what I couldn't. I knew on an intellectual level that he wasn't evil, he was just a damaged man who didn't heal right, so he loved me and cared for me the only way he knew how. But I didn't know that on an emotional level, I didn't really believe it and accept it. Watching people play this game and unfold its story made me re-examine and dig deeper into my feelings about my father.

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From these stories and countless more, it is certain that God of War has caused many people to think about their relationships with their fathers in the context of Atreus and Kratos. Many have remarked that the game has helped them grow and become better people in thinking critically about their relationships and surfacing conflicts that they may have been suppressing for a long time. These are exactly the qualities that are commonly ascribed to film and television, and have been excluded from association with video games for some time. Just as studies that looked at film and television found that viewers of those mediums identified with characters and took on their personalities, God of War shows that video games can have deep, rich narratives that cause the players to identify with characters in the game with similar effects to other media. In conclusion, video games are indeed on par with film and television in their ability to cause the player to become invested in their stories and better themselves through this process. With the aforementioned studies and the personal accounts of people who have played God of War, it is clear that relationships in video games do not just stay on the screen in the world of the game.

Rather, they change and inform the players, causing them to think critically about their own relationships. In the case of Kratos and Atreus, players found this relationship helpful in both making peace with their own distant fathers and as a lesson in how to raise their own sons going forward. Even though the capacity of video games to foster relational growth and development in their players has been questioned, God of War and games like it are surely a sign that the medium can affect and influence a player’s real-life relationships in a positive way.

Acknowledgments and Retrospective

Many Sony Santa Monica staff and others involved in the game have shown strong support for this piece. This is a section to acknowledge and thank some of them.

Matt Sophos, Writer/Story Lead

Cory Barlog, Director

Danielle Bisutti, voice of Freya

and many more.


Art for ABC's LOST. Digital image. Accessed 2004. Concept art of Kratos. Digital image. Cory Barlog reacting to God of War reviews. Digital image. Kratos and Atreus in God of War. Digital image. Reasons Kratos' Son Won't Be Annoying In God Of War/atreus6103.jpg. Videogame Writing Award Submissions. Accessed June 08, 2019. Arif, Shabana. "God of War Sales Top 5 Million in the First Month." IGN. May 25, 2018. Accessed June 08, 2019. Cassar, Robert. "Analysing God of War: A Hero's Journey." Eludamos. Journal for Computer Game Culture. Accessed June 08, 2019. Igartua, Juan-José. "Identification with Characters and Narrative Persuasion through Fictional Feature Films." Communications. April 01, 2013. Accessed June 08, 2019. MacDonald, Keza. "'God of War's Kratos Was an Angry Lump of Muscle. I Made Him a Struggling Father'." The Guardian. April 26, 2018. Accessed June 08, 2019. Martin, Garrett. "God of War Is a Great Reminder That Most of Our Dads Suck." Accessed June 08, 2019. Nabi, Robin L., Keli Finnerty, Tricia Domschke, and Shawnika Hull. "Does Misery Love Company? Exploring the Therapeutic Effects of TV Viewing on Regretted Experiences." Journal of Communication56, no. 4 (2006): 689-706. doi:10.1111/j.1460-2466.2006.00315.x Gebraiwun. "R/GodofWar – An Open Letter Cory Barlog, from a Son of a Father." Reddit. Accessed June 08, 2019. "Review: 'God of War' Masterfully Captures the Relationship Between Kratos, His Son, and His Other Son Kraanch." The Hard Times. April 08, 2019. Accessed June 08, 2019. Yin-Poole, Wesley. "God of War Series Has Sold over 21 Million Copies." June 05, 2012. Accessed June 08, 2019.

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Inspirational Bibliography

LOST. ABC. 2004. Game of Thrones. HBO. 2011. Journey. Developed by ThatGameCompany. 2011. Metal Gear Solid. Directed by Hideo Kojima. 1998-2015. PlayStation. "God of War – Raising Kratos: Full Length Feature | PS4." YouTube. May 10, 2019. Accessed June 08, 2019.

. The Last of Us. Developed by Naughty Dog. 2011. Uncharted. Developed by Naughty Dog. 2007-2016.


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