This article contains spoilers for, well, pretty much the whole God of War series.
Throughout the journey in God of War (2018), Kratos and Atreus hold on to the memory and literal ashes of a loved one. Her dying wish to be scattered at the highest peak propels them through the realms of Norse myth, confronting and defeating gods and monsters. The plot of God of War, like windsurfing, is driven by holding on. While playing, you feel this, like ropes around your wrists, dictating your given direction. True North in the shape of a cage.
The sequel, God of War Ragnarök, however, is about severing those ropes — or, rather, letting them fall. The things that characters held on to, we realize, were prisons, not protections. While letting go can feel like falling, the characters soon realize they need that release because in that release is the freedom they have been craving. It’s not merely Kratos and Atreus who, together and individually, suffer from the plague of “holding on.” Every major character does — and their lives are worse for it when they refuse to let go.
This almost symmetrical contrast to me is why Ragnarök felt like a firm finale and proper send-off of Kratos’ Norse adventures.
Kratos and Atreus
In God of War (2018), Kratos and Atreus hold on to a bag containing the ashes of Laufey, Kratos’ wife and Atreus’ mother. The simple goal of “scatter me from the highest peak” changes all the Norse realms, as Kratos and Atreus become targets of Odin but evade capture. Throughout their trials, they hold on to the goal, despite its increasing futility and difficulty.
Kratos’ advice to his son is to behave more like a soldier, telling Atreus to “close your heart” to the suffering he sees from others. (It’s no coincidence that the name “Atreus” comes from a brave Spartan soldier Kratos deeply respected, and he commands the boy as a soldier’s general.) Kratos’ heart has been closed since the gods betrayed him, opening up only briefly when he finally saw his daughter in the afterlife, in Chains of Olympus.
Rage is not merely what Kratos hangs on to but is literally a mechanic that allows him to become briefly invincible and powerful during combat. Holding on to this rage has allowed Kratos to defeat entire pantheons of gods. It dictates the way he speaks, his often muted actions, and his distance from his newest child (Atreus). Kratos is a victim who refuses to deal with the extent of his trauma, crushing it into a hardened rock of rage he stores deep inside.
Ragnarök, however, sees Kratos’ icy resolve somewhat melt despite an apocalyptic winter setting in. Not only does he recognize that his son’s strength is drawn directly from Atreus’ compassion for others, but he also recognizes the need to let Atreus go — both for short bouts of individual exploration, where Atreus becomes for the first time a playable character, and, at the end, where the young man ventures into the world by himself. Atreus’ compassion is not folly but quality: his understanding extends not only to what various creatures are saying but also to how they’re feeling. This proves helpful throughout their journey, undermining Kratos’ view that closing your heart to others benefits the mission.
Seeing this in his son, we’re presented years later in Ragnarök with a Kratos who says thank you, frequently displays affection to this son, and is willing to help those in need. For me, I realized how far Kratos had come in his interaction with Freya.
Like Kratos, in the first game, Freya was entirely driven by “holding on”: she held on to a maternity woven by deception and selfishness, a poisoned bond because it spouted from the fruits of a poisoned family tree.
In God of War (2018), the raging menace, Baldur, turns out to be her son. He holds nothing but hatred for Freya since she cast a spell when he was young that prevented him from ever feeling pain or getting hurt — but it also means he feels nothing at all. As a result, Baldur always felt cut off from the world, isolated despite wandering freely, imprisoned despite his Dionysian ways. Just as Freya nurtured a ghost of a maternal bond, Baldur nurtured a revenge that comes to full poisoned bloom by the end of the game.
Kratos, refusing to watch another godly cycle of “children-killing-parents,” stops Baldur, killing him, despite Freya submitting to her son’s lethal response. Freya swears revenge.
Ragnarök begins with Freya’s revenge, the continuation of her refusing to let go: that which was once a dream of motherhood is now but a ghost. We discover that in the years since the end of the first game, Freya has been pursuing Kratos and Atreus, yearning for Kratos’ death. However, despite being viciously attacked, Kratos — our new, evolved Kratos — refuses to kill and is trying all he can not to hurt her. He will not give in. His rage will not be stoked by someone who he cares for.
This shows us a truth: the one who refuses to let go is the one who suffers.
Eventually, Freya does let go. She recognizes the error of her ways, the folly of the ghost. She becomes Kratos’ new partner, and they forge a new, stronger relationship — in particular, by the end game, where both are united in having let go of their sons.
Brok and Sindri
When we first meet the Haldur brothers, they are separated. A wall is maintained between them, sustained by both holding on to a feud. By the end of the game, they release that feud and come together. But even from the first game, what made both of them two of the healthiest characters was how they frequently let go of their things: their work, while they were proud of it, was always for others. The Leviathan Axe, Mjolnir, upgrades, items — all of these are bestowed on others.
Ragnarök is, of course, tragic because Sindri has been giving away so much. He himself talks about how he has given his home, his life, his work. And finally, he gave away his brother. They were fused together in the first game, but, as is the theme with Ragnarök, by the end, Sindri had to let go. There’s a reason the funeral scene always brings tears, aside from Bear McCreary’s most beautiful piece serving as background.
But, in comparison to all the others, only one person’s obsessive yearning to hold on to knowledge, to find more things to hold on to, brings about the end of the world: Odin. If obsession is the mindset of holding on to something, Odin is nothing but an obsessive. Everything takes a backseat to his craving: his family, his lands, his realms. It is no surprise then that, unlike Kratos, Atreus, Frey, and Sindri — all of whom learn to let go, however reluctantly — it is Odin who dies. It is Odin who kills Thor, not Kratos.
Indeed, if ever there was a moment of recognizing that Kratos has become a better man, it is his refusal to kill Thor despite defeating him. It is, of course, somewhat ironic that Odin kills his own child when it was the cycle of children killing their parents that Kratos wanted to stop. In a sense, Kratos got his wish.
Odin dies by the hands of those who let go because he will never be one of them.
The word “ragnarok” has been translated to mean “doom of the gods” but also “fate of the gods.” That is, the result of gods’ actions. It is fitting, then, that those who survive, those who thrive, are the ones that recognize the effect of their actions. Those who are willing to “let go” of the poison they thought they needed to continue.
God of War and its sequel tell a powerful, beautiful story. Viewing it through this lens — of the first game about tight grip and its sequel, an opened hand — helped me see this world in a new light.