The Last of Us Part 2 Is Not My REAL Dad Game — God of War: Ragnarök Is
We now have sequels to two of the most well-known “dad games”, but only one of them feels like a mature meditation on what the role of a father should be.
This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us 1 and 2, God of War (2018) and God of War: Ragnarök.
The God of War franchise has always been about the rage-fuelled demi-god Kratos and his fantastical giant-slaying feats, and the latest iteration gives us plenty of opportunities to murder giant wyrms, punch hell-hounds in the face and clash with the most fearsome of the Norse pantheon. But in the end, God of War: Ragnarök gives Kratos something much more valuable: the chance to become human again, through his love and respect for his son. Ragnarök — the war to end all wars — is finally here, and it brings with it a worthwhile sequel in the fascinating but troublesome “dad story” genre we’ve seen so much of in the last decade of gaming.
God of War (2018) was a story written by fathers about being a father, which makes the father’s perspective our own, even while the child reminds us of things we had long forgotten, teaches us things we needed to learn. An obvious parallel is 2013’s The Last of Us, the post-apocalyptic story of a disgruntled and grieving father who rediscovers his humanity through his relationship with young daughter-figure Ellie. Both dads have lost a wife and child; both have lost a piece of themselves, both have found their own way to hide and forget. Both find themselves deeply challenged by this raw little piece of humanity, brave and strong-willed yet in need of protection. And for both men, in a decision that has rightfully been criticised, rising to the challenge of fatherhood means ascending to new heights of brutality and violence, inextricably linking caring with killing. More interestingly, both games have now produced sequels in which the child’s perspective plays a much more prominent role. Furthermore, both sequels make central themes of redemption, vengeance, and the inescapability of fate.
God of War: Ragnarök is a story about prophecy and inevitability: the son will rebel, the father will die. A dynamic so ancient it feels primordial, destined to repeat until the world burns itself out. A large part of the story deals with fate, with our characters’ desire to control their own destinies even though they have already been written, even after the Norns (the Norse deities of prophecy) have confirmed it personally. The Last of Us Part 2 (2020), although it does not feature prophecies or witches telling the characters what their future holds, seems as much about fate as Ragnarök is. After all, vengeance is its own overwhelming force, an inescapable prophecy we create for ourselves — no matter how much we try and dress it up as justice.
It’s no secret that I took issue with The Last of Us Part 2. I found Ellie’s willingness to abandon her loved ones in her quest for revenge not only indefensible, but also one-dimensional, downright psychopathic and straight-up unbelievable. The only thing more jarring than her leap into depravity was her leap out of it. After 25 gruelling hours of “play”, just as Ellie is about to finish off her nemesis, the one who clubbed the life out of her surrogate father, she suddenly remembers a few forgiveness-related words spoken between her and Joel (had she forgotten them??) and in that moment decides to show mercy and walk away. I know many found this moment resonant — for me, Ellie’s decision to subvert her own violent destiny felt sudden and unearned, almost accidental.
It also felt unsatisfying for reasons that are more difficult to articulate. Maybe my personal situation as a daughter of a difficult dad is slipping its way into my feelings about this game. My dad loves me, helps me, supports me in his own ways — but is my moral goodness and ability to be compassionate towards others entirely dependent on my relationship with him? Uh, no. This is where I wonder if it’s a coincidence that some of the harshest criticisms of the ending of The Last of Us Part 2, as well as the believability of the motivations behind Ellie’s and Abby’s actions, came from young women. The idea of Ellie being saved in the final moment, given back her grace and compassion because of Joel (a far worse person than her, even when she was 14 years old), seemed preposterous to them — and to me.
While Ellie and Joel clearly share an incredibly strong connection, she has only known him for 5 of her 19 years on this planet, and for most of those years they’ve had a rather distant and conflicted relationship. Surely she’s her own person, in the way that every 19 year old girl is her own person! The idea that she would let herself be so entirely defined by him, that she would derail her whole life, leave her home, abandon friends and family and girlfriend in the wilds to die, and essentially commit suicide through recklessness — all because she’s devastated about his death — carries troubling implications to me, as does Abby’s decision to let her relationship break apart because she can’t move on from seeking vengeance for her own father. Dudes and dads may not find issue with the idea that daughters are obsessed with their daddies, that our lives revolve around them, that we would cast everything to the wind without them and that only our memory of them will set us free — but it rang false to quite a few actual daughters (and some guys too).
God of War: Ragnarök, despite its fantastical setting, hits emotional notes that feel much more authentic. Atreus is more than his father’s hopes and mistakes — he’s stubborn and juvenile, yes, but also undoubtedly growing into the wise and empathetic man he will soon be. Throughout the game, he squirms and wriggles under his father’s paternally protective grasp, desperate to make his own destiny, dangerously close to breaking free. But it’s in the end-game that we see how much growing this “dad game” has likewise done. Under the purple-skied battles of Ragnarök, Odin has placed innocent villagers in the line of fire, asking Kratos and Atreus to sacrifice everything — including their own humanity — to breach Asgard’s wall. In a culmination of all the game’s key themes — the pull of fate, the line between justice and vengeance, the rupture between father and son — we get arguably the most important moment in the entire 25-hour narrative. As the chaos rages around them, Kratos turns to Atreus and tells him to never blunt himself to human suffering, to never let others turn him into a monster, to not make the same mistakes he has.
I always felt that The Last of Us Part 2 carried a message that was as ugly as it was untrue: that we are ruled by our parents’ mistakes, that our love for (and loss of) them will drag us down, make us worse human beings than they (in all their vileness) ever were, and that only against every impulse will we ever be able to drag ourselves away from their memory and live our own lives. God of War: Ragnarök seems more hopeful and humanistic — an acceptance of the reality that what young adults yearn for most is their own freedom and identity, that they are not just shadows of their parents clinging to the past. Kratos, to his merit, realises that his son will fly away regardless of what dad has to say on the matter, and so he offers a declaration, a most precious gift from father to son: This is who you are. You are not me. You are better. And together, we will be better. A dad game that acknowledges that sometimes, once we’ve grown into our own, our dads continue to need us more than we need them.
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