It might seem silly to say this now — now that “God of War” has emerged from nearly a decade of slumber to rapturous acclaim — but when Kratos and Atreus took those first halting steps into the swirling snows of fantasy Norseland back at E3 2016, there were some that wondered if Sony’s Santa Monica Studio could really stick the transition. After all, translating the ashen-skinned “Ghost of Sparta” from the series’ baroque vision of mythic Greece to an entirely different culture proved to be a lot harder than just sticking a pair of Viking horns on his head and calling it a day.
As creative director Cory Barlog recalls, the northward shift was the logical endpoint of a lengthy research cycle that involved Barlog and his fellow writers delving into as many mythological systems as they could get their hands on, sifting through the likes of the ancient Mayans and the stories that gird modern Hinduism, trying to decide which direction to take. Eventually, the field tightened to three choices: starting over at the beginning of Greece, going south to follow Egypt’s Book of the Dead, or crawling up to the land of snow and ice.
“There were fantastic stories in each system,” Barlog says. “But I knew there was a place for each of them, but not right away. The last two we came down to, that ones that were so exciting, were Egyptian and Norse. I really loved the idea that the pharaohs were the early vessels for the Gods, and they existed in an active, urban civilization. We didn’t do a lot of that in the early games. But I didn’t know if we were ready for it technically, and geographically, it’s not that far away from Greece. There’s a lot of crossover in the culture. If you’re going to go hide out, hiding out at your neighbor’s house isn’t a smart move. That’s basically what Kratos would be doing.”
To Barlog, though the Norse myth system possessed many obvious parallels to the Greek pantheon that Kratos spent a trilogy-and-a-half smashing through, he was more interested in its subtle deviations, such as what he dubs “the bizarre Scandinavian sense of humor,” one quality that he admits the previous trilogy lacked. Since the team knew that this new entry would have to be much grander in scale than its largely-linear predecessors, Barlog felt that those bawdy tales would help the game find a more dynamic emotional palette, rather than what he calls the “morose and dour” themes of the previous trilogy.
Though popular culture typically presents these gods as belonging to a coherent “canon” of well-defined stories, in reality, most mythological systems are based on a narrow skein of sources and fragments that offer a radically-incomplete and sometimes self-contradictory portrait of an alien society. As Jackson Crawford, a translator and scholar of Old Norse texts who teaches at the University of Colorado Boulder, puts it: “Greek mythology is typically taught as a very scholastic subject, whereas Norse myth is typically encountered for fun. As a result, people often assume that Greek mythology has more of a ‘canon’ than it really does, because of books like Edith Hamilton’s ‘Mythology,’ which typically presents one version of a story, rather than all the different variants from Ovid or Hesiod. In Norse mythology, the seams are a lot more visible, because 90% of the sources are the ‘Poetic Edda’ or the ‘Prose Edda,’ and the different variants are more well-known. That affects people’s attitude towards it. They interpret it as less of something that belonged to a different culture, and more of a story they can interpret on their own. And that’s how it’s presented in media like ‘God of War.’”
According to Crawford, “God of War” benefits immensely from a current wave of increased interest in Norse mythology inaugurated by the likes of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films and the advent of the inescapable Marvel Cinematic Universe. Recently, he’s started a YouTube channel where he tries to give context to the enduring misconceptions surrounding these stories; for example, the Marvel films depict Thor and Loki as brothers with a complex relationship steeped in years of mutual distrust, whereas in the myths they sprang from, they’re merely distant cousins who totally despise each other. As the result of these videos, Crawford says that he gets upwards of a hundred emails a day from fans of his channel, asking for advice on Norse tattoos and blasting barrages of hyper-specific queries about minor characters from the Eddas.
“I get emails that say stuff like, ‘tell me more about this one dwarf that Odin mentions once,’” Crawford says. “And, well, the truth is that while there is a deeper story, that story isn’t told in the sources we have. The majority of names that occur in Norse mythology are like that, just a passing reference. The very fact that there’s no extended edition that explains all that — that’s what whets people’s appetites. It’s the mystery, the sense of it not being a closed body of myth. It’s a limitless universe that your imagination can fill in how it wants, like a well-written RPG sourcebook. It’s very similar to the works of Tolkien, who was very influenced by Norse myth himself. People fall in love with the mystery.”
Both Barlog and Crawford point to the villain of “God of War” as perhaps the game’s best example of harnessing the lacunas in the myth system for its own ends, the gorgeous god Baldur. Unlike Loki, the perennial “bad guy” of Norse-inspired media, Baldur has virtually no personality and no dialogue in the Eddas: as Crawford so elegantly puts it, he’s beautiful, he’s popular, and then he’s dead, in that order. Thus, any depiction of Baldur in popular media must be understood as a projection, an artist’s interpretation of a character so thinly-sketched that he’s practically the MacGuffin of his own life’s story. It was Baldur’s entirely superficial reputation that so attracted Barlog to the character in the first place, which eventually produced the misunderstood villain that fans of the game know and love.
“Nobody looks at Baldur and says, ‘Oh, he’s an antagonistic force that wants to control the world.’ He’s a character who’s painted into a box, and I’m projecting into that box, based on my knowledge of celebrities,” says Balrog. “Celebrities always want to branch out and do a new thing, but their fans keep them in the box. He’s known for being invulnerable, but he doesn’t want to be invulnerable. Think about it, this was a time where there were no intellectual pursuits. They didn’t have books to read or TV to watch. There’s fighting, feasting, loving, and getting drunk. That’s it. Those are the things you’re able to do. And if you take the feeling out of all of those things, your brain sort of atrophies and you feel locked in.”
Barlog compares Baldur’s plight to the seminal Dalton Trumbo novel “Johnny Got His Gun,” which depicts the heartrending internal monologue of a World War I veteran trapped in a broken body. And though his tragic vision of a god most famous for his pointless death definitely managed to resonate with wide swaths of players, it’s hard not to ask the obvious question: in a game that spins out the larger-than-life figures of Norse mythology, where the heck are Thor, Odin, and Loki? And though die-hard fans of the game know the answer to one of those, Barlog points to the outsized influence of the “Thor” films as limiting the audience’s perception of who these gods can be as characters.
“For better or worse, in most people’s minds, Thor is Chris Hemsworth, Loki is Tom Hiddleston, and Odin is Anthony Hopkins,” he says. “I can sit here and say, ‘Hey, these guys aren’t charming heroes. In the myths, they’re monsters,’ all I want. They just didn’t suit the first game. When those guys finally come around, we want it to mean something. There were guys in the studio who thought it was the biggest mistake possible, that Thor should’ve been the very first guy that Kratos should fight. And, well, there’s a certain amount of logic to that – after all, ‘God of War 1’ starts with the Hydra, which is really well-known — in the draft, we wrote where that happened, it didn’t feel right. It felt like we were writing the second game. So we shifted it around.”
Crawford identifies this wholesale reimagining of the mythology he teaches as part of the zeitgeist, a movement that he dubs “the dark side” of Norse myths. And while some might interpret the ethics presented in the stories that inspire ultraviolent fare like “God of War” as a bit questionable by our modern lights, as Crawford puts it, of course they seem strange to us today — they’re a product of a completely different era of morality. “The Vikings aren’t a virtue-sin society, they’re an honor-shame society,” he says. “That’s alien to us. The great heroes of the Sagas are all murderers and plunderers, but they never back down from a fight, and they’re always hospitable to guests. That’s what was considered moral in their day. You get into the cool afterlife — Valhalla — by fighting. So, you always want to fight. They’re a martial society, and their culture reflects that.”
And though Crawford doesn’t mind the continued popularity of these ancient figures in games like “God of War” — “these classes are big moneymakers for the University,” he said, laughing — he takes great pains to emphasize that they’re not his life. “This is my job,” he said. “I put in a lot of effort into making sure that people know that I’m not a wannabe. If you walk into my office, you won’t see any Viking horns or anything like that. But it’s nice that people are reinterpreting these stories. In a way, that’s what’s been happening in mythology from the very beginning. It’s just the next turn in the story, and it speaks to their enduring appeal.”