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Pop CultureApril 30, 2019

A mother’s ashes: God of War, one year on


One year ago, God of War was unleashed on the world, selling millions of copies and winning countless awards. Sam Brooks finally catches up with the game.

Incredibly mild spoilers for God of War follow.

On paper, everything about 2018’s God of War was everything that bores me in art. It was about dads. It had a kid in it. There was only one woman character in it. It was raved by almost everybody who touched it – the kind of raves that a game gets for one week, and is followed the next week by a deluge of ‘well, actually’ pieces. Also, it was a sequel to the edgelord God of War trilogy, a trilogy that would’ve launched a million problematic outcries if it was released today. Remember the threesome minigame? What a time we lived in then.

Despite this, I decided to try it. As someone who edits regular coverage of more or less every media, it feels healing and meditative to revisit a piece of art outside of its release cycle. There’s no obligation to have a take on it, and contribute to the collective noise around it. You can just sit in front of whatever piece of art it is, and engage with it without the pressure of needing to turn it into an opinion. (There’s a self-defeating irony in the fact that I am, in fact, writing about a game I played to escape from the obligation of writing about games, also known as my job.)

In short, perhaps unsurprisingly, I loved God of War. I was genuinely moved by it. It felt like a rarity in gaming, not just for its quality, but for its genuine maturity and poignancy.

Kratos and Atreus, in God of War.

For the uninitiated, God of War is both a sequel to and a huge departure from the original trilogy. It still follows Kratos, the titular god of war, but he’s a few hundred years past massacring his way through the entire Greek pantheon. In that time, he’s moved somewhere in Scandinavia, started a new family and given up his ways of violence. He’s still haunted by his past, but trying his best to move past it.

The game tells the story of he and his son Atreus, a boy he barely knows or understands, delivering his departed wife’s ashes to the highest peak on the mountain. It’s a mournful story, about as far away from the hyper-violent, thrill-a-kill story of the original trilogy. While the game is still more violent than say, your average Game of Thrones, almost all of the violence is directed at monsters. When it happens to human beings, there’s genuine emotional heft to it, and this iteration has the actual maturity to make it land true.

The gameplay is less of a departure, and contains the inevitable concessions to current gaming trends. By which I mean, it’s open world, there’s a basic RPG leveling system, and has collectibles galore. However, these are genuine concessions rather than straight-up pandering. It has the appearance of an open world game, but the actual experience of exploring the world is more like going between tightly-designed levels, just without loading screens. There’s an amount of freedom and agency within the narrative, what missions you do and where, but it never feels aimless like almost every other open world game ends up feeling.

The rest of the gameplay is an exquisite blend of triple-A perfection and gentle innovation. The combat is as engaging as any hack-and-slasher, with genuine progression. The puzzles are challenging without ever being frustrating. The boss fights are straight-up invigorating, some of the best I’ve played in this generation. Finally, it looks and sounds absolutely stunning. Not just in the quality of the graphics or sound, but the design takes full advantage of the Scandinavian setting – the bleak colds and the threatening lushness – to envelope the player. Each location transport you, as a player, in a way that feels intended to evoke something, rather than overawe you.

But that’s just a great game being a great game.

What makes God of War special to me is not the world, or the gameplay. It’s not even the (rightfully acclaimed) way the game depicts a parent-child relationship, and the difficulties of growing past one’s mistakes while not ignoring them. The writing is stupendous, detailed, and is aiming at an emotional experience that few games of this ilk ever try to.

No, what makes God of War special is the way that the game allows you to participate in, and go through the motions of, a process of grieving.

The Rock of Gibraltar. It’s relevant, don’t worry.

Allow me a brief, but probably unsurprising digression, to talk about my mother. Coincidentally, it happens to be her birthday today. Happy [age redacted because ghosts]th Birthday, Mum!

Three years ago, I went on a vaguely similar journey to the one depicted in God of War. A lot less murder and masculinity, but otherwise similar. In 2014, my mother passed away pretty suddenly from cancer – the longest and shortest eight weeks of my life. A few years later, I wanted to take a few months off and travel around the world with my best friend. As part of that trip, we went to Gibraltar. It’s very few people’s idea of an ideal destination, especially if you’re on the other side of the world and there are no direct flights there.

My mother had always wanted to go back to Gibraltar before she died; we went there for a few weeks when I was 12, and the country’s strange blend of British and Spanish culture appealed to her. I thought that taking her ashes there would be a poetic, and fitting, way to round off that specific period of grieving. More symbolic, than you know, actual therapy, but that’s between me and a qualified professional.

It turns out, the process of taking ashes around the world is… not an easy one. First of all, an entire body’s worth of ashes is quite heavy. Second of all, there’s the environmental impact of dumping that body, and no matter how much pride my mother had in maintaining a size [redacted, see aforementioned ghost revenge], ashes are still ashes. Third of all, there’s a lot of security to get through and a lot of airports, and if there’s anything that makes a holiday better, it’s trying to take contraband across the other side of the world.

So came the idea to take a little necklace of my mother’s ashes across the world, and hope like hell that it didn’t get picked up in security! As I’m typing this from the comfort of my desk, and not the inside of a UK prison, you can tell that it didn’t.

I had it all planned out. There was a specific wharf in Gibraltar that, 14 years prior, I had hung out with my mother on. Across the way, you could see Algeciras. Across the other way, you could see Morocco. It remains the most picturesque place in the world to me, and if by some miracle I make it to retirement, it’s the place where I want to spend the rest of my life. Not Gibraltar, just that wharf.

So, our plan: we would go to the wharf, we would listen to my mother’s favourite song, ‘Fairytale of New York’, and throw the ashes off. It wouldn’t be goodbye – grief doesn’t let you say goodbye, just ‘I’ll see you around’ – but it would hopefully be the start of another process. I would throw the necklace off that wharf, and it would sink to the bottom of the ocean, Titanic style. I didn’t really consider that I would be polluting the world a little bit more by doing this, as well as flying around the world, but I am very willing to cancel 2016 Sam Brooks so you don’t have to.

There’s no story if it all went to plan, right?

The Gibraltar Skyline. Photo: Getty Images.

That afternoon, my best friend and I went to a casino on a superyacht in Gibraltar. It is, objectively, one of the most Eurotrash things I’ve ever done. We had four Long Island Iced Teas each, and gambled. I won about 800 pounds, and proceeded to get drunker and drunker. At around about midnight, I decided it was the time. The wharf was just around the corner, because Gibraltar is like 6 km square all up.

Alas! In the 14 years since my mother and I had hung out there together, the wharf had been fenced off and locked up. There wasn’t a place to throw the necklace off. My mother’s ashes wouldn’t be thrown in a picturesque arc off the end of the wharf, falling into the ocean, only to be carried away by the tide. (I will also happily self-cancel my 2016 self for trying to produce my own grieving process with all the delicacy of a Love Island handler.)

My plan thwarted, I drunk-cried, the kind of crying where alcohol has picked up emotion and driven down the highway with it, skipping all the healthy processing that might allow one to reach an actual epiphany. I threw the ashes off the side of the wharf, and skulked back to our hotel room, my best friend quietly following. I had an even uglier drunk-cry in the hotel bathroom, literally recreating the ending of Kill Bill Volume 2. I’d let go, something was over. My mother, or a few grams of her ashes that were thankfully not mistaken for some drug, was gone.

In retrospect, it was a symbolic gesture that pretty poorly tried to substitute itself for actual grief. On one level, I’m genuinely happy that in some spiritual way my mother got back to Gibraltar. I’m happy my best friend – who never got to meet my mother – got to be a part of her journey in some very loose way. I’m happy that I got to go back to a place my mother loved, as an adult, and figure out exactly why she loved it. There’s a civilised isolation to Gibraltar, and a literal isolation – you have to cross an airport strip to even get to the place – that appealed to her. That you can be alone in a city while still enjoying all the benefits of it.

The thing I’m mostly grateful for about that moment is that it allowed me to physicalise the act of moving on. I let go of her a bit of her, literally a few grams, in a messy, imperfect way. What better way to think about grief? You let go one someone bit by bit. Messily. Imperfectly.

Dad and son confront the World Serpent, as one does.

Which is a long way of saying that God of War speaks to that experience in a way that no other piece of art has.

It doesn’t make it perfect – the last few hours of the game are a bit of a slog, and the collectible nature of some of the side stuff is at odds with both the pace and tone – but it does make it unique, and special at least to me.

No other game that I’ve played has managed to let you go through a grieving process with the characters. The hardest part of grief is not necessarily loss, but learning. It’s learning how to be in the world, that there is a world after somebody passes, and that world is worth living in. Throughout the game, Kratos and Atreus are learning to live with each other, and live in their world, even if it is the strange, mythological, threatening world of Norse mythology, and learning to live in a world without Faye.

They learn things about each other, they learn things about their departed loved one, and things about their own nature. You go through them learning this, and the game makes sure to involve you in these moments. Fighting with Atreus is incredibly interactive, and you literally direct the boy’s actions and tell him where to attack, what to read, where to go. In the moments where Atreus is angry with Kratos, he’ll stop listening to you, the player.

And in the moment where you, finally, let your loved one go, you get to do it yourself.

Keep going!