When God of War: Ragnarok was released in November 2022, the last thing I expected was to be scratching my head over the game’s flaws rather than praising the Norse finale’s triumph. This was to be a narrative slam dunk, rich with a mythological tapestry in spades to weave it. But instead….well let me get to all that later in my piece.
Warning – major God of War Ragnarok spoilers ahead.
A Change at the Helm in God of War
My godlike suspicions were raised when Sony Santa Monica announced a change in director from Cory Barlog to Eric Williams and how they specifically planned to close the book on their Norse chapter after only two games, as I covered here. Why? Well, ground to cover mostly. 2018’s re-imagining ultimately served as little more than an introduction to this new Norse pantheon instead of part 1 of a 2 part story.
God of War 2018 shouldered little of the narrative heavy lifting required to do justice to this universe and its many larger-than-life gods: giants, dwarves, elves, you name it. The very namesake of Ragnarok begets a cataclysmic, end-of-the-world war involving every realm and important figure the mythology has to offer and at the onset of GOW Ragnarok, we had yet to meet the major players. Odin, Thor, Heimdall, Fenrir, Surtr and so many others had to be introduced, given worthy arcs, and have their fates played out along with satisfying resolutions.
All of this had to be done now in just one game. Some worked splendidly, looking at you Fenrir. While the rest, less so to varying degrees. Disappointingly, Ragnarok’s major stars in Odin and Thor, completely let them down. While we won’t be touching on it here, the shift in vision with the directors is ultimately telling, eschewing elements from its introductory game entirely and relegating their resolutions to mere background fodder, literally.
It’s Show, Don’t Tell
In short, God of War’s venture into Norse mythology proved that it should have been a trilogy while failing to do justice to its namesake through a horribly rushed finale and puzzlingly, mostly “no showing” the gods it should’ve relied on most. You see, Sony Santa Monica and Eric Williams broke one of the major tenets of fiction writing: “show, don’t tell.”
If you’ve only experienced the start of God of War Ragnarok and not seen the game to its conclusion, you probably think I’m making a giant out of a dwarf (I’m going to keep making these bad inferences to the mythology; apologies in advance). Ragnarok more than lives up to the franchise’s reputation for bangers as openings.
Two Shakey Pillars of Norse Mythology
The introduction of Thor was teased in 2018’s offering as a secret scene and that’s about where the game picks up. Sadly this segment gives us the strongest moments for the two pillars of Norse mythology. As I alluded to in my first paragraph, it’s hard to understand the motivation for relegating Thor and Odin after allowing them to set the table like this, as it’s just so well done. Thor, needing no introduction beyond this game’s iteration of him, is initially handled exceptionally. Especially once Odin enters the cabin standoff. Thor as the legendary muscle, all-powerful giant killer and root of fear throughout the nine realms, and Odin as the all-seeing, all-knowing All Father who begins casting the seeds of doubt in young Atreus/Loki from the onset.
Sony Santa Monica led with some of their best writing and gave us their outlines and motivations all in the span of 10 minutes. Our introduction culminates with what fans have been anticipating: an epic 1v1, Kratos vs Thor after Odin unleashes the God of Thunder with the command “Make it quick.” Result? Our palms were sweaty, our pulses were racing, and we were completely immersed in what promised to be an incredible story featuring these two pillars of Norse mythology. So, why then, over the course of Ragnarok’s subsequent hours, do we hardly see Odin and Thor after this until the finale? Why would Sony Santa Monica give fans what they wanted from the onset only to almost entirely abandon its main antagonists as storytelling tools instead of relying on them to push the narrative forward?
The Dreaded Subversion of Expectations
In an interview with IGN, game director Eric Williams uses the dreaded “subverting expectations” line, allowing it to once again ruin the possibilities of another creative property. It’s amazing how not giving fans what they expect and want is seen as good storytelling aversion by writers in the modern era. Some subversion is welcome, but nearly everything?! It’s one stretch to try explaining away Kratos not being allowed to use Thor’s Mjolnir after packaging a replica in the Collector’s Edition of the game. After all, God of War is famous for allowing Kratos to wield many of its villains’ weapons. But it’s a step too far to subvert expectations by not showing players in-game why we’re expected to loathe Odin and Thor as villains integral to the central conflict.
Every evil that is attributed to them is dealt with off-screen or in the past tense. Events like Thor’s genocide of the giants, for instance, or really any destruction by Thor whatsoever, are all told as exposition. We as game players are not shown anything that the nine realms blame on Odin. Such as the long subjugation of the Dwarves in Svartalfheim. We are simply told about it and expected to believe, as the characters do, that Odin is the bad guy.
If anything has to be accomplished in crafting your main conflict, it’s that you must SHOW us why we are meant to be at odds with the main antagonists. Not simply tell us with exposition and lore dumps. Yet that’s exactly what God of War Ragnarok does through my near 50 hours of game time.
What we’re left with is to judge the characters as the video game shows us. So what does God of War show us based on in-game observable actions?
Thor’s Portrayal Lacks Thunder
While lore accurate to an extent, this Thor portrays as an inept drunkard who is nothing short of an immense disappointment to every single person around him. This also includes his wife Sif and remaining daughter, Thrud. His father, Odin, has such disdain for Thor that he treats him only as a weapon to be ordered around. We are given absolutely zero reason or context as to why the All-Father takes such a hateful stance against Thor. Or why Thor deigns it as something to endure. On top of that, he’s suffering from what can only be described as crippling depression, which only furthers his “imposing” stature.
Beyond the introduction of Ragnarok, which I duly gave its flowers above, Thor accomplishes basically nothing of note to make him a foe worthy of being feared. He does nothing to make us want to be at odds with him and our subsequent interactions with him. Be it through playing as Atreus or the soul-crushingly underwhelming final fight with him, make it seem like Thor is someone just waiting to die.
This is hardly what fans expected when they loaded up the next entry in God of War‘s Norse adventure. Sony Santa Monica focused on trying to make Thor relatable and sympathetic but forgot to build up the aspect of him as the all-powerful God of Thunder we expected. The developers just assume we inherently know this and don’t bother showing his ferocity on display on anything but a few Draugr.
The lone “must-have” conflict on the slate that anyone remotely familiar with the War of Ragnarok anticipated was Thor vs. Jörmungandr. Sony Santa Monica treated this conflict with as much respect as the rest of the characters. By relegating a world-shattering fight to an in-the distance, looping set piece during our short run through Asgard during Ragnarok.
The angle of portraying this genocidal Giant slaying God as a sympathetic family man trying to “do better” falls flat. When in 2018’s game, Thor beat his surviving son within an inch of his life and cast him down a mountain as fodder. These are irredeemable acts and this narrative arc for Thor does nothing in the game but diminish him when coupled with the lack of interest by the team at Sony Santa Monica to show him wreaking havoc across the nine realms. He is a disappointing lackey who is done away with by Odin exactly how he’s viewed. God of War Ragnarok fails to live up to Thor’s character. Beyond his introduction, he is neither intimidating nor treated as a threat worthy of fear.
The All-Father of What, Exactly?
The All-Father is even less present in God of War Ragnarok than Thor is. Although I’m sure the development team’s excuse would be that Odin is who we believed Tyr was all along; more on that further down.
Our lone comparison to Odin in the God of War universe is Zeus, whom we dealt with during Kratos’s initial foray of destruction through the Greek pantheon.
Zeus is portrayed as nothing short of an all-powerful foe. Everything across those six games supports this aspect of Zeus. But we’re given almost no shows of power with Odin. Sony Santa Monica doesn’t even seem interested in trying to put over the aspect of Odin being an all-powerful Aesir god who has seemingly enslaved and outwitted everyone. The cost of this omission is a central antagonist that we have no reason to fear because we’re never shown any reason to and Kratos himself gives off this vibe, which is part of the issue these two God of War games have.
Kratos’ attitude towards the entire Norse pantheon is “been there, done that,” and as such, it gives us as players the feeling that this entire conflict is a foregone conclusion. It’s a given that we will prevail in God of War Ragnarok as the writing team gives us no reason to believe otherwise.
Odin’s only powerful aspect is his ability to belittle Thor. Otherwise, his arc is based on an ominous foreboding that is again all tell and never show. Every time Odin is encountered in game by even Atreus, the young boy is never fearful. Almost never in doubt at all, about being in the Lion’s Den of Asgard surrounded by his supposed enemies, and doesn’t that just sum up this entire issue?
Odin’s Grand Deception is Delusion
Odin’s major play as villain comes in the form of donning the guise of Tyr, whom we rescue during the game’s initial hours, and who resides alongside us for much of the game. The problem is that All-Father fails to deal a substantial blow to the game’s main characters throughout this masterful ruse. Unless you consider killing Brokk the Dwarf to be some great loss; we will strongly disagree in this respect if you do.
Sony Santa Monica places all of its emotional eggs in this basket. Grossly overestimating our attachment to a foul-mouthed dwarf whose sole purpose in the game was to provide comedic relief to the player. This is not an emotional loss. The main thrust of Odin’s ploy is to attain a mask that will give him a glimpse into, well, we never really find out exactly what Odin is even trying to accomplish back in Asgard. In this, Odin again fails and teleports away in a blaze of ravens without accomplishing much beyond killing one single blue Dwarf. Oh no…
So, armed with the knowledge garnered all game long while living with us as Tyr, Odin returns to Asgard and prepares his home against the coming war of Ragnarok he now knows Kratos and Freya intend to bring to his doorstep, right? Wrong, Odin basically does nothing differently at all except sit behind his great wall while Asgard burns and is destroyed.
No pre-emptive action to gain an advantage or deter the approaching armies, Odin does nothing but complain about not having his mask. This is the main villain in all of God of War Ragnarok! Odin knew the prophecy. He knew it was coming and he didn’t seem to care at all. With no great displays of power from the All-Father in defense of all that he’s created, Odin simply waits for us to get to his home. Sony Santa Monica gives the players another underwhelming boss fight lacking all the spectacle and epic scale that encapsulated these sorts of encounters in previous games.
If you’re Sony Santa Monica and your goal for Odin is to build him as a master schemer and manipulator, shouldn’t he need to accomplish something of note with all of this knowledge? In the end, he does none of this. Odin fails as a strong central villain because he’s portrayed as neither powerful nor capable.
Every plan that Odin concocted fell short and in the great war, Odin does nothing except sit around and lose. God of War Ragnarok failed the character of Odin and in doing so, robbed this Norse chapter of God of War of a villain worthy of carrying it.
God of War Voice Work is Strong, but Too Little, Too Late
I’d be remiss in not mentioning the excellent voice work on hand for the two characters, though. Even if the creative team’s goals for Odin bore no fruit, Richard Schiff captures the All-Father’s in-game tone perfectly. While Ryan Hurst’s voice work for Thor absolutely nails the booming bluster of the God of Thunder. Unfortunately, he didn’t end up delivering with his actions in the game. But this is all too little, too late. What matters are the actions.
I’m as big a fan of God of War as there is, I’ve defended the series at every turn, even when many were taking their potshots. To say I was anticipating God of War Ragnarok is an understatement. Most of that was due to brainstorming how Thor and Odin would be handled. “Not good” is an understatement…
Coming out of my self-imposed writing Fimbulwinter, this is #1 of 3 in Jason Rose’s very necessary God of War Ragnarok critiques.
In my follow-ups, I’ll be detailing the major aspects of God of War Ragnarok that remain puzzlingly unexplained. For example: how did Faye, Kratos’s wife and Atreus’ mother, die? Or, why does Kratos never have to reckon with the fallout of his actions after God of War 3? I’ll also attempt to critique the game in a spoilercast at some point. Stay tuned!