Oaring to the next mission, Atreus says, “Know any good stories to pass the time?”
Kratos, the God of War, Kratos, that man of mayhem and destruction, the teller of tales?
I lift my finger from the button. I don’t want to continue forward triggering some cut-scene, some enemy fight, the end to what seems like some inconsequential dialogue. There are many scenes like this in this new God of War game. More than just the hacking and slashing and carnage of the former installments, more emphasis on narrative, characterization, and interactions. Not to mention your son, Atreus, accompanies you throughout the game.
“What kind of story?” Kratos replies to Atreus, his son, his quest companion, with a little less irritation in the voice.
“I don’t know. Mother always had stories. Weren’t you told any when you were a boy?”
“There was a man I knew long ago. His stories were brief, and purposeful.”
Kratos decides to tell him the story of the tortoise and the hare. Matter-of-fact, with little, if any, of the techniques one uses to tell stories, Kratos tells his son the tale.
Atreus, in response, as kind as he can put it, “You…haven’t told a lot of stories, have you.”
My father, like Kratos, isn’t much of a storyteller. He gives commands, listens, a snarky comment here or there. For most of his days he is the quiet immigrant in the fields, the man of few words, the man whose past in Mexico I know so little, if anything, of.
This stranger who I call my father.
As an adult, I sit him down to ask about his past because, if not, he will not tell me, perhaps knows not how to tell me. His stories are brief, to the point, without any opinions on what happened or emotions felt on what happened, disjointed and non-linear. I probe further and he retreats from my advances. The knowing of his story is a game I will never fully win.
I purchase God of War with the crude intention of hacking and slashing my way through hordes of enemies. I wanted a similar experience like the one I had when I was just a boy playing the first three God of War games. Fire and brimstone, bones smashed and guts torn out, my player carnage. Story? Narrative? Idle chit-chat with an NPC? Details in the face and fluctuation of voice? Who needs words and meaning and plot and history when you have the steel of the sword in your pixelated hands, your Spartan rage unleashing, your being an animated god on the TV screen?
Instead, I find myself lingering over what is said and not said between Kratos and Atreus. The silence on the boat traveling between realms, their footsteps in sync, their frictions in the midst of battle. I take note of the details of their faces, their bodies, when a plot twist strikes, when an enemy has the upper advantage, when their plans go awry. A close-up of Kratos’s lax face, lax with loss and with memory. A side profile of Atreus’s slumped shoulders, slumping over with disappointment, disappointed in what his father says to him, in what his father is unable to say to him. Atreus on the head of an enemy waiting for me to strike.
Less cinematic, less exciting as Atreus and Kratos’s journey, my father and I, our dynamic, is one bound to the minor details, the what happens in between. His eyes averting mine when I ask him through FaceTime how he’s doing, how his day went, how I try to mumble te quiero. In the car on the way to the train station, our faces glued to the road ahead, my lips quivering with questions, wanting to know and to know all of him. Our awkward hugs goodbye.
Our being father and son requires strategy, precise buttons to be pressed and combos to be performed, certain skill trees to be purchased, stalling between this or that mission, this or that furtherance of the main narrative. All this effort, all this time spent, for the sake of intimacy. To be near to one another without having to say it. To want nearness, desperately, achingly. To be cared for as a child, to be needed as a father. Our being father and son, our intimacy of kin and kind, our world is this distance. Lived in the flesh, in real life and in real time, and then played on the TV screen, another life and another time, the real and the virtual, full immersion.
His axe into the tree. The circle button pressed again and again until the tree is felled. This tree the pyre turning flesh into ash, wife and mother into memories. There begins our journey with Kratos and Atreus, and what follows is father and son venturing into forests and dungeons, across realms, along the way slaying dragons, solving rune puzzles, duking it out with Norse gods, all in the name of releasing the ashes of a woman they both love from the highest mountain in the land. Sounds easy, no?
The story is clear enough. The player’s purpose is known. Obstacles, as is the nature of a video game, as is the genre of the action-adventure game, are to be thrown in. Collectibles to account for along the way, weapon customization to indulge in. Button mashing through the plot, careful timing in combat, patience for a puzzle—all in a day’s work.
Our main storyline, our main mission and side mission and collectibles to be found, is to get my father citizenship so that he can take me to that small pueblo in southern Mexico he calls home. He wants to show me the house he grew up in. He wants to show me the corner where his mother sold her candies and trinkets. He wants me to meet the tias and cousins I have never been able to meet. He wants to introduce me to our history.
How do we get there? What official strategy guide do I buy? What skill tree is ideal for us to get there? There is no mini-map to guide my way. No all-knowing NPC who has the right answer. No tips on how to win the battle I just lost in the loading screen after I die. No level by level walkthrough on YouTube or IGN.
Our story is unpredictable, no beginning, middle, end. It goes with the tide of the times. A president and administration and government deploys an army called Immigration and Customs Enforcement across the land, striking terror in the hearts of my undocumented father and his documented son, vigilance and paranoia in everything we say or do. Illness at any moment might strike my father and it is my duty as his only son to figure out how to acquire the money in which to care for him. The news speaks of gangs and rapists and not speaking English and anchor babies and borders and drugs and unreported violence and we, father and son, two men unlucky enough to have no weapons imbued with Elven magic or button prompts to deliver a crushing blow to help on our journey, two men who but wield the shield and sword that is our history on this continent, our health bar and power-ups the surviving and resisting and adapting from the moment Columbus hit the shores of the New World, are there to process it: all that language, all that meaning, all that violence.
Anti-heroes of this most American epic.
I have played Kratos’s past. His experience of his world is mine. Son and wife killed. Betrayed by the gods, Toppling Titans, the strongest in the land. Kratos tries to hide the fact of his past, his besting of Olympus, his being an Olympian. The blood on his hands and the violence he committed, one would assume, is what stops Kratos from telling Atreus of his past. In this new game, this new mythology, Kratos wants to be just a father before the eyes of Atreus, not a Spartan, not a God, not a myth. Man, and nothing but.
Why is my father not forthcoming about his past? There is no blood on his hands. In all my life he has never once hit me, and I have never once heard of him hitting anyone else. Why, then, the secrecy?
Violence, the doer of violence and the one who violence is done against, both dwell on a spectrum of trauma. At differing ends, no doubt, but both are impacted. Kratos might be reluctant to tell Atreus of his past because to tell him is to bring that trauma—the carnage and the screams and the bones breaking and the pain—into language, into a narrative, into something tangible. Trauma does not move from point A to point B to point C. There is no coherence to its cruel logic. There is no chronology: trauma is past crashing into present, the present careening into the past, the future somewhere muddled between. There is no spatial fixity: trauma is the place the trauma occurred and then traveling across land, sea, air, realms, ghosts in the architecture of buildings, pens in the hand, furniture sat on, faces seemingly familiar in the park, everywhere the potential for a reminder, a haunting.
I have not played my father’s past. I will never be able to. I will never know what it was like to watch as his sister, who, stung by a scorpion, dies on a donkey on the commute to the town doctor. I will never know what it is like to say goodbye to a mother at the age of twenty not knowing if I will ever see her again. I will never know what it was like to cross a continent by foot, to face death’s door in the Rio Grande, to nearly starve to death waiting for a coyote in a Los Angeles motel, to be unwelcome in this country after all that.
For men like my father and Kratos, for boys like Atreus and I, some things are better left unsaid.
Why not: I thrust the axe at his body. Nothing. I recall the axe knowing its path will strike him again. Nothing. The game mechanic won’t allow me to strike him, my son Atreus, impervious to my blows. Video games’ have their rules, after all, their necessary limits—that is how pleasure and fun and satisfaction come about. The joy of restriction.
But, boy, do I want to strike him, to see if he responds to my violence, screams at me to stop. A morbid fantasy, no doubt, one the game, like many games, does not entertain, not allowing for such acts of violence against quest companions. If I could do this to my digitally rendered son, make an impact upon his body, then what? How would this even progress the game? It wouldn’t. It would do nothing more than confirm that there is a moment off-script, away from the pressure of the main mission, when something else can happen between father and son, when all is not in meaning, when all does not have to account for something, when all does not have an end goal. I want whatever coding composing Atreus to react, to make a snarky comment, to attack back. The irrelevant, the inessential, the going nowhere fast: I yearn for it, need it in my video games.
These off-the-books moments are hard to come by. The small details, the bit of nuance, the forgettable. But they are what some people, some fathers, some sons, are capable of doing, comfortable doing. I play as the father not the son throughout the game and playing as Kratos gives me the perspective of my father. The efforts that might be made to connect to me, efforts not immediately intelligible as efforts, efforts nonetheless. His hesitations to show intimacy, to reach out and hold, how to care for his only child. The facial features, the muscle variations, the movement of eyes. These all happen in the periphery, unnoticeable and fleeting. Or, rather, the periphery that the gamer, or the child, or the father, condemns them to because they are otherwise unintelligible as something that matters, as something that contributes to the progress of the main story, the collecting of all collectibles, all the achievements unlocked.
Is Kratos a good father, an ideal father, a standout father? Yes, and no. Is my father? Yes, and no. All I know is fatherhood, childhood, and gamerhood have their nuance, their particularities and histories, the details overlooked. Our mission is to try our best to keep a lookout for them.
One main mission that is clear between my father and I, one that an inevitably, is someday I will have to undertake the same journey Atreus and Kratos must take. To climb the highest summit of a foreign land, magical and unknown, though somehow mine by blood and ancestry, to disperse the ashes of a loved one, a life no more. Unlike Atreus, I will have to do it alone. No Kratos to watch out for me, instruct me, save me in my moment of dire need. For my father, my Kratos, my brown Atlas holding up my world, and the world of cookie-cutter America so dependent on his labor, his exhaustion, his life energy itself, will be the one I must release on the summit. His ashes in my hands, my father’s body lodging beneath my nails, someday. And there in the Mexican terrain, the mountains of the Michoacán region encircling me, this ancestral land I have no choice but to call my own, I will not be greeted with the jingle of achievement unlocked. I will not know the satisfaction of a main mission completed, the scrolling of the credits, bragging online of my glory. I will know but the morning chill, the summit’s quiet, a species of flower I do not know reaching out over the peak. Looking outward at today, looking inward at yesterday, with my father’s body and life and story gone with the wind, our game over screen with no more lives left to live.