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Great Moments in Gaming: God of War 2018’s Stranger Fight

The clash of the gods.



Greatest Moments in Gaming - God of War 2018’s Stranger Fight

God of War 2018’s opening is perfect. The first hour expertly sets the tone and pace of the rest of the game and lets players know immediately that this is not the Kratos they remember. This Kratos has grown in the years since his god-killing escapades in Greece, he has matured, settled down, and even started a family. He still struggles to show his emotions, to really connect with others, but he’s working on it, for his son, and for the memory of his wife.

The game starts with Kratos chopping down trees for his wife’s pyre, then slowly transitions into him taking his son Atreus on a hunt – their first one together. It’s deliberately slow-paced, almost meditative in places, easing the player into Kratos’ emotional state. He is grieving for his wife, but for a man whose outlet has only ever been unbridled rage, he struggles to show it, especially in front of his son.

But now, with his wife gone, he knows it’s up to him to raise his son properly, to make sure he grows up strong and resilient, and doesn’t make the same mistakes he did. He takes Atreus on this hunt to see if the boy is strong enough to fulfill his mother’s last wishes and take her ashes up to the highest peak in all the realms.

Image: Sony/Santa Monica Studio - The beginning is slow, it really takes its time to put the player in Kratos' shoes.
Image: Sony/Santa Monica Studio – The beginning is slow, it really takes its time to put the player in Kratos’ shoes.

This section is carefully designed to drip-feed the player lore and world-building titbits, while also gradually introducing them to simple puzzles and combat encounters. They aren’t there to test the player, but to prepare them for what’s to come.

The hunt does not go to plan. A troll steals their kill and Atreus gets angry, loses control of his emotions. Kratos kills the troll and takes his son back home, furious but also somewhat relieved. Atreus is not ready to face the dangers of the real world, maybe he’ll never be, and if he’s not ready, he’ll have to stay at home where all is safe and nothing can harm him.

Then, all of a sudden, there’s a knock at the door. And this is where the game truly begins.

Enter the Stranger

With just a knock and the ominous line, “I know who you are”, the stakes are immediately raised. This is Kratos’ home, he and Atreus are supposed to be safe here – nothing has ever ventured this close to their property before. But something in the forest has changed, and all at once, that safety has been shattered.

Atreus hides beneath the floorboards and Kratos opens the door to find a Stranger standing before him. The man is slight, almost scrawny compared to the towering mountain of muscle that is Kratos, but his distinguishing beard, sinewy body covered with scrawling runes tattooed in blue ink, and his distinctive, drawling way of speaking instantly put the player, and Kratos, on high alert. There is more to this man than meets the eye.

Image: Sony/Santa Monica Studio - This does not look like a man who can take on the might Kratos.
Image: Sony/Santa Monica Studio – This does not look like a man who can take on the might Kratos.

At this point in the game, players know they are dealing with Norse mythology, but this Stranger doesn’t resemble any of the gods they might know from other media. Could he be Loki? A strange new take on Thor or Odin? Is he even a god at all? Whoever he is, he seems to know Kratos, and he seems to know a lot about Kratos’ past.

Right off the bat, the Stranger starts with an insult. “Thought you’d be bigger,” he says, looking the former god of war up and down and finding him wanting. “You’re a long way from home.” This seems to confirm it, the Stranger knows what Kratos did in Ancient Greece and has tracked him all the way to Midgard to hold him accountable. And when Kratos ‘kindly’ tells him to leave, the Stranger gets defensive: “And here I thought your kind was supposed to be enlightened – so much better than us, so much smarter.” Is this a comparison between the Greek gods and the Norse? The Greeks were certainly portrayed as being much more civilised than the more barbaric Norse. Is the stranger worried that Kratos might continue his god-killing antics and turn his sights on the Norse pantheon?

Whatever the Stranger is here for, he won’t let Kratos walk away before he gets it. He insults Kratos, calling him a coward hiding in the woods, and strikes him. Kratos doesn’t even flinch. And it’s here we see just how much he has changed. He doesn’t react, doesn’t get angry, he shows restraint. He doesn’t want to fight this man, not with his son so close by; he doesn’t want to revert to the monster he once was. He simply tells the Stranger to Leave. His. Home.

But the Stranger is a man on a mission, he’s not going anywhere. “You’re going to have to kill me,’ he says with a smirk, and strikes Kratos once, twice, three times. But the fourth punch doesn’t land. Kratos catches the Stranger’s fist and twists his arm back. And the Stranger smiles, he’s actually enjoying this. He’s using the fight to limber up, like Brad Pitt’s Mickey in Snatch. And when Kratos finally hits him back, he’s almost excited.

“My turn,” the Stranger says, and hits Kratos with a punch so powerful that it sends him flying over the roof of his house.

Image: Sony/Santa Monica Studio God of War 2018  - Once he reveals his true power, the Stanger does not let up without a fight.
Image: Sony/Santa Monica Studio – Once he reveals his true power, the Stanger does not let up.

Mano a Mano

And so the fight begins.

The skills the player picked up just a few moments prior are immediately put to the test. The Stranger starts slow, toying with Kratos, with the player, but he doesn’t hold back. Players need quick reactions if they have any hope of surviving (especially on higher difficulties), because if they don’t dodge, block, or roll at exactly the right moment, the Stranger will not hesitate to knock them into the dust. And the pace and ferocity of his attacks only build as the fight rages on.

The two gods – for there is no denying the Stranger is a god now – become locked in a heated struggle. Snow flies and trees splinter as they throw each other around Kratos’ back garden in a real spectacle of strength and raw power, the PS4 never stuttering, never letting up for a second, the camera never cutting away.

Both gods get thrown up onto the roof, damaging it, allowing the Stranger to peek inside. He sees two beds and starts prodding, asking who Kratos might be protecting in there. And for perhaps the first time in his entire life, Kratos gets scared. He loves his son, even though he can’t show it, and would do anything to protect him. And that love and fear comes out as anger.

He begins pummelling the Stranger, beating him until his fists are raw and both men are splattered with blood. But it does nothing. The Stranger is unfazed, shrugs it off as if it were nothing. This is unprecedented. Nothing in God of War’s history has ever taken this much punishment and carried on walking. Kratos has torn apart monsters, felled Titans, killed the king of the gods with his bare hands, but he can’t even harm this scrawny beanpole of man. Has he grown too old? Has he lost his edge? These thoughts tumble around both Kratos’ and the player’s heads as the Stranger throws them around and drives them through solid rock, wedging Kratos into the side of a hill.

With Kratos trapped, the Stranger taunts him even further, telling him he’s going to pay a visit to whoever’s still hiding in the house. And it’s only then, when his son’s life is in imminent danger, that Kratos truly allows the rage that’s been constantly bubbling beneath the surface to break free. He is no longer controlled by the anger that drove him in the original trilogy, he has mastered it and turned it into a tool. Unleashing his Spartan Rage, he stops the Stranger in his tracks before he can get anywhere near Atreus, rams him with a fallen tree trunk, and eventually drops an enormous stone mural on him, crushing him.

Finally, the fight appears to be over. The Stranger has been squashed flat, and Atreus is safe at last.

Image: Sony/Santa Monica Studio God of War 2018  - That mural doesn't stay standing for long.
Image: Sony/Santa Monica Studio – That mural doesn’t stay standing for long.

I Can’t Feel Any of This

Exhausted, Kratos lurches back towards his house. And in this brief moment, the player can clearly see the toll the fight has had on him. Kratos is visibly weaker, out of breath, and in need of rest. He’s old, and while he’s still a god, he has his limits.

But, of course, it’s not over yet. That would be too easy. The Stranger, unfazed and unhurt, lifts the rock above his head and launches it at Kratos. And even though he thought he was spent, Kratos knows he cannot stop yet, because the Stranger won’t stop until he’s been put down for good, and Atreus won’t be safe until that happens. So he digs deep, fights back, and the struggle continues.

By now, both gods are through playing around. The Stranger needs to finish his task from Odin, and Kratos needs the Stranger dead. They clash, wrestling each other, throwing all their weight, all their power into every movement, as the world buckles and breaks beneath them. But the Stranger can’t help himself, he just has to keep goading Kratos, and he says, “I want you to know one thing: I can’t feel any of this!”.

Such a simple, yet devastatingly demoralising line.

The fight has lasted from anywhere between ten and fifteen minutes by this point. Kratos is exhausted, the player is exhausted, yet they have nothing to show for it. The Stranger remains entirely unaffected, he hasn’t even broken a sweat. And all the while, he continues to mock both the player’s and Kratos’ struggle, calling it pointless, hopeless. It does such a brilliant job of making the player absolutely despise this villain and at the same time, puts them right into Kratos’ frame of mind. Maybe it is hopeless, maybe they can’t win, but that doesn’t mean they should give up. Atreus’ life may be at stake.

So they fight on, and eventually Kratos gains the upper hand. He breaks the Stranger’s neck and tosses his lifeless body down a yawning chasm. But they both know it’s not the last they’ll see of him.

The player watches as Kratos struggles back to the house, weary, battered and bruised beyond anything they’ve ever seen before, but powering through. His home is no longer the sanctuary he thought it to be, he cannot keep Atreus safe by hiding in the forest anymore. They need to move, and they need to reach their goal. Now.

Image: Sony/Santa Monica Studio God of War 2018 - Broken but not beaten by the stranger fight, Kratos has a long journey ahead of him.
Image: Sony/Santa Monica Studio – Broken but not beaten, Kratos has a long journey ahead of him.

A Change in Perspective

Fantastically, revelations discovered later down the line recontextualise the fight entirely. over the course of the adventure, Kratos, Atreus, and the player discover that the Stranger – or Baldur – wasn’t sent to find Kratos, but Fey, Kratos’ wife. Fey was a giant from Jotenheim, a race so much more refined than the Aesir gods, who could grow to enormous heights, or could be human-sized in stature. Odin wanted the race wiped out, and Fey was the last of her kind, the last obstacle in his way. The fight was started over a classic case of mistaken identity, nothing more. This was Fey’s past catching up with her, not Kratos’.

But it was a necessary step to begin the journey, one Kratos wouldn’t have taken had he not been provoked. If their peaceful life in the woods had continued unchallenged, Kratos would never have deemed Atreus ready to face the real world. He would have kept his son trapped in a protective bubble forever, never letting him grow, never letting him truly try or fail at anything. And so, that safety needed to be shattered. The trees Kratos cut down for his wife’s pyre secretly provided a protective barrier around the woods, and cutting them down was the first step towards bringing Kratos and Atreus, father and son, closer together.

This entire fight – like the entire game – is presented in one long unbroken take. The camera stays close to Kratos, lingering on his subtle changes of expression, the small sparks of fear or anger in his eyes. It shows the game is much more personal, more emotionally driven, than any God of War that came before. It humanizes Kratos, and for the first time, lets players see him as a real, three-dimensional character, a father with real hopes and real fears, rather than just a rage-filled puppet to let off some steam with every now and again.

It shows just how far gaming, and story-telling in games, has come, how much it has grown up. And how much gamers have grown up alongside it.

Max Longhurst is a keen gamer, avid writer and reader, and former teacher. He first got into gaming when, at the age of 8, his parents bought him a PS2 and Kingdom Hearts for Christmas, and he’s never looked back. Primarily a PlayStation fan, he loves games with a rich single-player experience and stories with unexpected twists and turns.