By Anna Pirie
Well written though it may be, the latest installment in the God of War series continues the series-long tradition of struggling with portraying female characters.
I was originally optimistic regarding the female characters of God of War: Ragnarök. Promotional material for the game included a promising glimpse at feminine inclusion. The lacklustre nature of the 2018 entry in the series, which boasted a whopping female character count of one (unless you include Athena, who appears but for a moment), struck me as odd.
The series’ soft reboot was clearly going for a more mature tone, including its portrayal of women, yet features a fridged wife for male motivation – the second in the series! I was ready for that to change.
By comparison on this basis, Ragnarök had vastly improved upon its predecessor. New female characters are introduced, all of whom hold wildly different worldviews and motivations. Freya features even more heavily than in 2018. Even Faye, dead as she is, receives more attention in this game. Perhaps my wishes had been answered.
Even so, after finishing this game, I somehow felt strangely hollow when thinking about these characters. The conclusion of the game sees Atreus determine Odin’s fate – a narrative choice that continues to confuse me. Ragnarök spends much of its runtime ensuring the player understands the pain that Odin put Freya through. Upon his defeat at the game’s conclusion, Freya positions herself as Odin’s executioner, taunting him with the role he used to hang himself. Yet, in Odin’s final moments, she hands him off to Atreus to deal with.
Atreus, who Odin is yet to personally wrong?! I could not believe my eyes. As I thought about my frustration with this, I came across what appears to be the simple truth about this game:
Female characters exist in this narrative to assist in advancing a plot that the male characters claim as theirs.
Let us examine Angrboda for a moment. Her character worries about being left behind by the narrative, becoming ‘a footnote in his [Atreus’] story’. As a narrative that concerns itself with fate, Ragnarök has Angrboda rail against being written out of the story. Yet, at her big moment in the conclusion, she makes a triumphant return!- to help Atreus out.
There is no mention of her own motivations on taking Asgard on, no mention of her desire to continue her own story. Thor, murderer of Angrboda’s people, is disappointingly taken down by Odin. As Maddie Myers of Polygon writes: “It’s an entire plot point that gets introduced and then summarily left behind, since it’s not related to Atreus’ or Kratos’ personal growth.”
Angrboda’s contributions to the war on Asgard are few at best, and non-existent at worst. It is as if the writers had forgotten about her and then reintroduced her at the last second to remind the player that she still exists at all. Meanwhile, the narrative busies itself with Kratos and Atreus and Odin and Sindri and Thor. The menfolk reign supreme.
Angrboda’s role in Ragnarök is just as minimal as she worries it is. She exists to tell Atreus what his story is to be – and occasionally to help him with managing his emotional issues. But doesn’t that remind you of someone else?
Previously existing purely as a disembodied voice for the game to play over the music during emotional moments, Faye, Kratos’ second fridged wife, exacts a more physical presence within Ragnarök. Flashback scenes depict her preparations for her own death, and for her husband and son’s subsequent journey. Other characters reflect on her influence with esteem and reverence. But that is part of the problem.
Faye struggles to exist external to her role as influencer. She works tirelessly as Kratos’ emotional caretaker and ensuring he and Atreus are on the right path. This comes as much as a result of her identity as a giant as it does her identity as a woman. Perhaps it is relevant that the only two giants, concerned as they are with helping others onto their fates, who feature within Ragnarök – Faye and Angrboda – are female.
It’s worth mentioning that this side-lining is applicable to the other female characters. While I was drafting this article up, I had planned a section on Thrúd. I was mid-sentence on how she, unlike Angrboda or Faye, has a more direct impact on the narrative because of her influence on Thor’s eventual turn on Odin – before I realised, shamefully, how similar she sounds to the other women.
It is only Freya who escapes this fate. More time is spent on her motivations than any other character in this game. When war is finally unleashed upon Asgard at the conclusion, I fully understood that, more than anyone else, this was her war to wage.
There is still a layer of disappointment to Freya’s role in Ragnarök. As mentioned earlier, I was rather disappointed there was no cutscene of Freya tearing Odin limb from limb. Freya even side-lines herself as the war begins, asking a reluctant Kratos to act as general in her place. Additionally, at times, her suffering verges on gratuitous. Freyr’s death at the game’s conclusion is noticeably yet another tragic event for Freya to deal with. Nevertheless, I was compelled from beginning to end with Freya.
Certainly, there are improvements in this game. Female characters are allowed to exist comfortably and without stereotyping within this narrative. Some are noticeably un-feminine – neither did I miss Lúnda’s crudeness, nor Thrúd’s confidence and (at times) aggression. Yet the disappointment remains. Is it too much to just want women to influence a story on their own terms?
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