Is Kratos Black? 17

It began, as these things so often do, in the show­er.

Hey Jim,” I said to myself.

Yes, Jim?”

Is Kratos black?”

Why of course he… wait.”

There fol­lowed some pon­der­ing, and some googling, and in turn some regrets at find­ing myself in the murky inter­net depths of “the com­ments,” a space to be avoid­ed in most instances and par­tic­u­lar­ly those occa­sioned by search­es on the topic of race. Having re-showered to cleanse myself of that expe­ri­ence, the ques­tion remained on my mind. Not real­ly the ques­tion itself, which is at best one of sur­face level curios­i­ty, but the fur­ther ques­tion it precedes- why don’t I know this?

For those who may not be aware, Kratos is the pro­tag­o­nist of the God of War series, a bom­bas­ti­cal­ly vio­lent fighty-slashy-stabby-‘em-up set loose­ly in Ancient Greek mythol­o­gy. While they’ve grad­u­al­ly gone off the boil as the series has con­tin­ued, they’re a gen­uine­ly enjoy­able exer­cise in turn­ing every­thing up to 11. Landscapes tower into bright Grecian skies, stur­dy char­ac­ters stand tall and deliv­er overblown the­atri­cal speech­es on fate and des­tiny and sac­ri­fice, and of course the action is bone-breaking, teeth-cracking, gut-spilling sadism. Kratos, bent usu­al­ly on some kind of vengeance against some­one, drags the play­er through his world like a rag­ing bull on a leash, smash­ing through the sup­posed immor­tal­i­ty of gods and the insur­mount­able power of mytho­log­i­cal heroes and beasts. All fall before him. He’s a pow­er­house, an ele­men­tal force, a bat­ter­ing ram, a sur­face to wherever-you-please mis­sile. He will fuck you up.

I’ve spent plen­ty of hours with Kratos over the course of these games, par­tic­u­lar­ly on the occa­sions when I’ve ramped up the dif­fi­cul­ty and had to repeat some sec­tions so often my Playstation and any near­by glaz­ing have been in immi­nent dan­ger. The games are third-person, with the cam­era slight­ly behind and above the bald lit­tle nut­case as he goes about his mur­dery busi­ness. I’ve seen Kratos reg­u­lar­ly, repeat­ed­ly and for extend­ed peri­ods, and for the life of me, at this point, I couldn’t tell you whether he’s black or not.

To be fair, it’s not as silly as I’m mak­ing out. At the start of the series and through­out the vast major­i­ty of our time with Kratos he is, get this, cov­ered head to toe in the ashes of his wife and child, mur­dered and burned by his own hand and turned into full-body make­up by some shaman woman. Or some­thing.


Whatever the rea­son­ing, the colour of the man’s skin is obscured total­ly and almost con­stant­ly by a sort of ivory white­ness that off­sets some badass red tat­toos. Like a great many videogame char­ac­ters, he is more design than rep­re­sen­ta­tion, an amal­ga­ma­tion of artis­tic effects intend­ed to cre­ate an impres­sion rather than an attempt to reflect any objec­tive real­i­ty. He’s a Picasso, not a Courbet.

I say “the vast major­i­ty of our time with Kratos” because there are excep­tions. In God of War 2, a cutscene takes us back to the scene in which he man­ages to acci­den­tal­ly (because, of course, these things hap­pen) chop up his whole fam­i­ly. Looking back upon it now the Kratos in that scene has, to my mind, a rather ambigu­ous com­plex­ion which could per­haps be seen as the olivey tan of a Mediterranean, which makes sense in the Greek con­text. Tellingly, though, the fel­low Grecian sol­diers as pre­sent­ed in the cutscene don’t have a sim­i­lar com­plex­ion. They’re vis­i­bly paler than Kratos and his fam­i­ly. Paler, in fact, than I per­son­al­ly would imag­ine a res­i­dent of Ancient Greece could pos­si­bly be expect­ed to look. Whatever the his­tor­i­cal real­i­ty, Kratos is cer­tain­ly dark­er skinned than the Greeks as pre­sent­ed with­in the con­text of God of War.

That’s prob­a­bly about enough to con­vince me, to be hon­est. While Kratos’ com­plex­ion might be some­what ambigu­ous in iso­la­tion, the com­par­a­tive visu­als speak. There’s sadly a long his­to­ry of whiten­ing char­ac­ters from non-Western cul­tures through­out art (hello there, rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Jesus, thanks for show­ing up just in time to prove a point) and even today evi­dence of black celebri­ties hav­ing their skin tone light­ened by make­up and image manip­u­la­tion is plain to see, pre­sum­ably on the basis of appeal­ing to a wider (whiter) audi­ence. It looks rea­son­able to assume that in the art­work of God of War all the char­ac­ters have been nudged visu­al­ly towards the Caucasian side of the spec­trum and their skin tones ought, in a more objec­tive por­tray­al, to be dark­er across the board.

Other argu­ments abound, both for and against, but none of them real­ly do it for me and some, pre­dictably falling in the “against” camp, are frankly offen­sive. These main­ly sound like excus­es to obscure the under­ly­ing sen­ti­ment of “I don’t want Kratos to be black,” for exam­ple cit­ing his­tor­i­cal inac­cu­ra­cy in the prospect of a per­son of colour find­ing his way into the Spartan pop­u­lace in the first place. I’m no his­to­ri­an, but even with my lim­it­ed knowl­edge I can pret­ty con­fi­dent­ly call bull­shit on that, and that’s with­out get­ting into the much more per­ti­nent ques­tion about why you would look for his­tor­i­cal accu­ra­cy in a game that fea­tures a Pegasus. I can’t con­tin­ue that line of thought with­out get­ting even swea­ri­er than I already am. Others want to get into bio­log­i­cal anthro­pol­o­gy and dis­cuss phys­i­cal fea­tures quite apart from skin tone to assess Kratos’ race, and I noticed sim­i­lar argu­ments on phys­i­o­log­i­cal fea­tures being used both for and against Kratos’ black­ness, some­thing that to me either sig­ni­fies that the cat­e­go­riza­tion of racial fea­tures is a vague and sketchy process at best, or that the peo­ple using it to make the argu­ments know very lit­tle about it. Or both. I sus­pect both.

So, a black pro­tag­o­nist in a major gam­ing series. Good news, right? We all know how dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly white-washed gam­ing can be. But just as we must assess Kratos’ com­plex­ion with­in the con­text of his in-game envi­ron­ment, so too must we think about the deci­sions that went into cre­at­ing that char­ac­ter with­in the con­text of the wider gam­ing envi­ron­ment. I guess what I’m say­ing is, why Kratos? Gaming is full of hand­some, stub­bly, cis­gen­dered, het­ero­sex­u­al, white, male pro­tag­o­nists, and while that is not a pos­i­tive thing, diverg­ing from that unfor­tu­nate norm is, we can say with some con­fi­dence, a con­scious choice. The rea­son­ing behind that choice might well be good, along the lines of “All these bloody char­ac­ters look the same, let’s branch out,” which is fan­tas­tic. On the other hand, the rea­son­ing might be bad, akin to “Let’s make our main char­ac­ter female so we can present her bare­ly dressed and appeal to the horny young men mar­ket.”

In a video on how Kratos’ char­ac­ter came about, David Jaffe and mem­bers of his art team dis­cuss the early themes they had in mind when cre­at­ing him, bandy­ing around terms like “bru­tal,” “pri­mal” and “ani­mal­is­tic.” From these, Kratos was born. Now, for me, it’s prob­lem­at­ic that for the game’s design­ers, these the­mat­ic choic­es, which are per­fect­ly rea­son­able in and of them­selves, add up to a black char­ac­ter. As I men­tioned above, Kratos is a dick. For me, what always set him apart from your aver­age videogame pro­tag­o­nist was the sim­ple, in your face, no holds barred hon­esty about his vio­lence: he is walk­ing rage. And now I come to real­ize that the other thing set­ting him apart is that he is black. That par­al­lel makes me uncom­fort­able.

Kratos not only is a dick, but has one. And he ain’t afraid to use it. From the first game’s infa­mous three­some Quick Time Event the series has per­sis­tent­ly played upon Kratos’ sex­u­al prowess. Essentially, he fucks like he fights- pret­ty damned well and, pre­sum­ably, not too gen­tly. He even gets a go with Aphrodite, who has appar­ent­ly been screw­ing man and god alike for who knows how long but is nonethe­less left weak at the knees by Kratos and his, uh, tal­ent. Like the vio­lence, this never gave me much pause pre­vi­ous­ly, and per­haps the real­iza­tion that Kratos is a per­son of colour shouldn’t change that, but I can­not help but now read both these fac­tors as play­ing right into incred­i­bly out­dat­ed colo­nial fears: they are stereo­types inflict­ed on black cul­tures as a mode of dehu­man­iz­ing and con­trol­ling, using phys­i­cal power and a big dick to sig­ni­fy ani­mal base­ness.

The final prob­lem I see with this brings me full cir­cle, back to the begin­ning when I hadn’t even real­ized Kratos was black at all. Among my wor­ries for this arti­cle is it achiev­ing noth­ing but to make me look a bloody fool: how could I pos­si­bly have missed Kratos’ race? But, when plans for a God of War movie were put into place (and sub­se­quent­ly fell out of place) the obvi­ous dis­cus­sions around who would play Kratos did the inter­net rounds. David Jaffe men­tioned options like Vin Diesel and The Rock as well as, rather bizarrely, Billy Crystal. Meanwhile oth­ers argue the only choice is Djimon Hounsou. Now of course the racial char­ac­ter­is­tics of a char­ac­ter and their movie coun­ter­part needn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly cor­re­spond, but what’s pret­ty clear from these sug­ges­tions is that they cover a huge range of the skin tone spec­trum. No fuck­er has a clue what race Kratos is sup­posed to be. But as I observed before, the major­i­ty of the time you can’t see the guy’s skin at all, but just his ash cov­er­ing. He has been lit­er­al­ly white-washed.

Call me para­noid but I can­not help but be sus­pi­cious about that, about the idea of some­one sit­ting down at some stage of a design meet­ing and choos­ing to cover a black protagonist’s entire skin colour so that it can­not be seen. I don’t want to believe that that deci­sion had even the tini­est ele­ment of moti­va­tion to make the char­ac­ter more palat­able to white audi­ences. But I can’t help it: I do believe that.

It would’ve been quite nice just to leave that hang­ing there and sign off on this arti­cle, but there’s some­thing I think ought to be made clear before I do that. I don’t think David Jaffe and God of War’s other cre­ators are racists. They might well be, but I don’t know that, and I don’t want this to read as a claim that I think it. I don’t believe the team at Santa Monica Studios start­ed with a black char­ac­ter and decid­ed that these stereo­types are the ones that would best define him, I believe that they want­ed to make an absolute bas­tard the hero of their games from the begin­ning. Did his skin become dark­er as a result of that char­ac­ter­i­za­tion? We can only the­o­rize. Perhaps it is pure coin­ci­dence. What I cer­tain­ly do claim is that in the cre­ation of this char­ac­ter, they’ve fall­en afoul of a series of cul­tur­al tropes which should by now have been left in the dusty annals of his­to­ry, not con­tin­ued to be per­pet­u­at­ed in the world’s most youth­ful and rapid­ly ris­ing artis­tic medi­um.

A note: I’ll con­fess to some umming and ahhing about writ­ing this arti­cle. I am aware of my posi­tion on the priv­i­leged side of any dis­cus­sion on race, or indeed gen­der and sex­u­al­i­ty, and it would sad­den me to think that I had added to that pile of per­haps well-meaning but clum­si­ly real­ized writ­ing that can emerge from those in a sim­i­lar posi­tion. I hope you’ll take it on trust, there­fore, that any mis­steps in ter­mi­nol­o­gy, the­o­ry or atti­tude are the prod­ucts of inno­cent igno­rance. That’s not an excuse, any offense caused is my own respon­si­bil­i­ty and I humbly apol­o­gise for it. I only ask that in that case you take to the com­ments and cor­rect me where I’ve gone wrong, so I may improve in future. I sin­cere­ly hope that that isn’t at all nec­es­sary, but at the same time I can­not in good con­science close myself off from the pos­si­bil­i­ty: that way obsti­na­cy lies.

Jim Ralph

About Jim Ralph

Jim Ralph currently resides in sunny Winchester, England. He'd love to hear from you, personally, with any thoughts on his writing or lucrative job offers.

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