Is Kratos Black? 10


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.

kratos

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.

  • Robyrt

    In the child­hood flash­back in Ghost of Sparta, Kratos isn’t notice­ably dark­er than the other Greeks; the cutscene in GoW2 prob­a­bly just dark­ens his skin to empha­size that this is before he got his white coat­ing. Even if he were always dark­er, olive skinned doesn’t mean black, espe­cial­ly in ancient Greece. Voice actor T.C. Carson is black, but the char­ac­ter is always spo­ken of as being eth­ni­cal­ly Greek with an anachro­nis­tic visu­al design.

  • Jim Ralph

    Hi Robyrt, thanks for read­ing and the com­ment. You make some per­fect­ly legit­i­mate points, though I’d dis­pute them. As I inferred in the arti­cle though, for me the most bemus­ing part of this whole thing is that there is room for dis­cus­sion on the sub­ject at all!

    I’m not sure about the moments you’re refer­ring to when you say Kratos is referred to as ‘eth­ni­cal­ly Greek’. Indeed I am not sure I would call Greek an eth­nic­i­ty (again, I am no expert, and I stand cor­rect­ed if I’m wrong). In the time peri­od the games are set there was no Greece, just a series of city states. Kratos is fre­quent­ly called Spartan but that is a nation­al­i­ty, not a race. There is a very impor­tant dis­tinc­tion.

    You’re quite right about the flash­backs in Ghost of Sparta of course, but frankly I don’t see how later games in the series whiten­ing Kratos’ skin stands against my argu­ment. I do not recall the moment myself, but the arti­cle I ref­er­enced regard­ing Djimon Hounsou notes that later in the series not just Kratos but also HIS FAMILY are moved towards a more Anglo-Saxon look. Doesn’t light­en­ing their skin tone make in and of itself make sug­ges­tions about their eth­nic­i­ty in the first place? We shouldn’t look at Kratos as actu­al per­son, with a con­sis­tent and per­pet­u­al iden­ti­ty, but rather as a series of rep­re­sen­ta­tions. Retroactive changes, despite osten­si­bly being set chrono­log­i­cal­ly before Kratos reach­es adult­hood, do not change the rep­re­sen­ta­tions we find in ear­li­er games. The best we can call it is incon­sis­tent. I’m afraid I do not find the idea that his skin tone was dark­ened to empha­sise the whiten­ing effect of the ash at all con­vinc­ing.

  • Another seem­ing­ly no-makeup scene can be found in Chains of Olympus dur­ing the Fields of Elysium level: https://​www​.youtube​.com/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​G​H​5​-​V​i​A​R​N​B​s​#​t​=​136

  • This video is bet­ter qual­i­ty and shows it bet­ter: https://​www​.youtube​.com/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​P​P​i​S​s​N​R​c​x​p​A​#​t​=​6857

    He still looks sorta ashy, but def­i­nite­ly dif­fer­ent than his nor­mal look.

  • Hulk

    I agree with you. I believe some peo­ple “don’t want Kratos to be black” But given his char­ac­ter make up and facial fea­tures it is high­ly pos­si­ble that he his black. The Moors (if you’ve heard of them) con­quered Sicily for two hun­dred years way back in the day; so there were black in that part of the world. Nonetheless he is what we want him to be in my opin­ion. I like the idea of a black pro­tag­o­nist, so in MY MIND, he’s black.

    • Martin Luther King

      ok 1st. moors were not black, they were gen­er­aly arabs and berbers
      2nd. they didnt come to scili untill 700 AD when spar­tans lived around 300 AD
      and 3rd wtf does greece have any­thing to do with a island near ITALY

      • Island Star

        lmao moor lit­er­al­ly means black, berbers are berbers not moors, arab are arabs not moors, arab is not race, their are arabs who are white and black, if you ever been to Iraq you would know there are black peo­ple there lmao
        Also their were black peo­ple in the Greek Empire, like every big empire it was multi cul­tur­al. The word Nigger comes from Niger which is in the bible and its what the greeks called a hebrew priest who was black.

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  • LOL, you wast­ed your time bruh. Kratos IS a Greek Spartan war­rior. As in cau­casian as in white.

  • Reese Smalling

    Ralph i am a huge fan of the god of war series and i have came to the con­clu­sion that he is indeed black. The cre­ators could have eas­i­ly cast­ed a greek man for the voice. No mat­ter how many arti­cles i read hes black peri­od. Just give us 1 there’s enough Caucasian heroes in the gam­ing world.