It began, as these things so often do, in the shower.
“Hey Jim,” I said to myself.
“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.