By Terry Randolph
Loss. It’s a permanent, powerful presence appearing in life at some juncture or another. Whether it’s saying goodbye to a home, friends, relationships, or a loved one, it rears its ugly head in ways that are mystifyingly profound. We all handle its presence differently; some romanticize it, hoping it lessens the painful grip it takes on their hearts and minds. Others try ignoring it, pushing past by focusing on the tasks at hand hoping it will eventually disappear.
While painful, loss also teaches us some of life’s greatest lessons; the power of empathy, to find strength in ourselves, and learning to move forward even when life feels bleak. It does not always show up right away, but the lesson is there once we embrace it. In so many ways, loss is something inherently ugly while also being beautiful.
A lot of brilliant video games brilliantly extrapolate the duality of loss. Each story is layered with a complexity simple and relatable in nature. What makes them resonate is how these stories balance between allowing the emotion and narration to drive the heart of the story. These stories find the right moments to pause and allow the characters to process what they feel, and find the right time to propel the narrative forward.
The Last of Us, one of my favorite video games of all time, is one I consider a masterpiece in the art of telling the story of loss. On its surface, it’s your run-of-the-mill post-apocalyptic story that has checks across the board; a new creature hellbent on destroying humanity, humans killing humans for survival, and the hope for a cure that requires traversing the dangerous new world. The game is cold, brutal, and ugly, unafraid to display the grotesque violence. Our journey is an exploration of humanity’s stubborn will to survive above all else.
However, that’s the surface level. Instead, what we’re really seeing is the damage of loss and the revitalization of hope through the eyes of Joel, our main character. His hope and redemption are through the girl he’s tasked to protect, Ellie, on their journey to a research center dedicated to fighting the parasite that’s turning humanity into these fungal zombies. During this journey, the two are forced to learn to rely on each other for survival. Joel, cold at first, begins to warm up to her as he begins to see his daughter in Ellie. By the time they reach the research facility, Joel learns the truth of what they plan to do to make the cure; kill Ellie. It’s a what-if scenario, a probability that her sacrifice will produce what they think will save humanity. However, instead of allowing his ‘daughter’ to die by his hands (again), he comes back to keep Ellie alive.
Joel’s story comes full circle, his pain a lesson that allowed him to grow and make a decision now. Instead of feeling helpless, lost, and alone, he’s found his home and hope in Ellie. Instead of allowing himself to feel powerless, Joel takes the matter into his own hands to do the thing he wished he could do for his daughter.
The same can be said of the timeless classic Shadow of the Colossus. On its surface, it’s a game consisting of David versus Goliath-like bouts for the sake of love overcoming all obstacles. However, the story is actually about the obsession with loss and the inability of letting go. Each Colossi seems to represent Wander’s demons as he fights to let go; however, they represent his further slip into his obsession. With every Colossi slain, their souls invade Wander’s body and poison him until he is no longer human. Thus, his obsession becomes his downfall. It’s beautiful, bittersweet and intense.
Each story is an examination of human nature at work in all its flaws and strengths. They captivate and frustrate, mainly because these situations are a product of the character’s design. Our protagonists are trapped in a situation of their own making, pushing in ways that might be illogical to an outsider’s perspective. All of us have these situations, and all of us struggle with them. Loss is no exception.
Amidst its failings and growth, PlayStation’s latest foray into the God of War provides a beautiful examination into every stage of loss to make its strongest entry since Ghost of Sparta. This is all captured within two perspectives: in Kratos, a man who has suffered loss time and time again and has hardened from it. And from his son, Atreus, a boy trying to find his father’s acceptance while coming into his own. Kratos is forced to learn how to become the father he’s meant to be, succeeding and failing at the same time. The story is poignant, both from the perspective of a father and from that of a child.
Loss, it’s a figure so powerful that even when it hasn’t taken anything away, its presence still lingers.
Like Kratos, expressing grief is an obstacle because emotional vulnerability feels like a sign of weakness. Bottling emotions up and continuing to trudge forward was a sign of strength and resilience. Grief is something you internalize and process alone, even if it can feel overwhelming and make you feel lost. For Kratos specifically, grief and loss have always been a constant for as long as the series has been alive. At this point, it was just easier to keep moving forward, and part of the lesson he wanted to teach his son; to be better than him. And, just as poignant to know, we never realize the negative effect it has on those around us.
For most of the first half of the game, Kratos is able to keep his attention on the goal at hand; to teach his son life lessons for survival in the outside world while also dumping his wife’s ashes at the top of the tallest mountain. It is not until about midway through the game do we finally see a crack in Kratos’ emotional walls to create one of the most poignant scenes of the game. Kratos and Atreus have gotten the light of Alfheim to help them pierce through the Black Mist impeding them from climbing the mountain. Moments before, Kratos had stepped through the light and found himself traversing various familiar scenes following his wife’s voice calling for him. He tries reaching out desperately for her until he is pulled out of the light to find he had been gone for a long time. Kratos is shaken to his core, a moment of vulnerability that he shakes off immediately to continue their journey.
Later, as Kratos and Atreus continue the next leg of their journey back to Midgard from Alfheim, Atreus begins prodding about Kratos’ experience in the light and his supposed lack of grief:
Atreus: So…(pause) was she in the light?
Atreus: You know
Kratos: No, She was not there.
Atreus: Not even like you would care if she was.
Kratos (rebuking): Mind your tongue boy. Until our journey is over, one of us must remain focused. Do not mistake my silence for lack of grief. Mourn as you wish, leave me to my own.
Atreus (guilty): I’m sorry…I did not realize….
Kratos (softening): No…Why would you? You do not know my ways. I know it has not been easy.
Kratos: In the light. I felt only moments pass if that is of some comfort to you.
Atreus: That’s…that’s good to know.
Kratos finally sees the damage his emotional distance has done, and how it’s almost cost him his son. It’s not something we see until it hits us, and the defining moment comes from what happens after the revelation.
A singular moment that begins to define the journey, the relationship, the dynamic. It’s these moments that may feel tiny, but are magnanimous. It’s funny how easily we can place ourselves in these situations without trying, in circumstances easily avoidable. At what point does it become a breaking point, a singular moment when it becomes either too late or a cry for help?
I experienced something similar three years ago, and it taught me the same valuable lesson.
It was Thursday night, and I was in the middle of choir rehearsal gearing up for our Spring Show. I saw that it was my Aunt calling, and left it ringing while I continued rehearsal. Normally, she would leave a message and I would call back when available. However, this time she kept calling and calling. During our break, I called her back apologizing for not being able to pick up. On the other end, I heard sobbing and gasping, causing my body to feel cold.
“It’s Grandma, the doctor said she has Stage IV Thyroid Cancer.”
I was shaken to my core, and I could feel my heart sinking. Yet, I found myself trying to bottle my emotions inside. Instead, I decided that focusing on my rehearsal was the only thing I could do. The turmoil I felt could stay festering internally. I hardly remember the rest of the night other than hearing people asking me if I was ok, me brushing them off, walking home, then sitting in darkness reflecting on the news. Next thing I knew, I was in a restaurant with a friend who sat there watching me and asking if I was okay. Instead, I continued to talk about how the day went and focused on talking about what was left to do for choir practice. That was my way of grieving, or at least I trained myself to believe it. This went on during the first couple hours of hanging out until my friend decided it was time to push the envelope.
“I don’t get it. How can you be so silent about this? This is your grandma who raised you as a child, you can grieve if you want to.”
I felt my temper flare up, and I remember telling them “You think I haven’t been grieving? My grandmother has cancer, of course, I’ve been grieving. You have no right to tell me how to grieve.”
However, I remember pausing at that moment and looking at my friend. I was realizing I was redirecting my anger and grief at them, and it was unfair.
“I’m sorry, I just don’t know how to grieve. I don’t like being this open.” I told them right after, “I’m not angry at you, I’m not angry at anyone. I just don’t know what to say other than everything you hear from people going through this. And I don’t want to say those words because I don’t like to grieve.”
The rest of that night went on, and while I did not necessarily feel better I felt more honest with myself and those around me. In my mind, I was hoping this opened me up enough for whatever else would become.
Roughly three weeks later, I found out from my parents that my grandfather was developing dementia. And with all of us, we all stopped talking about it, yet we all felt the pain in the room. No one wanted to face the sad reality about what was happening to our family or what it meant. It was because none of us really knew how to talk about it. Instead of being in that same vulnerable place, I wanted to keep up the persona of being strong, even if it was damaging.
That spring, the loss was a purveyor of my thoughts, especially with two people close to my heart slipping away from me. I found myself drowning in questions I did not want to say out loud. Did I take them for granted? Had I talked to them enough?
How often do we find ourselves doing the things we think about protecting those we care about, only to push them away?
I think I knew deep down the reason I did not ask these questions were because I did not want to hear the answer. Instead, burying them deep was easier.
Still, I will always remember what my friend asked me after opening up and how it shaped the next time we experienced something similar:
“How honest are you being with yourself, and with others right now if all you do is put your walls up?”
While we eventually learned my grandmother’s cancer had not spread beyond her thyroid, and surgery was able to remove it, my parents and I had to learn to be willing to face future situations similar to this.
As a whole, the further I dove into God of War, the more it became a journey of emotional growth and less of a game. On the surface level, I did not care for the gameplay design at all. Progressive power scaling felt inadequate and inconsistent, with most of my experience feeling underpowered against enemies that should be easy. Runes that were meant to be power-ups seemed to have little influence on battles. Fights felt repetitive in their patterns and AI behavior to where dying felt more like from lack of attention and less from skill. The open world feels empty and provides little to no motivation for exploration. Simply put, it’s only enjoyable if you can glean something from the story.
What makes this game so special is poignant, defining moments like the one on the boat in Alfheim. They capture the core of the characters; their struggles, their motivations, their personality, everything perfectly encapsulated. The game’s story, while sometimes lacking in punch or brevity, shows Kratos and Atreus growing into themselves and their relationship.
These final few scenes, while spread apart, exemplified in the final moments of the game
Kratos – (unwrapping the bandages from his arms)
Atreus – What are you doing?
Kratos – I have nothing more to hide…
Atreus – Can we go now? We’re so close
Kratos – (turns around, walks over to his son, and takes the bag holding his wife’s ashes to hand to Atreus) – Carry her.
As they approach the edge of the top of the mountain. Kratos takes in a deep breath, knowing this was the moment their journey was for. Atreus opens the bag and turns to his father.
Kratos: (Pause) No, we do it together. Son.
Kratos puts his arm around Atreus as he puts his hand into the bag. Kratos soon follows suit, allowing the ash to fall from their hands and into the sky. They do this a couple more times, with Kratos now holding his son tightly to his side.
Kratos: Goodbye, Faye.
Atreus: I love you, Mom.
Each scene is carefully constructed with emotional significance; Kratos handing the satchel of Faye’s ashes to Atreus, and the decision to spread the ashes together. All of it represents Kratos’ growth on this journey from believing his old ways were working to seeing that vulnerably sharing closure with his son was important. Each action is small but loud in its prominence.
Earlier this spring, I received another call from my aunt that was similar to the one three years ago. Only this time, hearing the tone in her voice I felt myself prepared for what was to come. I asked what was wrong, and waited for the inevitable sinking feeling to come.
“It’s your Uncle, his Huntington’s is terminal and he only has weeks to live.”
My uncle had been fighting for his life nonstop for the past several years, and it was heart-wrenching to hear this finality. Turned out, an incident at his workplace involving him getting assaulted with a skateboard to the back of his head has accelerated his Huntington’s that he knew nothing about until recently.
Learning my uncle had Huntington’s was not the hardest part of this phone call, because at this point in my life I was already losing people close to me rapidly. No, it was what came next; having the heart to do what was unbearable for me. I would have to be the one to tell my father the news.
The phone call was brief since we were both at work. However, we decided we would go and visit my uncle to see how he was doing as soon as we could. We had decided to go within the next two weeks. However, over the next week, we were all falling into the pratfalls of our own design. We were beginning to shut ourselves down, bottling things up to keep moving forward as if ignoring the elephant in the room would help us. The trip was beginning to keep getting pushed back, and while financial logistics were being argued, it felt like something else and I refused to let it slide:
“Dad, it doesn’t matter how much a trip is going to cost, we need to go see him,” I somehow found the courage to say, “You can’t wait, neither can he. Right now, he needs his older brother as much as you need him. We need to go.”
We packed our bags two weekends later and spent all the time we could with my Uncle. In that time, my father got to see his brother whom he had not seen in years. We got to meet the amazing woman to whom he married, who took it upon herself to care for my uncle unconditionally as both caretaker and wife. We got to see the places they love, got to truly know them as a family should. Time passed by so quickly, that the trip felt bittersweet. The trip also allowed us to learn of the extent of his condition, and how much time he had left.
Turned out, the news of his condition was far exaggerated by those around us. Whereas we were seeing weeks left, it turns out him and his wife were planning for trips throughout the remaining year. It meant hope for us, another opportunity to see him again in the future.
We’re looking at trying to find another time to see him again, for longer.
For my father and I, this trip was more than just visiting family. It was a trip that required us to examine loss closely. Yet, instead of bottling it up like we always have, we embraced the reality of the situation and found peace. We were able to heal because we were willing to be honest with how we felt.
Throughout the trip, Kratos found himself standing on a mountain of failures, though no longer alone. Instead of allowing himself to climb it alone, he found the strength to do right by bringing his son with him. Even if it meant admitting his own fears and weaknesses, Kratos became the father he was meant to be. It required emotional honesty, resilience he lacked, and for that we see a man transformed by the time the credits roll.
Kratos’ lesson was invaluable, in that loss is something that can still be an internal process while also being external. Such a heavy burden could be lifted from his shoulders by placing his trust in his son, learning to lean on him as much as his son needed to lean on him. Intended or not, Atreus will be Kratos’ greatest teacher as he still has so much to learn.
That’s what makes God of War a powerful experience worth playing through at least once. Amidst its flawed combat, the lack of proper RPG design and power scaling, and an empty world that lacked motivation for exploring, the story shines as an examination of loss and what it means to be a parent. While the game’s journey grows in scope and peril, the game is at its best in the quiet, tender moments between Atreus and Kratos. Because in these moments we find Kratos fighting his greatest adversary: himself. The loss of his wife and the potential loss of his son pushes him to overcome his doubts and fears, a hard lesson he had to learn.
Loss, something so poignantly painful. It leaves marks and strokes on the canvas that appear as deep, dark marks. Each mark seems purposeful, but without direction, taking up spaces undeserved. Yet, when we learn to take a step back and examine it closely, we learn to see the lessons hidden within those strokes. Some more apparent than others, stronger than others, but the lessons are there. Ready and waiting for when the moment is right.