Story Spoilers for The Last of Us and God of War ahead.
The Last of Us, released way back in 2013, is one of the most successful survival-horror games of all time. However, the way in which it deals with horror isn’t quite like other zombie-apocalypse titles. While it may be true that Naughty Dog’s game features its fair share of jump-scares, the most effective way in which the horror works is to do with the relationship between Ellie and Joel. In the same way, 2018’s God of War, while not being a horror game in terms of genre, manages to do the same thing in relation to Kratos and Atreus.
The Last of Us sets up family horror from the get-go. From Sarah’s death at the start, to Joel attempting to refrain from getting involved with Ellie, the suspense in the game builds in direct proportion to the development of Joel as a paternal figure. This is initially paralleled with the horror setting, but it gradually becomes the main source of horror. Sure, the Bloaters might make you jump, and there are parts that genuinely gave me goosebumps, but the main source of fear lies in fearing for Ellie.
Joel’s contextual background hardens him to the extent that he is unwilling to play a paternal role ever again after having lost his daughter to a cruel twist of fate when the infection went airborne. He’d rather endure the pain of being alone in the world than risk the pain associated with losing someone else. However, as his relationship with Ellie develops, the anxiety of attachment sets in. This draws out Joel’s repressed paternal instincts, which are vicariously experienced by the player controlling him.
The suspense created by tying their relationship to a world of horror and uncertainty culminates in Ellie’s abduction by David, who is the leader of a group of cannibalistic survivors. While Ellie manages to eventually incapacitate David, the ensuing cutscene is utterly tragic. Joel finds her, hunched over David’s dead body, stabbing it over and over again. Despite Ellie escaping his evil clutches, the trauma she feels is felt by the player in the way that a parent feels for their child. After having seen what Ellie had to endure, Joel becomes more protective than ever – something that’s proven by the events that unfold as The Last of Us spirals towards its end.
In God of War, although Atreus is rarely in immediate danger, his ambiguous sickness that manifests itself sporadically throughout the game eventually takes full hold of his faculties. In order to save him, the player must venture to the depth of Helheim, or the underworld. Although there is no time limit, the suspense created in Freya’s hut as she attempts to heal him sends the player hurtling through the Bifrost to Helheim. Helheim itself is perhaps the area that is most semblant of horror in God of War, but it’s the reason as to why Kratos is there that makes it even more terrifying. In order to save his son, he must travel to the world of the dead; a task that makes no promise of a return journey.
Atreus is healed, but in the same way that Joel becomes more and more protective over Ellie as The Last of Us progresses, so too does the relationship between Kratos and Atreus grow as the game’s trajectory unfolds. The first installment of a trilogy, God of War never truly puts Atreus’ life at risk aside from this one moment; however, the murals in Jotunheim warn Kratos of a future filled with despair for father and son alike. Even the parts of the story that haven’t been written yet are imbued with the fear of the unknown derived from the relationship between Kratos and his son.
The horror in these games is therefore much more emotionally-charged than an archetypal zombie story. For instance, Richard Matheson’s infamous novel, I Am Legend, may feature some incredibly heavy scenes like the death of Robert’s dog. This is tragic, but nothing truly compares to experiencing the pain of Ellie, who you have grown to care for as a part of your family. Nothing truly compares to playing as Kratos as he journeys through the depths of Helheim, desperate to save his dying son. You fear for Ellie as if she is your daughter, Atreus as if he is your son; Joel and Ellie, Kratos and Atreus. The parental roles in these two games are intrinsically tied to their depiction of horror.
While these games may intentionally present the very plausible idea that the link between parent and child is fragile and is susceptible to being severed, they also draw attention to the fact that strength can be drawn from known vulnerability. It is because the link is so fragile that Joel and Kratos are so desperate to protect it in the first place, as they are the only barrier between an enemy and that very link. Bloaters and Valkyries may prove to be formidable foes, but they’ll crumble to ashes when faced with the wrath of a parent protecting their child.
It is the known horror of losing a child that empowers these protagonists; a tragic fate, really, because in a world of terror, they must never forget to be afraid, lest they drop their guard and lose the one thing that they truly care about. In order to remain strong, they must enter states of perpetual horror, at all times knowing the darkness that envelopes them, threatening to steal their loved ones away from right under their noses. Parental horror is a U-shaped double-edged sword of horror and reality; in order to make sure that neither blade is pointed toward their child, a parent must ensure that they are at all times enduring the pain of both. It is this alone that allows them to be strong.