There's something incredibly magical about the latest God of War. Kratos's world feels like a rich tapestry woven from various strands of ancient mythologies; a complex re-imagining of stories and history that has resulted in the creation of a mysterious Nordic world. This sort of depth can only be achieved through careful research and design, and Santa Monica has (rightly) received a great deal of attention for its clever use of mythology to write the game's lore.
But the devil is in the details.
On the surface, God of War's runes may seem merely decorative, but a closer inspection reveals the game features a working runic system all of its own. Written in 'Elder Futhark'- the oldest form of the runic alphabets - they are scattered across the game and appear everywhere from Kratos's axe to Atreus's neck.
Naturally, the runes have intrigued God of War fans, who over the past few months have taken on the Herculean task of translating every last inscription. Using a combination of Old Norse and Contemporary Icelandic, Redditors have found God of War's ancient runes conceal several hints about characters' background stories. Some even foreshadow the game's ending, meaning major plot points have been hidden in plain sight all along (at least, for those versed in ancient Scandinavian languages). Take a look at this translation work by one fan who discovered a secret prophecy on the back of the God of War Steelbook Case.
Intrigued by the idea of this cryptic form of communication between developer and players, I decided to scour Reddit to find more of these hidden messages, and to discover a little more about the translation process.
It goes without saying there are some spoilers ahead. If you are yet to finish God of War, now is the time to stray from this path.
According to Redditor 'herpaderpmurkamurk' on r/GodofWar, the large red runes on Baldur's back spell "cursed". His arms feature a repeated phrase that roughly translates as "never to forgive", while the circular tattoo on his chest has been interpreted as "lights confide me with warmth so that I might feel (something)".
As if those runes weren't ominous enough, Baldur's neck bears the words "I mark the twilight (sunset) of the gods". herpaderpmurkamurk believes this phrase alludes to Baldur being a sign of Ragnarok. If only Atreus could have translated this rune to give Kratos a heads-up about the world's end.
On the subject of Atreus, the young boy also sports several tattoos of his own. According to herpaderpmurkamurk, Atreus's hand tattoos mean "good at shooting (with a bow)". There has also been debate as to whether Atreus's neck tattoo means "fishnet mind" or "calm mind" (interestingly, fishing is associated with the god Loki in Norse mythology). Atreus's runes currently seem rather simplistic, but could he gain more distinctive tattoos in later games when his powers develop?
Rune translators have also been able to shed some more light on the game's infamous end-game mural. Redditor Zeuthras has recently uncovered a number of words surrounding the images, including "betrayal", "death", "father" and "catastrophe". Not brilliant news for Kratos, it would seem.
Meanwhile, Redditor EndimionN also made a rather touching discovery by thinking (quite literally) outside of the box. By translating runes on the outside of the God of War Collector's Edition box, EndimionN uncovered a heart-warming message from Santa Monica Studio.
So how do the translators do it? To find out, I contacted Redditor Geirvald, who has established a 'rune translation hotline' - a place for Redditors to post images of runes and have them translated. He is currently working towards a PhD in Old Norse.
According to Geirvald, reading runes is "more akin to decoding than translating", so Geirvald suggests first transliterating the runes into the latin alphabet before translating the phrase from Old Norse to English. Here's a handy graphic to illustrate the process.
God of War uses a heavily simplified version of Old Norse, making it a great entry point for people wanting to try their hand at deciphering runes. Compared to most Scandinavian runes, God of War's runic system uses clear spacing and no abbreviations, while the Old Norse used avoids declining nouns and conjugating verbs (a lot of grammar words, I know). Beginners can, however, still get stuck when it comes to transliteration, as some runes can represent several different Latin letters. To help with this, Geirvald recommends making a small list of these trickier runes.
When I asked Geirvald about the community response on Reddit to the translation projects, he noted there had been a great deal of interest, and some fantastic collaborations between fans. While some users would post photos, others would try their hand at translating, and experts in Old Norse would often provide advice to help fans "through trickier lines".
In Geirvald's view, the runes also seem to have stoked a real interest in "learning Old Norse properly". Although the runes in God of War have been heavily adapted from their source material, Geirvald believes this is actually a good thing for amateurs. In his words, "there's only so much a game made for entertainment can expect an audience to put into said game."
"The simplified inscriptions allow players to take a few minutes to transliterate, check a dictionary online, and manage to access a mythological reference, a game secret, or even a joke."
Many of God of War's encrypted secrets have now been revealed, but translation efforts are still ongoing, with some runic mysteries continuing to puzzle fans. These cryptic 'red box runes' are proving particularly difficult, with hundreds of Redditors currently attempting to discover their true meaning. Given Santa Monica's Creative Director Cory Barlog has stated there is still at least one major secret fans have not yet uncovered, there is plenty of reason for fans to keep translating. Could the final secret be hidden in any of these runes?Yet perhaps above all else, the fact that fans are still attempting to decode the game's runes is testament to the incredible detail Santa Monica put into God of War. It's rare for a game to capture a community's imagination to the degree that they are willing to learn Old Norse to discover more about a game's lore.
So, if you are intrigued by God of War's runes and think you may have found the final secret, be sure to submit your photos to the 'rune translation hotline' subreddit and r/GodOfWarSecrets. Get cracking!
Illustration credit: Anni Sayers