With 2018’s “God of War,” a reinvention of the long-running mythical action series for Sony’s PlayStation consoles, the hero, Kratos, has been transformed. While Kratos was a man of more fury than words, Sony Santa Monica Studios’ “God of War” made him one of the most famous fathers in the video game medium. In a game of fabulous, larger-than-life beings, it was internal conflict that ruled, specifically Kratos’ impossible struggle to protect his son Atreus from the physical and emotional dangers of a confusing world.
“God of War” became a hit, winning top honors at the annual Game Awards and selling 23 million copies worldwide. Its parenting themes have been celebrated, standing as yet another example of traditional games’ continued maturation and ability to handle complex themes.
Now, Kratos and Atreus are back this month in “God of War Ragnarök,” a massive adventure in which the younger deity tries to come to terms with his fate and Kratos battles Norse legends who constantly aim to throw him into fits of rage. all while facing his own foreboding death.
“God of War Ragnarök” is billed as the biggest video game release of the holiday season. A few days after its release, “God of War Ragnarök” led the Game Awards 2022 nominations with 10.
Kratos, ahead of the 2018 title’s release, was described in a documentary by “God of War” director Cory Barlog as a character who is all the time, a male lead who could expertly rip your head off but do little else. .
However, “God of War Ragnarök” director Eric Williams has subtly tried to shape Kratos beyond those impulses of toxic masculinity since the first game in the series, 2005’s “God of War.” Williams was adamant, for example, in which a hug mechanic was placed in the middle of a climactic battle in the 2005 title, where Kratos would have to nurse his wife and son to protect them during the fight. It was meant to play as a manifestation of Kratos’ dreams and nightmares, as players already knew his family’s tragic ultimate fate.
It also planted a seed that Kratos could eventually evolve, though it would be more than a decade in the making.
“It was so metaphorical,” Williams said recently at the offices of Santa Monica Studios. “He was fighting demons within himself, but he was giving his life to his family. That always stuck with me. That could be a thesis for a change in character, which we took and ran with.”
While the life-giving hugs in the middle of a frenzied battle may be a far cry from the walking-and-talking scenes in “Ragnarök” or drawn-out fights as breathless in their action as in their dialogue, it was one scene, Barlog says, that started to change the thinking at Santa Monica Studios.
“God of War” (2018) and even more so “Ragnarök” are examples of games that challenge the player to never put down the controller. Even the expository plot moments that explain, say, Kratos’ strained relationship with the goddess Freya are delivered with gusto.
Barlog says that was the argument he used to persuade David Jaffe, director of the first “God of War,” not to cut off the hugs mid-battle.
“We were really excited about what we could do in the game,” says Barlog. “We make games. And it’s great and fun to make cinematic stuff, but how can you feel like the player has agency?”
Tender moments often occur in narrative and non-playable scenes, but games over the last decade and a half have been experimenting with how to better combine the two.
“We slowly grew, over a decade or two, to that point,” says Barlog, citing Naughty Dog’s “The Last of Us” (2013) as proof that big-budget video games can equally balance violence and excitement. “But I think 2018 was possible for me because of a lot of other games.
“‘The Last of Us’ is defining. You can challenge people to do more than just kill things, and they’ll want to. It’s proven to executives that this is viable. Before, maybe it was too niche. For a long time, it was always about the back out of the box. You had to have a trick to sell it, instead of saying that doing something good and engaging people on all emotional levels, not just anger and frustration and fear, is viable.”
But that scene was also emblematic of what has become a staple of “God of War” and now of “Ragnarök”: finding small, personal moments in a game with gods, goddesses, beasts and dragons.
“So much of Norse mythology is built around the prophecy of Ragnarök. It’s the only mythology where the gods not only know when they’re going to die, but who knows who’s going to kill them,” says narrative director Matt Sophos. “But the more we started focusing on it, the more we kept saying, ‘We’re off track.’ … As you develop a story, especially one as big as this one, and you know you’re going to deal with Ragnarök, we could see each time we started to stray too far from prophecy and mythology and I needed to bring it back to the staff.”
That tension is present early in the game, with Kratos and Atreus returning home to their relatively humble home for a moment of introspective disagreement. Seconds later, however, they are interrupted by a visit from Thor and Odin. A full-scale battle ensues between Kratos and Thor, with Thor leading Kratos to a distant battlefield. As the fight drags on, Kratos becomes increasingly concerned about Atreus’ whereabouts and what Odin may be doing with his son.
“We took liberties with Norse mythology,” says Meghan Morgan Juinio, the studio’s director of product development. “We’re not a reality-based game, but our setting is based on things that happen to real people. I think that’s where the emotional connection with our fans comes from. Of course, there are fantasy elements and enemies that you wouldn’t see in the real world , but the experiences and relationships between the characters are very similar to what you would see in real life.”
First-time game director Williams says he wanted “Ragnarök” to pick up where “God of War” left off. His goal was not to reinvent the franchise but to make it feel like a new chapter in an ongoing saga.
“The best compliment I can get, in my opinion, would be that I feel invisible as a director and [that] it feels like a real continuation,” Williams says. “To me, they’re siblings and they have to co-exist. I don’t want it to be [Barlog’s] game and my game It would be sad for me. I want you to jump up and say, “Looks like we just went down.” There are differences, but I don’t think they’re so drastic that it feels weird or uncomfortable now.”
Barlog says he can play “Ragnarök” and notice where Williams deviated from his own choices. Nothing on a grand scale, though. Just little details here and there. Williams plots each scene with Excel spreadsheets, for example, a step that Barlog skips.
“Eric is like the Wes Anderson of game directors,” says Barlog. “We’ll establish exactly what’s on set. All the props. A certain figurine that’s on the shelf of one of the characters is fundamentally as important as the hero prop that exists in the foreground. Its placement means something, not just to Wes but to the characters. He is exacting in his planning.”
out of necessity
Williams says he learned early in the directing process that he lives with aphantasia, an inability to visualize mental images in the mind. To win him over, Williams said he would overcompensate, sometimes giving artists dozens of visual references or highly detailed documentation.
“I’m very stiff,” he says. “I like to plan a lot of things. I’ll write everything down. A lot of people find that restrictive. ‘What am I supposed to do?’ of learning”.
Barlog says Santa Monica Studio is currently “spread across a lot of different things,” though he declined to offer specifics. The studio has released a diverse slate of indie games in the past, including Thatgamecompany’s thoughtful collaborative effort “Journey,” and has occasionally talked about a canceled project that was believed to have a sci-fi focus.
But Williams is quick to add that if the company is dedicated full-time to the “God of War” franchise, there’s no shame.
“I remember talking to someone at another game company, where they were trying to get me to leave. They said, ‘Do you just want to be known as ‘God of War’ for the rest of your life?’ That was your big argument to talk me out of it? Because yes, I do.”