Sony Santa Monica continues to lead the way with God of War: Ragnarök

With 2018’s God of War, a reinvention of the long-running legendary action series for Sony’s PlayStation consoles, the hero, Kratos, has been transformed. While Kratos was once a man who was angry beyond words, Sony’s Santa Monica Studios’ “God of War” turned him into one of the most famous fathers of video game media. In a larger-than-life mythological game, it was inner conflict that ruled, specifically Kratos’ impossible struggle to protect his son Atreus from the physical and emotional dangers of a world in turmoil.

“God of War” was a huge success, winning top honors at the annual Game Awards and selling 23 million copies worldwide. Its parenting themes were celebrated, and considered another example of mainstream gaming’s continued maturity and ability to grapple with complex topics.

Now, this month, Kratos and Atreus are back in “God of War Ragnarök,” a massive adventure in which a younger god tries to come to terms with his destiny and Kratos struggles with Norse mythology that constantly aims to rouse him into fits of rage, all while dealing with his foreboding death. .

God of War Ragnarök is shaping up to be 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 nominations.

Kratos, prior to the 2018 title’s release, was described in a documentary by “God of War” director Cory Barlog as an everything, all the time, male protagonist who can expertly rip your head off but do little else.

However, God of War Ragnarök director Eric Williams has been subtly trying to bring Kratos beyond those toxic masculine impulses since the first game in the series, 2005’s “God of War.” Williams was adamant, for one, on putting a mechanic A hug in the middle of a climactic 2005 title fight, where Kratos will have to lend his wife and child to keep them protected during the fight. It was meant to serve as a manifestation of Kratos’ dreams and nightmares, as players already knew the ultimate tragic fate of his family.

It also planted a seed that Kratos could eventually evolve into, though that would take more than a decade.

“It was very metaphorical,” Williams said recently in the Santa Monica studio offices. He was fighting demons within himself, but he was giving his life for his family. That always stuck with me. This could be a character change thesis, which we took and ran with.”

The relationship between father and son is at the heart of modern “God of War” games.

(Sony Santa Monica)

While the life-giving hugs amidst a frantic battle may be as far removed from the walking-and-talking scenes in “Ragnarök” or the drawn-out, breathless fights in their movement as they are in their dialogue, it was the scene, Barlog says, that began transforming thinking in Santa Studios. Monica.

“God of War” (2018) and, even more so, “Ragnarök” are examples of games that challenge the player to never set the controller down. Even the expository plot moments that explain, say, Kratos’ fraught relationship with the goddess Freya are delivered with forward momentum.

Barlog says this was the argument he used to convince David Jaffe, the director of the first God of War movie, not to cut off an embrace in the middle of a fight.

“We were really excited about what we could do with the game,” says Barlog. “We make games. And it’s really cool to do cinematic things, but how can you really feel like the player has agency?”

Tender moments typically occur in non-playable narrative scenes, but games over the past decade and a half have been experimenting with how to better integrate the two.

“We evolved slowly, over a decade or two, up to that point,” Barlog says, citing Naughty Dog’s “The Last of Us” (2013) as evidence that big-budget video games can balance violence and emotion. “But I think 2018 has been possible for me because of the many other matches.

“The Last of Us” is a definition. You can challenge people to more than just killing things, and they’ll want to. Prove to executives that this works. Before that, it might have been a very convenient place. For the longest time, it was always around the back of the box. You should have had something weird to sell, rather than saying that doing something good and engaging people on all emotional levels — not just anger, frustration, and fear — is possible.”

But this scene was also symbolic of what has become another staple of “God of War” and now “Ragnarök”: finding small personal moments in a game with gods and goddesses, monsters and dragons.

“A lot of Norse mythology is built around the Ragnarok prophecy. It’s the only myth where the gods don’t just know when they’re going to die, they know who’s going to kill them,” says narrative director Matt Sophos. “But the more we start to focus on that, the more we keep moving forward, “We are off track.” … As you develop a story, especially a big one like this, and you know you’re going to be dealing with Ragnarök, we can see every time we start to veer into a lot of prophecy and the path of mythology and you need to bring it back into character.”

A man with an ax confronts a creature in the video game "God of War Ragnarok."

God of War Ragnarok mixes big-budget action and mystical creatures with personal issues.

(Sony Santa Monica)

This tension is present early in the game, with Kratos and Atreus returning to their relatively modest country home for a moment of introspective disagreement. However, seconds later, a visit from Thor and Odin disrupts them. A full-scale battle between Kratos and Thor ensues, with Thor leading Kratos to a remote battlefield. As the fight continues, Kratos becomes increasingly concerned about Atreus’ whereabouts and what Odin might be up to with his son.

“We’re free-spirited with Norse mythology,” says Megan Morgan Joyneau, the studio’s director of product development. “We’re not a reality-based game, but our settings are based on things that happen to real people. I think that’s where the emotional connection with our fans comes from. Sure, there are fantasy elements and enemies you wouldn’t see in the real world, but the experiences and relationships between the characters are pretty similar. Big things you might 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 as if it was a new chapter in an ongoing story.

“The best compliment I can get, in my opinion, is that I feel invisible as a director and [that] “It feels like a real continuation,” says Williams. “For me, they are siblings, and they have to get along. I don’t want them to be.” [Barlog’s] The game and my game. For me, that would be sad. I want you to jump up and say, “This looks like we just came down.” There are differences, but I don’t think they’re so drastic that it might seem strange or awkward now.”

Barlog says he can play Ragnarok and notice where Williams strays from his choices. Nothing on a grand scale, though. Just a few details here and there. Williams plots each scene using Excel spreadsheets, for example, a step Barlog skips.

“Eric is like the Wes Anderson of Gamemasters,” says Barlog. Wes will figure out exactly what’s in the set. All the outfits. A particular figurine on the shelf of a character is basically as important as the hero’s prop in the foreground. Its placement means something, not just to Wes but to the characters. He’s meticulous in his layout “.

out of necessity.

Williams says he learned early in the directing process that he lives with aphantasia, which is the inability to visualize mental images in one’s mind. To get around it, Williams said he would overcompensate, sometimes giving artists dozens of visual references or very detailed documentation.

“I am very rigid,” he says. “I like to plan a lot of things. I’ll write everything down in detail. A lot of people find that restricting. ‘What should I do?’ You’re supposed to do that. But I wouldn’t take that too well either. I had to leave a little wiggle room. It was a learning process.”

Santa Monica Studio is currently “spread out on a lot of different things,” Barlog says, though he declined to provide details. The studio has in the past published a diverse slate of indie games, including Thatgamecompany’s thoughtful collaborative Journey, and occasionally talked about a canceled project believed to have been focused on sci-fi.

But Williams was quick to add that if the company is devoting itself full-time to the “God of War” series, there’s no shame in that.

“I remember talking to someone from another game company, where they were trying to make me leave. He said, ‘Do you just want to be known as the ‘God of War’ guy for the rest of your life?” That was your pitch to me? Because yeah, I do. Somewhat “.

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