Nov 14, 2022 - Technology

Programming tricks help God of War Ragnarök tell its story

Video game screenshot of God of War protagonist Kratos with his back to the camera, facing his teenage son

God of War: Ragnarök. Screenshot: Sony Interactive Entertainment

God of War games are known for epic combat and blockbuster set pieces, but the series’ newest release demonstrates its innovations in how a video game can tell its story.

Why it matters: Technological approaches can lead to fundamental innovations in storytelling, even in a game where players are busy swinging an axe through Norse mythology.

State of play: God of War Ragnarök, released last week for PlayStation, depicts the weary titular God of War Kratos, his teenage son Atreus and a cast of allies on a quest to defy the schemes of Odin and maybe avert Ragnarök.

  • Though much of the sequel’s story is offered through a traditional mix of cinematic scenes, quests and menu text, the developers greatly expanded a system introduced in the series’ 2018 release, which triggered extra conversation between Kratos and Atreus that would play during travel sequences.

The new game has been programmed to detect a player’s pace and anticipate more potential down moments, often just 20 seconds long, when combat or a major plot moment isn’t expected. Those spots afford a chance for more chatter among whichever characters are running around.

  • “We can pull from this bucket of dialogue that is less than 20 seconds to fit in there,” Ragnarök’s narrative director Matt Sophos tells Axios.
  • The characters may wind up talking about recent events in the game, reveal more of their pasts or even ponder riddles they’re stumped on.
  • All of this chatter involves much more than the interruptible lore dumps offered while Kratos and Atreus were rowing a boat in the last game. The extra dialogue in the sequel greatly fleshes out the cast and the game’s world and elaborates on key parts of the main story.
  • It's also deployed with greater flexibility. It can play at different times and at radically different locations from one player’s game to another. Some of it expires as the player goes through the game's 30+ hour quest, so completionists might want to wander a lot to catch all of it.

What they’re saying: “If we know there's something that someone absolutely has to hear, then we'll figure out a way to get that on the critical path," Sophos tells Axios.

  • "But then we flesh it out a lot through those vehicle stories, road stories, that players may or may not hear. We hope they hear it, just to kind of give them a little bit more breadth."
  • The system supports the development team's overall goal to have story feel like it is emerging naturally in the game, Sophos says without the need for players to manually press buttons to always trigger the next moment of character development.

Between the lines: Sophos and many other writing teams working on action-packed games have to cope with a core storytelling obstacle that players are often too distracted by actually playing the game to absorb story and dialogue.

  • "We kind of have to work within the spaces between combat events,” Sophos says.
  • His team of a half dozen or so writers worked closely with the game’s level designers to add moments of non-combat — a narrow gap for the characters to squeeze through, a wall to climb.
  • Contrary to some players’ beliefs, Sophos says, those squeezes and climbs aren’t necessarily there to mask loading times for the next area of the adventure: “A lot of times it's like, ‘Hey, we've just had a bunch of combat and we need space to have them reflect on it.'”

One thing Ragnarök players won’t hear much, no matter how far they wander, is “boy!,” Kratos’ recurring bark toward his son that was a signature of the last game.

  • He says it just once in the new game, at a dramatic moment best not spoiled. Instead, he usually calls his son by his name, Atreus.
  • “That was a very conscious choice,” Sophos says, noting that Kratos has mostly dropped nicknames for the series’ cast this time, in favor of their real names. He calls it a "representation of him being a little bit more open than he was in the last game.”

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