god of war ragnarok interview

We Spoke To God Of War Ragnarok’s Narrative Director About Exceeding And Subverting Expectations In The Sequel

We spoke to the game's Narrative Director about pushing the God of War story to new heights.

God of War Ragnarök is upon us! The excellent follow-up to 2018’s God of War released this week and we absolutely loved it. So much that we were eager to chat to the team at Santa Monica Studio about how the game, and especially its epic narrative, came about. Luckily, we had none other than God of War Ragnarök’s Narrative Director, Matt Sophos, on hand to answer our burning (and occasionally quite spoiler-y) questions. Take a look at the full interview below:

Please note this interview contains some spoilers for early plot points and some gameplay reveals in God of War Ragnarök, we’d recommend coming back and reading this once you’ve played through a significant portion of the game.

Presenting a narrative in this way with a single camera cut must have been a challenge in itself. I know it was the same with the original game, but doing it with this in the scope of how things play out with characters and with so much more happening, it must have been even more challenging.

Yeah, I know, you said that you’ve been playing it [so] I’m going to speak with a little bit of spoilers going on. But the fact that we had moments where you have to switch characters, and we did character handoffs and things like that, it provided new challenges, obviously, for the single cut camera, especially on ones where we were handing off from across distances as well as across characters. But it was it was fun!

When we first started tackling the game we talked amongst us ourselves as the writers, we talked to our director of photography, and our animators and said, “Alright, what challenges do we want here? What do we want to do?” And we quickly came up with, “Let’s really push ourselves on the single-cut camera and how we can mess with that.” That was one of the challenges and then the other one that we came across was, let’s do some eating scenes, because we never get to do eating scenes in games. So those were kind of the two big things we came up with.

god of war ragnarok interview

Similarly, the original God of War had some some massive “wow” moments, both in gameplay and narratively. What kind of pressure did you feel to take this up another notch in Ragnarök?

Oh, boy. We felt a lot of pressure, because how do you follow up that game? It won lots of Game of the Year [awards] and, you know, we got to surprise people when we shipped God of War 2018. There weren’t any real expectations on it, people didn’t know what they were getting, or what it was going to be like. So, you know, we got to take people by surprise. On this one it’s the complete opposite. Obviously, not only did we not get to take people by surprise, but players had four years to kind of build up in their head what they thought the story should be or how the game should play out. And so we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to try and deliver for everyone.

Obviously, when you’re dealing with this fabled Twilight of the Gods, we knew that there was a massive war to end this whole story. So that was going to put its own kind of pressure on things. But I think the main thing that we tried to do with that pressure and all these other elements that are kind of big and grand and that we knew that were gonna have to happen was we always used Kratos and Atreus as kind of our North Star and as long as we’re sticking to the heart of these characters, and keeping that part still feeling pretty small, then have the big mythological backdrop that could provide the epicness and the bigness. I don’t even know if epicness is a word, but whatever. That would kind of be there to wrap it as long as we got the beating heart of the story, emotionally.

god of war ragnarok interview

There was obviously Norse mythology in the first game, but it’s definitely dialled up to 100 here in terms of some of the themes and the characters that we’re introduced to. How challenging was it to draw on that and bring it a God of War game and bring Kratos around all of these characters that are so well known and have been for centuries?

It was really just a story about a father and son and this kind of very personal journey. We had Norse mythology at this kind of big backdrop that we could kind of wrap around them, but ultimately, that story could be told in any genre. It could be a Western, it could be something modern, you know, whatever. This next one because it’s Ragnarök, we knew we were going to be dealing with plot points from the mythology, things that are well known. And we were going to be bringing in characters that are more well known in the public consciousness, specifically in like Thor and Odin.

Those characters are well known largely because of Marvel and the public consciousness wrapped around there. So we ultimately did what we like to do, which is embrace the stuff from the mythology that we like, and subvert expectations as much as we possibly can. I mean, we already we had the cheat code in just that, in the Marvel Universe and what people know about them, these characters are the good guys. We already had flipped that on its head. So it gave us a lot of freedom to do what we wanted with them, which was both challenging and liberating at the same time.

god of war ragnarok interview

That was going to be my next question, with these characters that Marvel has really put on the map. Like, everybody knows that Thor is is Chris Hemsworth. Right? Did you did look at that and think, “Okay, well, we need to do something totally different.” How does that play into the process of creating a character like Thor or Odin?

For us, with Thor in particular. We just kind of we leaned into the Eddas [Icelandic manuscripts]. Now, obviously, this physical representation is one thing but Thor in the Eddas is not the the morally, forthright, hunky Chris Hemsworth. You know, he’s a very grey character in a lot of ways. There’s this one story, I’ll try to keep it short on this one, but there’s this one story where he he’s invited to go to this family, and he has a meal with them. And he has these two goats that you can kill, take their meat, and as long as their bones are arranged perfectly and not messed with, they’ll resurrect the next day. And the kids, like, nick, one of the bones of the animals which causes this goat to resurrect lame. And he was furious, he was going to murder everybody, but the parents were like, “No, no, just take our kids!” so he’s like, okay, fine. And he takes the kids! Its like, that is not Marvel’s Thor!

So that already kind of gave us our inroads into what we wanted to do with the character, it was kind of within the text there. And then, for us, in the last game you heard a lot about Thor and Odin, and how horrible they were. But it was all from Mimir’s perspective as someone who had been tortured or Freya’s perspective as someone who had been exiled and treated horribly. And so for this one, we just we came in with like, that all had to be true, but how can we give them some nuance and some layers and make them more than just one note villains?

god of war ragnarok interview

Something that was really loved in the first game, and obviously is here too, is not just the big narrative moments, but the little bits of dialogue that happen when you’re on your boat, or just exploring off the beaten track. A lot of games have tried to do it, but I think this still does it better than a lot of those. I’d love to know how complex and challenging this is and just how much dialogue is recorded that might not be heard, depending on if someone doesn’t go down a certain path or see a certain area.

I think the big challenging part of it, well, there’s two challenging parts of it. From the writing side of it, it’s just keeping track of it all, keeping it organised in a way because we have lots of beats along the path of the main story in this game that fundamentally change where the characters are, what their state of mind and who’s right there with you and everything. So we had to write multiple versions of things and we had to expire stories if you got past a certain part of the main story. So in those respects, we ended up with things that players won’t hear, and we like that! I personally like that because it allows people to not have the exact same experience.

If you go off and do a quest you can do it with Atreus or you can do it with a different character, and you get things that are a little bit different. But that’s the challenging part on the writing side of things, just keeping all that stuff tracked for the narrative tech design side, which I can’t talk about that crew enough. Having it all work, we did something much more challenging on this than we did on the last one, last time it was pretty black or white, you were in a boat, you’d get a story you get, and then if you wanted to get out Mimir would interrupt himself and you’d be able to resume it later. Or if you were in the Realm Between Realms (or what we like to call The Donut), you could get dialogue there. And then when the door comes up, the story is over and you’re out.

In this one? Way more complex than that. Our narrative tech design team made it so that it could calculate the time between where the character is at right right now, where Kratos is at, and then when the next thing that could interrupt the story would be – whether that’s a combat event, or critical banter or whatever. And then it would pull from a bucket of stories and things and would go “Alright, this will fit in 20 seconds, put that in there and start playing.” And so we really worked hard to try and fill the empty spaces in a way that we couldn’t do on the last game.

god of war ragnarok interview

We touched on it before but the father-son dynamic was really the biggest part of God of War 2018. And I think that resonated with everyone, but I remember there being a lot of commentary about, I guess, fathers in particular, it going an extra mile with them. What would you say that Ragnarok has to offer beyond that? Was that something you reflected on from the original game and then wanted to expand outside of for this story?

On the last game it was all from Kratos’ perspective, you were with him for the entire game. And a lot of what we talked about in that game is, how much of yourself do you show your child, even the stuff you’re not proud of? Especially if it’s going to help them, and dealing with those aspects. In this one, we knew from the outset that it was going to be more complex than that. You weren’t – spoilers, I guess – just going to be playing as Kratos. That one was a lot about fatherhood and being the parent.

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In this one both Kratos and Atreus, unlike the last game, have different goals. The last one, they had the one goal of taking the ashes but in this one, they have differing goals. We wanted to make sure that neither of their opinions was the correct one, they both were right and they both were wrong in certain parts of it. And so I think for people who are following along that path, like I am, as a father of a young son learning to let go of them a little bit and let them find their own path. You know, I can identify with that. And for other people, it’s going to be about Atreus and his journey of trying to find himself and who he’s supposed to be. We just wanted to kind of like, build out both of those perspectives, and have them kind of come together in the end because because it’s still all about their relationship. That’s the heart of that.

I think what this game does really well is almost every new gameplay mechanic is tied to something significant in the story, or the world. Particularly Atreus’ relationship with the natural world. I wanted to ask how much of this is influenced by the narrative team versus gameplay design. Obviously it’d be quite collaborative, but playing it I definitely wondered where certain ideas had started.

When it comes to game development, it’s always a little bit of both. Some of Atreus’ mechanics, I know in the last game we alluded to in a moment when he first learns about his godhood and certain aspects of Loki, and what he wishes he can do. And I think the combat team took that and ran with it a little bit and what they wanted to do with it… [to the Sony team] God, I don’t know how spoiler-y I can get on this thing!

We knew at a certain point that you know, Kratos wasn’t going to only have the Blades of Chaos and the axe, that we were going to expand beyond that, even with the shields, but not to mention other things. And each of those were things that the combat team knew that they wanted to do. So we went, alright, we’re going to take that and we’ll extrapolate and build something meaningful out of those. That’s the give and take. I think when you’re getting it right, and hopefully we’ve gotten it right, it’ll all feel seamless and won’t feel like, “Hey, here’s just a mechanic layered on top of the game.”

god of war ragnarok review

I think it’d be remiss to not talk about the leaks that happened. I guess the temptation to show a lot of this stuff in marketing to push people to buy the game must be there, but what holds the team to say “No, we’re just going to put out there what the players already know and trust that they know more is coming”?

Thankfully when it comes to the marketing side of things, Sony has been really respectful of what the team wants and what we want to show. We had some things where we would look at like, meeting Tyr is a big reveal, you know? The fact that he’s alive is a big reveal. But it’s early in the game so we can say that’s a kind of moment that we can build a trailer around and it won’t really harm things for players to know that. They did respect our wishes for the most part, when we would say, “Hey, we’re not going to show this, we’re not going to talk about this. We don’t even want people to see what Odin looks like so we’ll bring him into the trailer, but we’re going to render the scene where it’s dark in the front, as opposed to what you end up seeing in the game.” And so that didn’t get much pushback.

When it comes to the leaks, that’s just a bummer in general, because we want to make sure that reviewers and journalists have the time because we know it’s a big game to really sink in and be able to really fully experience it before everybody writes reviews. So leaks that came from that is a real bummer. The leaks that come from stores breaking street date, that one really sucks because this person has spent their money, they bought the game, they can kind of do with it what they want at that point. So that’s a bummer. But you know, for us we’ve spent a lot of time making it and we want people to be surprised, but we know what the story is. That part doesn’t hurt us it just bums us out. And we see people who are just really excited about the game have it turned against them in a combative way where people jump into their texts and tweets and things and start spoiling things just to be jerks.

god of war ragnarok interview

Some of my favourite moments in the game were some of the smaller characters that that pop up every now and again like Ratatoskr, for example. I’m sure there were so many more crazy things that the team maybe wanted to put in the game, were there things that were just too weird or just would have felt out of place in this world? Things that maybe initially felt like cool ideas, but would have felt too out of place in what was happening?

Well, I mean you mentioned the one. I think Ratatoskr was the one that we really pushed the envelope on. As far as like, “Are we are we pushing so close to the edge that we’re going to break the what feels right for this game?” But we just kind of ran with it because we had a great visual design and we just had a belief that it was gonna be fun. We turned this character of Brok into a Texas prospector in the last game and his brother was a germaphobe. So like, let’s see what we can get away with and how far we can push it. So, you know, I don’t know that anything was off limits, there were things that didn’t make it or stayed on the cutting room floor.

I think we named dropped him multiple times but there’s a God of Justice called Forseti who we kind of treated like this forensics guy who was gonna go figure out what happened. And he never ended up making it into the game. But I don’t think that we ever really had anything that was too outlandish that we couldn’t reel in, in a way that would make sense.

god of war ragnarok interview

There are more open areas in this game and sort of side stories and things you can do off the beaten track. Was there any concern that these might take away from the urgency of an event like the world ending? Was there anything that was done to keep pushing people on that path through to the end?

Yeah we went back and forth several times on when a lot of these areas unlock, especially kind of the big space in Vanaheim that unlocks at a certain point that like really expands and you can go up and spend like four hours just doing this stuff. That was always a topic of conversation, when we would allow those things to happen. I think there was that concern sometimes that players might get side-tracked but we also felt, if this is what someone wants to do in that moment, we should empower them to do it.

We have specific stretches in the game where it’s like, it wouldn’t break the narrative but what it would cause is a lot of dissonance unless we go through and record all of this stuff, multiple times based on the mood of the characters. And so those were times when we were like, that’s going to be too expensive. We can’t have everybody depressed in this version of the quest and everybody fine in this version of the quest. So we’ve just got to lock it out for this stretch, you’re going to be locked into the critical path. But I think all games that have exploration content have to make some of those compromises.

Without spoiling anything, did the team or do the team feel now that there are more stories left to be told in this particular part of the world?

Once you have Ragnarök as kind of The Big Thing and it’s the big known thing about Norse mythology it gets to the point where you’ve played with anything that’s known. It doesn’t mean there aren’t stories to tell, I think with these characters that we’ve set up and the worlds we’ve set up, we tried to make them feel like living, breathing things that could be expanded into. But for characters like Kratos and Atreus we tried to conclude their story, because that was what we wanted to do was make sure that everybody who got to play the last game, and especially players on PS4 who haven’t been able to get a PS5, they could get the full story and get the conclusion of the story and not feel like they’re gated by hardware in their ability to hear the whole story.

god of war ragnarok interview

Lastly, this is maybe a very niche reference but I think we heard a PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale reference at one point. I was a big fan of that game and I think it needs to come back so that moment, it was just so weirdly out of place but so beautiful, are we correct in saying that’s what that was?

Absolutely, that was where Mimir asks Kratos about it. I can’t remember the exact dialogue but fighting like a chef and a princess, yeah!

Yeah, that was awesome. Are there other easter eggs like that? That sort of tie back to other PlayStation games?

The main other one we have is there are artefacts that are Kvasir’s poems, and Kvasir’s poems are all based on first party titles. You can find them in the world, and then you sell them to the dwarves. If you go to their house, you’ll get to see them on one of the bookshelves and they’re all themed around various first party games. When you go into the journal and you read the poems written about them, they’re all alluding to the different games and all the names of the books are extrapolated versions of of these titles.

My son loves them as one of the things that I was telling him about and his favourite one is, I’m going to butcher it if I can’t remember it, it’s “Large Society, Ground Orb, The Performance”, which is MLB The Show, right? That’s the type of stuff we did with all the names of them. And I think all of the poems are fun. Those are the big nods that we had along with that PlayStation All-Stars reference.

Well, we could talk about this this game all day, it’s just so fascinating from every aspect, but thank you so much for your time.

Thank you for playing and taking the time to chat about it. We all appreciate the groundswell of support and just hope people really enjoy it. That’s ultimately why we do this.

God of War Ragnarok is out now on PS5 and PS4. We gave the game a 9.5/10 in our review, saying “God of War Ragnarok is a triumph. Santa Monica Studio has successfully taken everything that was great about the last game and amplified it while correcting just about every problem area and then some.”