In Midgard, Lake of Nine, after the end of the first game, Kratos and Atreus are trying to travel to Vanaheim in an attempt to meet the Vanir god Freyr to make amends and clarify the matter on Freya.
Freyr, the ruler of peace and fertility, rain, and sunshine is, in fact, the twin brother of the Vanir goddess Freya. Kratos’s killing of Baldur, Freya's son, in the previous installment made it near impossible for the duo to forge an alliance with the Vanir in confronting Asgard.
Nonetheless, Kratos and Atreus are making their way to the “embassy” of Vanaheim located in Midgard to hopefully obtain the travel rune to Vanaheim, not knowing, however, that the huge sword of Freyr capable of fighting jötnar by itself, Sumarbrander, and its wielder, Freyr’s servant Skírnir, will be their greatest obstacles on this journey.
Building the Level
My goal with this project is to create an original and complete level for God of War 2018 following closely its design pillars and gameplay metrics. Before starting off creating the blockmesh, I first spent time replaying the game to famirizlize myself with its pacing and scale. Rob Davis’s GDC talk “The Level Design of God of War” was particularly informative on my initial thought process. I was really glad to find some of the insider nitty-gritty details on Santa Monica’s level creation process.
What came after was a quick dive into Norse Mythology to help me come up with the story skeleton for the level I created. The player wasn’t able to go to Vanaheim in the 2018 game, so I ended up setting the goal of the level as a journey for Kratos and Atreus to explore their options going to Vanaheim. In terms of landmarks, I chose the sword of Freyr as my primary landmark and a Vanaheim castle as my secondary. The reason behind making Freyr's sword as big as the mountain was that I wanted to accentuate the feeling and sense of “epicness” throughout the level and the landscape. "Epicness" was the word that constantly popped up in my mind when I was replaying some of the game’s most memorable levels.
In “The Level Design of God of War” , Rob Davis talks about the fact that each level in God of War 2018 rewards players with a new ability/item after the boss fight, and that new ability signals a strong exploration break. Therefore, to allow my level to integrate more organically into God of War 2018, I even designed a new ability that Kratos can acquire at the end of the boss fight: The ability to shrink and enlarge objects to unlock certain gates. On a functional level, the ability is the same as the Thamur's chisel tip which allows players to open Odin's secret chambers.
My workflow consisted of jumping back and forth constantly between Maya and Unreal 4. Rough geometry is first laid out in Maya and then imported to UE4 to test out the scale before a finer pass with greater detail, composition and collision are added. In terms of the character controller, I used “Advanced Locomotion System V4” in UE4 as it is the closest system I can find that resembles Kratos’s camera and movement in the game.
I divided my level into three major aspects, the same three core pillars of God of War 2018: Exploration, Father & Son, Combat.
Pillar 1: Exploration
Level design in many ways is similar to photography. Through the level, I intentionally composed, framed, and pinched the player's perspective with leading lines and framing elements that guide the player’s eyes to places I want them to look at. These can be hidden paths that lead to rewards such as treasure chests or optional combat areas that drop more loot, or Jotnar Shrines that add to the lore of the world, etc.
But most importantly, the key to making traversal and exploration fun and engaging for the players is to bait them first into believing that they are on the right path before blocking the road off as a dead-end and revealing the true path after a bit of exploration, or to lure them into a space where they discover a legendary chest that they cannot get to at the moment before revealing or hinting at the path to the chest later in the level.
The mantra that I kept to my heart when designing the level was: “Players almost never look behind them, or above them.”
Pillar 2: Father & Son Relationship
Throughout the level are environment puzzles that require collaboration between Kratos and Atreus. Sometimes Kratos has to boost Atreus up to drop down a chain for him to climb, or that Atreus will point out interesting optional areas to check out, such as the realm tear on the tower before the second mountain gate. And of course, enemies such as the revenant or enemy combos that feature multiple speed draugrs would require Atreus’s shock arrow to slow down and be dealt with.
Pillar 3: Combat
The engaging combat of God of War is in one way achieved by placing the right type and amount of enemies at the right time and place. Larger enemies would require relatively larger space, range and melee enemy combo would require constant player focus shift, boss fight should be the moment with the greatest spectacle.
Open/large combat areas
In large and open combat areas where larger enemies such as the trolls are featured, the areas are more open and allow more player movement, yet not too large that the player is free from pressure. The goal here is to give players enough room to maneuver around to learn enemy behaviors as well as attend to smaller enemies that usually come together with trolls.
As the players progress to the section of the level that narrows down into a “corridor”, I intentionally placed range enemies with projectiles attacks such as projectile draugrs or enemies that are capable of instant long-distance teleportation such as revenant. The combination of narrow combat space and range enemies dials up the tension and keeps the overall experience engaging.
Smaller combat: long-range + mid-range
Smaller combat areas throughout the level always feature enemy combination of long-range and mid-range enemy attacks. This is essentially the enemy combo in many places in God of War 2018. This setup forces the player to constantly shift focus so that combat never feels dull or monotonous.
Final Boss Fight
Like I talked about earlier, the final boss fight rewards the players with a new ability/item that allows them to unlock new doors and solve new environment puzzles. The new ability in this level is the ability to shrink and enlarge items. This ability, like that of the chisel tip, is also tied into the item and the lore itself, making the ability more grounded and believable.
No level design is complete without a postmortem that reflects problems and learnings. After playtesting with friends, peers and talking with veterans in the industry, I summarised all the things that went right and wrong about the level and my process here:
What went right:
Many of my playtesters found the story told through the level an interesting original spin on Norse mythology.
The huge sword landmark constantly provides solid guidance.
Level layouts are intentionally combined with different combat encounters.
A good mix of gameplay beats combat, puzzle, and puzzle.
What could have been better:
Scale: The metrics for traversal and combat spaces are a bit too large throughout the level. Playtest sessions reveal that on many occasions, the players would simply run forward and rush towards their next goal with nothing to do on the way. The level in general is low on density in terms of gameplay. One way to fix the aforementioned problem is to drop in more chests, collectibles, and light combat encounters to spice up the journey. However, the main reason is the fact that I chose MAYA to create the entire blockmesh instead of having prefabs in Unreal to constantly iterate and playtest. I should experiment with more efficient pipelines for future projects.
Combat: Combat spaces feel monotonous and too large. There are not enough differentiating factors for the player to mentally map and remember each space and encounter. Environmental opportunities that allow players to knock enemies off of ledges or onto walls should have been used more frequently. Objects such as pots that explode or spikes that instantly stun enemies could also see more uses in arenas. Combat areas should also be organically closed off with climb, jump or crawl sections to make sure players finish combat before moving on.
Too many climbing sections: There is too much climbing in the level. In the original game, climbing sections are usually reserved for longer conversations between Kratos and Atreus. It is not a core mechanic to the game like that in the Uncharted games. Having too many climbing sections with no dialogue will inevitably draw down the pacing. I did realize this problem during the process, especially for the early section of the level where the player traverses from the lake to a higher elevation for a better view of the area. There is no elegant solution to this problem other than adding more climb sections or awkwardly long elevators. The take-away is to have more detailed and sensible level planning in the form of 2D maps early during development.
Local Landmarks: The level could use more local landmarks, in addition to the giant sword acting as the central landmark, to orient the player as well as to differentiate environments in the level. At this moment, the two caves in the level are just two caves that look way too similar from the outside. Both combat and traversal spaces could benefit from having their own local landmarks. To help the player mentally map the level better, creating a unique them for each "district" for the level would also help.
Puzzle Density & Variety: The level could benefit from more simple puzzles that require Kratos's axe-throwing mechanic. Hanging hacksilver buckets or explosion pots would do the job. This is an obvious problem that was discovered quite late during development. I should avoid careless mistakes like this in the future.
Scripting: I should have added more scripted events and moments in the level as it feels quite static at this moment. Had the level been a little smaller than what is shown here, more dev time could have been allocated to polishing the experience to a finer shine.
Shortcuts: The level could use more shortcuts to allow traversal between previously visited areas. The cost to produce high-fidelity art for a level like this is high. Level design should thus prolong playtime in each of these areas to make the experience and cost worthwhile.