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Deconstructing greatness in story & level design: God of War

“Everything is different, boy. Try not to dwell on it.”

"And you must be better than me. Understand?"

The 2018 God of War was one of the few games that I found difficult to write about. The game is exceedingly polished and perfect in every way, so much so that poking holes and critically dissect it feels unnecessary. Therefore I dedicate this essay to deconstructing the first hour of the game in terms of story, level design and mechanics tutorials to better understand its greatness in both disciplines. The first chapter (“THE MARKED TREES”) of the game utilizes, unsurprisingly, the three-act structure consisting of 3 tightly-knit sequences to set up everything for the rest of game.

1st Sequence: The Last Farewell In the first sequence, the player sees a much older Kratos holding an axe before quietly kneeling down beside a tree, almost ruminating on the heaviness of cutting it down. This opening moment contrasts greatly with all previous ones in the franchise, breaking audience expectation while effectively setting up the tone of the story. In addition to this powerful story beat, the player is told to use the “R1” button, the attack button for both the Leviathan Axe as well as the Blades of Chaos to cut down the tree. The same diegetic mechanics tutorial happens again at a later point in the story as well.

If the moment of Kratos kneeling before the marked tree is a quiet moment, then cutting the tree down is a relatively loud moment. The loud moment is immediately followed by another quiet moment of Kratos taking regret at his constantly bleeding forearms and reminiscing about past mistakes. As the players returns home, the game stages another loud moment with both Kratos and Atreus saying last goodbyes to Faye: Atreus’s mother and Kratos’s wife. The father-and-son journey starts here. By now, the pattern in story pacing is crystal clear: quiet story beats are immediately followed by loud beats, either in emotion or action. This technique in building up and releasing tension is used throughout the game to constantly provide forward momentum.

2nd Sequence: Hunting the Deer Moving on to the second sequence. This sequence is focused on Kratos teaching Atreus hunting the deer. Compared to the first sequence, this one is driven mainly by level design and teaching new mechanics to the player. The player is guided through indirect control by environment art to navigate the game world.

Door frame with a golden piece on top is a great example of affordance, guiding the player to move forward.

You guessed it. This quiet moment of exploration is followed by am action packed scene: Frustrated by Atreus’s lack of discipline, Kratos erupts into rage, who then encounters a small groups of draugrs. As the player finishes this combat tutorial, he is then led by Atreus to continue finding the deer. Quiet moment of traversal is ensured with the game’s first puzzle piece.

Trees with golden leaves and white trunks funnel the player into the critical path.

Before long, the game shift gears into louder and heavier beats. Killing the deer alive is a hard scene to watch. It is made harder when player’s psychology is aligned with that of Atreus. Player is given a small fleeting moment of rest, watching Kratos’s inner struggle unfolds on-screen. Before long, the player is thrown into the first boss battle of the game.

The game lures the player into seeing the golden chain in the distance (which the player cannot access at the moment) with a shiny collectible object, encouraging exploration in the future.

The boss battle is a soft skill gate test for the player. As the player walks out of the battle, mostly likely gasping heavily, his psychology is once again aligned with that of Atreus. Seeing Atreus breaking down and going crazy before the dead troll reminds us again about the cruelness and the grittiness of the game world. This boss battle marks the end of the second sequence as both action and emotion stake reaches the highest logical point.

Framing of this scene shows the player clearly of his next objective, and gives them a sneak peak of what's coming next.
The placement of the shield rack cleverly demonstrates the axe's ability to do damage even as it travels back to Kratos's hand - a sub combat mechanics never formally introduced.
The red flag points at the next step in the player's critical path.
The "Square" button that controls Atreus's arrow shooting - ingenious blend of mechanics tutorial with narrative moment.
The quietness before the storm, as Kratos struggles with coming to terms with his inner conflict.

3rd Sequence: Fight With The Stranger In any traditional three-act structure, the second action is followed by the climax of the third act. God of War is no exception. In this final sequence, in the wake of the troll boss battle, the player returns home. Kratos solemnly collects the ashes of his wife and teaches Atreus a lesson, lamenting on his lack of discipline and skill. Before long, the climax of the first chapter unfolds in a boss battle between Kratos and Baldur. Even in this scene, the dev team was able to think of a clever way for player guidance/indirect control. Upon removing the huge stone monument from its pedestal and smashing it onto Baldur, a deep crevice breaks on the group, pointing towards Kratos’s home. Paired with a camera that is pointing in the same direction, the player is subtly guided to walk towards in that direction to trigger the next scripted moment unknowingly.

Crevice on the ground hints at what the player should go to next.

Upon a short exchange with Atreus, the player is usher onto the next chapter, with the camera pointing at the mountain, hinting at the next destination.

The beautiful vista of the mount not only highlights the upcoming goal, but also an implication of the huge size of the game world.

The success of the new God of War is a testament to the great technical as well as creative talent behind Santa Monica Studio, who meticulously curates all the granular details and moments of story and level design to ensure that the epic saga reaches the heart of every player.

“Everything is different, boy. Try not to dwell on it.”

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