“We wanted this God of War Ragnarok to feel familiar yet different” | Interview with Santa Monica Studio

Finally arrived on the market, and welcomed by a unanimous chorus of positive reviews, God of war ragnarok (find our review here and you can buy it on Amazon) did not disappoint expectations, proving to be a rich, massive and satisfying title from various points of view, consecrating itself in the name of that "bigger and better" which, as we said also during the of review, one would expect it to feature any sequel worth its salt.

God of War Ragnarock

Even net of some criticisms that can be leveled, for example, towards the narrative sector, the new Sony Santa Monica title undoubtedly represents an important point of arrival, not only for the Kratos saga itself which, at this point, we do not know which direction it will take (or he will take one), but above all for the development team which proves itself, under various aspects, above all the artistic and technical one, as one of the leading teams of the PlayStation Studios park and, undoubtedly, one of the most important and competent from a point of view globally.

Thinking about the magnificence of Ragnarok, its extension, the amount of content, and its splendid level design, the desire to explore and learn about the mechanisms of the game world has skyrocketed, thanks to what is an undoubted and majestic beauty, for other also at the center of our analysis in the course of the review.

Galvanized by the beauty and variety of the Nine Realms, and thanks to the desire not to abandon them even after the game is over, and now abundantly on the way to Platinum, we practically jumped at the opportunity offered to us by PlayStation to be able to exchange a few official chats directly with Sony Santa Monica, met in the guise of James Riding, Principal Level Designer of the game, e Jon Hickenbottom, Level Designer, with the first having worked on both this project and the previous one, and who has therefore been a long-time participant in the revolution that the studio has implemented on the brand.

Granted a little of their time, the two told us about the development, inspirations and difficulties of what, undoubtedly, is one of the titles that compete for the coveted scepter of "GOTY 2022". We, for our part, have also tried to investigate what the hypothetical future of the series could be about which, for obvious reasons, there is still the utmost secrecy.

God of War Ragnarok, the interview a James Riding e Jon Hickenbottom

RG: First of all, thank you for your time! God of War Ragnarok is a fantastic game, and it's a great comeback for Kratos and Atreus. Obviously, as a fan, it is a great pleasure for me to meet you and I would like to start immediately by talking about what, in my opinion, is the general concept of level design. In fact, while playing, I got the impression that there was a return to the origins of the God of War saga, especially if we compare ourselves with the previous chapter, which was decidedly very linear. With Ragnarok I had the impression of facing a wider and more varied world, and I would like to ask you how you dealt with this change of course. In short: what was the main objective in creating this game, and how did you move in terms of returning to variety?

James Riding: The goal, when it comes to design, was to build on the previous game. In the previous God of War we were trying to understand how Kratos moves and how to use the new angle, which was a huge change from the past of the saga. Having understood this, we asked ourselves: "how can we move forward in this direction?". We therefore wondered what we could introduce compared to the first game, or rather solutions such as the new use of the Blades of Chaos for an approach to the verticality of the levels, trying to offer more variety of movement. We call it "in house expand mobility combat", which is a system where you can move, get on a platform, fight enemies and then jump down and fight them on the ground, and we made it so throughout the game, also because it was something that was missing in the previous title, but now this is a prominent component of the level design.

RG: The surprising thing is that you have made this choice in a game in which, among other things, you have staked a lot on the theme of accessibility, aiming to make the game truly accessible to everyone, which is also splendidly communicated by the game's marketing . At this point, still speaking of level design, what attention has been paid to the construction of the levels? More importantly, what are the challenges in making a fast-paced game like God of War accessible to everyone?

Jon Hickenbottom: Well, in this sense we start from the first. Mila Pavlin (Lead UX Designer ed.) and the rest of the team have been pushing for the game to be accessible since development began. So you know, it's a process, right? We've done a lot of playtesting, a lot of interactions and received a lot of feedback, and I'm sure there are tons of people who will talk about this aspect better than me, but yes, I can tell you that it all started from the early stages of development, evolving during the entire process of implementation. There have been several discussions about how to work in terms of accessibility, but I can tell you that every department has made efforts for this to be a cornerstone of this game so that more people would be able to play this title. It all developed while we were at work, constantly looking for solutions together with our accessibility team and the UI team, to make sure, for example, that puzzles could be solved by anyone. It was a job that required many steps, with continuous interactions between the teams, with the desire to make sure that this is a game that everyone can play. It has been an important part of our work, and for this I would like to congratulate Mila and her team for making it possible.

RG: Well, personally I congratulate you. There are so many accessibility options and it's nice to know that this has been one of the main themes of your development journey.

And speaking of themes: I was very surprised by the way you have worked out one of the main themes of the game, which is Fimbulwinter. Before playing I assumed that each level would be covered in snow, but in reality it is only Midgard that is in this state. I was therefore quite surprised to discover that each kingdom is affected by this "winter" in a different way and I wonder why you have opted for this choice. Are the differences in the effects of this "winter" on the Kingdoms the result of a purely artistic choice, or is there something more behind it?

James Riding: So obviously we should pass this question on to the narrative team, but from a level design perspective I can say that I think a series of levels, all covered in snow, would have been boring. So, imagining that Fimbulwinter could have a different effect on each Realm allowed us to create variety, also because we knew we had to explore all 9 Realms, and therefore each of them had to be different. In this way we had the possibility to continue, narratively, the effects caused in the previous game, while still creating a balanced game with a good variety.

RG: Speaking of Realms: how did you approach them after the previous game? I'm also talking about having to re-explore already seen realms, such as Alfheim which, here, is completely new compared to the past. Was there any special attention in this regard? How did you work to make something already seen, new but, at the same time, familiar for the players of the 2018 chapter?

James Riding: We wanted this game to have the same feel as the previous chapter. In this sense Alfheim is an excellent example, and the feeling we wanted to create was that of visiting a new part of a place already seen. Here, for example, we've shown the effects actions from the first game had on Alfheim. As with Fimbulwinter we wanted to create echoes that refer to the first game: and so, for example, the lake we sailed by boat in the 2018 chapter is now frozen. You can still visit locations of that place that you already know, such as the Temple of Tyr, but you will find them changed. They're different places, yet familiar, and I think that's what a good sequel should aim for. Having more than the previous game, but making it not quite the same, familiar but different, and that's what we're excited to let our players experience.

RG: Speaking of having more: I think you've done an incredible job with this game. God of War Ragnarok is really "bigger and better" in many ways, and this is incredible. One thing that struck me, in this sense, is the large number of secondary activities that have been included, which are many more than in the 2018 chapter. At this point I ask you: how did you establish the distribution of secondary activities in the various Realms and on the map? I ask you because I find that the distribution is fairer than in the previous chapter where, after all, everything was concentrated around the Lake of Nine, which served almost as the main HUB of the game.

Jon Hickenbottom: In this respect I have to thank Louie Sanchez and Antony Demento from our lead level designer team, and then Anthony from our Lead Player Investment Team. They and their teams, along with the whole Studio, have worked really hard to evolve what was the aspect of the previous game. I'm also a fan of the saga, and I didn't work on the 2018 chapter, but I must say that one of my favorite aspects of that God of War was precisely the possibility of having so many optional areas, with an exploration that fit together with the main questline path. An aspect that in God of War Ragnarok has really been taken to the next level, and that has been at the heart of the development from the beginning. We've been discussing throughout the development process how we could incorporate this or that side mission, and I agree: the result is fantastic! There are some amazing things to see around the Realms, and there's always that idea that walking a path, even if it's not related to history, will lead to interesting things! There are really amazing things to discover, and I think this is a lot of fun for the players, who can finish the game, and then still have a lot of things to do.

RG: Speaking of this, or rather the content present in the game: is there anything that you have decided to cut from the final version? Obviously I would say yes, because it is something that happens often in the world of development, but I would like to ask you if there is a possibility that any of these cuts will be reused in the future, perhaps through free updates or DLC?

James Riding: At the moment we have nothing to announce. As you know, we will be adding Photo Mode to the game in the near future. God of War Ragnarok is a giant game, I would say that for now players have quite a lot to do.

RG: I figured you were going to tell me but, you know, I still had to try.

– At this point we all have a good laugh, even if I really wanted someone to say to me “don't worry bro, we will announce a bunch of very cool DLC, which was kind of what you all wanted with the last God of War”. But patience, the team is closed in strict secrecy, and I have to go on. –

RG: You told me about the huge amount of things to do in Ragnarok, now I'd like to make a comparison, hoping readers don't take it as a spoiler. In the 2018 title there was one of the most interesting levels of the entire game, namely the Ivaldi Laboratory, structured to offer unprecedented roguelike mechanics within the series. It was an interesting concept, which I would have expected to see again in this chapter, but instead there is nothing like it. May I ask why? After all, it was a very valid activity, also excellent for extending the endgame experience, why didn't you think of inserting something similar?

James Riding: John and I didn't work in Niflheim on this project, and I can't tell you why there hasn't been integration to a similar degree. But I can tell you, speaking of the Kingdom of Niflheim, that in this chapter we have a strong narrative motive behind the visit, and therefore we didn't want to be blocked by any kind of roguelike mechanics, as well as the desire to want to do something new. The point, you know, is that we didn't necessarily want to revisit gameplay mechanics that we've seen before, and I think that's part of the reason why there isn't something like Ivaldi's Laboratory. We wanted to move forward from the 2018 chapter, try to put something interesting in all the Realms, and we did.

RG: I understand the idea, and in fact the general idea I had while playing, is that this chapter wants to be more varied and above all, less linear than the previous one. So, talking about how you've evolved since the last game, I'd be curious to understand what kind of discussions you started internally after the first episode, or how you worked after receiving feedback from players on publication, but also of critics, bloggers and youtubers. Has the reaction from critics and the public somehow influenced God of War Ragnarok?

James Riding: We certainly wanted to listen to our fans. Because we are fans of our fans and, I mean, I was a fan of the series before joining the team! When the previous God fo War came out we received a lot of feedback, some of it was easy to deal with, and it was related to, for example, the variety of enemies, or boss battles, which are things we were already focused on. Then there were some things we wanted to focus on regardless of everything, such as offering players the opportunity to experience their own adventure, without suffering too much from narrative linearity. Just like we said before, that's why we greatly expanded the opportunities for players to make choices, and I think that was a natural evolution for the franchise, and that the fans had, in part, already appreciated with the previous game, even when confronted with a not really "open" world. We understood that linearity could be a weakness, and I think this also establishes the success of the secondary content, which is why we have expanded this concept in God of War Ragnarok.

RG: We have often mentioned the splendid chapter of 2018 and, personally, I think it was one of the most important chapters of the entire franchise, above all thanks to its narrative component which, for the first time, showed us Kratos as a real, real person , and not as a simple war machine. Now, although it is clear that many of the changes implemented with the previous game also depended, for example, on the different perspective offered to the player in terms of shot, I would like to ask you if there have not been some changes imposed also and above all by the narrative component, and if it influenced, in some way, the construction of the levels, both in the previous game and in Ragnarok.

Jon Hickenbottom: Personally I can only talk about this chapter, unfortunately not having worked on the previous one. In God of War Ragnarok the narrative is firmly intertwined with the game levels we have built. In this game we are seeing the relationship between Atreus and Kratos grow, and we have tried to convey this layout not only through the narrative, but also through the level design and the path of traversing the levels. I'll give you an example: now Atreus is able to fight on his own, he's growing up, and therefore he no longer needs to cling to his father's back to overcome the climbs, because he is able to do it on his own. Same with the puzzles, where he's able to work independently of Kratos. There was a change, and we made him recognizable. Even the fights, in this sense, are different, because now Atreus is able to capitalize on the experience made with his father in the first game. At this point, it was important for us that all this could also be perceived in the way in which the player traverses the various levels, exploring, fighting or interacting with them. The narrative is continuously intertwined with the level design, and at the heart of it is the evolution of the father / son relationship.

RG: Stepping back, you told me earlier that you didn't work directly on the Kingdom of Niflheim, so which one did you work directly on? And while we're at it, without spoilers, which do you think is the Kingdom with the most interesting and, in some ways, "unexpected" level design?

Jon Hickenbottom: Jon and I worked in Svartalfheim which, of course, is the best.

– Here the two have a smug laugh and I'd say it fits. Svartalfheim, the Kingdom of the dwarves, was the one with which Sony presented the project to the world with the first official trailer, and it is also one of the most interesting Kingdoms of the package, especially from the point of view of the puzzles. The Kingdom also has a certain importance from a narrative point of view… but now let's not think about it too much, we don't want to spoil anything. Hickenbottom, meanwhile, is pondering which is the most unexpected or, if you will, surprising realm of the whole lot offered to us by Yggdrasil. –

Jon Hickenbottom: So… speaking for myself, I would say that the most unexpected Kingdom is that of Muspelheim. I think it's also amazing to visit Asgard. I mean: Asgard is a Kingdom that has a very special charm, right? Asgard is really an interesting realm, so much so that during development I kept saying: “let me work, I could do this, or that…”, but it was not possible to do it.

RG: Since you mentioned Asgard: did you happen to be inspired by the Irish coasts in making it?

James Riding: I can't tell you, but it wouldn't surprise me. We've done a lot of research, and used a lot of references in the creation of this game, so if you see a similarity in it, you could be right.

RG: I'm happy to know that, simply because I love Ireland, and when I saw that Kingdom it made a certain impression on me. On the other hand, guys, congratulations for the work you have done with Svartalfheim! This is an interesting Kingdom, which I loved very much and which, in my opinion, has the most interesting environmental mechanics when it comes to puzzles!

James Riding: Thank you very much!

RG: Seriously guys, there's a puzzle in the middle of the Svartalfheim lake that I haven't solved yet! I'm there to try, from time to time, but nothing! And you know what? This makes me very happy, not so much the puzzle itself, but to see that in this game there is a pleasant return to the environmental puzzles, which were also in the previous game, but were really very simple. You'll know what I'm talking about: it was often a question of pulling a chain, throwing an ax, blocking a gear... in short, nothing exciting. I think the problem with the previous God of War was that the solutions were always placed in the player's line of sight. Basically it was enough to look ahead, or at least rotate the camera a bit, to solve a puzzle. You definitely worked differently here: some puzzles require you to consider the whole environment to solve, and that's really nice! What do you think? Did I go into "overthinking" or do you agree? Was there a precise choice of level design regarding the puzzles?

James Riding: Yes you are right. We thought about what we did with the previous game, and we decided that we wanted to do better, trying to make some considerations on certain aspects such as the puzzles. We were like “hey, these puzzles all solve the same way after all!”, and so we tried to vary as much as possible. So thank you for noticing this thing, it's a detail but it's important.

– Riding smiles a little pleased with the question and, of course, I can't help but be happy about it! I'm happy not only as a journalist, that when you ask a question that the interviewee appreciates you always feel you've hit the jackpot, but above all I'm happy to see that Santa Monica is a team that puts critical thinking at the center of its evolution. A team that wonders about the defects or, if you like, about the "deficiencies" of their previous work, with the aim of doing more and doing better. The Ragnarok puzzles are a prime example of this concept. –

God of War Ragnarock

RG: At this point I'd say we're ready for one last confrontation, and I can only bring up God of War III which, for many, many valid reasons, is still considered a spectacular and impressive chapter. One of the things I liked most about that game, while we're on the subject, were those moments where the game had a perspective shift, with levels moving or changing as you explored or fought them. In this sense, I wonder if for you, who are Level Design of the Santa Monica Studio team, that God of War doesn't still represent a challenge to overcome, if not in technical terms, at least from the point of view of what are the expectations created in the players. Do you feel any kind of pressure in this regard? Also because, let's face it, we are talking about a game that is still very valid today.

Jon Hickenbottom: Ok, this is the first God of War I've had the opportunity to work on but, despite this, I think God of War III is part of the lineage of the Studio, also because there are still developers who are here from the very beginning, such as the our wonderful director, Eric Williams (Director of God of War Ragnarok ed). So, basically, I think you're right: looking at the past of this team there's always a certain pressure that makes you say: “I don't want to fail! I don't want to let this team down!" If I think about God of War III, I'd say you're right: it's an epic game, and this definitely makes you think that you might disappoint someone, also because I'm new, and I'm a fan. However, I can tell you that Eric, in particular, has always kept his door open to answer any doubts, uncertainties, or even my fears, like the rest of the team. Eric has taken on our doubts, and has decided to take them on, and this gives you great self-confidence, as well as creating a sense of trust in the whole team. I think the strength of the Santa Monica team is also this: being able to rely on experienced people, like James, who have been here for years, and who have already been there, and with whom you can feel like you are part of a family.

RG: Well guys, I'd say that the interview is drawing to a close. At this point it is very clear to me that I am speaking not only with two members of the Santa Monica team, but above all with two fans of the franchise. With two people who love this series, therefore, I ask you, from fan to fan, and without any desire to ask you anything about the future of the franchise: if you had to think about the future of God of War, and being able to draw on any mythology in the world, what would it be? , in your opinion, the most interesting one to explore? If not from a narrative point of view, at least from a game world design perspective?

James Riding: Okay, that's a tough question to answer because, you know, I've spent the last 8 years immersed in Norse mythology, and that's all I keep thinking about.

RG: You will feel like a Viking after all these years!

James Riding: You can say it! Literally: I cut my beard just today.

- James has another good laugh to buy time, so as to answer my question. At this point I don't understand if he's really "stuck" in thoughts that lead him to wander the 9 Realms, or if there's something he's trying not to say about the future of the franchise. Maybe it's just me who finished the game for days, and I keep hoping that one of the two, in a moment of madness, shoots me here in call the announcement of the century: "Bro, we're working on a God of War in the Ancient Egypt!". Fantasies and nothing more. James is ready to answer me, and I to listen to him. –

James Rising: Therefore, I have not spent myself looking for information or references from other mythologies except, precisely, from the Norse one. Despite this, I think fans will be blown away by the variety of levels we've created, and how detailed they are. I don't want to create any expectations for the future, also because obviously we're still trying to enjoy what we have here with Ragnarok, because it's a huge game.

RG: Ok, I get the point. Indeed Ragnarok is really huge but, you know, as fans we always wish we had more! That said, we're really closing now, and I know the next one isn't a level design related question, but I have to tell you: at the end of the previous chapter, after completing all the tasks, there was a chance to unlock a secret ending, which served as a "spoiler" to Thor's arrival in God of War Ragnarok. Tell us: is there something similar in this game too?

James Riding looks at me smiling: “Yes, there is something very similar, go out there and look for it!”.

And so our interview ends. For our part, we have tried to get something suggested, whether it was a preview or even a suggestion on the future of the franchise, but, as at the end of Filbumwinter, we will probably just have to wait for the snow to melt, with patience and, perhaps, after a long wait.

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