Kratos’ journey into the mysteries of a new Norse world in 2018’s God of War takes both him and players to fantastical realms, pits us against mythical beasts, and introduces an epic cast. But at the heart of it all is Kratos’ relationship to his son Atreus. Learning what kind of father he should be in contrast to the person he was, and what kind of man he wants to raise Atreus to be, echoes in every step of his journey.
So it’s no surprise that one of Kratos’ most challenging moments comes when Atreus grows sick, and the only answer to his salvation lies in Helheim, where no known fire in the nine realms will burn. Kratos, of course, knows of a fire from another realm he can draw from, and in one incredible sequence we see him dig up the ghost of Sparta as he reclaims the Blades of Chaos to save his son. It is a difficult choice, to revisit the past he has clearly worked so hard to leave behind him. But at the same time, it demonstrates that Kratos will do anything to save Atreus.
That harrowing moment weighs on Kratos, and the team at Sony Santa Monica lets that weight rest on the player too before he ultimately retrieves the Blades and confronts everything they represent. To find out more, IGN spoke to members of the development team about how Santa Monica brought this moment to life, and how it revived the Blades for Kratos’ newest adventure. This is Art of the Level.
Before we get to what that journey is like for Kratos, it’s important to set the stage for what it was like for the developers.
Building the Blades
The Blades are a surprise late into Kratos’ journey. And according to art director Raf Grassetti, in the early days of the project much of the team worked without even focusing on the blades, or thinking they may be part of the project. That allowed the devs at large to really focus on ensuring Kratos’ new weapon, the iconic Leviathan Axe, got its due. But when work did begin on concepting the Blades, the art team wanted to ensure they were retaining what fans loved about them, but also bringing them up to snuff with the rest of the work already done. Part of that work, at its purest, meant meeting the more realistic look of this new adventure.
“Kratos spent all that time trying to get rid of it, so we wanted to show that in the blades, but keeping it as iconic as we all know the blades to be,” Grassetti said. “So initially, that was an easier task just to take what was there and really just make it a little more realistic, work with the materials. It was a transition for the franchise to be a little more realistic. So we had to play a little bit with proportions, but keeping it as close as the old ones and we took a step back and broke down what was iconic about it as we were Norsifying it, as we would say it, to really find what was iconic, what shapes were iconic.”
Not wanting to mess with what wasn’t broken, the art team did their best to enhance the look but retain the essence of the Blades. Some of the changes they did make were aided by the work done on the Leviathan Axe, as well as knowing how gameplay elements like upgrades and runes would affect weaponry.
“It’s probably the most recognizable piece that we have that bridges the mythologies. So we needed to keep that, but then also finding thematically what would make sense…So for the blades, we started to explore a lot of how the Jörmungandr, the world snake, come in into the designs as we upgraded, because we knew that was an iconic element that we could use to bring that Norsified element to it,” Grassetti explained.
“As you upgrade the head of the blade, you’ll see the snake come through, forming the omega at the end, and that was kind of the final touch where we knew we had something and we knew it felt like it was a proper way to take it into the Norse mythology and keeping it iconic to what it used to be.”
Maintaining the original appeal of the Blades didn’t just apply to the look of them – it also mattered to the mechanical feel of them as well.
“Initially we did try quite a bit to make it feel very different. And when we saw internally the reaction celebrate the familiarity, we were much more accepting of ‘You know what, let’s revisit this,’” Lead Combat Designer Mihir Sheth said.
“It was very important to make sure that we got the timing and the feeling and the similar frames. We’re down to the frames because people will recognize the square, square, triangle combo, and now using the shoulder buttons, we will ensure that those things felt timing-wise the same,” Animation Director Bruno Velazquez said.
“We had more confidence that when we realized we were going to retread familiarity with the blades, we didn’t see that as a failure. We were like ‘You know what? It’s good. Let’s celebrate this side of Kratos in this different style of game,'” Sheth said.
One of the biggest changes the team had to account for in bringing forward the blades was one of God of War 2018’s major differences from past games in the series: a lower, behind-the-back camera angle.
“Looking at 2018, the biggest change in that game from a design and gameplay perspective is the camera. Bringing a closer third-person perspective camera that’s player-controlled really changed everything from the ground up. And the axe, just like the blades was for the old camera, the axe is our take on a weapon ideal for the new camera, right? And so all the decisions really are being made from the axe,” Sheth explained.
“There was a whole period where we were thinking that modernizing the blades meant actually not having them get thrown out with the chains, but actually having them only be in-hand, like knives essentially. We thought that would be a twist. It would kind of work with the camera. It would be much more similar to the axe in terms of the range that you would be able to attack with, a little bit closer, of course. And we had tried all of this work with it and it just didn’t get the appeal.”
When the team returned to the blades and their attached chains, the internal reaction made it clear this was the way to go, and the road toward making the blades feel familiar mechanically went on. Going back to the issues of the camera shift, that sense of familiarity had to also apply to the way Kratos was animated while swinging those blades around.
“Since the camera had changed so much, and now the perspective was going to be from behind Kratos, you were not going to see them from every angle how you saw the blades before. So, it was very important for us to ensure that from that new perspective, they felt and read the same way with the same type of silhouette and posting that we established in the first few games to make sure that on the 2018 version of the game, that playability felt very similar, if not the same,” Velazquez said.
And speaking of the chains, the camera framing also led to some alterations in the distance they traveled compared to the past, as Velazquez, who has worked on past God of War games as well as 2018, noted:
“Also, another big challenge was we couldn’t have the length of the chains be the same as, in many other moves, as the previous original Greek games because if we were to extend the chains to the same length that we had before, they would go well beyond the range of the new camera perspective. So, we had to reel them in a little bit, but at the same time, ensure that they didn’t feel a little bit too nerfed, almost like he wasn’t releasing them as far as he used to before.”
The chains even need to be considered from early art concepting phases, in a way players might not automatically assume.
“For the chains being such an iconic part of his design, when you’re talking about all these armor upgrades and adding that to the franchise as well to make sure the players can customize all they want, having chains that fit every single bracelet is a huge task. It seems like it’s easy enough, but that took a long time for us to figure it out how to make that work,” Grassetti said.
Kratos certainly doesn’t feel nerfed when wielding the blades, but making them work in the context of 2018 versus past God of War games required plenty of ingenuity on the part of the development team.
“Previously, we had keyframed all the motion of the chains, and every move that Kratos would use the blades, it would just be very custom-made. Every single chain was hand-animated, but this time around, we wanted to introduce a little bit of a blend, so that while a lot of them are very custom-made, authored as far as how the chains move and bend, we did have to employ a lot of physics and reach a nice sort of middle ground between using the physics engine and blending in and out of keyframe animation to get a little bit of that higher fidelity,” Velazquez said.
“We do have some moments in which you actually get to see the slack of the chains coming from Kratos’s wrists and going back into the blades. That is physics-driven as Kratos runs on the screen, you see them kind of moving around on their own and reacting to what the player’s inputs are, versus us trying to keyframe all that.”
The physicality of the chains was explored on the gameplay and engineering side, and for a time the team tried some experimental ideas with how the blades and their chains might work.
“And initially there was a lot of excitement behind the chain sim. Simulation, in general, was something that always gathers a lot of excitement because it looks really cool and whether it works for gameplay or not that’s what we have to decide,” Sheth said. “But at that time there was definitely some ideas that we were looking at with leaving the blade out there. Throwing it and leaving it out and actually walking around and having the chain. You know, could you clothesline an enemy?”
While there were cool ideas in play, the team ultimately decided to focus on what the Blades were known for, rather than trying to reinvent the knife.
“But there was a lot of experimentation with that kind of enemy manipulation gameplay…And honestly, there wasn’t a lot of success that we found in doing that because so much of the game, as I mentioned before, is relying on camera and facing. Every time you attack an enemy, you push them away from you,” Sheth said.
“And we kind of decided that, if we’re going to put our effort into anything, given the time and resources we have, let’s try to deliver the familiarity of the blades that people remember more than anything else.”
But playing to that familiarity wasn’t a burden – it was core to unlocking the blades’ potential and retaining the balletic feel of them, even with a different camera angle amongst other changes.
“Kratos is almost like a ballet of death or ballet of destruction or something like that, where he’s just kind of spinning and moving around the blades. It’s always very important for us to, in every move, to make it feel like Kratos is guiding the blades and he’s pulling and manipulating the blades, and never allow the blades for them to almost spin on their own like he’s always in control of them, and he can at any point kind of pull them back or redirect them in any way that he wishes,” Velazquez said.
“There’s a lot that’s actually different than the old games, but I think the perception that a lot of people have is it’s exactly like the old games, the old combos still work. And that’s intentional, right? We want you to feel what Kratos is feeling,” Sheth said.
Representing the past but bringing it into the now, the Blades not only reflected the series’ history but showcased, alongside the Leviathan Axe, all the incredible work that had been done to modernize the franchise but still honor its history. The blades’ specific place in the journey allows the story to do just the same.
Rolling on the River
Kratos’ journey home begins with a solemn river ride set against a red storm. And while it takes control away from the player for several minutes in a game that excels at combat and exploration, it’s because you’re forced to sit in that boat with Kratos as he reflects on his emotions for so long that what comes after resonates so strongly.
“I felt like that went a lot towards earning it because you could see that Kratos is just sitting in it and sitting in that moment. If we would’ve done a Mystic Gateway to go from Freya’s house to the front yard, it wouldn’t have worked. It wouldn’t have felt as impactful,” Narrative Director Matt Sophos said.
“That sequence underwent a lot of careful planning, but also a lot of iteration. We wanted to make sure we reached a good balance of the buildup, right? We wanted to make sure that there was the anticipation and the buildup to the big reveal, but at the same time, make sure that it wasn’t too much,” Velazquez said.
“And I do remember the day that we shot that on stage with Chris Judge being an actor that played Kratos for us. He did an amazing job because [Director] Cory Barlog just talked to him and had a conversation about what it means for Kratos to essentially dig up his past and go retrieve these blades that means so much to him…he really, really did a great job of communicating it through without any dialogue, really what Kratos was going through.”
“I got to give a lot of credit to Cory on this one, obviously, to have the kind of confidence to let it sit in that. We filmed the circles around it deliberately slowly just let him stew until the Athena moment where it pops up,” Sophos said. The tough thing was not rushing it from either the person holding the camera, Dory, holding the camera and walking around him and not feeling the need to rush it and getting the buy-in from people who want to get back on the buttons.”
The length of that boat ride also serves a somewhat meta-function for the player as well – those who know Kratos’ history and backstory probably have a pretty good idea of what iconic weapon will do the trick. But even if players don’t know, the solemnity of this long river ride solidifies the importance of what’s to come.
“Having that boat ride was a way to show those players who know the Blades, they may recognize it because they’re iconic to Kratos, but they knew anything about Kratos or PlayStation in general. They could recognize it, but having to watch Kratos go through that boat ride and all that leading up to it shows that even if it doesn’t have that same hook to them, because they didn’t play the old games with the Blades, they could see that it was really powerful to Kratos. That was our window in to also help players who hadn’t played the original games,” Sophos said.
Everything from Kratos’ contemplative state to the chaotic nature around him beautifully illustrates and underscores how important the moment that’s coming is for him, and the team put in the work to make every detail of the boat ride count.
“Pretty much every wildlife, everything that we had in there, that was very custom-made. Because we knew that length of the scene was going to be quite long going down the river, we wanted to have little points of interest and little things that are sort of moving in the background. Also, it’s kind of symbolic that the wildlife sort of sees Kratos and they’re running away immediately. They know that there’s some turmoil going on with this man going down the river, so they really want to get out of there,” Velazquez said.
That attention to detail can be seen even in small character decisions, like a choice Kratos makes at the onset of the boat ride.
“For that sequence on the boat, every time Kratos gets into the boat, he pulls Mimir off his hip and sets him on the bench across, usually sitting next to Atreus. We very deliberately left him on Kratos’s hip. Not only because we might have issues of Athena clipping into him sitting there or whatever, but this isn’t a moment for Mimir. This is a moment specifically for Kratos and Mimir knows that Kratos is really going through stuff. He knows he’s not going to talk. As soon as he leaves Freya’s house, he says something and Kratos says, ‘Leave me be.’ Mimir leaves him be,” Sophos explained.
But Kratos isn’t alone for the entire boat ride. At one point, the visage of the Greek goddess Athena appears. And given Kratos’ fraught but important history with her, the devs knew she had to be the figure from his past to haunt him in this moment.
“For Kratos, of all the gods, Athena was the one that Kratos trusted the most and then he ultimately felt manipulated by her by the end of God of War and everything. We always knew it was going to be Athena. The fact that we could get Carole [Ruggier] who played Athena in God of War II and everything to come back and play the role. She was so great. Just hearing her voice brought it all to life,” Sophos said.
And it wasn’t just the voice the developers wanted to ring forth from the past – her look is specifically meant to be as close as possible to her previous appearances.
“We want it to be exactly what his last memory was of her. So we actually took the character from the past games and we did a little bit to improve on the details and the sculpt and all that, but the model is one to one to what it used to be really to sell that it is Athena,” Grassetti said.
The spector of Athena follows Kratos back to his home, where he eventually retrieves the hidden Blades of Chaos from underneath the floorboards. The moment remains a weighty, solitary sequence for both Kratos and the player, but Athena looms in the background, taunting Kratos that he can never really outrun the monster he once was. But, as Kratos makes clear in one of God of War’s most famous lines, he’s not running from who he is, but he’s choosing to be the monster he is for the right reasons.
“Let me start with the big joy of it is the joy of being able to drop that line of ‘I’m your monster no longer,'” Sophos began.
“That moment was when we really felt like we had the scene was that line because Kratos has gone through a lot. What he’s showing in this moment is he’s willing to go through it again, but he’s going to try to do it for the right reasons…That was our moment for Kratos to both embrace what his past was and what he had to do, but do it in a better way. He’s not doing it for Athena. He’s not doing it for revenge. He’s doing it because he has to save his son. Having that line land for us that way, and then walking through Athena to show that he’s not swinging the Blades at this apparition thing that’s in his face or anything like that. He’s done with that. Now he’s the freight train moving forward.”
“The one thing that’s very specific, too, that not a lot of people seem to talk about is when you walk through Athena and you see her dissipate into the green particles, it’s the same thing that we saw in past games when she died. All those little connections that Cory [Barlog] more than everyone else has a very specific taste and knows the reasoning behind everything. It comes together, right? It all feels like it really pays homage and puts you into these new settings and it gives you all the tools for you to enjoy it and celebrate the past with all the new game,” Grassetti said.
Kratos isn’t ignoring his past in this moment – he’s very much, as Santa Monica masterfully communicates via the scene, accepting it in a way he clearly hadn’t yet in his Norse life. And in doing so, he’s choosing how he wields that past. It may still be through the Blades, but they are being used, now, to save the life that matters to him most.
All of the work that went into making the Blades fun to wield comes to a head in those moments after Kratos steps out of his home against a pack of… relatively easy enemies. Maybe not the major spectacle you were expecting? Well, that’s by design, and even hinted at before you get back home.
“One of the things that I don’t know if many folks have noticed, but we have some of the enemies that are sort of roaming and patrolling the area up in the top, in the background very subtly. It is just sort of to kind of give a hint that oh, when you exited the home, after you retrieve the blades, that’s why there were enemies right there right away, that they sort of spotted Kratos going down the river, and then they decided to come and look for him,” Velazquez said.
“One thing we wanted to make sure that landed was when you get the blades and you walk out, it’s about Kratos. It’s not about the enemies at that point,” Sheth said.
“A lot of times when we design encounters, we focus on what we call the combat puzzle where enemies are essentially posing questions that the player has to answer. Based on their placement or the enemy composition, in your head you create a little strategy for yourself. How am I going to get through this? When you get the blades that’s not really the point. The point is this has to be a pacing hit with all of this buildup where the feeling should be: the blades are back and they’re awesome.”
“We introduced a lot of the weaker enemies which up to this point, they were tuned in a way that up to this point, these enemies had been a little bit tougher even with the axe, but once you get the blades, you sort of sliced through them like butter. And that was also very carefully planned that we make sure we put the right enemies there outside the door for you to just immediately feel powerful like the old Kratos is back,” Velazquez said.
They’re frost enemies, too, and so what better way to celebrate the Blades than to let the player tear through them with fire? But there’s a secret joy that many players have experienced after this initial fight – and it’s one the developers anticipated and hoped for.
“But the real moment of joy and kind of disbelief happens at the end of that fight, where there’s a little popup that comes and it says, ‘Upgrade your blades in the skill tree.’ And you’re like ‘Wait, what?’ Cause you know people just think that, ‘Oh, it’s a set piece. It’s not real.’ Then you go and you open the menu and then you see a skill tree,” Sheth explained.
It may seem funny that a skill tree could cause so much delight, but it does, because it makes clear that the Blades are going to be a permanent part of the experience. Though it’s late in 2018’s story, you’re going to have the chance to upgrade and unlock new skills for these beloved weapons. But because of that late arrival, the developers didn’t want to stop players from having fun with the Blades immediately.
“We could have done something where oh, really at the end you unlock the blades as you know them, right? And could have taken a more conservative approach. But again, the value of that moment of just the blades are back is just so powerful that we did decide for the blades to really put a lot of these big fundamental blades moves front center,” Sheth said.
But as players come to understand that the Blades are a fundamental part of the journey, the team wanted to ensure players didn’t feel like this special moment would be spoiled.
“He’s not going to put them back under the floorboards. We’re not going to give players the Blades and then take them away,” Sophos said.
The Blades remain throughout Kratos’ journey, and stand at the nexus of God of War’s unique place in the overall franchise. Kratos has forged ahead to a new life, a new gameplay style, and a new world, but the past can never truly be forgotten. And Santa Monica quite explicitly doesn’t ignore the past – it interrogates it head-on as both part of Kratos’ story, reckoning his past with his present and as a mechanical representation of both where the series has been and how far it’s come.
Jonathon Dornbush is IGN’s Senior Features Editor, PlayStation Lead, and host of Podcast Beyond! He’s the proud dog father of a BOY named Loki. Talk to him on Twitter @jmdornbush.