How Sony Santa Monica knocked God of War Ragnarok's big narrative climax into shape
Spoiler warning for God of War Ragnarok's late-game story!
With much of the final, climactic level in place and the last few visual effects coming in, the developers at Sony Santa Monica realised they had a bit of a problem: there's a big plot development that happens here, essential to the entire story of God of War Ragnarok - but nobody who played the game would notice it.
The moment in question here is Atreus' big realisation, that bringing about Ragnarok is, after all, maybe not the best idea - something he notices when dwarven companion Sindri sets off a kind of magical shockwave, which destroys the Asgardian villains' defences but, also, takes out a good few innocent civilians, too.
The problem, according to Victoria Smith, a lead level designer at Santa Monica who explained all this in an excellent GDC talk, is that nobody could tell any civilians were getting hurt. Talking to the audience after showing the team's first pass at the scene, she said, "I want anyone to raise their hand if they saw the fifteen civilians at the bases of those war machines getting crushed and murderised," to no response. "Yeah! Yeah neither did any of our playtesters."
If you've played it, Smith explained, you'll know that those deaths are "absolutely pivotal" to Atreus and Kratos' big moments of realisation. "The scene makes no sense without it! And our animation team absolutely did not have time to add more."
Because of the way the levels such as these are built, all of the camera's movements are already blocked out well in advance, with the terrain and everything on it placed within the field of view - which meant that the only options were to play with what was already there. "I rotated and I warped and I did unspeakable things to place those civilians on every available ledge," Smith joked, to no avail. The lighting team put fires and torches by them all to "light them up like Christmas trees" to help draw the eye, but that didn't work, and the art team made some dead civilian poses and placed them right in front of the player, but still players didn't clock on.
The reality, Smith explained, was that the scene was almost "the definition of cognitive overload, there's just too much going on," with a huge amount of visual effects, explosions, monsters and all the rest on screen at once, plus Sindri and Atreus in the foreground.
After exhausting all other options, it turned out to be Santa Monica's sound team that came to the rescue. Their solution was to turn down the volume on everything, and crank up the sounds of all the civilians' screams. Watching the final version of the clip again at the talk, suddenly it all came together.
This was one of a number of last-minute, or otherwise just very clever hacks the Santa Monica team found themselves relying on to get Ragnarok into shape - which all added up to a reminder of the amount of ingenuity that goes into making big productions like these work.
Smith, revealed that she had ingeniously re-used the different sections of the trench that the player walks through as Atreus on their first visit to Asgard, for instance, by "literally cutting and pasting" them and then rotating, repositioning, and reordering them into an entirely new path for the Ragnarok battle.
The background soldiers meanwhile were an issue, but the animation team found a way to strip the basic fighting animations down to "flipbooks", and then turning them into two-dimensional models - Smith's rotation of the camera to reveal them from the side drew a big round of applause from the developers in the audience. And meanwhile the flying dragons almost got cut from the final scene, the playtesters found Odin to easy to beat compared to Thor, despite dying "twice to Thor and 12 times against Odin," because Thor was so much more imposing and Odin's arena, Smith admitted, was just too large for his visual effects to give him much oomph.
Covid, meanwhile, had a predictably major impact, with motion capture put back by "a year," and the PS4 version of the game wasn't "fully performant," in terms of frame rate, until 22nd August 2022, just a week before an internal deadline.
Like a few others at GDC - including those that revealed 60 percent of all Wordle players lost their streak to 'parer', and that CD Projekt had to tweak Keanu Reeves' character to be an especially giant "asshole" to stop players always siding with him - it made for a highly enlightening presentation. You can watch this one on the GDC Vault on 14th April but, like the others, be warned that'll require paying a fee for access.