Santa Monica Studio side quest leads offer insight on crafting side stories that grow the characters.
2022’s God of War Ragnarök hosted some of the year’s most thrilling fights and emotional peaks in gaming. While the main story had its own highs, its Favors (a.k.a. side quests) contained some of its most memorable character moments. Implementing these optional adventures, however, invited challenges to the game’s development.
Developer Santa Monica Studio set out to create unique side missions hosting small yet impactful narrative beats that accentuate the stories of its characters. These quests humanized not only protagonist Kratos but also the friends, allies, and family that the once ruthless God of War has found since the end of his journey in Olympus.
We spoke with Lead Player Investment Designer Anthony DiMento and Lead Writer Rich Gaubert to explore the implementation of a few of the game’s most memorable side quests.
Serving the bigger picture
God of War Ragnarök’s side quests are designed to expand not only on the world, but most importantly its characters and the larger themes arising from their journeys.
“We had a better sense of what we wanted from side quests this time. And I think that the impulse for many developers is to use them to flesh out the world and its lore.” Gaubert explains. “While that’s certainly part of it, we didn’t want that to be the main focus. The focus is on these characters and themes and ensuring that the critical path, storyline, and side quest storylines are pieces in a larger puzzle. That lore and world-building should be byproducts of exploring the characters rather than the other way around. It’s too easy to get lost in the minutia if it’s not anchored by characters, as they’re easier to relate to.”
The game’s first Favor, In Service of Asgard, is a perfect example of this approach. This quest sees Kratos, Atreus, and Mimir confront Mimir’s past of misguided attempts to win Odin’s approval, namely, persuading the dwarves of Svartalfheim to build mining rigs to generate resources for Odin. The mining came at a great cost, polluting the surrounding area and stripping Svartalfheim of resources, and now Mimir wishes to reverse the damage to heal the realm and clear his conscience.
The Favor not only explores one of Mimir’s deepest regrets, adding more context to his deep hatred of Odin, it also reflects on the broader theme of not running from the past – something Kratos has struggled with himself. While Kratos is not the focus of the Favor, in doing this side quest, the team at Santa Monica Studio was able to shine a new light on the once God of War as he helps Mimir right the wrongs of his past serving under a cruel master – touching on many broader themes for both characters including personal accountability and repentance.
“It’s all about staying on target with your themes and having your supporting characters serve as mirrors of your hero, showing what may be a path not taken, or serve a warning of what might happen if the character stays on the course they’re on,” Gaubert continues. “They’re reflections of your hero, and we certainly apply that philosophy to our story in general, but also to the side quests and how they should serve the big picture.”
Looking for constants
When designing the side quests for God of War Ragnarök, the Player Investment team had to decide on several critical elements before they could begin crafting the stories. Questions such as “When and where should these quests open up?” and “Are the characters who drive the narrative going to have similar motivations before and after Ragnarök?” were essential to answer during development.
The key was to make the world feel like a dynamic, living place by offering players freedom in the timing and pace of tackling the quests:
“We wanted the world to feel connected and alive,” DiMento states. “We never want the player to regret their decision not to do a side quest as soon as it becomes available or if they decide to go back to it after the main story is completed. We just want you to play the content and to be able to enjoy it regardless of when you engage with it.”
But with this design philosophy, the team had to account for some tricky variables, such as characters leaving the party:
“In God of War Ragnarök, we have a bigger cast than in the previous game, but many of them are limited to specific parts of the story. So, we started looking for constants. Characters we would be able to lean on to help drive some of these quests. It was one of the big challenges of the side quests, but it was exciting to solve. In Service of Asgard was our first test to see if this would work. I went to the writers looking for a constant and they agreed to my suggestion of Mimir. There were moments in the beginning where we would leave him behind, but then we rewrote things to ensure he was always there while exploration was available.”
As those of you who have finished the main story know, there is an additional layer of complexity the team had to account for in creating Favors that can be played either during or after the main story. Side quests not only have to consider the constant, but they also had to allow multiple characters to accompany Kratos with an interesting perspective to offer on the situation.
A great example of this is the tear-jerking Favor, The Weight of Chains. This side quest highlights another of Mimir’s past mistakes when he was trying to impress the All-Father at the expense of innocents – in this case his entrapment of a whale-like creature called a Lyngbakr. After extracting its blubber to create oil for Odin, instead of making the hard choice to kill the creature himself or let it go and risk All-Father’s ire, Mimir left the Lyngbakr chained for centuries hoping the situation would resolve itself with its eventual death. To Mimir’s shock, the group discovers that the Lyngbakr is still alive, trapped in perpetual torment. They resolve to help the creature, hoping that it might spend the rest of its days in freedom.
At first glance, some might miss the centrality of this Favor not only to Kratos and Mimir but also to other characters like Freya and Atreus.
“That one was very fertile for us because it’s a reflection of the whole cast,” Gaubert states. “It’s obvious for Mimir and Kratos because they literally have been captive. But it’s also a reflection of Freya, who’s been trapped in Midgard for so long, and, before that, a toxic marriage. And it even applies to Atreus, a son metaphorically trapped in the role his family has cast him in that he so desperately wants to escape.”
No matter when or who you undertake this quest with, it was designed purposefully by the team to provide you deeper understanding of these characters using a theme that has meaning to all of them.
Showcasing character growth
Side quests are by definition optional, so Santa Monica Studio also had to consider how to make undertaking them feel consistent with Kratos’ character. Part of his arc since the last game has been a gradual evolution from stoic pragmatist to a more nurturing and compassionate father. Though Kratos underwent a great deal of personal growth in God of War (2018), the team knew it would feel inauthentic to have him take on any old request just for the sake of being nice:
“It was that softening of Kratos that made it possible for us to have side quests,” DiMento said. “I don’t think they would have worked with the laser-focused killing machine he once was in the previous games. But we kept his stoicism intact by giving him personal reasons to partake in these side quests.”
“There generally tended to be an ulterior motive for him doing good. Otherwise, it would have felt false.” Gaubert continued. “Especially in the early parts of the game where he’s less altruistic and more protective of what he has. But in the post-game, the implication is that he is doing these side quests for unselfish reasons. So, building in those motivations from the get-go helped reduce the number of alternate lines we would have to write to account for his shifting motivations throughout the main story.”
The Secret of Sands is one of those Favors that sees Kratos doing a good deed for both personal and altruistic reasons. Beginning with Atreus hearing a cry of pain, the quest sends the group out on an adventure to free a creature called a Hafgufa from a tendril prison. The Secret of Sands is the first half of a two-parter that concludes with The Song of Sands; both reveal the extent of Kratos’ growth as a father and how he has grown more considerate of Atreus’ personal values:
“Kratos’ character growth continues as you choose to go off the beaten path and do the side quests. I think that’s something both the player and Kratos can realize along the way.” DiMento said. “In The Secret of Sands and The Song of Sands, if you do that story with Atreus, has him constantly asking Kratos, ‘Why are we doing this? Why do you want to help this animal?’ And then you get this really beautiful punchline-like moment of Mimir being like, ‘He’s doing this just because he wants to spend time with you.’”
Throughout this Favor, you are given additional nuance that explores just how much Kratos and Atreus’ relationship has evolved over the years. Because Kratos has been able to learn and grow as a character, he demonstrates not only a deeper understanding of what is important to his son, but also the proactive desire to act upon it without Atreus asking. Kratos ultimately helps the Hafgufa because he wants to spend time with Atreus doing something he knows is important to his son.
A team effort
Santa Monica Studio’s work implementing these side quests can’t be overstated. Gaubert highlighted how amazing it is to bring more life to the game and emphasize its themes by spending extra narrative time with its characters. And as DiMento states, it’s all thanks to the collaborative work of the entire team.
“The people at the studio across the board just have such a high bar for what we’re doing,” DiMento said. “We’re all just motivated by this desire to do great work. Being able to bring so many departments together to create this content and to do it in a way that was a little different than the critical path. To make the most of what we had was incredibly satisfying.”
God of War Ragnarök is available now on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5.
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