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GDC – The Level Design of ‘God of War’

God of war
Courtesy of Santa Monica Studio

God of War (2018) achieved universal acclaim upon its release and went on to earn Game of the Year awards from various gaming publications. The overwhelmingly positive reception from fans and critics can be attributed to the game’s expertly crafted level design that motivates players to fight and explore to no end. Rob Davis, the lead level designer from Santa Monica Studio, spoke at GDC Showcase, giving a rundown of the six level design rules that his team adhered to during the making of God of War (2018), which helped turn the reboot game into an instant classic.

Courtesy of GDC Showcase

The first rule for level design is to establish the core pillars of the game. In the case of God of War (2018), those pillars include Combat, Narrative, and Exploration. Unlike the original trilogy, Kratos has different weapons to use against mythical creatures- primarily his axe- and arrows shot by his son, Atreus. The father/son bond between Kratos and Atreus is the key narrative of the entire game, as their relationship is tested with every challenge they encounter. The game manages to motivate players to explore the environment more than in the original trilogy as the camera is able to move around with Kratos.

Courtesy of GDC Showcase

The second rule involves developing the metrics for the game. Metrics are simple design measurements that communicate gameplay, such as climbing, solving puzzles, and removing camera cuts to create a smooth transition between gameplay and cinematics. Metrics set the different ways that players can interact with the in-game environment.

Rules 3 and 4 aim to keep players moving from moment to moment by achieving variety. The third rule sets up variety by establishing a theme for the game and the unique gameplay elements that exist to compliment that theme. The fourth rule awards players for completing a critical path by allowing them to unlock a new skill. An example of this from the game is when Atreus obtains shock arrows in the “Stone Mason” level. The shock arrows are not only an effective attack against certain enemies, but they also can ignite shock crystals to clear pathways that would otherwise have gone unexplored. Unlocking new abilities helps to differentiate levels from previous ones.

Courtesy of GDC Showcase

The fifth rule states that the final 25 percent of a mission should be spent as an exploration break. Adding breaks in between levels gives players a chance to use their newly unlocked abilities to explore dungeons as a way to take a breath and add flow to the level to level transitions. The player’s reach in terms of exploration is set by the sixth rule, which states that the hub does not act as an open-world. The hub for God of War (2018) is the golden temple in the center of the map, and there are a fixed number of pathways that you can take from the center to the surrounding locations. Davis compared the visualization of this idea to that of a wagon wheel with spokes connecting the center to the outer rim.

Courtesy of GDC Showcase

These six rules are what level designers had beaten into their brains during the process of creating what many consider to be the best installment in the God of War series, and one of the best single-player games in recent memory.

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