God of War Ragnarök | How its narrative grows beyond the 2018 original

God of War Ragnarök continues the reboots’ polished approach to narrative. Antony Contrasts the storytelling chops of Kratos’ two recent outings to see what makes them tick.


Let me say this once clearly at the outset: this is not a review of God of War Ragnarök, of which I have played most but not all. It’s a comparison of 2018’s God of War and its blockbuster sequel Ragnarök, focusing on the pair’s narratives and breaking apart what works, what doesn’t, and what’s changed. I avoid major spoilers for the latest game, but will mention a few lightly spoilery gameplay changes. In preparation for the new entry, I recently replayed God of War to see for myself how well the critically lauded game’s narrative design and writing hold up four years on. The result: while there’s a lot I still loved about protagonist Kratos’ seminal entry in video gaming’s Sad Dad pantheon, alas, a few parts began to stick out now that we’ve collectively acclimatised to games with its level of visual richness and polish.

But let’s have the good news first: so what still works? From a writing perspective, the characters remain undeniable. The game is chock-full of perfect lines, in both their subtle, flavoursome penning and their compelling vocal and animated performances. This applies to the high-drama moments, like son and co-protagonist Atreus’ devastatingly disaffected “This is a much better knife than Mother’s” in the moment after he murders a weak, broken god in cold blood. But it equally applies to a great number of less focal moments, when characterisation can lift a very gameplay-functional line to instead evoke memorable emotion. Only one in-game shopkeeper would call out to grab your attention with “If it isn’t the bearded beefer and his sac-seed! Have I got something for you two,” and that one vendor is God of War’s Brok. Such lines hit perfectly: each time, we smile or laugh at the line’s humour, but also feel cumulative affection for its speaker.

God of War Ragnarök

God of War Ragnarok’s resonance

God of War largely succeeds by playing extremely close to a few key themes, namely: broken relationships, the killing of one’s parent, and control. Almost every narrative element in the game hews very close to one of these three things, and the critical elements, such as all of the most plot-relevant characters, are thoroughly interwoven with all three. The goddess Freya, for example, has a broken relationship with her ex-husband Odin, with her people the Vanir, and her son Baldur. The climax of her story comes when she tries to let her son kill her, and he wishes to do so because Freya’s attempts to control Baldur’s fate have caused him lifetimes of misery. The fact that so much of the game is so thematically consistent, exploring the same nucleus of subject matter with (very importantly) a slightly different lens each time, is what makes it feel so rich.

While I’m still on the positives, there’s also the matter of the ‘Atreus Button’. The square-face button is only ever used in the game for when your son should act, and this is deployed to great effect. In combat, it’s a relatively simple implementation, and Atreus mostly fights autonomously. But the Atreus Button will make him shoot an arrow when pressed, or do a bigger attack when held, and these have cooldown timers, which keeps the attention on Kratos the vast majority of the time. Occasionally, if you and Atreus both pummel the same enemy, you can press this button to have him assist with a finisher move.

God of War Ragnarök

Outside of battle, one of God of War Ragnarök’s best narrative design ideas is in making our avatar Kratos unable to read Norse runes. Whenever you must read a sign or scroll, rather than using the normal interact button, you must instead use Atreus’, and he relays the information to you verbally with his own interpretation of it. This moment, that in so many other games comes across as flat, with the player character reading something and either not reacting or verbalising awkwardly out loud to themselves, is imbued with the feeling of a father watching his son learn about the world. But then the game builds upon it when Atreus begins trying to teach Kratos some runes. There’s a particular moment where Atreus approaches some runes and you, the player, sit there unmoving, expecting the Atreus Button to work. But, jarringly, it doesn’t. Instead, you must approach and press the regular interaction button, as Atreus delivers the touching “You’ve taught me so much. Let me teach you something.” The moment is lent much more gravity because the mechanical trick makes you and Kratos both experience the same nuanced thing; you realise that you like having Atreus read things for you. And this is not the only moment of its ilk.

Read more: God of War Ragnarok review | A sequel worthy of the gods


There are a few places in which God of War’s lustre has faded, though. The first is in God of War Ragnarök’s mission design. The plot is a quest to deliver Atreus’ late mother’s ashes to ‘the highest peak in all the realms’, and unfortunately, almost every section of the game can be summed up thus: you take a few paces toward the peak and find some barrier which you need a magical McGuffin to overcome. You fetch the McGuffin from a realm or region designed around housing it, try for the peak, hit a barrier, repeat. There’s the Light of Alfheim for some random black smog, Thamur’s Chisel for some arbitrarily hard-to-engrave stone, etc. This repetitive structure puts shackles on the story, meaning that Kratos and Atreus at no point really engage with the forces of antagonism. They go on their journey to the peak, and sometimes Baldur or his cousins get in the way a bit, but Kratos and Atreus neither dedicate any serious time to why the antagonists harry them nor make any attempt to hit back. They simply go about their business, and defend themselves when called upon. There is some justification from Kratos, that he wishes not to get tangled in the business of gods, but his lack of attempt to defuse or understand the situation seems in opposition to his wish to protect Atreus. This is also to the player’s detriment, since in the end it means that the antagonist’s motivations in hunting you, which when understood are interestingly tied to the theme of control, are mostly obscured, nixing their impact and flattening the game’s final plot twist even as the adjacent moment of father-son emotional payoff soars.

God of War Ragnarök

Enter the sequel, God of War Ragnarök. At the time of writing, I played about 65% of the game. From a narrative perspective, the overall result is once again stellar, but some things that worked well last time have now been muddied, and others that were flawed before are now sparkling. The plot structure, for one, has been vastly improved. Ragnarök retains clarity of its overall quest, in which you are always moving toward averting or surviving Ragnarök’s prophesied apocalypse, and there is, of course, still a larger pattern to the game: we still visit a series of distinct realms, each region built to house a specific objective. But this time, these journeys feel much more keenly tied to the protagonists’ character motivations. Whether the protagonists desire to prove themselves in the eyes of another, or rescue a potential ally, or investigate a critical prophecy, it’s always something novel and character-driven, never (thus far) reverting to ‘there’s a literal door between you and the overarching goal, the key princess is in another realm castle’.

Sequel success

With this less literal, more nebulous goal in mind, the characters in Ragnarök directly engage with the forces of antagonism. While most characters spend the game questing to avert (or if not, win) their war, each side understands the other to a degree and will talk, compete, undermine, and sometimes even forge surprising temporary alliances with each other in pursuit of their goals. Of the several major and minor enemies in the game, from the heartbroken and vengeful Freya to the Machiavellian Odin, each one now has significant screen time and is relatively up-front about their aspirations, even if subtlety and trickery are used in achieving them. And all the while, the thematic strength is still there, developing the previous game’s themes of broken relationships and control, while inverting the killing of one’s parent into preventing the death of one’s parent.

But it’s taken a step back in the narrative gameplay. Primarily, the Atreus Button is no longer really a thing. Atreus has become a fully playable character in his own right, and what was formerly the Atreus Button is now just generically the Companion Button, with which any of several possible fellow travellers might be commanded, some of whose abilities are underwhelming or so functionally similar to each other that they pass into disuse. And the Button is now rarely used outside of combat or occasional puzzle commands.

Rarely do any companions give us any attitude about being commanded, as Atreus used to, and neither is it used inventively to forge a bond between you and they. And while there is a lovely moment of realisation early on that Atreus has taught Kratos to read runes competently in their years together between the games, that this small act of bonding has been removed and now Kratos or the sprightly Mimir simply emit a generic “hmm, interesting” breed of line feels unsatisfying. The lack of character-driven summarisation, especially combined with the fact that the lore entries have grown considerably in length, means this particular part of the game feels almost completely neutered. No longer is it a characterful bonding activity in-gameplay, it is now a genericised call to sit and read fairly interesting but neutral text on the pause screen.

The Bond

The beating heart at the centre of both of these games is the bond between Kratos and Atreus. It is this, and more or less this alone, that enables them to evoke long-term, nuanced emotions in their players, like affection and protectiveness and pity, in addition to the more immediately evoked action-gameplay emotions like victory and panic. And while Ragnarök succeeds at placing that bond within a more satisfying story context, testing it with better plotting and even better character work, it ultimately takes a step back and loses this as its focus in the moment-to-moment experience of playing the game. For most of the time that I’ve played Ragnarök, I may have been concerned with this core father-son bond, but I was not in it, was not playing with the mechanics of it, not engaging with it. Considering that it’s what the game is about, this feels like a misstep.

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