Perhaps of the year’s most intense battles and emotional high points in gaming occurred in 2022’s God of War: Ragnarök. Favors (also known as side quests) included some of the game’s most compelling character development, even if the main story itself was enjoyable. Challenges were introduced to the growth of the game through the addition of these side quests.
Santa Monica Studio set out to improve the game’s character arcs by incorporating modest but significant narrative beats into the game’s optional side quests. Kratos, the protagonist, and the friends, allies, and family he has found since leaving Olympus were all humanized by his journeys.
We met with the game’s Lead Player Investment Designer Anthony DiMento and Lead Writer Rich Gaubert to learn more about the design and development of the game’s most memorable optional objectives.
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To the Greater Good
The optional quests in God of War: Ragnarok are meant to deepen not only the game’s setting but also its characters and the themes that emerge from their adventures.
“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 first Favor in the game, In Service of Asgard, is a perfect illustration of this method in action. In order to complete this quest, Kratos, Atreus, and Mimir must face Mimir’s failed attempts to gain Odin’s favor in the past, such as convincing the dwarves of Svartalfheim to construct mining rigs to generate resources for Odin. As a result of the mining, the environment was harmed and Svartalfheim’s resources were depleted; now Mimir wants to repair the damage and clear his guilt.
Mimir’s strong hate of Odin is further explained by the events of The Favor, which also reflects on the greater subject of not escaping from the past, an issue with which Kratos has struggled. Despite the fact that Kratos isn’t the main attraction of the Favor, the developers at Santa Monica Studio were able to shed new light on the God of War by having him help Mimir make amends for his time spent working for a cruel master, a story beat that allowed them to explore many deeper themes relating to both characters, such as 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.”
In Search of Regularities
The Player Investment team had to make a number of important choices before they could begin writing the storylines for the God of War Ragnarok side missions. When designing the game, it was crucial to answer questions like, When and where should these quests open up? and Are the characters who drive the narrative going to have identical motives before and after Ragnarok?
The freedom the players had in deciding when and how to complete the objectives was crucial in making the world feel alive and active:
“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.”
However, there were several problematic elements that the team had to account for while adopting this design concept, such as characters quitting 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.”
Those who have completed the main plot will know that the team had to take into account an extra layer of complexity when designing Favors that can be played at any time, not just before or after the main tale. It was important that Kratos be accompanied on his side adventures by a cast of people, each of whom would bring a unique perspective to the table.
The heartbreaking film Favor, The Weight of Chains is a perfect illustration of this. The Lyngbakr, a large whale-like creature, is the focus of this side quest since it represents another of Mimir’s earlier mistakes made while seeking to impress the All-Father at the expense of innocents.
Mimir left the Lyngbakr bound for millennia after harvesting its blubber to generate oil for Odin, expecting the matter would resolve itself with the monster’s eventual death rather than making the hard option to kill the beast himself or let it go and risk the wrath of All-Father. To Mimir’s utter dismay, the crew learns that the Lyngbakr is still alive, albeit imprisoned in a state of eternal misery. They decide to aid the beast in the hopes it can live out its days in peace.
It’s easy to overlook how important this Favor is to Kratos, Mimir, Freya, and Atreus if you simply look at them in isolation.
“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.”
The team created this quest so that you might learn more about these individuals and the world they inhabit, regardless of when or with whom you set out on your journey.
Inspiring Change in the Protagonist
Santa Monica Studio also had to think about how to make Kratos’ participation in side quests feel natural given that they are, by definition, optional. From the previous game, he has changed from a cynical realist to a caring father as part of his arc. Kratos went through a lot of changes in God of War (2018), but the developers still recognized it would feel fake if he agreed to do anything for anyone.
“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.”
In the Secret of Sands, Kratos performs a nice deed for both selfish and selfless reasons—as is the case with many Favour. The adventure begins when Atreus hears Hafgufa’s scream of pain and the party sets out to rescue the monster from its tendril prison. The Secret of Sands is the first part of a two-part story, the second of which is titled The Song of Sands, and both show how much Kratos has developed as a parent and how much he cares about Atreus’ individual preferences and priorities over the course of their time together.
“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.’”
You’ll learn more about the development of Kratos and Atreus’ connection as you progress through this Game. Kratos’s development as a person has allowed him to not only show a greater appreciation for his son’s values but also the initiative to put those values into practice without waiting for Atreus to request it. Kratos decides to aid the Hafgufa so that he can spend time with Atreus engaging in an activity that he knows will be meaningful to his son.
God of War Ragnarok: 10 Important Side Quests. https://t.co/HuQHMrOf8v
— IGN (@IGN) November 18, 2022
Collaboration Between Multiple People
The effort put in by Santa Monica Studio to make these optional excursions a reality is unquestionable. Gaubert emphasized how great it is to spend more time with the game’s characters in order to bring them to life and stress the game’s themes. Even more importantly, as DiMento emphasizes, this success is due to the team’s combined efforts.
“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.”
Sony’s PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5 owners can now play God of War: Ragnarok.
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Frequently asked questions
Do side quests matter in God of War Ragnarok?
Favors are optional quests that can be completed for extra experience, but they are masterpieces in their own right. They serve two purposes: one, they're crucial to the plot, and second, they award the player with incredible benefits.
Can you come back to side missions in God of War Ragnarok?
Those who didn't have enough time to follow them the first time can go back to the spot where they were located in the post-game to find out what happens next. In God of War: Ragnarok, there are no optional or non-essential side tasks, thus players can go back and finish them at any time.