God of War Ragnarök (Simplified Chinese, English, Korean, Thai, Japanese, Traditional Chinese)

The Evolution of God of War's Atreus

Key developers behind the creation of God of War Ragnarök discuss the process of turning Atreus the ‘boy’ into an older, more complex playable character. 

God of War’s critically acclaimed 2018 revival set a razor-sharp focus on long-time protagonist Kratos, placing him at the centre of a story that redefined him as both a playable character and narrative force. The highly anticipated follow-up, God of War Ragnarök, shifted to balance that focus between Kratos and his son, Atreus.  

While this was a natural direction for the game to take, it was also a challenging one for the developers at Santa Monica Studio (SMS), moving beyond the protagonist they’d worked on for nearly two decades to create a brand-new playable character whose own motivations would drive the story.

There were two major strands to this process: first, envisaging Atreus as a more independent young man able to act on his own initiative, and secondly reimagining him as a playable character, with his own distinct abilities that felt consistent with both his character and the gameplay we have come to expect from God of War.  

Meet the team

We spoke to ten developers from Santa Monica Studio across a range of disciplines, from tools and programming to art direction and story craft.

Story Lead

Animation Director

Sound Design Lead

Animator

Visual Effects Lead

Programmer

Programmer

Combat Design Lead

Combat Designer

Art Director

A search for identity

Like many teenagers, Atreus is still learning who he is. The team at SMS took that journey with him, figuring out what defines Atreus as a character, from how he talks and dresses, to how he handles himself under pressure.

Mihir (Combat Design Lead): We knew that Atreus was going to be playable from day one.

We had a concept of Atreus as a character from the previous game, but we know that he's grown up a little. That right away suggested some ideas and fantasies we wanted to explore.

Rich (Story Lead): When you're at that age, it's a search for identity. You're trying to figure out who you are and you’re informed by the people around you. We tried to reflect everybody who is in Atreus sphere of influence in some way. He's Loki, right? And Loki is about wearing different masks and being different people.

One benefit of having Atreus playable was getting to see what he's like when he's not around his dad. Because we're very different people depending on who we're talking to. Being able to see his relationships with those other characters felt important in fleshing out who Atreus is.

Raf (Art Director): Knowing that he was going to be a big part of the story presented a good opportunity to establish his looks for the future - what elements he inherits from his mother and father respectively. We could really play that up, not just in his personality, but also in his appearance. Which influence would be more visible as he tries to find himself? It’s a key theme of Ragnarök.

Rich: We always thought of Ragnarök as Atreus’ college years - going off and trying to find himself. We didn't want to put the emphasis on the angsty, petulant teenager element - although it’s definitely there, and had to be there to make it feel real .

Raf: On the art side, we evolved his design based on him growing up – he’s more independent now and makes his own choices. There’s less influence from Brok and Sindri than there was in the previous game.

When you first go to Asgard, Atreus is given some Asgardian armour and you - the player - have to make a choice: am I going to wear this or am I going to stay as young Atreus? That was a very specific thing we put there for the player to feel like they were choosing a path.

Bryan (Sound Design Lead): It was fun to push Kratos and Atreus in very separate directions. Kratos is very deliberate and heavy, so Atreus had to be nimble, young and almost messy, because he’s still trying to figure things out. There's something about him that feels unrefined.

Grace (Animator): Exactly! The first time he opens a chest he tries to punch it, just like his dad, and he hurts his hand. Then there’s this moment of transition, where he’s thinking about it independently – this is a real moment of growing.

Bruno (Animation Director): We really wanted to give him that feel of a young adventurer. He's not very experienced, so showing him stumbling and having these close calls was a very important part of selling that.

Rich: The kind of hero where you feel like they're barely winning every fight.

Hayato (Combat Designer): His attacks are less committed. When you're playing as Kratos, a lot of his attacks – particularly the finishers – you can’t easily evade out of them. But with Atreus he's not 100% sure with his attacks.

Grace: From an animation perspective Kratos doesn’t move all that much, but in contrast Atreus hops around a lot and you get to animate a lot more. He tries to catch himself when he’s climbing a wall and when he’s jumping from zip-lines or traversing.

Bruno: I remember that hop! If you let Atreus idle, sometimes he'll do this Kung Fu-style ‘hop’. It was our little inside joke, initially, but once we got the animation in people were like: “Okay, that's Atreus. We see the difference between him and Kratos now.”

Becoming a warrior

The developers had to think carefully about all the elements that make up Atreus and create a combat style that not only made sense in the setting but also felt unique to him.

Rich (Story Lead): We wanted him to feel relatable but also believable. Players already know Atreus from Kratos' perspective - as a support character - so he couldn't seem too powerful and break that narrative immersion.

Mihir (Combat Design Lead): Absolutely, there's the risk of making Atreus too strong, and then you come back to Kratos and you're like, “Wait a second. Kratos doesn't feel that strong. Atreus felt stronger, right?”

Hayato (Combat Designer): At one point, you fight Helwalkers as Atreus and then you flip to playing as Kratos fighting those same Helwalkers and you immediately see the contrast. You feel stronger in a good way: not that Atreus is just super weak, you just feel more equipped to handle all these types of situations. I think that encounter really cements the difference between the Atreus and Kratos.

Mihir: When we do switch between Kratos and Atreus, we do it without giving the player a warning. So, when we swap from one to another, we want to make sure Atreus feels like his own character, but if we push it too much, when players switch between them it could be really overwhelming.

We don’t want a player to think about ‘playable’ and ‘companion’ Atreus as two different characters. Anything we do in playable mode has to work as a companion, because he has the same skill tree in both.

Bruno (Animation Director): There was a lot of talk early on about whether we should give Atreus a sword or a knife, but we didn't want to overload players and wanted to leave room for Atreus to grow. The bow, however, is very personal to him. It's given to him by his mother. It was challenging to develop a style to for him to strike things with a bow.

Mihir: If you think of Kratos, his weapons are functional for both melee and ranged combat, and that gives you the fluidity: you don't have to swap weapons to switch between ranged and melee attacks. Having Atreus use the bow for both ranged and melee lent the same moment-to-moment fluidity in combat.

Grace (Animator): We tried to use the bow in the most diverse way possible – the way he uses it to open the lid of a chest, or the moment with Atreus and Sindri where he uses the bow to open a door. We want players to understand that the bow is part of him – he’s always using it, he’s always thinking about it.

Bruno: It was another way to show contrast with Kratos: where Atreus will try to use tools and other means to get around problems. Kratos would just punch it.

Hayato (Combat Designer): I have to be honest, when I saw Atreus swinging his mother's bow like a baseball bat, I was a little worriedThe idea, though, was not that Atreus would use the bow as a blunt object; it was more that he would be channelling energy – his innate magic – through the bow.

Christopher (Visual Effects Lead): That’s giant magic; it's more golden. His shield glows orange and his base attack has an orange glow too. He has two different magic styles for his arrows though: Sonic and Hex. We settled on green for Sonic and for Hex we leaned more purple/pinkish, that overall led to Atreus being more colourful in combat.

Bryan (Sound Design Lead): Sonic arrows obviously have a lot to do with sound themselves. We didn’t want something sci-fi or tech-sounding though; it had to sound natural and organic, but also feel different to the more naturalistic sounds of Kratos. So, we aimed to create a sense of ‘movement’ in the sound of the arrows as they travel, land and implode.

Technical challenges

Atreus as a playable character posed some opportunities for creativity and originality, but realising their sky-high ambitions meant overcoming some might hurdles.

Cory (Programmer): Programmers love elegant systems, but as a game designer, you want to surprise the player – deliver something new and fresh – and that sometimes breaks the programming. That’s Atreus for us.

Bruno (Animation Director): Atreus’ animal transformations function as his ‘Rage’ mode. That meant we had to focus on keeping things ferocious and fast. As a player, you’re trying to get these powers under control, because Atreus himself is trying to get them under control.

Grace (Animator): You want him to move differently from a normal wolf though, because he’s a character and a human too. You want the players to be able to steer and control him, running on and off the track, racing and jumping... all while keeping a sense of flow.

Bruno: The transformation is interesting because you’re shifting between two completely different skeletal structures. If you're transforming to another humanoid, for example, you have basically the same skeleton. With the wolf transformation, everything is different.

Cory: It affects a lot of different systems because he can now be two different things. For example, Kratos can rage at any time, but Atreus can only transform into the wolf during combat. One reason is because the wolf can’t speak! If Atreus is mid-conversation and then suddenly you transform into a wolf and someone says something to him, then he’s supposed to respond, but there's no Atreus there!

Christopher (Visual Effects Lead): The more particles on screen, the more the system has to render; combat can really drive that up because there's multiple enemies throwing things at you. Weapon swings have particles attached to them too - and they're could even be weather effects going on at the same time! It all adds up. So, with a lot of Atreus’ combat moves, we had to run it through and ask, “Does this work when you shoot one? Okay, does it work when you shoot six of them?”

Cory: This comes up a lot near the end of the project. You need to hit your performance goals – that smooth 60 frames per second - and those kinds of effects are some of the most computationally expensive things in the game.

Christopher: For visual effects, I’d say the Hex arrows were one of the toughest challenges. They do so many things: you can shoot them at enemies, you can shoot them against surfaces to create an area of effect and if you hit that, it has to explode or freeze; then if they're a certain distance apart, they can chain together, but if you shoot the same spot twice, the area of effect grows in size. We haven't done anything like that before and we spent a lot of time going back and forth to try to figure it  out.

It's a very complicated system and there were times where I was wondering if we could we do all this, but eventually it came together. We started to narrow down the look of it, but it wasn’t quite there, so we had to run to the Concept Art team and they said, ‘here's some runic designs you guys can use!’ That helped us nail the look of it, followed by the shape of it and the functionality. In the end, we pulled it off, but it was pretty scary.

Ramon (Programmer): We have all these interdisciplinary groups which are super good at communicating about dependencies and constraints. Everybody knows more about their own things than the other, and when you put that together, it just explodes. You get all these synergies: ‘why don't you do that?’, ‘that gives me an idea’, ‘we can do it this other way’ - and this is what makes everything move forward.

Something I'm personally very proud of is Ingrid - the flying sword that you get from Odin. Ingrid was challenging because she’s both a weapon and a companion. This was a first for the series and it was tricky from a coding perspective to have a speaking character be stored like a weapon and treated as both at once. Brok or Freya are companions - that's how they are built. The difference is that I don't grab Brok and put him on my shoulder when I'm not using him!

Raf (Art Director): Atreus’ quiver was another one! It was on his back the first game and we decided to move to his waist because as a playable character we wanted players to see where they’re shooting. We tested a lot of different positions – it seems like a simple task, but there's a lot of technical considerations: is it bouncing on his hip? Will you see him draw the arrow from that camera angle? It takes a lot of production cycles to make it perfect.

Bruno: We’re always questioning ourselves like that. You don't want to stray too far from what people like, but at the same time, you want Atreus to feel unique and different. We’ve never had a character like this this who backflips or spins around and a big part of his movement and his attack style is based on ranged attacks. Is that going to feel too different?

People are so used to Kratos and from a gameplay standpoint – they’re used to like the way he feels and moves, and they have certain expectations. The biggest overall challenge with Atreus is making sure that it felt as good to play as him as it does to play Kratos, but still feel different enough.

Available on PlayStation Store

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