Ever since Sony first revealed the new God of War for PlayStation 4 at the Electronic Entertainment Expo trade show in 2016, director Cory Barlog has had to dismiss the notion that his game is an extended escort mission. But now that Kratos’s latest adventure is upon us (and getting glowing reviews), it’s clear that Barlog was fudging things a bit.
Here’s the Sony Santa Monica director speaking to The Hollywood Reporter.
“It’s most definitely not an escort mission,” Barlog said in September 2017. “The player has direct command over Atreus and is trying to guide him through the process, but the kid has his own mind, and he is able to handle himself even when you’re not paying attention.”
God of War follows an older Kratos who has survived the events of the previous PlayStation 2 and 3 adventures and is now living in the Norse realm of Midgard, which is the home of gods like Odin and Thor. This story opens with the funeral for Kratos’s second wife, who is also the mother of his still-living son Atreus. Together, Kratos and the bow-and-arrow wielding boy Atreus must climb to the highest peak of Midgard and spread her ashes.
You can see the potential in that for God of War to end up like so many other escort missions, which are a kind of quest in video games where the player must focus most of their efforts on keeping a character alive and out of harm’s way. We’ve had missions like these since the X-Wing space sims. Most people hate them.
Well, God of War is an escort mission … with one crucial difference: You aren’t escorting Atreus; he is escorting you.
According to the narrative, you (as Kratos) are teaching Atreus to hunt, fight, and take care of himself, but the reality is the exact opposite. Atreus is training you. He is the voice of Sony Santa Monica during combat or as you solve a puzzle. If enemies are coming up behind you, Arty will warn you. If you are low on health, he’ll alert you to that fact. If you rush past a treasure chest, your digital son will stand by it and say something like, “I wonder what that is.” If you are trying to solve a puzzle in a way that doesn’t work, Atreus will channel the development team and suggest that you “try something else.”
All of Atreus’s movements and voice lines work toward the goal of making everything less frustrating for the player. Put another way, the people that make up Sony Santa Monica have put themselves into the game to protect and guide you.
So the truth is that we, the players, are the escort mission in something like God of War. And just like the worst NPCs in those quests, we often run off on our own and ignore what our escort is telling us to do.
I’ll admit that this was a revelation for me. God of War made me realize how much time developers must spend thinking about ways to ensure we get to the goal. And the frustration we feel trying to protect a video game character must pale in comparison to a designer trying to build an A.I. system that does the same thing for their customers.
I’m positive this is not some groundbreaking concept for anyone at Sony. Many of the publisher’s in-house cinematic narrative experiences have featured computer-controlled partners that accompany players at all times. Naughty Dog has some of the most obvious examples in The Last of Us and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. These characters provide other benefits like more natural opportunities for exposition and world building as well as a way to make combat encounters look more dynamic.
But I think the primary reason that we are getting characters like Arterus is because so many of us need an escort. We need something in our games to keep us from throwing down the controller in frustration as a brainfart prevents us from solving a moderately challenging puzzle. And we want a game that can poke us in the right direction in a way that doesn’t seem like we’re cheating. A character that is ostensibly weak and in need of our protection is the ideal vessel for that kind of a hint system, and I expect to see a lot more Atreus-like characters in Sony’s games moving forward.