The Boy and the Boat: Marrying Narrative and Level Design

Hello to everyone tuning in. My name is Will Mohr, level design lead here at RSPGames, and today I wanted to talk a bit about what I’ve learned as a designer from the latest God of War. GoW is a great example of how the disciplines of narrative, gameplay, and level design combine to create an impactful experience. Some of the topics I’ll be bringing up today are narrative vehicles, memorable side characters and dynamic level design. *Spoilers ahead, ye be warned!*

I’ve always been fascinated with how a game can weave a narrative into the fabric of its gameplay and subsequently build levels to surround them. Thinking about this concept conjures images of Edith Finch and Shadow of the Colossus, and now the newest GoW is part of that list. One of the ways the game has blended the three disciplines is using a simple canoe as a vehicle to further the narrative. The idea works in a multitude of different ways, the first (and maybe most obvious) being how it fits with the setting. The re-imagining of GoW opened up the Viking pantheon to Kratos’ wrath, and in doing so, introduced Viking culture to the GoW universe. A large part of Viking life was spent on boats, either surviving, pillaging or, more importantly, exploring. Those three aspects can be felt in-game, with the player using the boat as the vehicle to engage in all of these activities.

Another great part of the boat approach is the pacing provided by this slower mode of transportation. This pacing creates opportunities for character development through dialogue. Kratos obviously has not fully settled into his new role as a father, and getting some well deserved bonding time with his son, Atreus, is one of the main pillars of the game. These father-son moments are baked in the boat sections. The slower pace provides enough time to learn about this unlikely duo. You feel a sense of wonder as you enjoy a slow trip down a winding flooded cave with Atreus and, later, Mimir. Your companions give input on the current situation, location, or general lore of the area. I often found myself excited to hop in the boat once my main quest had been settled, and found new nuggets of information from my companions, as well as being treated to jaw droppingly gorgeous environments. I never felt that these interactions were ham-fisted or forced, à la the yearly CoD release. God of War doesn’t need to resort to having fast cars or flying planes to show of its environment; it has a small canoe, and that’s all it needs.

Lastly, I wanted to bring up the dynamic level design on display. By dynamic level design, I mean that a given area that changes its flow based on player actions. Early on in the game, players will make their way to the Lake of Nine. Unbeknownst to them, they have just rowed themselves into an open love letter to level designers everywhere (I keep that letter under my pillow). Here, the World Serpent is revealed from the depths of the Lake, sending shivers down your spine as you bask in the enormity of its size and the roar of its voice. The waves crash around the canoe and the water level lowers as the Serpent’s body lifts out of the Lake, allowing access to previously unknown areas as well as the hub, Tyr’s Bridge. Then you sit back and say, “Hmm, alright, that was a pretty creative use of space,” and you kind of put it out of your mind as you explore more of what the game has to offer. And then it happens again! What’s even more amazing is that everything is still accessible as the water level drops, so there is no fear of missing out on the optional side quests peppered around the Lake. As a fellow designer, I can’t imagine the amount of meetings that must have taken place while figuring out how all the areas connect. And again, the Lake of the Nine is traversed using the boat. There are a lot of great parts in the game, but this was my favorite. It all ties back with the narrative. If you’re up to date on your Norse mythology and what  the Serpent represents, you start to get the feeling that something ominous is about to unfold, aka Ragnarök.

The station’s signal seems to be getting fuzzy, so I’ll leave you all with some thoughts to stew on. While designing your levels, what affordances are you leaving for the narrative? What is your boat? Is there a way to make your design more dynamic? In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for wha-*static noises*…

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