level design as writing

Strap in, folks. It’s time for another episode of Erin Loves God Of War.  Tonight’s topic: the player’s complicity in in-game violence!

It’s one thing to give the player a cutscene that demonstrates what the protagonist of a game is willing to do to achieve their goals, but it’s something else entirely to make the player physically participate as the protagonist does horrific things.  I’m not simply talking about run-of-the-mill combat violence–plenty of games put the power of death in the hands of the player for the sake of action.  But not too many games are willing to front protagonists that sacrifice innocent lives in the face of screaming pleas for mercy, and even fewer are willing to let a scene like that happen under the player’s actual control.

God of War, meanwhile, is a franchise that’s fully aware of its protagonist, and it chose to bring across Kratos’ sociopathic brutality in a particularly striking way early in the series.  During one section of Pandora’s Rings in the first game of the franchise, Kratos is presented with a puzzle: a door, at the top of a hill, with a platform and flame jets nearby.  

Beside the door is a tablet indicating that a sacrifice will be needed to proceed.  At the bottom of the slope is a man in a cage.


Kratos is not a nice person, and even in the few hours of gameplay up to this point, the player has seen him do some really horrifically violent things to his enemies (and any civilians who happened to be caught in the crossfire).  He’s also roasted a Titan (Prometheus) alive in order to enter Pandora’s Maze in the first place–though that was after Prometheus specifically asked him to, as he wanted an end to his suffering.

This new challenge, however, asks Kratos to kill not just an innocent man, but a comrade.  The man in the cage is a fellow warrior, one who has also tried for Pandora’s Box, a kindred spirit.  The player has to grab hold of this man’s cage and navigate it slowly up the hill, pausing to deal with traps and monsters along the way, even as the soldier begs for mercy. 

Begs YOU for mercy.

The gameplay is strenuous enough–the cage slides back downhill whenever you let go of it, so you have to position it carefully to catch on blocks whenever you need to pause to fight an enemy.  But the entire time the player is navigating this gameplay challenge, they’re also trying to ignore the prisoner’s increasingly desperate screaming.


The whole scenario added a layer of visceral horror to my experience with God of War, and deepened my understanding of Kratos as a character. If the sacrifice had happened simply in a cutscene, it would have been much more distant, much less impactful than it was. As it was, because it was my hands on the controller, I had killed the man myself.  I was able to share a raw, emotional moment with Kratos, as we murdered this helpless victim together.

It forced me to consider his reaction to the scenario, and helped me understand that this is a character who doesn’t feel regret or mercy or pity not because he isn’t capable, but because setting those things aside and powering forward in spite of them is the only way to achieve his goals.  It drove home something really important about Kratos’ personality: he’s not a mindless brute enacting violence for the sake of violence; he’s a tormented individual who is being forced to justify the means used to achieve his ends.

All that over a linear slope with a few stoppers spaced along it.

This semester, I’m taking a level design class with Professor Rich Wilson, so expect a few more entries on subjects like these as we work through some of the most interesting parts of building a game’s spaces.  They’ll be tagged “Professor Wilson,” and filed in the Level Design category.  See you next time!

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