Vigilant veterans of Kratos‘ adventures will have realised by now that April’s biggest release isn’t your usual God of War.
Yes, there’s a boy. Yes, Kratos has a soft side now. But this is more than narrative — the new God of War is wielding different tools to engage players. It creates a whole new kind of fun — a kind we’re just starting to psychologically understand.
This is called “tend and befriend,” and Atreus is the key.
Not Your Typical God of War
The God of War developers have clearly been playing hit games in the franchise’s absence. While the combat system takes some heavy cues from Dark Souls (minus important elements like stamina), the storytelling side is reading directly from the CliffsNotes of The Last of Us.
There’s the child, and the father figure. A hostile world threatening to assault both the child’s innocence and physical body. There’s all the growth that happens in such a world, from the child who becomes a warrior, and also from the father who, let’s face it, needs to grow the hell up as well.
Even specific moments from The Last of Us are recreated in God of War. In recent preview sessions, we saw the specific instant Atreus kills a man for the first time — a mirror image of the classic fight in which Ellie first helps you fight back.
Atreus is good at scampering away from danger, but there will be moments — both in gameplay and in cutscenes — when he is in danger. Much of the game’s tension and plot momentum comes from this.
Rated AM For Actually Mature
This is a fundamental change of what God of War is “about.” The spotlight is mostly taken off revenge, brutality, and epic deicide. Now, this is about growth, family, and keeping those you love safe. It’s an emulation of the games which have been most successfully exploring the role of protector. The Last of Us with Ellie, and The Walking Dead with Clementine.
At first glance, this is perhaps just a different, more aged version of a male fantasy. Gamers have grown, so the logic goes, as have their tastes. If you were old enough to watch Kratos battling Ares, you’re old enough to have a wife of your own. You’re old enough to have made your own little Calliopes.
Collectively, we’ve moved from a power fantasy to a protector fantasy. From dudebro to dadbro.
In reality, this is far more than a gendered evolution. It’s a new “kind” of fun that challenges the publicly accepted psychological wisdom, and one that game designers are only recently starting to exploit.
At the recent Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, veteran game designer and creative director on For Honor, Jason VandenBerghe, spoke about the drives and motivations that keep players from becoming bored. He believes we’re uncovering a new one.
Somewhere in between the instant gratification that titillates players — such as explosions or witty lines — and the longer, larger motivations that seek to satisfy players — providing mastery or relatedness — lie the moment-to-moment “drives” that keep us interested.
We know a lot about those types of instant gratification, and we know a lot about the long-term motivations. We know less about what happens in-between.
For God of War, the formula has been solid for years. Brutal, visceral combat and executions for the short-term appeal. Mastery and memorable kills as long-term motivations. In-between those, all the usual, proven drives for an action game used to be in effect — but the new God of War is adding more.
Researching Drives Has Been Risky
We don’t know a lot about this new type of fun for a reason. Research into this has traditionally come with a high level of risk, both in terms of funding and the scientist’s career.
“You could be the scientist who proves games are addictive, for example, or proves that they’re not. But do you want to be that person? Would you want to be embroiled in that controversy?” asked VandenBerghe.
There are several drives that games use to keep us hooked. A horror game might make great use of curiosity. A nasty narrative twist might activate your need for vengeance. The key with these drives is they have a chemical element — it’s not something we’re in control of.
“Our drives live in this strange zone between what we would call physical reflex — things like dodging — and what we think of as ourselves,” says VandenBerghe. “Our drives are things that happen TO us.”
Like The Last of Us and The Walking Dead before them, God of War is tapping into a drive to protect, in a way that a million escort quests before them failed to achieve.
Enter the “tend and befriend” drive.
Flight or Smite
It’s a fairly self-descriptive drive. It’s even one that most people can identify with. But this is more than just a drive — it connects to a fundamental instinct and chemical reaction when we become afraid and stressed.
This goes as deep as hyperarousal, or the “fight or flight” response. Except it turns out some people have a different reaction in the same situation.
“From an evolutionary standpoint, fight or flight isn’t complete enough to explain human behaviour. It is incomplete as a theory,” says VandenBerghe.
“Evolutionarily speaking, when you apply the fight or flight model to anyone who is responsible for the life of another, this theory doesn’t work out. If a tiger shows up and you run, you both die. Because you’re slow. The tiger is going to catch you. If you fight, and you lose, the person you’re responsible for dies. So what is this person to do?”
According to Dr Shelley Taylor, “people, especially women, evolved social means for dealing with stress that involved caring for offspring and protecting them from harm, and turning to the social group for protection for the self and offspring.”
Chemically speaking, this means this person has experienced an increase in oxytocin, instead of adrenaline. In the case of the tiger, this could result in yelling for help, hiding, or doing anything that could feasibly save you and your dependent for long enough.
According to VandenBerghe, “What this means is, evolutionarily, it makes more sense for caregivers to experience an increase in the drive to care when experiencing fear, than it does for them to experience an increase in the desire to fight.”
For these people, an increase in tension and stress results in an increased desire to care. VandenBerghe stressed that it’s not as simple as “men do one thing, women do another.” The differences between individuals are far more important and stark.
Fight or flight is one of the more commonly known psychological concepts. Most people believe that in times of acute stress, you’re supposed to want to run or attack.
“My wife always felt like a chemical, motivational outsider,” VandenBerghe told the audience. “Because in times of fearful stress, my wife’s instant reaction was to think immediately about her loved ones. And for much of her life, my wife thought there was something wrong with her. Because this is what we call ‘co-dependence.’ But what if this was normal? What if this wasn’t a disorder?”
A Franchise Reborn?
When a franchise changes its psychological drives, it changes the type of gamer it appeals to. There’s a question there about whether or not a franchise has a responsibility to serve the audience it has built up over the years.
Granted, God of War doesn’t eliminate the traditional “action” style of fun. It moreso adds to the arsenal. It’s possible that in these moments of fearful tension, God of War‘s action could serve both purposes at once. With both a violent threat and a family member to care for present, different players could have different reactions, both interpreted as “fun.”
That’s the ideal scenario. From what we’ve seen so far, this goal is only achieved in God of War‘s best action scenes.
The “tend and befriend” drive also depends on you actually caring for your ward. That means time spent in meaningful scenes between Atreus and the player. Time that, in the eyes of a “traditional” God of War franchise fan, could have been spent in the normal loop of fighting, dragging boxes, and cutscenes featuring Kratos’ permanent grimace as he skewers a deity.
Does that mean God of War has, as a franchise, reneged on its decade-long promise of nonstop, epic, brutal action?
We hold franchises to account when they switch up their aesthetics midstream, or incorporate wildly different gameplay systems in a sequel. Just look at Command & Conquer 4, or Dawn of War 3 for examples. Do franchises have a similar responsibility to remain true to their drives?
Ultimately, it comes down to what kind of gamer, what kind of psychological profile, the game appeals to. Artistically, how many people you appeal to isn’t a zero-sum game. But it would take a particularly genius piece of wizardry for God of War to incorporate this intriguing new drive without suffering any penalties to its core identity of bombastic action.