We live in lands of signs, not least in the centres of post-industrial capitalism. Painted roads tell us which lane to stay in, when to slow down, how much distance to keep between us and the car in front. Kerb sides are flowerbeds of triangular warnings describing each bend and bump, informative rectangles, and circular orders defining how to undertake our journeys. Between and behind those hover gloating advertisements—eye-catching signs made to turn our attention to shopping, eating, travelling somewhere new. And perhaps it’s only when you do travel, to a country with a lower density of signs, then return, that this deluge begins to feel strange.
Aside from the adverts, most road signs of course serve a good cause. They prevent us from getting lost and reduce risk by enforcing a mutually accepted code of conduct. But when you see how a society can function with fewer (my personal point of comparison is between England and Cyprus), you have to ask: How many signs is too many? At what point do signs, including adverts, impinge on our freedom to relate to our environment? Where is the line between being guided and being conditioned towards a particular experience of the outside world?
God of War Ragnarök is a game of signs. Painted symbols snake up climbable walls like the white lines in the middle of roads. Runic daubing and glowing green ravens advertise collectible bonuses off the critical path. Bold square and circle button prompts are superimposed on the environment like stop signs and one-way arrows. There are so many signs that even their occasional absence becomes significant. Like a mystery dirt path forking from the highway, an unmarked wall that appears perfectly navigable is something you’re trained to ignore.
Combat, meanwhile, loosely replicates the colour-coded commands of traffic lights. A red ring around an enemy signals a need to stop attacking and dodge. A yellow ring is less severe—it means you can block, but expect to be staggered (unless you have a shield that absorbs yellow attacks). Double blue rings prompt you to double-tap block to perform a shield slam. Yellow arrows pointing at Kratos signify an attack coming from offscreen, with red arrows defining greater urgency. Health pickups glow green, urging you to race towards them.
This is good design. These signs provide clarity and consistency, which are crucial to reduce a sense of unfairness born from confusion. You might say it’s objectively good design, since no one wants to be frustrated by muddled visual communication and unreliable rules. And this good design underpins every aspect of the two most recent God of War games. In a GDC talk about the 2018 God of War, level design lead Rob Davis explains the principles: reinforcing core pillars of combat, exploration, and narrative throughout each stage, using uniform metrics to plot out locations, careful spacing of action, dialogue, new mechanics, and exploration breaks.
Ragnarök is a little different in structure from its predecessor—its hub and satellite areas aren’t directly connected, for example—but follows similar patterns. Director Eric Williams has explained how he deconstructed every scene as a series of timed actions, such as how long you walk forward before triggering a conversation and so on. “I have a spreadsheet that breaks down each one of those moments,” he says, “how they stream together, how much time you're going to spend in them. And we have that across the entire game.” These estimated timings, he continues, tend to be accurate in play. “The original prediction is within 10% of the final product,” he says.
As with road signs, however, does too much good design lead to psychological conditioning? With so many micro-managed plans and directional signals structuring our movements, the danger is that we become experimental rats, running around a maze or hitting designated switches to trigger drops of cheese. We can infer as much from Davis in his talk when he shows footage of a player being drawn towards the pinkish red glow of a ‘shock crystal’ during a period of exploration. The player recognises this as something worth investigating, having recently acquired the shock arrow ability that allows him to break these crystals. “He saw a shock crystal,” Davis comments over the footage. “He has been taught correctly. He has been promised interesting gameplay.” Stated plainly here is the aim of sign-based design—that we’re ‘taught correctly’ to respond to symbols in a singular, automatic manner.
We might also consider what it means here that we’re ‘promised interesting gameplay’, because that doesn’t mean we actually get it. What if each time the rat hits the switch, the cheese reward is smaller? You might raise an eyebrow in Ragnarök, for example, when Atreus is awarded the all new sonic arrow ability, with which he can shoot and break green-tinted obstacles. Isn’t that merely a reskin of the shock arrow? And then aren’t special arrows merely variants of Kratos’ axe, which he throws to hit switches, break ropes, and detonate explosive pots? For Davis, new mechanics should be introduced every 90-120 minutes to keep the play fresh, but this freshness is largely an illusion as puzzles follow the same pattern: you spot a hidden route or treasure, wander around until you see something that will unlock it if struck from distance, then find the right vantage point from which to throw/fire. There are added wrinkles—for instance the target may be moving—but as with the consumerist fulfilment offered by the average billboard, the promise of ‘interesting gameplay’ is rarely delivered.
Contrast this form of ‘exploration’ against one of this year’s memorable gaming moments—the un-signposted elevator ride to the underground world of Elden Ring. FromSoftware plays with expectations to great effect here, suggesting that you’re accessing an intriguing cul-de-sac only to reveal a major highway. Ragnarök is incapable of such moments of discovery and awe, not simply because it’s more linear, but because it has to predefine our expectations. If you see a chest when you peer over a ledge, that route is sure to be a short optional diversion, while substantial side quests only arrive between marked story objectives, to provide a break before the next. In effect, there’s an unwritten contract between game and player, according to which you’re guaranteed a smooth experience, like the layout of an Ikea store, on condition that you waive any right to be surprised.
In this way, by design, Ragnarök expertly holds the mind in a levitated state between boredom and enjoyment. There’s always just enough to do, but little that demands real focus, as colours and shapes elicit a Pavlovian response (there have been times, for example, when I’ve instinctively double pressed block on seeing blue rings, only for another enemy to strike me from the side before I could execute the shield slam, leaving me salivating with no reward). The creators, in their infinite metric wisdom, even divine when you’re likely to tire of each section, so you can be sure a change of pace is due to boost your interest (but not too much) whenever you get fidgety.
What’s genuinely interesting here, though, is how the regimented psychogeography of Ragnarök determines our response to it, and ultimately normalises itself. In real life, signs affect how we relate to society, (unconsciously) dictating entries and exits to pathways and buildings, delineating appropriate behaviour in each location, marking private property, and so on. Today, that relationship is equally influenced by our smartphones, with apps such as Google Maps or Just Eat directing how we explore a city via commercial interests. And as digital media theorist Alfie Bown explains in his book The PlayStation Dreamworld, the concern here is not only one of homogenising experience, but that these apps begin to define our desires. “Predictive mobile-phone apps may bring into consciousness desires and drives which might otherwise have remained in the preconscious,” Bown writes, “meaning that we are handing over an important part of our decision-making skills to a device designed to map our actions and influence our movements.” Alternative perspectives that conceive social spaces as non-commercial or even political sites thus become unconsciously proscribed.
This point is relevant to Ragnarök in terms of how it functions as a piece of art. For Frankfurt School critical theorists of the mid-20th century such as Herbert Marcuse, ‘great’ art ignites utopian desires by altering how we see the world, inspiring thought that goes against the grain of oppressively dominant ideas. Ragnarök literally depicts a different world, of course, and is full of artistry at the level of ‘content’, visible in gorgeous views and powerful colours. But in its ‘form’ or structure (the crucial aspect for Marcuse) it doesn’t want to be interpreted, it wants to be obeyed. Its aims are didactic—to see that players are ‘taught correctly’ to respond to audio and visual cues—and much of the time we engage with its lush scenery through the explanatory lens of signs and spoon-fed lore, rather than deciphering the thing itself. In this particular sense, Ragnarök is a work of anti-art.
The God of War games are far from unique among modern AAA games in this respect, and few titles, whether big or small, can afford to ignore their good design principles. Even From has made concessions with Elden Ring in terms of offering more guidance to players. But what marks God of War, and Ragnarök in particular, out from the crowd, is the extent to which their signposting turns into the manipulation of desires, and how they seem to announce and delight in their methods of psychological control. Indeed, if there is a utopian dimension in Ragnarök, it’s in its (accidental) almost Brechtian knack for explaining what it’s doing to you in plain terms, as if it wants the artifice of its formal designs to be interrogated.
Whereas Elden Ring tries to hide its construction as a game behind a feeling of a once lived-in world, then, Ragnarök’s spaces scream ‘level design’. Overtly compartmentalised play areas are sectioned off by all-too visible metrics, and colourful targets obviously exist only to gently test your attention before allowing progress. Companion characters are equally conspicuous, barking out advice in combat and puzzle sequences, or patiently unveiling chunks of lore during transitional phases. The likes of Atreus and Mimir in fact hammer at the fourth wall repeatedly, channelling the voice of the game designer. For example, they appear to grasp the Metroidvania-like nature of your quest, noting when you approach certain scenery furniture: “I don’t think we can do anything with that yet.”
This ‘helpful’ banter then segues into a strand of humour throughout Ragnarök in which characters comment on the game-like structure of their world and player psychology. At one point, you need to turn a wheel to pull a platform down to your level, a purely digital action in which any flick of the analogue stick locks it in the correct place. “Nice job getting it to lower exactly where we wanted it,” quips Atreus, with a knowing wink. Later, the god Tyr asks why Kratos keeps straying from the main path to explore side passages. “My dad likes loot,” Atreus replies, referencing our desire to collect shiny things (a desire the game effectively enforces with its layers of largely superfluous upgrades).
These moments are Ragnarök is at its most self-aware, but also most sinister. Its system of signs exists not only to train and control you, but to make clear that it’s doing just that and you have no choice but to go along with it. Playing Ragnarök feels like being inside John Carpenter’s They Live, where special glasses allow you to see the subliminal demands to ‘obey’ and ‘consume’ underneath advertisements and newspaper headlines. Except here it’s as if you’re both wearing and not wearing the glasses at the same time—you’ve been made aware of the trick, but remain compelled to follow the shapes and symbols towards the promise of ‘interesting gameplay’, because there’s nothing else.
This is good design. Ragnarök exemplifies sound practice arguably better than any other game. And it’s a good game, objectively good, in that you’ll rarely find flaws in its precise logic. But in being so consistently good, it’s never great—its transparent, algorithmically precise efforts to sustain interest ironically create a tedious loop—and ultimately it comes to feel invasive and cynical. Ragnarök and games like it condition our desires until we come to expect sign-based experiences based on learned automatic responses. Just as Google Maps, road signs, and advertisements teach us to view cities as a string of commercial interests, they block transformative thought at the unconscious level.
Jon Bailes is a social theorist and freelance games critic, originally from the UK. He’s the author of Ideology and the Virtual City: Video Games, Power Fantasies and Neoliberalism (Zero, 2019), and writes for various publications including Edge, The Washington Post, GamesRadar, and PC Gamer. He can be reached on Twitter @jonbailes3.