Shaping God of War (2018)’s climactic boss encounter with Baldur
It has been five incredible years since God of War (2018) came out and more since our team at Santa Monica Studio was deep in development on the game. Since then, we’ve released the game’s NG+ mode, next-gen updates, a PC port, and a sequel you might have heard of called God of War Ragnarök. None of this would have been possible without the enduring and enthusiastic support you’ve shown us over the years.
To mark the five-year anniversary of God of War (2018), our team wanted to celebrate the occasion with you by taking a deep dive behind the scenes into the creation of the climactic boss fight against Baldur.
Big-time spoilers for God of War (2018) ahead!
The Stranger, later revealed to be Baldur, is the first character you meet after being introduced to Kratos and Atreus. He comes calling with an agenda that immediately puts him at odds with Kratos, where his combat ability and persistence immediately mark him as the most dangerous threat dogging our heroes’ heels throughout their journey.
Baldur confronts Kratos at his home in Midgard.
While Kratos and Atreus don’t want to engage with him, Baldur forces them to fight for their lives on several occasions throughout the realms. He is the final boss of the main story, the culmination of the Aesir plot and last test the players must overcome before finally scattering Faye’s ashes from the highest peak in all the realms.
Concept art of Baldur – Artist: Jose Cabrera.
The conflict comes to a head when Baldur turns his rage towards his mother Freya, as well as Kratos and Atreus, forcing them into the fight of their lives against one of the All-Father’s strongest followers. Bruno Velazquez, Animation Director at Santa Monica Studio, emphasized the goal of the sequence:
“We knew that the players would expect a big epic finale, so our goal was always to try and push what we had done on the initial Baldur fight and up the stakes in every way.”
Start to finish, this sequence is one of the most ambitious in the game and combined the efforts of our entire team to pull it off. From extensive cinematics with dramatic confrontations between the characters to a massive boss fight that spanned multiple phases and locations – this climactic finish to the plot’s main conflict was one of the most important moments in the game we had to get right to make sure our players reached Jötunheim with a sense of well-earned satisfaction.
Putting pen to paper
The pressure to make this sequence feel epic and earned after teasing it from the start of the game was high. When it came to laying the groundwork, the first step was writing the story.
Matt Sophos, Narrative Director at Santa Monica Studio, spoke on what the team wanted to achieve:
“The narrative objective was twofold. First, we wanted to convey from both a story and gameplay perspective just how far Kratos and Atreus had come in their relationship. We wanted to show they were working together seamlessly, protecting each other, and fighting as a unit.
The second goal was to put Kratos and Atreus on a collision course with no cut-and-dried ‘good’ outcome. There was going to be a cost to this fight, and the one they chose was one that turned Freya from an ally to an enemy.”
Script page from cinematic leading into the final confrontation with Baldur.
Despite Kratos demonstrating his growth by trying to resolve the situation without fighting, Baldur is unrelenting in his pursuit of Freya’s life. This puts him and Kratos in direct conflict once again, sparking the final showdown between the two.
Giant sense of scale
The fight between Baldur, Kratos, and Atreus shows no signs of stopping despite Freya’s use of Vanir magic to separate them. She turns towards more drastic measures by possessing the corpse of Thamur, the Stone Mason.
Visual exploration of Thamur – Artists: Dela Longfish & Yefim Kligerman.
During certain parts of the game, this figure has been visible to the player in Midgard – extremely large and perhaps intimidating in his size, but ultimately harmless. The Stone Mason’s presence is meant to evoke a sense of wonder or curiosity in the player, and maybe even a ‘what if’ moment imagining the fight between Thamur and Thor as Mimir describes the very encounter that killed the Giant in one of his stories.
Concept art of Thamur scale reference – Artist: Jose Cabrera.
The integration of the colossal frozen body in the fight as both a mechanic and a platform across three phases was exactly the type of wild idea that made it worthy of being in the final fight of the story.
Concept art exploring the look of Freya’s magic possessing Thamur.
Sophos emphasized that when it comes to creating these huge set-piece gameplay moments, they aren’t typically scripted by the Narrative Team from the beginning. In this case, it was Design Team that came up with the idea of using the Stone Mason as part of the fight:
“Any time we approach boss fights from the narrative side, we’re reticent to write huge checks that other departments have to cash. Whenever you put something down on the page as a writer, you know lots of other team members will have to execute on it, so we try to keep the core narrative small and personal while letting Design tell us how big they want to go.
Freya puppeteering the corpse of Thamur didn’t come from us, but when Design said they wanted to do it and have the fight range all over the place (including on top of him), we giddily said, ‘Hell yeah… we’ll make that work.”
Script page from the cinematic where Thamur is possessed by Freya’s magic.
Larger-than-life boss fights are a hallmark of the God of War series, so the team was no stranger to going big and reaching for something they felt would blow players away. However, one new element introduced in God of War (2018) had a profound impact on how those moments were captured – the camera.
The closer placement to Kratos and no-cut technique used throughout the game were essential in achieving the feeling of undergoing an intimate journey with father and son. Whether in cutscenes or combat, you are always close to Kratos, seeing and experiencing what he does.
Erol Oksuz, Lead Camera Designer at Santa Monica Studio, discussed how this approach impacted the reveal of the Giant:
“The credit to selling the scale of Thamur goes to Cinematics, Animation, Art, and Lighting —truly a team effort. In the prior Greek-era games, scale was shown by flying the camera waaaaay out, dwarfing Kratos and the player against creatures and the environment.
However, God of War (2018)’s goal of putting the player and camera on the ground for Kratos and Atreus’ journey created many rules to provide the documentary-inspired experience. Along with ‘no cuts’ was ‘no flying cameras’ — this meant the camera could not simply fly away on its own for extreme long shots. Instead, what replaced it was beautifully crafted choreography that added scale to the experience — the work of those teams still ‘wow’ me.”
“For example, just after Baldur loses his invulnerability, Freya binds him with vines and whips him by the camera. That slight pan and tilt now sets the player up for a classic God of War moment with a small, silhouetted Freya in the mid-ground and massive Thamur rising in the background.
Freya and the Giant are only alone in-frame for a moment before Kratos and Atreus step back into the foreground to remind the player that they’re right in the middle of it too — no need to have cut or flown the camera to any other position.”
Velazquez added that the transition sequence where Thamur grabs Kratos and Atreus in his massive hand also required the team to take extra consideration with the camera:
“One of the hardest challenges was keeping the continuity of the no-cut camera during the part where the Giant grabs Kratos and Atreus and picks them up. We needed to make sure we sold the idea that the hand blotted out all the light and engulfed our heroes without harming them, carrying them across the arena and seamlessly dropped them off somewhere else. This was very challenging from a technical standpoint for sure.”
The inclusion of Thamur affected not only the cinematic moments, but also the camera in combat. The team needed to account for how to best telegraph the Giant’s attacks during these sections with the camera position. For example, during the fight, Thamur slams the ground causing a wave AoE to disperse from the impact while the player is engaged with Baldur. Given the close position the camera already has in combat and the hectic nature of the encounter, Oksuz elaborated on the necessity to adapt for the increased scale:
“The Greek-era games had a camera locked to a general direction, so when a boss would attack, it would pull back to perfectly frame the move as a ‘tell,’ giving the player some time to react. That style of ‘tell’ had to be adapted because players now had full camera control, so we tried to provide as much info the player as possible without affecting their control or focus.”
“After a few iterations with Animation to get Thamur’s hand as low as possible, we also adjusted the camera to pull back further than usual and widened the lens to provide contrast with the normal, close-fight camera. This also opened screen real-estate to show off the ground below going into shadow while increasing the chance to see the Giant’s hand. With the final audio, a build-up of screen-shake, and controller rumble, there was enough there to communicate that something big was about to happen.”
The Stone Mason’s involvement in the scene ends when Atreus calls out to Jörmungandr to help them. The World Serpent obliges, resulting in a massive clash as he bites into the Giant and pushes it back, breaking Freya’s spell.
According to Velazquez, this was a late addition to the game as the team explored different ways to resolve Thamur’s presence. While Kratos and Atreus were motion-captured, the rest of the entire sequence was hand-animated by the talented Dennis Pena (Sr. Staff Animator), who had to balance keeping our heroes in the shot while capturing all the chaos and action around them.
Animation process on the sequence with Jörmungandr attacking Thamur.
Clash between Gods
The final encounter with Baldur features one of the most complex combat sequences in the game. With Kratos and Atreus’ full kits accessible, the team wanted players to feel powerful while making use of all the skills they learned throughout the story.
Denny Yeh, Lead Combat Designer, elaborated on the SMS Combat Team’s philosophy:
“We like to think of end-game fights as a final exam of sorts. Unlike challenge bosses like the Valkyries, which are designed to test pretty much everything, a story boss like Baldur needs to feel more like the greatest hits of mechanics throughout the game. Think of it like a celebration of what you’ve learned, rather than a strict test.”
Baldur is both the first and last encounter in the game, which posed a unique challenge in that this fight had to feel familiar and but also fresh. The Aesir god has an established, unique fighting style that is quite different from his brethren who all use weapons. Velazquez noted:
“Early on we decided for Baldur to not have a weapon due to the idea that someone that does not feel pain would be more reckless and daring when in combat. He would not need a shield to block or a sword to strike because he would rather use his own body as a weapon.”
This posed an interesting question for the team, who had to balance introducing new mechanics, while also maintaining consistency with the character that had been established through several fights already experienced by the player. The answer was partly with the integration of the Stone Mason and Freya as participants. These aren’t always just obstacles to be avoided, but also new tools the player can use to their advantage, Yeh explained:
“Freya herself wasn’t necessarily trying to kill you, more just stop the fight, so a lot of her intervention involved immobilizing you. It just so happens that being immobilized means Baldur can easily punch you in the face!
The cool thing about Freya’s vines is that they can affect both you and Baldur. So, if the player is paying attention, they can dodge it and lure Baldur into it, allowing them to turn the tables.”
On top of Freya’s magic and the screen-wide attacks from Thamur, the other significant element was, of course, Baldur himself:
“With end-game story bosses, we like to come up with mechanics to encourage usage of all your tools. From a combat perspective, this is where Baldur’s ability to absorb fire/ice came in. It allowed us to get the player to switch weapons and showcase a bigger variety of all the cool abilities they’ve unlocked up to that point.”
Animation process of Baldur’s Elemental Burst.
Baldur’s ability to imbue his body with fire and ice along with a new suite of moves were all key factors in keeping players on their toes. Taking point on the fight design was Sr. Staff Combat Designer Loren Bordas, who led the way building an encounter that gave players the opportunity to feel like the God of War while utilizing the full breadth of the tools and knowledge available to them.
“In addition to the overarching trait of absorbing elements, the element that he’s currently channeling changes the properties of all his attacks. This added a fun new twist to moves that the player had already seen before. He also had additional abilities such as throwing elemental projectiles. In the final phase of the fight, Loren and the team mixed and matched all of these attacks into combo sequences to really keep the pressure up.”
Baldur enters his fire phase during the fight.
While some bosses can have a more focused gameplay theme, such as the puzzle-solving element in the Hræzlyr fight that requires the player to utilize lightning sap, for an end-game boss like Baldur, Bordas and the team had to ensure the encounter didn’t make the player feel like their power progression was being invalidated by leaning on non-combat gameplay elements. This meant that the Baldur fight needed to have a good variety of phases and behaviors to make it feel like an epic finale. Yeh elaborated:
“He starts off element-less, allowing you to freestyle with whatever abilities you desire. Then he starts absorbing elements, encouraging you to show off your choice of runic attacks for each weapon.”
“In later phases, Loren and the team added additional enemies into the mix, allowing players who focus on crowd clearing abilities to shine. And then in the final phase, Baldur swapped between the two elements very frequently, adding the pressure of on-demand weapon switching.”
This time it’s personal
In many of the mid-fight sequences, the two gods clash with their fists, despite Kratos having weapons at his disposal. This was a deliberate choice the team made to emphasize the personal, desperate, and violent nature of the final confrontation between Kratos and Baldur. Velazquez offered additional insight:
“Since Baldur did not wield his own weapon, we decided that Kratos should also sheathe his to have more impact. This was in-line with the overall direction to make the combat a closer, more personal experience due to the camera, as well as the specific direction that these moments between Kratos and Baldur should feel like a brutal struggle. This is also why we chose to have Kratos use hands to end Baldur, it is a far more intimate and visceral moment than if he were using weapons.”
As the player, you are drawn close to the action by the camera while Kratos and Baldur trade blow after blow. There are plenty of moments during the fight that are there to make you feel triumphant as Kratos and Atreus work together against the man who came to their home and threatened them without provocation. However, there is also an equally intentional and unavoidable brutality to the encounter that the team included to convey the toll it takes on the characters and the eventual cost of their conflict.
Fighting as one
As Sophos explained, one of the teams’ key goals was to show how close Kratos and Atreus had come over the course of the game, as both a family and fighting unit. As much as the player is intended to feel accomplished and powerful as Kratos during this fight, it is also important for that feeling to extend to Atreus as he demonstrates how far he has come along the way by supporting the player in gameplay and combat moments.
This sequence was the chance to show just how much Atreus changed, from an unsure boy who couldn’t shoot a deer to a confident fighter Kratos could rely upon in battle. Velazquez described these moments:
“There are several sequences that sell the team up between Kratos and Atreus well, like Kratos tossing Atreus in the air to fire arrows, as well as when Kratos jumps off the Stone Mason holding Baldur, with Atreus leaping off after them. “
Animation process on chisel leap sequence.
“However, nothing compares to the moment in which the player must press well-timed prompts as Kratos and Atreus take turns pummeling Baldur. It was such a highlight for us to be able to include some of these moments that really make you feel like a cohesive fighting unit as both father and son.”
Animation process on Kratos and Atreus team-up sequence.
Atreus actively supports Kratos during the encounter by dealing out damage and stun to create opportunities to close in on Baldur, but it is during these cutscenes and QTEs where the team really wanted our boy to shine and give a moment for the player to cheer him on.
Performances to remember
As the climax of the game, this sequence had the monumental task of not only delivering a huge combat set piece, but also offering a conclusion to two of the most prominent storylines outside of Kratos and Atreus.
Though the scene begins with Kratos and Atreus unsure where Freya’s loyalties lie, as soon as they see Baldur’s hostility towards her, the pair immediately move to defend her as tensions rise. At this point in the game, Freya has saved Atreus’ life and been an integral part of our heroes’ journey.
Kratos steps forward to intervene between Baldur and Freya.
Despite knowing all the good she’s done for the pair, Kratos and Atreus’ journey to Helheim shed new light on Baldur’s suffering for the player. We’ve seen first-hand how psychologically scarred his inability to feel has left him. While not excusing his actions, knowing the toll Freya’s spell took on Baldur adds a sorrowful layer of nuance to the encounter that actor Jeremy Davies’ portrayal expertly conveys. Sophos added:
“He brought such pain to a character who, ironically, couldn’t feel it. His performance made it hard to hate Baldur since even the worst things he said had an undercurrent of tragedy to them.”
Another moment of Davies’ exceptional delivery from this scene takes place right after the Mistletoe Arrowhead releases the spell on Baldur, allowing him to feel for the first time in a century. Velazquez discussed the actor’s ability to capture all the emotions running through the character:
“Jeremey did such a fantastic job with Baldur overall but the moment that really stays with me is when the Mistletoe Arrow dispels the spell Freya put on him and he regains the ability to feel once again. He did such a great job of selling that moment and helped the audience have some sympathy for Baldur and his plight.”
Another of many standout performances from the closing cinematic of this sequence is Danielle Bisutti’s portrayal of Freya.
As the Narrative Team stated in their goals for the final encounter of the game, this was never going to be an ending where everyone walked away happy. It is in large-part due to Bisutti’s heart-wrenching performance as Freya that the repercussions of Kratos’ actions had meaningful weight. Curled over the lifeless body of the son she sacrificed everything to keep safe, Freya’s raging grief as she turned from ally to enemy was embodied perfectly through Bisutti’s portrayal. Sophos added this scene was one of the most impactful he witnessed on stage:
“When Danielle Bisutti (Freya) promises retribution for the killing of her son, and slowly builds in intensity until she’s just spitting bile, hate, and grief at Kratos… it’s one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever been a part of.”
“You could hear a pin drop on the performance capture stage. We were all just kind of stunned into silence. I knew based on how much of herself Danielle invests in her performance that she was going to go hard, but DAMN…”
And with that, we hope you’ve enjoyed this look back on the final boss fight in God of War (2018)!
On behalf of everyone who played a part in the creation of this game and all the team here at Santa Monica Studio, we cannot express our gratitude enough to our community for all the support given to us over the last five years. We wouldn’t be here without you!