The following piece contains enormous spoilers for God of War: Ragnarok. Be warned!
God of War Ragnarok is a story about a father and son, but it’s also about secrets we keep from the people closest to us in the name of love. Though Kratos and Atreus understandably garner most of the attention, Ragnarok’s broader story is also about a community built up along the way, and the way that community bends—and breaks—under the weight of trauma, prophecy, and endless violence. Brok and Sindri, two dwarves befriended in the 2018 game, are at the heart of, and experience the direct consequences of, this breaking.
In the earliest days of development for Ragnarok, the creative director of the previous game, Cory Barlog, handed the people who would be handling the storytelling in the sequel three cards. On each card was a story element that Barlog, who was still involved in Ragnarok’s development but with less day-to-day responsibility, wanted to see play out. One of the cards Barlog handed to Gaubert and narrative director Matt Sophos was simple: “Brok’s got to die.”
Barlog, through Sony, declined a request to elaborate on the story card idea, though game director Eric Williams told IGN Barlog’s three important beats that needed to happen by the end of the game were “Ragnarok’s going to happen, the kid’s got to leave, and Brok’s got to die.” In the same interview, Williams described Brok and his importance as “the family dog.”
“Brok dies, and then that serves as the catalyst to take the fight to Odin,” said Ragnarok story lead Richard Gaubert in a recent interview with Waypoint. “The last thing that we wanted was to have a gung-ho glorification of war. There had to be casualties, both physically and emotionally, and it really had to hurt. So we made it hurt.”
To make it hurt, Brok and Sindri had to be more than what they were in the first game: slices of humor and folks who upgraded your equipment. They had to become real characters and have real stakes. The incendiary line that Sindri has at the end, when he’s tired of Kratos and Atreus—”I gave you everything”—is the culmination of Ragnarok’s table setting.
“Ultimately, Brok and Sindri reflect the big theme of the piece [Ragnarok],” said Gaubert, “which is about letting go, whether you're letting go of control over your son, or letting go of guilt, or letting go of prophecy, of your past, of your hate.”
You really only interacted with Brok and Sindri in the 2018 game when you came across one of their magically transporting upgrade stations. In Ragnarok, though, they occasionally come with you. It provides an opportunity for both characters to have more organic conversations, but it’s also a greater demand on the developers building the game. It’s much easier when Brok and Sindri are just hanging out behind hammers. Now, they also need combat abilities?
“We had a lot of people that had to believe in what we were doing for it to be palatable,” said Sophos. “And then even as we were developing things, it was like, ‘All right, our scope is kind of big. We've got to start paring back.’”
Painful cuts are part of any development process, but you’re not just cutting combat arenas, you’re cutting moments of intimacy between characters. And for the Brok and Sindri stuff to emotionally land, Ragnarok also had to do the work of building up a connection between the player and these characters assuming players might not have played the last game.
“For players who played 2018, they were going to feel what happens to Brok and Sindri regardless because they spent two games worth of time with them,” said Sophos, “but for some people who jump into this game as their first one, they're not going to feel the loss unless you spend time with a character and someone who has to be anchored behind a shop desk. It's hard to get them out unless they're pulled into the narrative.”
It works. The death of Brok, and the psychological collapse of Sindri, is a suckerpunch.
Video game characters, much like comic book characters, rarely die. And if they do, it’s mostly for emotional shock. Because they frequently live in the realm of magic, fantasy, and a world where recognizable intellectual property amidst ever-increasing budgets is considered gold, anything is possible—except death. But in Ragnarok, the first friend that Kratos and his son Atreus make dies, and the blood is directly on their hands. It’s personal.
Brok’s death was decided at the earliest stages of the development, what Sophos jokingly called “pre-pre-production” phase of the game, because of how long it takes to build games at the scale and expense of Ragnarok. Barlog didn’t tell the two how Brok had to die, just that he had to. Everything else was up to them. The exact moment came about “over the course of us developing the entire story of what Kratos and Atreus are going through.”
As the story started to come together, it was time to tell the actors involved in Ragnarok about their roles. When you kill someone, be it a TV show or a video game, it does more than impact the story, and goes beyond trying to generate a reaction from the player. You’re also taking a job away from someone, and ending their participation in the broader story.
“Yeah,” said Sophos with a sigh. “I was the one who delivered it.”
Ahead of motion capture, the process by which the actors behind the characters in Ragnarok perform their roles in front of expensive digital equipment that is later fused with the world of God of War and their respective character models, Sophos individually met with each actor.
“We cast people who were just up for anything that would forward the story,” said Sophos. “I went in there [to meeting with Brok’s actor] with a lot of trepidation because I think he was one of the last people I talked to. I talked to Adam Harrington, the actor who played Sindri. Eric Williams and I both drove out to meet him at a place and we talked him through it and he was shocked. And I think every actor, when I told them the arc, all of them went: have you told Robert yet? [laughs] Because they became such a family. It was tough.”
“Robert” is Robert Craighead, a longtime actor with a litany of small roles in TV stretching all the way back to 1982. But you probably know him because of the blue guy from God of War who swears a lot.
“I talked him through the arc of his character, and it was tough,” said Sopho. “It was tough because he is just a joyful person to be around.”
Brok’s death, surprising and sudden, is a powerful moment, revealing a deception and crystallizing the path forward for our main characters. It also serves as an emotional radicalization moment for Brok’s brother, Sindri, an aloof but talented and kind-hearted dwarf who often acts as a social interpreter between the father and son at the center of the story.
“I remember when we were writing their introductory scenes in God of War 2018,” said Gaubert, “I had the video of their auditions up on the desktop, and I'd watch and rewatch them as I'd write in an attempt to transfer what they brought to the characters and what got them the parts, transferring that to the dialog in the scenes themselves. So while the scripts inform the actors, the actors inform the scripts just as much.”
As a little treat, Waypoint can share a clip from the auditions of each actor, Robert Craighead for Brok and Adam Harrington for Sindri. This is the same footage that Gaubert was referring to while writing them, and gives a glimpse into how the actors shaped their digital selves.
Kratos and Atreus' journey in Ragnarok doesn’t have the same punch without Brok and Sindri. Atreus spends the game agonizing over a prophecy suggesting his father will die, but the person who ultimately dies because of all this anxiety is Brok. It’s worse, too, because Brok already died years ago by a vicious spider bite, but Sindri, heartbroken, found a way to bring him back. Unfortunately, Sindri could only bring back most of Brok’s soul—not all of it.
As a result, when Brok died the second time around, there was no afterlife. He’s just gone, and it’s why Sindri snaps at the end of Ragnarok. Brok is physically dead, but Sindri is now emotionally dead, too. He continues to help Kratos and Atreus, but it’s no longer due to any long standing friendship. Instead, Sindri is driven by rage to destroy Odin, who killed Brok.
Brok and Sindri’s story has the appearance of a subplot, but the game doesn’t treat it that way. In fact, the “true” ending that triggers the full credits, doesn’t happen when everyone defeats Odin. Instead, it’s after the quiet funeral for Brok, an optional side quest many players may never encounter, but where the game decides is the appropriate place to end.
“That was a source of debate,” said Sophos.
The plan, according to Sophos, was always to have it occur after the main events of the story. The question became whether it happened at Brok’s funeral or after a difficult post-game side quest, where players track down Gna, the Valkyrie Queen. Defeating Gna is a tall task, arguably the game’s hardest fight, and it ultimately felt weird to lock it behind that because “that's just not really nice to do to the team that worked so hard on this game.”
The call was eventually made by Eric Williams, the game’s director.
“For the longest time I was resistant to it,” said Sophos, “and credit to Eric that he was the one like ‘no, I feel like this is the place to do it."
Video games like this typically end in a place of triumph. Our heroes have defeated the great evil, at least until the next great evil comes along. So it goes. Here, yes, Odin is gone, but at what cost? The community is broken. Sindri is broken. Brok is dead. What’s left is melancholy, an emotion less common for a big budget action game to leave you with.
But it works.
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