The Art of the Reboot
In our editorial section, we check in with our Editor-in-Chief, Liz Kelly, for her thoughts on a wide variety of subjects related to storytelling and gaming. All potential spoilers will be labeled ahead of time, so that fans who wish to play specific games unspoiled will be able to set the editorial aside for a later time.
Games Discussed: God of War (Santa Monica Studio, 2018), God of War: Ragnarok (Santa Monica Studio, 2022)
It’s been a few months since Santa Monica Studio released God of War: Ragnarok, so it’s safe to say the game has received a glowing reception. It’s sold well, reviewed well, and received a plethora of nominations and awards—not bad for the sequel to a reboot!
If you’ve been over to our Narrative Analysis section recently, you might have read our article on remakes. (And if you haven’t read it, you can do so here.) In that piece, I reviewed the definitions of the different types of remakes, including reboots, but there’s some nuance to what makes a successful reboot that I didn’t have room to cover. Since these editorials give me more space to speculate, and I’ve got God of War: Ragnarok on the brain, I figure I can expand on the surface-level overview now.
When you get right down to it, reboots are a numbers game. Whenever you change a series, you have to ask: “Will this change bring in more fans than it drives away?” Every alteration you make to a franchise has the potential to alienate long-time fans, and there’s no guarantee that it will earn you any new ones. In the worst-case scenario, you can lose the entirety of your original audience without gaining anyone new, and then you’re in real trouble. You can always go for the Hail Mary pass of de-booting the series with a release that’s ardently faithful to the original entries, but it’s unlikely to work if you had a good reason for the reboot in the first place. Just because it worked for New Coke doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you!
Since reboots are about tilting the numbers back in your favor, the best time to hit the reset button is when you have very little to lose. In other words, you don’t take a series in a new direction when everybody loves the current one; you do it when everybody’s tired of it. In the case of God of War (2018), the series was up to six prior installments (not including compilations and collections), and sales were down from the high of God of War III in 2010. Now, did the fact that the two poorly-selling titles were a prequel and a handheld game have anything to do with it? Probably, yes, but the fact that the franchise had reached the point of putting out prequels and braving the handheld market was indicative of a larger problem: the series had nowhere else to go. The protagonist, Kratos, had killed all of his enemies (and possibly himself), which left little room for any follow-up titles about killing Greek gods. So what could Santa Monica Studio really do but a reboot?
Now, God of War (2018) isn’t really a reboot in the strictest sense of the word. The chronology of the series didn’t reset, but you still get to play as the same Kratos you were in the earlier games. The god-killing is back, too, but you’re not killing the Greek ones anymore; you’re killing the Norse. The switch in god-heritage isn’t the biggest change for the story, however. The really big change comes with the tone.
Before God of War (2018) came along, the franchise was your quintessential quick-time event action title. You found a god; you killed them; lather-rinse-repeat as needed. The story that held the god-killings together was transparent and thin: the kind of thing that provided support but didn’t get in the way. In God of War (2018), the game is the story. Kratos is older and wiser (arguably), and he’s got a son and yet another late wife. In God of War: Ragnarok, his social circle has expanded to include dwarves, valkyries, and severed heads, to say nothing of the multiple gods that remain un-killed. These characters are rich and complex, with conflicting motivations and histories that inform their decisions. In other words, they’re everything their earlier franchise counterparts are not—and that doesn’t work for everybody.
The truth of the matter is that not every fan is happy with this new version of God of War. For the people who genuinely love hacking and slashing their way through a digital world with no deeper message or meaning, the modern God of War feels like a betrayal. But if you check the sales numbers, the decision bears out. To date, God of War III (the previous highest-selling title) has sold a bit above five million copies; God of War (2018) has sold over fifteen million. Kindergarten math says they added ten million new players, but the reality is more complex than that. In all likelihood, the changes brought in more than ten million people, but the number was offset by players who didn’t come back because of the changes. It doesn’t matter much in this instance because the incoming new players so vastly outnumbered the outgoing old ones, but it was still a gamble on Santa Monica’s part. They had no guarantee that the changes were going to pay off; they just had to make their game and hope for the best while making a couple of smart choices along the way.
The first smart thing Santa Monica Studio did was how much they could change the premise of God of War. In its most basic form, God of War is a story about Kratos taking violent revenge against the Greek gods. You’ve got the plot (the god-killing), the character (Kratos), the setting (Greece), and the theme (vengeance). If you take away all of these elements, the story naturally ceases to be a God of War story. But what happens if you only take away some of them?
Think of a story as a wooden block tower, one where you try to remove the pieces until it falls down (you know the one I’m talking about). Some pieces are easy to remove, but others support the whole structure and can’t be taken out without knocking the whole thing down. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to tell which pieces are load-bearing, which makes the game harder than it looks. The same thing is true with rebooting a franchise. It’s easy enough to identify which pieces make up the story thus far, but it’s considerably harder to tell which pieces you can change. If you’ve got good market research and audience feedback, you can make some educated guesses, but at the end of the day, you’re still guessing. So how do you make changes without collapsing the whole tower?
The best solution, in my mind, is the most obvious one: don’t change every element. If you can reduce your story down to the most basic pieces (plot, character, setting, and theme/tone), then you can see what happens when you switch out half and leave the other half in place. God of War (2018) does this by keeping the same plot and character while changing the setting, theme, and tone, but it just as easily could have been a game about a new character seeking revenge against the Grecian gods. It’s not like Kratos killed all of them, after all; a sufficiently hungry studio could’ve dug up plenty more to populate a new cast. The reason they didn’t probably comes back to the numbers game: they didn’t think they’d bring in enough new players to replace the old ones they’d be alienating by cutting out Kratos while retreading tired narrative ground.
Once Santa Monica Studios figured out what elements they wanted to change, they made another smart decision by easing players into the changes. If you’ve played God of War: Ragnarok, you probably noticed that it has even more long conversations and more emotionally fraught plot points than God of War (2018). While such moments can be powerful in Ragnarok, it might have turned away players if God of War (2018) had opened with Thor’s daughter castigating him for his alcoholism or a Richard Schiff West Wing walk-and-talk. Even though these scenes work in Ragnarok, they represent the greatest departure from the roots of the franchise, which is why they’re buried deep in the meat of the sequel. God of War (2018) is more narrowly focused on Kratos and his son, as that initial tonal shift is less likely to drive off old fans than dense conversations with new characters. Anchoring the story on the familiar Kratos and his troubles eases players into a new paradigm while opening the doors for further changes later down the line.
God of War isn’t the first series to pull off a successful reboot, nor will it be the last. It’s even possible that at some point in the far-flung future, whoever owns the rights to God of War will decide to reboot it yet again in the hopes of pumping some numbers up. If they do, I hope they follow the path set out by the Santa Monica Studio team because it’s hard to argue with the results. As someone who loved the bombast of the old God of War games, I can’t say every moment of the reboot is for me, but I admire the ambition, and I respect the results. I can’t shrug off those sales numbers, either. If only every reboot went so well!
Liz Kelly, Editor-in-Chief
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Character flaws are internal obstacles for characters to overcome in pursuit of their goals.
Narrative Analysis: Sequels
Sequels are supposed to be low-risk and high-reward, but they still have to capture the elements that made the originals great.