I'm going to take the opportunity to say that this article discusses some key spoilers for God of War. Real end-game spoilers are brought up. The actual end of the game will be spoiled if you read this.
Quick, what do you think of when I say Thor? Or Loki? Or Odin? It's dreamy Chris Hemsworth and dreamy Tom Hiddleston and, uh, dreamy Anthony Hopkins, isn't it? And what about Baldr? It's probably nothing and no one, because he's not in the Marvel films. It's often said that there are no new stories, only old ones, which must be especially the case if you're rewriting myths that are hundreds of years old and putting them in a video game.
If you've played God of War you now know that Loki and Baldr ('Baldur' in the game) both have key roles in the story. With Loki most of already have a pop-culture preconception of what he is, but not so much with Baldr which is why, in my opinion, he makes a more interesting study. The Baldr of the game is the primary antagonist; he's threatening and self assured and a bit terrifying, and he chases Kratos and Atreus around Midgard. Baldr in the original myth is extremely different. So how do you get from the one to the other? The answer involves a lot of different shifting influences and processes. Of course, I'm not an expert in either the writing of God of War or Norse mythology. So instead I asked Rich Gaubert and Matt Sophos, the lead writers, and Dr. Jackson Crawford, an Old Norse specialist teaching at the University of Colorado, Boulder, previously at UC Berkeley and UCLA.
Dr. Crawford has published translations of The Poetic Edda and the The Saga of the Volsungs with The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok. I haven't done an exhaustive search, but I'm pretty sure if you did a venn diagram for the sets 'specialist in Old Norse', 'Crowdfunding YouTuber', 'Cowboy' and 'Could Be Hugely Successful on Weird Twitter' there would only be one person at the intersection, and he would be they. I sent him a selection of gameplay videos from God of War (having not played a game since approximately 2002, he expressed surprise that it didn't look more like Age of Empires II).
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Dr. Crawford described Baldr to me as being pure archetype; in the oldest sources we have, the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda, Baldr never even says anything. 'Baldr is a blank slate basically, in the Eddas. He has no speaking lines. We never hear his own voice,' Dr. Crawford explained. 'I think it's an interesting move to make him bitter about his immortality. Angry. Confrontational.'
In the Eddas, as in the game, Baldr's death is the first event that kicks off Ragnarok, but it's quite different (Dr. Crawford has, coincidentally, recently gone over it in a video). In very brief: Nobody wants Baldr to die, so his mother Frigg makes everything that exists, every single thing, including stuff like rocks and trees, promise to not harm him — except mistletoe. As soon as the gods discover nothing can harm him, their new favourite game becomes Throw Things At Baldr. Loki, in disguise, finds out about the mistletoe from Frigg and obtains a mistletoe spear, and then approaches Baldr's brother Hodr, who isn't playing Throw Things At Baldr because a) he doesn't have something to throw and b) he's blind; Loki remedies both by giving Hodr the spear and guiding his throw. Thus: dead Baldr. After he dies Baldr is almost allowed back from Hel, on the condition that everything weeps for his death – and everything does, except for a single giantess (who turns out to once again be Loki in disguise).
The scene in God of War portraying Baldr's death is markedly different, with Baldr accidentally impaling himself on the tip of a mistletoe arrow that was used to fix Atreus' quiver strap an hour earlier in the game. There's no involvement from a figure equivalent to Hodr; Loki is the only one involved but there's no specific intent around the mistletoe, and at that point we don't even know that Atreus is the game's version of Loki. Dr. Crawford told me that the Norse myths in the source material are filtered through various different interpretations before they end up on our screens, including 19th century mysticism and 20th century ideology, but also one he calls the 21st century action movie filter: 'Which is just "what looks cool on screen?" right? "How many explosions can we work into this?"'
Dr. Crawford noted, for example, that all the character seemed to be heavily tattooed, when in fact there's only one source from the middle ages that mentions Vikings being tattooed (from the Arabic writer ibn Fadlan). Dr. Crawford also tried to translate the runes that are tattooed across Baldr's back and, though they're written in Elder Futhark, wasn't able to; he found out that his colleague Maja Bäckvall was hired to write the runes for God of War, but her translations were changed – on Twitter she said it seems like they wanted the player to be able to transliterate them. Player before accuracy.
Up until they wrote what is probably going to remembered as one of Sony's greatest exclusives and is undoubtedly turning up on more than a few GOTY lists in 2018, Rich Gaubert and Matt Sophos were most known for writing, along with Orion Walker, Lost Planet 3, nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Videogame Writing by the Writers Guild of America (in the same year as The Last of Us, which I imagine felt a bit like being one of the lads nominated for Best Supporting Actor in the year Heath Ledger won). I spoke to them together, and they confirmed that they had to keep 'What would be cool to happen here?' in the back of their minds.
'That's game development,' said Sophos. 'When it all kind of seems to work together, that's when the best stuff comes out. We can service gameplay in a way that doesn't harm the narrative, and vice versa.' There are also practical considerations, though. The writers wanted the mistletoe breaking Baldr's invulnerability to be a surprise to the audience, so it must also be a surprise to Kratos and Atreus. But in keeping it a surprise, different versions of the scene where Atreus stabs Baldr with it deliberately required 'a lot of tacky kind of gymnastics' where Atreus had to somehow lose every other weapon at his disposal. In the way the scene plays out in the final game, Atreus also gets the chance to stand in front of and protect his father, a big moment in their relationship. Gaubert described many of the decisions in game dev as 'half creative and half practical.'
In terms of Baldr as a person, from the sources all we know is that he was really beautiful and everyone loved him; according to Dr. Crawford there aren't even real specifics on how he's beautiful, he just is. While that does mean that, in a way, any personality you give Baldr is equally as valid as any other, there's also a limit to that somewhere. 'I mean after all, if everything swore not to harm and everything wept to get him back from Hel, by implication that also includes all the gods' enemies. So he must have been someone who could reach across that aisle, right?' said Dr. Crawford. 'I think that speaks for a very positively viewed character, whatever his exact personality was. But the Baldr of this game seems to be someone I would not want to sit particularly close to in a bar.'
Sophos told me that the medieval sources were the starting point, but subversion was always part of it. 'It always kind of started with the foundations of the Prose and Poetic Eddas, and how Baldr was kind of characterised there: how do we take that and then turn it on its head.'
Gaubert explained there was an earlier version of the story that didn't feature Kratos and Atreus climbing to the highest peak to scatter Atreus' mother's ashes. 'It was a completely different story, but we had Freya in that story and we liked the depiction that we had of her in there – we always saw her as kind of this hippy in the woods, you know, a lot of blood and chicken bones in her magic,' he said. 'You wind up trying to make as many connections as possible between [characters], so it just felt very natural to make Baldr the bad guy there. The whole Frigg thing has always been a question in the legend.'
This is a reference to how, in the Eddas, there are two different women called Frigg and Freyja – Frigg is married to Odin and Baldr's mother, and Freyja is a Vanir god married to Odr. The Eddas, though they're the earliest source for the Norse myths, were written some two hundred years after the Norse gods were actually worshipped, and there is some academic speculation (including by Dr. Crawford) that they're one woman who has become separated. God of War reunites them again as Freya, and putting her together with Baldr sets up an important narrative tool.
'The way Rich and I like to write involves kind of creating clones for your main characters so that every bit of plot that goes on still reflects back to what the main characters are feeling,' said Sophos. Freya is a possible mirror of Kratos, firstly in how he could deal with trauma healthily (Freya chilling happily in the woods helping both wandering children and glittery pigs) and how he could pass on his own trauma to his son (Freya offering herself up to her son to let him strangle her to death because she has destroyed their entire relationship). 'To have Freya put a spell on Baldr to make him immortal because she fears for him was a very deliberate reflection of what happens with Kratos, and we wanted that idea of: the things you are doing to protect your child are harming them.'
The writing process is also informed by who is cast as each character. Gaubert said that once the actors had been cast he would write with their auditions on in the background to familiarise himself with their voices and mannerisms (Sophos wrote Baldr's scenes listening to things like the soundtrack from Jaws, and later the God of War track from Bear McCreary's music for the game). Baldr is mocapped and performed by Jeremy Davies, and he turns in a wonderful performance. The team had a lot of conversations with him early on – director Cory Barlog especially – but was given a lot of freedom to explore what he felt was interesting in the role. Sophos described what he brought to Baldr as 'really better than anything we could have put on the page.'
This is exemplified in a scene where Baldr is tormented in Hel by a vision of his past self confronting Freya for cursing him with immortality. 'That one was one of the more emotional scenes in the game and it was quite a challenge for the actors to get into that space,' said Gaubert. He and Sophos explained that Davies and Danielle Bisutti (Freya's actor) had to perform in mocap suits on a green stage working only with each other. Then Davies had to perform the scene again, but this time as the present day Baldr responding to his actions in the past. 'Jeremy has the added challenge of he's also playing Baldr before Baldr has had 100 years of invulnerability,' Gaubert said. 'So it's the character in a different space. A more sane, whole space.'
By the point we meet Baldr in the game Freya's spell of immortality has prevented him from physically feeling anything whatsoever for a hundred years. 'The element about Baldr not being able to feel anything is unique to the game,' said Dr. Crawford. 'I think that's kind of creative: the idea that if you're immortal maybe you take away some of the human-ness of being alive. It's creative, but it's not in the original sources.' For the writers this take on immortality both felt 'charged' and allowed Baldr's character be subverted from a myth in a way that also made sense for the narrative they needed.
'We knew we needed some angle on it, and we could have gone the route of the legend, which is more of the golden boy, and that's a perfectly valid way to go and I think it would have been interesting as well,' said Gaubert, 'but then he wouldn't serve as a mirror for the kid, so we had to twist him more.'
'Yeah we felt like if Baldr could have been a good god, and if this hadn't have happened then he could have gone down a totally different route,' added Sophos.
The route he does go down leaves Baldr emotionally broken and tormented, but also totally unafraid of anything that might happen to him. It means that Baldr can be intimidating without relying on being hundreds of times the size of Kratos. Sophos said that they always knew they wanted to make Baldr 'more of a quiet kind of bad guy' who is frightening by virtue of his personality and demeanour, as a contrast to the impossibly huge and loud enemies that Kratos fought in the past when the series was set in ancient Greece. I, and almost everyone I know who played it, assumed on Baldr's first appearance as The Stranger that he was Loki, because he's the Norse god bad guy we all know, and in God of War Baldr has a kind of gleeful tricksiness to him as well. The writers said they deliberately leaned into the fact that Kratos has an established history of screwing up the myths as we know them, so even if players spotted clues that Loki is actually Atreus ahead of his reveal, players would potentially put that in the territory of it being a God of War game and just go with it.
Dr. Crawford described his feelings towards pop culture portrayals of Norse gods and myths as 'ambivalent'. His field of study has become extremely popular (he now teaches a class of 180 every semester, and it's only limited to that because more can't fit in the classroom) and he believes things like the Marvel movies and the Vikings TV show contribute to that popularity — but it does mean that he has to be aware of what the current pop culture references are, so he can then correct those misconceptions in his students; 'The one that the Marvel movies have made popular is that the giants are these huge blue creatures.' Dr. Crawford did, at one point, wonder aloud if the devs were also distinctly aware of the stories that came before God of War. 'I wonder if maybe part of it is that they want to surprise people who might feel that Loki as the chief bad guy would be sort of same-old same-old.' He was, it turns out, correct; Sophos and Gaubert gave a resounding 'Oh yeah!' and 'Abosolutely!' when I asked if they were deliberately challenging the Thor good, Loki bad conceptions.
'That was something that Cory, right from the very beginning, was like, "That is not how Thor is in the myth. He's absolutely the opposite of everything Marvel ever shows about Thor. He's not hunky Chris Hemsworth. We're going to talk about him like he's the biggest asshole on the planet”,' said Sophos, 'And we did that kinda with everything.'
'I mean that subversion is just naturally built into the DNA of God of War because he is a god killer,' said Gaubert. 'So naturally if antagonists could be the gods you're going to wanna portray them as assholes so that you don't feel as bad about killing them. So that was certainly part of it as well.'
I did mention to Sophos and Gaubert that when you compare the game to the Eddas you can read the Norse myths as being Aesir propaganda put about by Odin, but was told, tantalisingly, that it was 'hard to talk about that one without potentially spoiling things for the next one… But that is an utterly valid interpretation… and we'll just leave it at that…'
There are certainly a lot of places for God of War to take the story in future. Gaubert and Sophos say they're particularly looking forward to sinking their teeth into Thor; I'm holding out hope for Baldr making a return because he's one of the only gods who is resurrected after Ragnarok (Gaubert and Sophos aren't sure what'll be done with Baldr in the future but would love to work with Jeremy Davies again in any capacity). Dr. Crawford is interested to see how they connect the World Serpent with Loki, because canonically he's Loki's child, and in the game it's referenced that the Serpent has come back in time and already met Loki in the future. 'It'll be interesting to see if they do that in the sequel — or if they change it around,' he said. 'Clearly the God of War universe is not going to be exactly like the Eddaic universe.'