As 2023 draws to a close, it has been a great year for video games and gamers.
It has been significantly less kind to the people who make games, with thousands of jobs lost across studio closures and layoffs, making it even more important to celebrate the wins and awesome measures that some teams have taken in supporting different games. Enter God of War Ragnarök: Valhalla.
The Sony Santa Monica development team behind God of War Ragnarök launched this DLC shortly after its announcement at the Game Awards. Touted as a roguelike mode, it's actually a story expansion — and it's completely free. This isn't just one of the best DLC launches of the year, it's a complete love letter to fans and the franchise, and I believe other teams, like at Xbox, would do well to pay attention to how it worked.
Note: The following contains some early spoilers for God of War Ragnarök: Valhalla's gameplay beats and characters.
The right way to build an ending
As a quick preface, Valhalla opens some time after the events of the main game, with Kratos inexplicably invited to the iconic realm of Norse afterlife and eternal battle. From there, he's robbed of his gear upgrade and armor, forced to rebuild his strength extremely slowly, while adapting to randomized pickups as he tries to push further and further into the secrets of Valhalla. On the face of it, it's a fairly standard roguelike setup, just adapted to suit God of War's gameplay. In practice, it's so much more.
Sony Santa Monica uses this scenario to examine Kratos' psychology. His past actions, violent and benevolent, are scrutinized and shown in a new light. With each run, bits of the past that were shrouded are revealed; through talking to Mimir, Freya, and especially fellow God of War Týr, we see something akin to high-energy therapy sessions unfolding, as Kratos is forced to confront and recontextualize his past deeds and even symbols, such as the Blade of Olympus.
As much as I enjoyed the original game — in my God of War Ragnarök review, I called it "a journey that is fun and harrowing in equal measure" — the ending felt just a little incomplete, like there was a final handful of scenes missing. Valhalla goes above and beyond fixing that, giving Kratos a full arc that still manages to tease some possibilities for the future.
God of War Ragnarök has sold over 15 million copies across PlayStation 4 and 5 since its launch back in Nov. 2022, and that's before a likely Windows PC port that could arrive in the future. It would've been totally understandable for Sony Santa Monica to go ahead and focus entirely on its next big projects, which are no doubt already underway.
Instead, the studio allowed a team to take a leap of faith in providing something fun and meaningful for everyone invested in this story and characters. It also would've been completely justifiable for PlayStation to release Valhalla as a paid DLC at $10 or $15, but the fact that it's entirely free is incredible.
Instead of charging for this epilogue of sorts, the developers at Sony Santa Monica have been able to gift players with something to enjoy in sheer celebration of the game itself. That's something I hope others, like teams at Xbox, will pay attention to.
A lesson for other teams to glean from
Obviously, not all DLC is made equal, and there's no way every single company can just give something out for free. Different metrics, studio and publisher needs, and a thousand economic variables go into these kinds of decisions. Indeed, I'm quite happy to pay for story DLC, and just at the top of mind, I'm eagerly awaiting Shattered Space, the first expansion for Starfield, which was recently confirmed to be launching in 2024.
My request is not "Please give something away for free" but instead, for different teams to look at why Valhalla resonates as such a strong offering altogether.
Halo is just one example of an Xbox franchise I'd love to see get a similar treatment. Halo Infinite has undergone a rocky road since launch, with developer 343 Industries facing content delays and many other problems, but the online service aspect of the game has been dramatically improving in the last few months. With things stabilized on that front, it would be awesome to see some sort of story DLC (paid, free, or both) to continue Master Chief's adventures.
Always improving, try after try
Ultimately, I'm happy we got this hearty addition to the God of War saga. I hope Sony Santa Monica feels happy with the response its latest launch has garnered so far, and I hope others across the gaming industry are looking in, trying to determine how they can do something similar. Inspiration and ideas sometimes just need a little push.
I'll see you all in Valhalla.
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