Alghrab is a one-of-a-kind alt.ctrl game, where you try to beat an arrogant animatronic crow at its own card game to earn a prophecy! Created with an entirely custom display table that doubles as storage, custom deck of playing cards, and over 200 voice lines, this animatronic crow comes alive to taunt, jeer, and poke fun at the player as they try to push through Alghrab’s web of tricks. With over 1700 combinations of fortunes, what will Alghrab see in your future?

Alghrab was created as an entirely solo project over the course of 8 months, with a voice actor hired later on in the development process to voice the crow.

I was inspired by the phrase “haunt an object”, where you take an ordinary object and breathe life into it as though a ghost was inhabiting the selected object. Alghrab started as a cheap halloween prop, that I stripped apart and augmented with brand new features and custom components.

The first version of Alghrab was a simple interactive fortune telling machince, since I knew that crows naturally played into mysticism and omens. However, I am extremely skeptical about any type of fortune telling or mysticism, so my solution was to create fortunes, but were fundamentally based off of facts about crows. This gave the fortunes a unique flavoring that can only be felt with this game, and inspired a lot of the bird’s personality and behavior.

From there, I took another look at the design, and constructed a simple card game based around detecting the crow’s lies, inspired by word games like Green Glass Door, while maintaining the fortunes and personality for the crow that had been developed.

Money Making Machine

Money Making Machine is a satirical card game where you manage the University of your dreams, rob your students of all their wealth, and steal your professors’ research for your own! Money Making Machine only requires a standard deck of cards to cheat your way to the #1 spot in the Princeton Review!

Print & Play Available Here!

Additionally, an digitally editable version of the University Sheet is available here!

If you don’t have a physical deck of cards or people to play with in person, you can also play this game using, or TableTopSimulator!

To play on, download this room template, then you should be able to play online!


Crescendo is a 2D combat action game, where you conduct a musical world around you through your actions. Travel through an eerie fairy tale world that is teeming with music and battle the monstrous personifications of an orchestra.

This game is available for FREE on itch!

This game was created by a team of 22 over the course of a year, developed completely remotely, with 15-30 minutes of gameplay depending on your success against the enemies! It was also selected to be shown at USC Games Expo 2021!

I was the Lead Designer for this project, and my primary contributions to the team was through Combat Design as well as Documentation. One of the main design constraints and design problems is that this game is centered around its music. So every boss needed to be timed specifically to music, but our team specifically didn’t want this game to be a rhythm game, so the player’s input could enter at any point, but it still had to sound pleasant.

Our design solution to this problem took inspiration from Peter and the Wolf, where each actor on screen has a musical “voice”, each playing the same song, but weaving in and out as the different actors performed certain actions.

I designed and iterated on all three boss fights in the game from the greybox stage to completion. Our combat needed to be slower and more methodical in order to give time for playtesters to identify that a new instrument voice was weaved into the sound.

I also managed and updated the design documentation that was used to communicate between team departments to maintain a similar vision. Click here to view a sample of this design documentation. The diagrams were made by the other designer on Crescendo – Carys Gooi.

Statistical Analysis of my Magic: The Gathering Cube as of War of The Spark


In order to gain a better understanding of the state of my cube and better learn how to improve various failings of the overall system, I analyzed my cube through comparative power and toughness across various CMCs. This method was selected over rigorous playtesting due to a lack of available play testers as well as reducing the variance in player skill level and preconceived perceptions of the cube.

Because of this analysis, the gameplay created from this designed system leads to an environment that rewarded incremental value and slower game plans, making fast and aggressive strategies far less viable than desired.


Magic: The Gathering is commonly abbreviated as Mtg or MTG and will be used as such throughout this paper. Additionally, this paper analyzes the structure of a larger system through various aspects of a MTG card. Specifically, the comparison between Converted Mana cost and the Power and Toughness of a single card.


            The Converted Mana Cost or CMC of a Magic: The Gathering card is found in the upper right hand corner of a card, and represents the total cost of resources that playing a card consumes. In the case of the Alpine Grizzly pictured above, it costs two resources – or mana – of any type, as well as specifically a green mana, for a total of three. As such, it’s CMC is three.

A creature’s Power and Toughness represent how strong the creature is, and is found in the bottom right hand side of a card. Specifically, the number on the left – power – represents how much damage the creature deals, and the number on the right – toughness – represents how much damage the creature can take before it dies.

Unless specified otherwise, creatures deal damage to each other simultaneously. In the event of our Alpine Grizzly, if it became engaged in combat with a creature with two power and two toughness, both would die. Similarly, if it became engaged in combat with a four power, four toughness creature, both would still die.

Finally, there is an important distinction between offense and defense within Magic: The Gathering. When on the offensive, each creature is an individual, but when defending, creatures can block as a group. For instance, a player on defense can pile fifteen creatures with one power and toughness each in front of a single creature with ten power and ten toughness.


Magic: The Gathering has many formats in which players can battle against each other using a common set of rules. One of these formats is called “Limited”, where the players must build decks from a limited set of MTG cards, hence the name. The way this functionally works is that players buy several packs of magic cards, and then build a single 40 card deck from only the cards they opened, and play against their peers who have completed the same task. There are many sub-genres within the limited Genre of Magic, but the focus of this paper is that of cube. A Magic: The Gathering Cube is a custom curation of MTG cards to create a unique system and environment for a specific style of gameplay. A cube changes the basic formula of limited, as players no longer need to physically purchase packs, but instead simulate packs through drawing from the Cube pool. While many cubes contain only the most powerful magic cards ever printed, many others vary drastically since a cube is custom to the creator, leading to many drastically different environments.

Specifically, my cube is only allowed to include common and uncommon rarity cards and is tailored to be a higher power level compared to most traditional sets, similar to that of a Masters Set. This allows me to showcase some of my favorite cards that are unfortunately not powerful enough for other formats of magic, or aren’t legal anymore. Additionally, this main restriction limits the complexity of the set, which is specifically tailored to my playgroup. Many of the other players that interact with this cube do not have prior experience playing Magic, so this allows for the creation of balanced play experiences, while still having large opportunities for memorable plays. Finally, on a practical standpoint, this, as well as several other restrictions, force me to be more creative with the cards that go into the cube.

My cube is designed to create a synergistic environment, with high choice and medium variance. As Mark Rosewater discusses regarding choice and variance in an article [1], experienced players prefer having high amounts of choice, and competitive prefer low variance, while inexperienced prefer high variance. As this cube is intended to be highly replay-able, the variance creates new situations every time it is played, while the choice creates more dynamic game states.

Furthermore, this cube attempts a heavily synergistic environment, where the combination of certain cards creates more powerful decks than what the card reads by itself. The danger of this type of construction is parasitism, where strategies have very little overlap with one another, greatly decreasing choice when constructing a deck. The most recent example of this effect in a traditional retail set was Ixalan. Ixalan was built as a Tribal set, where Pirates, Vampires, Merfolk, and Dinosaurs fought against one another. The problem was that each tribe had no mechanical overlap with each other, so any Merfolk in a Dinosaur deck weren’t particularly useful. As Nico Bohny says on Channel Fireball, “Ixalan is a draft format without real draft decisions” [2]. This discontent was not felt just from the professionals, but across the player base, with many citing it as one of the worst limited sets for a while. Additionally, the parasitic nature of the cards meant that very few competitive decks throughout Ixalan’s legality in a different format saw any play at all.

For the purpose of this analysis, I observed the power and toughness for cards across all converted mana costs to observe the relative strength and speed of my cube’s format. In magic, there are three large archetypes across any set, which are Aggro, Midrange, and Control, each of which prioritize different strategies to winning. Aggro decks are singularly focused on killing the opponent as fast as possible, and necessitate a large number of cards at one and two CMC. Midrange look to maximize value out of every card that they play, attempting to get more than a single card’s worth of value out of every card. Finally control decks look to abandon the early game, for the sake of overwhelming the other decks in the late game through sheer quantity of resources.

Each of these three archetypes are akin to that of rock-paper-scissors, where Midrange will usually beat Aggro, Aggro will usually beat control, and control will usually beat midrange. However, if there is an imbalance in this triangle, the most rock-like deck will win on average the highest percentage of the time. This became a concern of mine after observing matches taking longer and longer to play to completion.


For this analysis, I organized every card within the cube that created power and toughness, then plotted the difference between offense and defense in Excel, creating a bar-and-whisker graph. Each quadrant in a bar-and-whisker graph represents 25% of the sampling, and single dots qualify as outliers.

As mentioned previously in Terminology, some cards generate multiple creatures per card. These were assigned as multiple instances of their respective power and toughness while attacking, and a single instance of combined power and toughness while defending. For instance, a two CMC card that makes two creatures with one power and one toughness would count as two instances of one power and one toughness while attacking, and one instance of two power and two toughness while defending.

Although this distinction may not completely accurately reflect the ramifications of having multiple creatures from a single card, it presents a decent approximation. Furthermore, other limitations of this analysis include the exclusion of abilities in combat. Examples of these abilities include but are not limited to: first strike, flying, trample, menace, activated abilities, and deathtouch. These abilities change both offence and defense, but were not included within the scope of this analysis.



The first immediate conclusion from this statistical analysis is the impact of cards that generate multiple creatures, and how they change the implications of the closed system when. Across every CMC, the power and toughness of creatures are both reduced by about .25 when attacking as compared to blocking. Although this does not initially appear as a significant difference, this difference is amplified during gameplay.

For instance, when comparing cards of equal CMC, the attacking card usually dies, while the blocking creature usually survives. This is true across every CMC. This greatly disincentivizes attacking, as the aggressive deck will usually lose their creature,  preventing them from actually killing the player. This is then amplified if the aggressive deck is playing second. Most cards in Magic: The Gathering cannot attack the same turn that they are played, so if the aggressive player is going second, the defending player will have a card of one additional CMC to block with. In this situation, the attacker’s creature will virtually always die, and the defender’s creature will virtually always survive. In fact, the only way for an aggressive deck to gain an advantage in sheer power and toughness is if the defensive deck misses a resource, and cannot play a card with the next CMC.

The implications of this power/toughness imbalance only allows for aggro decks to exist if they have a large quantity of spells to continuously remove their opponent’s creatures. This then reduces the number of creatures that exist within the aggressive player’s deck, meaning that there were fewer creatures that the midrange and control decks had to remove before taking over the game state against the aggro decks. As such, any medium to high powered creature played later in the game often lacked an answer from the aggressive player, enabling those handful of cards to quickly take over the game state. This is the reason that previously cut cards from the cube such as Snare Thopter, Cinder Elemental, Tatyova Benthic Druid, and Rakshasa Gravecaller all felt far more powerful than they immediately appeared. Without an appropriate answer from the opposing player, these cards would quickly take over a game within a matter of two or three turns.

Furthermore, the lack of effective offensive individual cards placed a larger emphasis the cards that can make multiple creatures such as Jade Mage, Murmuring Mystic, and Belfry Spirit. When the individual cards cannot attack profitably, creating so many creatures that the opponent physically couldn’t block all of them was one of the few ways left to effectively deal damage to opponents. This importance of cards like these lead players of the cube to frequently complain about the strength of them, when the underlying issue was not just the strength of these cards.

The perceived issue of these cards was then compounded with the general type of spell used to remove your opponents creatures. Most of these removal spells were spot removal effects, which only removed a singular creature on the board. When a singular card creates two creatures, if the opponent spends an entire card to deal with one of the two, they essentially used an entire card to remove only half of yours. This meant that tokens were a powerful strategy for the midrange strategies, further weakening aggressive strategies. Furthermore, the best answers to token strategies are not very effective against the other cards in the cube. There are some cards that give all creatures minus two power and toughness, but these were unwanted by the aggressive decks, and didn’t have much efficacy against the other individual creatures. Specifically, 75% of 1 drops, 50% of 2 drops, 50% of 3 drops, and only 25% of four drops would die to this type of effect, meaning many of these cards would not see play at all, yet were still effective against the aggressive decks.


In order to reduce the imbalance found within the cube, and to provide more to ensure aggressive decks are viable, an overall reduction of creature’s toughness across all CMCs is needed. Specifically, an increase in the number of three mana creatures with three power and two toughness would lead to an increase in aggressive strategies. In particular, it makes aggressively designed one and two CMC cards become more relevant, as a two power one toughness creature will still kill a three mana three power two toughness creature. This ensures that these one CMC creatures will not become irrelevant until much later in the game. Additionally, a three-power creature will end the game in only 7 turns of attacking, instead of 10 turns like that of a two-power creature.

The other impact of increasing the number of three-power two-toughness creatures is that it makes larger creatures more viable as well. A four-power four-toughness creature against two two-power three-toughness creatures cannot effectively attack, since only a single 2/3 will die in exchange for the 4/4. Against 3/2s however, both 3/2s will die in exchange for the single 4/4. This idea is supported by Ari Lax on his block, where he also advocates for the “average” creature to be worth three power and two toughness [3].

Specific investigation will have to proceed to determine which cards to replace with others. This investigation however, revealed how important small adjustments to a system can be, and the rippling ramifications of a slight imbalance in a system. Mathematical analysis of a closed system can provide insight to which components are over or under performing in relation to the others, as well as reveal underlying reasoning behind feedback that you receive as a designer.


Thank you for reading.



[1] Rosewater, Mark. “Variance, Part 1.” Making Magic, Magic: The Gathering, 16 Dec. 2019,

[2] Bohny, Nico. “28 Days Later: Ixalan Limited.” ChannelFireball, ChannelFireball, 2 Nov. 2017,

[3] Lax, Ari. “Limited Design: 3/2 For Three Is the Place to Be.” Less Practical Magic, 17 Jan. 2019,

Magic: The Gathering Cube Articles

“A cube is a large collection of (often powerful) cards used for drafting and playing Limited. Drafting a cube is similar to drafting booster packs, but instead of drafting from three fifteen-card Magic booster packs, you draft from fifteen-card “packs” that you create from your cube.” – Melissa DeTora

I have maintained a cube of my own made up of only Commons and Uncommons for over four years now, and have come to a lot of thoughts about designing for an environment as unique as cube, which I have turned into articles!

In particular, The Ultimate Guide To Jumpstart Cubes was officially published on CubeCobra!

A Statistical Analysis to Help Balance a Cube

The Ultimate Guide To Jumpstart Cubes

Fouroh’s Tomb

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Fouroh’s Tomb is a tile-placement secret traitor game where you must construct the tomb for the Pharaoh before they die! Build enough good symbols to guide their spirit to the afterlife and not be trapped forever! However, one of you workers is a traitor and trying to sabotage the tomb! Find out who it is and prevent too much harm before it’s too late!

Fouroh’s Tomb was created for an introductory game design class in a team of 3. The game came from ideation to the final product in two weeks, and had 10 documented playtests. I was chiefly in charge of Ideation, Itteration, Playtesting, and Rules. Fouroh’s Tomb was designed with several constraints in mind. The game had to have: tile placement or building, involve a secret traitor, and have memory be an integral aspect of the game. This game achieved all of those constraints highly successfully.

All 40 square room tiles are double sided, half with bad, half with good. However, only the person placing the tiles knows what they constructed. Since the other players don’t know what is on the underside of each tile, the traitor then can lie about what they built in order to not be caught.

Furthermore, the rooms have a varying number of entrances, which leads to extremely interesting gameplay. This is because players can either quarenteen themselves or others in order to garentee safe tiles or guarentee bad ones.

Players also CANNOT replace tiles that they have placed themselves, which makes memory even more important, since you have to remember who placed what tiles as well as what they said they were.

Finally, players still are not without opportunity to figure out the traitor, using a special ability to look whether the tile they are on is either safe or bad, and then they can reveal that information to the other players verbally. This then allows the traitor to try and place the blame on another player.

Click here to read the rulebooklet.

The name came from balancing the game, where all numbers being four lead to a fun game.


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TreeFall is a dexterity based team game where you race another organization to grow your section of the Amazon Rainforest to the investor’s demands! Grow as fast as possible or take the time to Grow trees to withstand the elements, but your competitors will have ways to mess with your forest!

TreeFall was created as a solo project for an introductory game design class. The art, box, rules, materials, playtesting, documentation, and gameplay was all created within the span of three weeks. TreeFall went through 13 documented playtests. I created TreeFall with the goal of making the players feel stressed. I achieved this through a variety of factors, but primarily through the gameplay. Many games create a feeling of stress as the players get closer to the end of the game, so I knew I wanted to create a negative feedback loop to keep the players close together so one team doesn’t just pull ahead. In order to achieve this negative feedback loop, I first made the game a best-of-three so that a team that falls behind has a good chance to catch up. Furthermore, I created “Weather Cards”.

These “Weather Cards” allow one team to mess with the opponent’s forest to set them back a bit. These increase tension by themselves as they are hidden from the opponent with certain conditions that must be met. As such, not knowing when the opponent uses their Card increases the tension. Furthermore, the team that lost is given an additional Weather Card in the second round, making it more likely that they win the second round and bring it to a final game.

Additionally, the team-based competitiveness of the game also increases the tension, as actually manipulating the wooden blocks is awkward, and the players must use their non-dominant hand, leading to less stable trees.

TreeFall includes: 52 Stained wooden blocks, 2 Plots of land, 8 Weather Cards, 8 Ideal Forest Cards, and a Rule Booklet.

TreeFall would go on to become Tiny Trees.

Click here to read the rulebooklet.

Tiny Trees Post Mortem

An integral part of designing a game is following user-centric principles and iterating in order to provide the player with the best possible experience. However, some games have difficult components that are expensive in both money and time in order to iterate upon. This was the case with the game that I am the lead developer on that will be on Kickstarter later this year. Tiny Trees is a competitive Tree-building board game where unlike a large number of board games, it doesn’t lie flat on your table, but instead becomes a physical object in three dimensions. As you grow your tree, you have to try to earn the maximum number of points while also literally balancing your tree so it doesn’t collapse.


The game consists of 42 hexagonal cards that you slot together in order to grow a physical three dimensional tree. It was extremely time consuming to iterate on these components since the prototype needed high quality cardstock and had to be cut out by hand and individually drawn on. As such, the design process had to be predicated more on math and statistics rather than continuous playtesting in order to not waste valuable resources.

We had to determine what arrangement of cuts in the cards we wanted. The very first prototype had cuts on all six sides of the hexagonal cards, but I found myself growing roughly the same tree every time since there was no restrictions on what I could grow. Additionally, if each side of the hexagon had only one slit to reduce complexity, each side would have only two states: cut and not cut, represented below with a six digit binary equivalent.


When that six digit binary equivalent is converted to our standard ten digit unit of numbers, that gives a total of 63 possible arrangements of cuts on the hexagonal cards. However, this does not account for rotations or mirrored images. For instance, the leftmost hexagon shown above is still functionally identical when rotated 60 degrees. As such, when accounting for this repetition, there are in fact only 12 unique designs.

Although this number of unique designs seems innocuous, it was significant in my process since it established what could or could not be done with the cards. While we could create cuts that weren’t centered on each side of the hexagon or multiple cuts on one side, having knowledge of what options were available to us allowed for accurate design.

On a similar note, designer Mark Rosewater has repeatedly said that “restrictions breed creativity”, and I found that to be exceptionally true (Source). In the case of Tiny Trees, the very first paper prototype had cuts on all six sides. However, this did not lead to building any interesting trees since players would default to what they were familiar with rather than going out on a limb and trying a new structure. At the opposite end of the spectrum, if all of the cards had only two cuts, the players wouldn’t have enough choice in what they could grow. Having all of the cards with only two cuts didn’t provide enough options to the player, and six cuts provided too many, so the ideal must be somewhere in between. In the final version, there are five cards with two cuts, four cards with four cuts, and two cards with six cuts for each of three types of trees. We decided on this arrangement for three reasons: It gives an average of roughly 3.29 cuts per card, each number of cuts had a total roughly equal to 12 – the exception being the cards with two cuts – and the distribution of the values was appealing since each level has one fewer card. Additionally, by having more cards with only two cuts, it allowed the trees to become more interesting while the higher number of cuts allowed players to still have sufficient options in growing and balancing their tree.


While this math for achieving the average number of cuts per card (in which you add the total and then divide by the number of cards) is very simple, it still influenced our design decisions. Since we were aware of the average number of cards as well as the specific distribution, it gave us a much clearer understanding of the system that was in place and how that affected the player’s perception of the game. This in turn allowed us to quickly fix and understand any underlying issues that arose in playtesting. For instance, we were able to identify that even though playtesters didn’t directly address an issue with the distribution of number of cuts, we were able to more accurately identify it as the underlying issue due to the knowledge of the distribution.

At the end of a game of Tiny Trees, players earn points based primarily on two factors: the hexagonal cards that they grew onto their tree, and lifeforms that are also found on the cards. We added the lifeforms to increase the strategic depth of the game, as well as make the decisions more interesting.


The three types of lifeforms: Beetles, Mushrooms, and Birds

From the player’s perspective, without an additional incentive, there was little reason in selecting the cards with fewer cuts since it restricted their growth and made balancing their tree more difficult. By adding lifeforms as a mechanic, we had to balance three main factors: the number of lifeforms, the distribution of lifeforms, and the amount of points that the lifeforms were worth. In order to achieve this through math due to the limitations of our ability to iterate, we used a hypergeometric calculator liberally in determining these factors. Hypergeometric calculators are often used in card games where you draw some number of cards and then want to know the odds for drawing a certain card. In this context, we wanted to know and be able to control the odds more precisely rather than just intuition. An important design decision that we had made previous to adding lifeforms was that each option available to the player should be of equal value to a similar decision. This comes from the number of cards for each type of tree being completely equal, even to the distribution of number of cuts. Thus, we wanted to do the same for lifeforms, but be willing to alter that methodology given the numbers and math behind them. As such, we needed three types of lifeforms and more than one of each. We ended up settling on six of each type of life form, separated evenly between each type of tree. The advantage to this is that if a player wants to grow their tree with all of the birds available to them, then they aren’t shoehorned into one specific type of tree.

When it comes to the math, that means that roughly 43% of all of the cards have lifeforms, and that there is a 45% chance that exactly one of the top three cards that the players can choose from will have a lifeform, and a 25% chance that none will have a lifeform. Obviously that percentage changes as more cards are selected, but this knowledge helped us quickly refine the game – similar to the knowledge of the distribution of cuts. When it comes to what cards have the lifeforms, we focused on the cards with fewer cuts on them. Our reasoning was that if lifeforms are worth additional points, then the players should be incentivised for restricting their growth options, but not so much that it is obviously better than the ability for options and balancing your tree.

Then came the question of how many points should each lifeform be worth. Since the cards reward you for collecting more of the same type, so should the lifeforms. However, the scaling of points can be either linear or exponential. We decided on an exponential growth model, so that players are incentivised to collect the same type, but that collecting them incidentally doesn’t have that large of an impact on the overall point total. Specifically, the first two are worth one point each, the next two are worth two points each, and then the final two are worth three points each.

By designing our game while taking the numbers into consideration rather than just working off of intuition, we didn’t have to playtest or iterate on our designs as much as we would have to if we only gathered data from reactions from playtesting. While using this math obviously doesn’t eliminate the importance of playtesting and iteration, we were able to save a lot of time and resources from creating additional paper copies of the hexagonal cards and allowed each playtest to be more efficient since we were able to more accurately identify underlying issues and needed balance changes.

Magic: the Gathering Cube

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For those who do not know, a M:tG Cube is a curated list of Magic: The Gathering cards to create a unique environment to play games of Magic. These curated lists are similar to be played like ordinary sets, where players open packs of cards and play games of magic using just the cards they opened. However, since cubes are curated lists, the powerlevel of cards can be much higher than what is found in normal sets, or create wild environments that also wouldn’t be seen in an ordinary set.

My cube is designed to feel similar to an ordinary set in terms of composition, but slightly higher power level than the average magic set.

The cube originated from a pile of excess cards that I had lying around, and I’ve been continuously updating it for one and a half years at this point, ensuring balance between each viable strategy.

The cube has 10 explicit strategies, with over 20 possible specific strategies that are viable and can win. With only 375 cards in the cube, nearly every card must fit into multiple strategiees in order to make the inclusion, while also being of a high enough power level to be considered in the first place.

To see the full list of cards, please click here.

The Impact of Level Design on Gameplay

God of War released for the PS4 in April of 2018 to massive critical acclaim. It is one of the most sold games on PS4, selling over 3.1 million copies in its first three days (Quizilbash). God of War 4 tried to distance itself from its previous iterations, focusing more on story and exploration than its predecessors. In fact, Rob Davis, the Lead Level Designer for God of War 4, said in a lecture at USC that the game has three central pillars: exploration, narrative, and combat. Despite pulling God of War into a new direction, many elements within the game are made as concessions to the established audience so God of War 4 doesn’t feel too foreign. These concessions and usage of the three pillars are most evident in the level design, since the level design determines the affordances given to the player.

God of War 4 largely succeeded in creating a sense of exploration and providing incentive to explore. Comparing God of War to Horizon: Zero Dawn elucidates this success, as both games strive to create similar experiences in terms of the three pillars. The presentation of the two respective maps as shown below immediately elucidates the differences in the level design between these two games. 


Fig 1: World map from God of War 4 (left) and Horizon: Zero Dawn (Right)

Despite being an open world game, Horizon: Zero Dawn does not encourage exploration. The blackness at the edges of the world map in comparison to the fog of war in God of War is a perfect example of discouraging exploration. This harsh darkness quite clearly tells the players that there is nothing to explore in that direction, since the entirety of the world can be clearly seen through color. However, God of War’s foggy map border implies there might be another zone for the player to explore if they just find the right entrance. Furthermore, the map is far more granulated in Horizon, and has every location of interest clearly labeled. Again, this subtly tells the players that there isn’t anything of interest between these labelled points, since if it were interesting, it would have a label. In God of War however, the lack of granularity further suggests increased possibility, and that you have to look around to find the points of interest within each of the larger areas.

God of War also quite literally rewards exploration, where if the player wanders off the path a little, they recieve rewards that then make gameplay easier. However, this is completely optional and players can complete the game without needing to explore every nook and cranny. In Horizon: Zero Dawn however, the player receives either no reward or a small fragment of background narrative for exploring every cranny. This further disincentives the player to explore, since exploration does not help the player with combat or the direct narrative of the protagonist. Since the exploration in God of War is intentionally limited in its scope, exploration is more satisfactory for players as it’s only a small diversion from the main progression.

The other point that made exploration so successful in God of War was the Metroidvania style of exploration that the world provided. Throughout the game, players would unlock new abilities, which then allows the player to explore more of the world and gain access to more resources. This was made even more successful since the short side paths to the main level flow were often gated by obviously distinct elements that the player hadn’t been taught yet. Upon returning to the areas with increased knowledge, the possibilities of play are vastly increased. The failure of these mechanics is that not all of the affordances offered by a new skill created interesting puzzles. For instance, when the player unlocked the chisel, its sole function is to act as a key for a select handful of doors. This mechanic in particular did not create interesting puzzles, as it didn’t interact with other abilities. Since not every mechanic was as important in the exploration of the world, this reduced the desire to explore previously unlocked content again, the newer abilities did not unlock that much new content, and thus players did not feel rewarded. If some of these abilities created more interesting scenarios by using their affordances, it would have increased the investment in the later half of the game, where the game becomes a bit of a slog.

The earlier portion of the game was made even more interesting due to the integration of narrative and level design. This comes through most clearly in the boat, where Kratos or Mimir tell various stories, which humanizes all of the characters, and establishes a more genuine connection between the player and the characters. This also allows the player to understand the characters better and roleplay as them more effectively. If it were not for these stories and connection building, Atreus’s rebelling and moodiness in the latter third of the game would have felt less genuine and not affected the player as much, nor the moment when Kratos calls Atreus son at the very end of the game.

One area where level design failed the narrative of the game is through instances in the visual language of the game. God of War has a very clear design for where you can and where you cannot traverse since the player is incapable of jumping. This is usually very effective and for the most part succeeds in informing the player of what they can do in a given area. However, this occasionally fails. One instance in particular is in the River Pass as shown below.


Fig.2 : A failure of the visual language in God of War

This area in particular fails on several levels. The intention is that you throw Atreus up on the right in the small alcove, where he then walks across over to the left, where he kicks down a chain for Kratos to climb up. The first failure is through lighting. The area on the left is far more brightly lit than the intended first correct area on the right. Players are naturally drawn towards light in games, so players are more likely to try and interact with the section on the left before looking around elsewhere. The second failure is that of texturing, where similar to the issue of lighting, the markings on the left are made far more obvious than those on the right, further obfuscating the correct path. This design was most likely executed in this manner to make traversing this area after the chain was dropped more intuitive, as the path the player can actually traverse is more obvious than the path to solve the puzzle. However, this decision was most likely made before lighting on the chain itself was finalized, as most chains glint in the light which would have provided enough visual direction when returning to this area alongside the white pip indicating an interactable.

Finally, the largest failure of this area is that it breaks the player’s immersion. In this area, the right where you throw Atreus up and where the chain drops from are the exact same height. Since both of these are the same height, it doesn’t follow diegetically why Kratos can throw Atreus up on the right, but not the left, where Kratos could also overthrow Atreus to have him land on top of the platform.. As such, this puzzle feels especially contrived, rather than a reasonable outcome resulting from actual people. Raising the left side with the chain another meter or two would fix this issue by making it more obvious that the player cannot interact with it in the same way as the right. Breaks in immersion such as this one occurs several times throughout the game, where Kratos and Atreus can perform amazing physical feats at some points, but at other times are completely incapable of actions of similar magnitude. Although God of War heavily relies on metrics for level design, more nuanced metrics would avoid breaks in the immersion, making Kratos a more believable character.

There are three fights in particular besides boss fights that are especially interesting and stand out from the entirety of the game. Shown below, these three fights are in Tyr’s Hall, in the River Pass, and on the ship escaping from Helheim. 


Fig. 3: Three especially memorable and interesting fights

The element that made all three of these fights interesting and more memorable than the vast swath of generic fights is that the player must consider and play around an element besides enemies that the player has defeated many times over at this point. In Tyr’s hall, the flame geysers forced the player to alter their positioning or take a significant amount of fire damage. There were also ranged enemies spawning at the end of several trapped hallways, so the player had to either tempt the enemies back into the hallway or make their way through dodging both enemy attacks and the traps. In the River Pass, a fight breaks out under a spiked ceiling that drops down unless the player uses their main weapon to keep it up. This again presented the player with interesting decisions as the player had to play around this element. They could give up the leviathan axe to keep the ceiling up and punch enemies to death, occasionally stop fighting to manage the height and leave themselves open for counter attack, or attempt to bring the ceiling down to crush the enemies. Finally, the fight on top of the boat in Helheim added a secondary “loss” condition, forcing the player to pay attention to another factor or replay the fight. By trying to protect just one fire, the player quickly becomes nearly overwhelmbed by enemies, but splitting your attention between both piles leaves the player themselves vulnerable to the enemies. Furthermore, the grappling hooks physically changed the space of the fight by limiting where the player could walk, further making the battleground itself dynamic.

Fights like these three encounters also help the narrative of God of War by either literally being a plot point in the case of Helheim, but by better showcasing the characterization of Kratos and Atreus. While it makes sense that Kratos would not run away from a combat after its been started since that’s against his character, throughout the storytelling of the game, Kratos is shown as an intelligent character. In terms of storyline, Kratos’ ability to problem solve, such as the escape from Helheim, displays this intelligence. The level design reinforces this intelligence through the puzzles that Kratos solves throughout the game, and the aforementioned especially notable fights. In these three fights, the player can think creatively about how to engage in fights rather than mindlessly mashing. However, this is not true for most generic fights. While it makes sense for Kratos in Spartan Rage to feel more button-mashy, the more mindless fighting towards the end of the game doesn’t match the intelligence shown in Kratos through the other elements of the game. The more unique fights require more significantly more narrative work and setup, but provide a more engaging combat experience for the player through increased variance in play.

However, the largest failure of the level design in God of War is the concentration of these interesting combat scenarios, so many of the fights blend into each other and are unmemorable. The vast majority of the combats throughout the game are designed to be gladiatorial style engagements, where Kratos fights against a handful of enemies at a time, trapped in a flat small circular area. The final boss of the game, every Valkyrie, Realm Tears, and most generic fights all follow this same pattern. While this isn’t necessarily an unwelcome style of combat, the overuse of this singular type causes many of the fights to feel identical, and thus lack interest. This was most likely implemented to appeal to the established God of War player base, as older games from the series followed this hack and slash style gameplay. However, many enemies towards the end of the game don’t pose any significant threat to the player, so fights without any additional factor for the player to think about develop into an interference. 

In addition to the disconnect between narrative and combat, a similar disconnect exists between exploration and combat. While simply exploring the world leads to more combat encounters, many of the mechanics introduced as part of the Metroidvania style exploration lack combat integration. While Axe Throws, Chaos Blades, Shock Arrows, and Light Arrows have utility in fights, Light Crystals, Winds of Hel, Glowvines, and the Chisel were never included as a part of combat, while throwable Sap Crystals were only used in one combat, which was against Hraezlyr. In addition to these exploration mechanics not being integrated, combat arenas often exclude movable set pieces, such as the pulley system on the path to Asgard Tower. If the player had access to use any of these elements more creatively in combat, fights towards the end of the game could have been more varied and unique in their execution, and thus more memorable. 

As an alternative to creating more dynamic combat environment, the level design could have allowed for more varied styles of play. Since the majority of combats take place in close range gladiatorial fights, the player often does not have enough space effectively take advantage of axe throws, especially the Hunter-Killer series. This issue is made more apparent when many enemies are either immune to axe throws or dodge them, further reducing the utility in throwing your axe in combat. Furthermore, since many enemies appear after you enter the arena, Kratos cannot attack from any significant distance to pick enemies off one by one. While some enemies, such as Ancients, require a mixture of abilities to defeat, more enemies could have used this mixture of abilities to defeat, especially later in the game. If God of War had more unique weapon attack combos or enemies that required different approaches to defeat, it would further increase the interest in each and every fight, as the player would have to think about more factors towards the end of the game as they become more skillful and have the mental capacity to process the greater number of factors.

As a whole, the level design and visual language created in God of War is amazing and delivers upon the three pillars of exploration, narrative, and combat. However, the lack of variation in level design of fights, and failure to use all of the affordances of mechanics causes the later portion of the game to feel grindy rather than new, engaging, or exciting.


Quizildash, Asad. “God of War Sells Over 3.1 Million Units in 3 Days, Becomes Fastest-Selling PS4 Exclusive.” PlayStation.Blog, 3 May 2018,