Assembling Marvel’s Avengers: Thor

How did Crystal Dynamics ensure Thor feels like the God of Thunder?
By Duncan Heaney

The guiding philosophy for Marvel’s Avengers was that every playable hero would be so satisfying and mechanically rich that they could theoretically carry the game single-handedly. This was obviously no problem for Thor - after all, he is mighty.

That said, the character did pose Crystal Dynamics a number of challenges during development, starting with the story itself.

According to Marvel’s Avengers Creative Director Shaun Escayg, Thor was one of the more difficult characters to get into the world of the game. He says: “The goal was to create a tale that focused on each hero’s vulnerabilities and humanity - but Thor’s so powerful and fantastical, I had to ask myself: what’s his weakness?

“Well, it’s his insecurity. Behind his bravado, Thor constantly struggles with his sense of self-worth. He’s forced to juggle his responsibilities to his people, and the Avengers, and questioning whether he can live up to his father Odin or come out of his shadow. He has to constantly ask himself: am I worthy?”

Marvel’s Avengers opens with a tragedy that forces him to confront the question directly: A-Day. What should be a day of celebration becomes a nightmare, as an attack on San Francisco leads to the destruction of the city, and the death of Captain America. That loss in particular proves devastating for Thor.

Escayg explains: “There are few people in Midgard that Thor respects more than Steve Rogers. He’s the one human that he would follow into battle without question, so when Cap dies he feels responsible. He let down the man he trusts most - and who trusted him.

“Plus Thor struggles with his family - his father, his descendants, even his brother. He always worries that he doesn’t measure up. The Avengers are also like family to him, but he failed to protect the head of that family.”

“So Thor’s battle with his own worthiness is a big part of the story of the game.”

The Man and the God

With Thor’s arc planned out, the team next had to nail his personality. There have been a few different takes on the character over the years, and a lot of people on the team brought their own expectations about the character into the project.

“There was a lot of internal discussion about our version of Thor,” recalls Escayg. “Everyone had opinions over who he was - some people grew up on the sort of otherworldly, almost Shakespearean Thor from the early comics, while others were more familiar with the more casual Thor of the movies, where he’s more acclimatized with humanity.”

Ultimately, the team decided to focus on Thor as an Asgardian with a more modern-sounding dialogue, while still making him sound more than human.

Escayg says: “He has that regal bearing, and nobility as an Asgardian. But also on Earth he’s an outsider. He’s still got that arrogance, confidence and bluster you’d expect from the character, but it’s tempered with a little hesitation - he’s still not fully comfortable with his place in our world yet.”

Initial planning

In terms of gameplay, Lead Combat Designer Vince Napoli and his team had a very clear vision for Thor from the very beginning. They wanted to capture the full range of Thor’s abilities - and combine them organically.

Napoli says: “We also wanted to make sure that Thor wasn’t purely about simply wielding a powerful hammer. Thor is so much more than Mjolnir, and we really leaned into that when creating his combat style.

“Yes, you can do a lot with Thor’s hammer, but he’s also the God of Thunder - as far as we were concerned, both elements should have equal footing in terms of gameplay. Marvel agreed - in fact, they were quite enthused about this interpretation of the character and the options it presented, so we were motivated and relieved that we were on the right track.”

The First Hammer Strike

Even so, the team did have to start the work somewhere, and they decided to initially focus on Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir.

“Early on, we focused intensely on what Mjolnir does when it hits the enemy,” says Napoli. “We all know what it should do - when Thor swings his hammer at someone, it should essentially carry them off into the sunset!

“We wanted to capture that fantastical feel and make the weapon worthy of the name. So we invested a lot of time, energy and technology into developing this core system that lets you ‘pin’ things to the hammer.

“And it works! We can literally pin anything to it. So at a basic level, you can throw it at an enemy and stick them to the wall!”

That may sound a little familiar to fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As Napoli explains: “We took direct inspiration from the first Thor movie - particularly the scene when he uses Mjolnir to pin Loki to the ground. That simple moment sparked ideas for all sorts of crazy combat moves.”

“For example, it’s also dynamic so if you line it up correctly, you can pin an enemy with Mjolnir, and if it hits another enemy it’ll bring them into the group too. You can basically create a little pile of enemies, with the hammer sticking them to the ground.”

“That was really the starting point for us. Mjolnir acted exactly as you expect it to, and it felt authentically ‘Thor.’ It gave us a target to strive for - from that point everything the character did had to feel just as good.”

The God of Thunder

Things got even more interesting when the team started exploring Thor’s mastery of lightning. Thor is able to harness the power of thunder at any time, and that proved to be the true key to his playstyle.

Napoli says: “We quickly realised that players should be able to tap into that power at any point, and use it in smart and tactical ways. So, while you can use it to hurt enemies, you can also use it defensively.

Say, for example, you see an enemy behind while you’re in the middle of an attack. With a push of a button, you can strike them with lightning without even changing direction, and maintain your current assault. Not only is it practical, and fits Thor’s character, it also just looks fundamentally cool.

Not everyone was on board with this free use of powers though. According to Napoli, “It was actually something we had to sell the team on - the idea of using Thor’s lightning powers defensively as well as offensively.

“There was the assumption that Thor should have to enter a block stance to fend off incoming hits - using powers as defence in this way is kind of a foreign concept. But as we built out the character, and experimented with using his powers to fend off attacks, it just felt more… godly.”

Bringing It All Together

The final piece of the puzzle was to bring all of Thor’s abilities together. The combat team didn’t want a hard divide between using the hammer and using electricity - for the full ‘Thor’ experience, everything should flow together.

“It took some work - a lot of refinement - but we made it so that the player has total control over lightning, and can use it to modify their attacks.

“So, for example, you could take a single swing with the hammer, or you could do the more godly swing that hits enemies with lightning and launches them into the air. That’s not something that’s a special move or specific command - it’s completely at your beck and call.”

This system means that players can combine all of Thor’s powers in free-flowing combos, in a way that’s both strategic and satisfying. It just felt right - a point that was driven home when the team showed it to Bill Rosemann, Vice President and Head of Creative at Marvel Games.

“When we demonstrated all this to Bill and the Marvel Games team, they were thrilled,” says Napoli. “They really responded to it and were excited - they basically said, ‘this is what we want. It looks like Thor and it feels like Thor!’

“That obviously gave all of us a massive morale boost - it felt like all our hard work had paid off.”

The team expects Thor to be a real fan favorite when the game launches. As Escayg says: “he’s a character that’s just super-satisfying to play.

“Even his simplest moves, such as throwing Mjolnir, hitting a row guys, and then hitting a load more when you summon it back. It never gets old!”

You’ll be able to experience this yourselves from September 4, when Marvel’s Avengers releases for PS4, Xbox One, Steam, and Google Stadia.

We’ll have another character spotlight to share tomorrow, so make sure you follow the team on social media to see what’s next.