Sony chose the right demo to open its press event at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the big game trade show in Los Angeles this week. As soon as Kratos stepped into the light, fans screamed with delight that another God of War game was coming. But this God of War, which isn’t numbered God of War IV, is a new beginning.
Set in the snow-covered forest, the new God of War features Norse mythology. And Kratos has a son, a little boy who is clearly not a god. The demo showed Kratos taking the boy on a hunt and trying mightily to contain his anger and show patience. The boy pulls the humanity out of a god who was heartless and vengeful in the previous games. The deep voice of the father is a startling contrast to the innocent high voice of the boy.
The mind behind this change is Cory Barlog, creative director at Sony Interactive Entertainment’s Santa Monica Studio. We saw a demo of the game and sat in a small session with Barlog. In addition, I interviewed him about the changes. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Is the intent for this to be another chapter in Kratos’s ongoing story, or is this a new story shared 50/50 with him and his son?
Cory Barlog: This is another chapter in Kratos’s story. That’s sort of a sucky answer, though, because it’s both. You’re playing as Kratos, and that’s why we worked hard to find that simple, accessible control for the kid. We never wanted it to feel like, “Oh, I don’t want to hop over and play as the kid. I always want to play as Kratos.”
GamesBeat: Given how much has changed, what do you think still makes this God of War?
Barlog: At its root, God of War was always the promise of adventure. All the way back to the first game, [God of War creator] David Jaffe used to say that a lot of games promise adventure on the back of the box, but this game delivers it. To me, this game will always be about exploring, solving puzzles, interacting with combat, developing these characters, and feeling as if you’re going on this grand adventure.
GamesBeat: The prior games had a very specific aggressive tone. You had these very intense themes of violence and sexual conquest. How much has that changed?
Barlog: That is, I think, his past. It’s something that formed who he is and where we are, but this is a new chapter for him. He’s advanced. To me, the beginning of this game is a lot like the movie Unforgiven, with Clint Eastwood, where he’s called back into action after he’s had to calm himself. Or Old Man Logan in the Marvel comics.
It hearkens back to that question of, “How much of our real self do we show to our children?” There’s a mask we wear to hide from them for their own good. When you have the kind of skeletons in the closet that Kratos has, you do that for good reason.
GamesBeat: Is there an aspect of morality, something he’s trying to teach his son?
Barlog: There is. In the story it comes up in a very different way. But we try to touch on all the aspects of the responsibility that he has. Sometimes he drops the ball, and there are aftereffects of that. It’s not necessarily part of the game systems. But it’s part of the story we’re telling.
GamesBeat: The name suggests a new beginning. There’s no number at the end.
Barlog: The decision not to put a four at the end was deliberate. The seven games we did in the Greek era — marking the eras of God of War and the mythologies we’re exploring, Kratos moving to the Norse era is a kind of [a] B.C. to A.D. changeover. It almost resets the clock. Both Kratos and the team are kind of refreshing and reimagining, cleaning the slate. Kratos is our through line, our constant through all of it, but otherwise, we’re starting from scratch. A number would take away from that. It would seem like just another sequel.
GamesBeat: What stage of the game are we seeing here? What would we know at this time?
Barlog: It’s the beginning of the game. The events that transpire here are very specific to the demo. What actually happens on that hunt is very different. It sets up the call to action and the remainder of the story. But we wanted to tell a complete story in this demo, to have a beginning and a middle and an end, so you could see the development of the kid. By the end, Kratos’ influence has changed him.
GamesBeat: Do we know, then, what happened to his mother?
Barlog: We will. That’s a big part of the story. But we don’t know yet.
GamesBeat: He seems like a giant holding the little child in his hands. What are you trying to get at with the contrast between father and son?
Barlog: For me, human beings have a very difficult time changing. It’s one of the hardest things to do. Having a kid motivates you to really take stock of yourself and how much of yourself you want to be reflected back in the actions of your kid.
Kratos has had a tumultuous past. He killed his previous family. He found out that he’s pretty much going to end up walking the earth forever. He wants a chance to break the cycle, to have a son who could potentially not fear him, not want to kill him, maybe not even be a god. His hope is that he’ll never have to tell the kid about his past because then maybe the kid won’t turn into a god. He might come up lucky on the genetic dice, and the kid won’t end up being a god.
He truly does believe that godhood is a disease, a disease that was forced on him against his will. The side effect of being a demigod, human and god in one vessel, is this uncontrollable rage. He’s the Hulk. He’s never had a chance to let Bruce Banner get an equal amount of control. He’s exploring that idea here.
GamesBeat: The graphical user interface had a set of three icons we didn’t see in the original trailer. We saw an axe, a bow, and another one that wasn’t clear. What do those represent?
Cory Barlog: Those are the stand-ins we’re using at the moment. They’re filling in the idea of having specials. This game has an element of specials. I’m playing around how that may be connected with the possibility of swapping out different styles. On the axe, you see the lines there. All this is our structure for upgrading and being able to outfit Kratos and customize his fighting style to your own specifications.
GamesBeat: Are there going to be different weapons beyond just the axe?
Barlog: Maybe? We’re going to be talking more about that later on.
GamesBeat: The change in the default camera position, was that a gradual choice?
Barlog: The eventual rest position of the camera, the standard, really did come from [one of the developers]. He told me not to bother him, to go away and let him — he really just wanted to get his head around it. I was afraid he was going to come back, and it would be very far away, Kratos would be tiny on the screen. Literally every day, I would ask, “Why can’t we talk about this?”
But he experimented with all the enemies we had and started building tiny little combat loops to really get inside and understand how this would work. Even in that tiny little example, it was a leap for him. “I feel very confident that all the questions aren’t answered now, but during the process, I’m going to take that risk.” It is very different. But when you get in control of the game, you start feeling what it is to have to look around and know where everything is positioned on this fantastic tactical level. It’s a hack-and-slash game, but that feeling of knowledge and power really adds something. It’s more personal.
In the early portions of development, I remember saying, “It’s like a duck following Kratos around. Should we animate that?” But the beauty of the no-cutaway camera is that film language — the jarring cuts they use in film is part of their vocabulary. That’s fantastic. I love movies. But making games is so different. We have so much more opportunity to do incredibly creative things than film.
GamesBeat: Is there any kind of limited amount of A.I. the son has where he can act on his own?
Barlog: Oh, yeah. Throughout combat — we weren’t really showing it because this demo was intended to show a few other things. He’ll maneuver around the battlefield on his own. He’ll enter into fights and passively try to split the battlefield, try to control it. If you tell him to go over and attack that guy, he’ll draw that guy’s attention. When you start getting into groups of enemies, larger groups of enemies, and you want to focus on one enemy while a bunch of lesser targets try to distract you, he can help Kratos split the battlefield.
GamesBeat: There’s that rage meter. Does that suggest that you can control his temper in some ways?
Barlog: That was a little nod, with Kratos getting frustrated and then tamping it down. It shows up a bit on the rage meter. But it’s more about — the monster lives inside him, and we let it out when Kratos wants to let it out. There are ideas we’re playing around with, potentially, that explore even more aspects of that. But nothing we’re talking about now.
GamesBeat: That axe, why would you come up with that? It almost seems like a character in itself?
Barlog: We were fundamentally changing the controls. Right away, we realized that if we just put the old weapon in there, even if we changed the controls, people would always be trying to do things like they used to. Wiping the slate clean and putting something new in there gave us the opportunity to focus on the play loop we wanted to create, rather than everyone constantly going back to the feeling of the old game.
The axe has a history, a connection to their family, and a connection to other characters in the game. It’s a very important artifact in the overall story.
GamesBeat: Mixing the Norse and Greek mythology is maybe something people wouldn’t do in the movies, but it seems easier to pull it off in a game. What kind of opportunities does that give you?
Barlog: It’s interesting. In some of the Eddas, the Norse myths — it’s probably the Christianization of the myths at work to some degree — but there are references to Odin having contact with the Roman god Mars. You already see these connections forming. I think it’s their way of trying to shift and connect a lot of these things. To me, it’s almost a natural fit. The Greek element is just Kratos. He’s this stranger in a strange land, experiencing the world in the same way as the player is. He and the player are both figuring it out at the same time.