Some of the key moments and characters of God of War, the winner of Game of the Year at The Game Awards, might have been very different.
Kratos might have gone on a journey with his wife, Faye, rather than his son, Atreus. He might have always used his blades, rather than an ax. Kratos might have been much meaner than he was toward his son — to the point of child abuse. Kratos might not have been in God of War. He might have been as friendly as Qui-Gon Jinn, Liam Neeson’s character in the Star Wars films.
We did a postmortem interview with Cory Barlog, creative director at Sony Interactive Entertainment’s Santa Monica Studio, which created God of War with a team of 300 people over five years or so.
In this excerpt, I’ve extracted the parts where Barlog talks about different paths the story and game design might have taken. We could have had a very different God of War. Barlog refers to this as “agile storytelling,” where the story changes to suit a larger purpose, such as better gameplay or improved writing. Or maybe the actors thought of a better way to express something in the story.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview. This excerpt is one of several from our fascinating interview with Barlog. Here are links to excerpts on the ending, the making of God of War, and Barlog’s advice for developers.
GamesBeat: How did you handle those expectations about God of War? People had played three of them already. What were the fans going to expect of you?
Barlog: That pressure is always there, that sense of—how much is too much? How much are they going to accept? What’s going to be the bridge too far, the change you make that makes everybody freak out? The jump, eliminating the jump, I was told by a lot of people that was going to be the thing that everybody really gets upset about.
GamesBeat: There were a lot of stories about that when it was announced.
Barlog: You took the jump out! #NotMyGodOfWar! A lot of people, when we announced, had issues with certain things. But still, I think people kept an open mind. They’d say something on the internet, but I think they still had the idea that, “I’ll give it a shot. I may hate it, but I’ll give it a shot because I like the other games.” I thought that was cool.
GamesBeat: There were things like fighting with the ax. You can’t really tell everyone that you’re not always going to fight with an ax.
Barlog: That was frustrating. I was so big on keeping the secret of the blades. But I was getting bombarded. Why do we want this new weapon? No one cares about this new weapon! We want the blades of chaos! I wanted to be able to tell everyone, “Don’t worry. It’s gonna be fine.”
But what I was feeling safe in is that a lot of people on the original games were already still at the studio, or I brought them back to the studio. Eric Williams, the guy who built Kratos in the first game, he was the combat designer. One of the handful of the people in the entire game industry who I trust implicitly. He could say, “I’m gonna go do something,” and I don’t need to hear anymore. I trust him to do it because I know it’ll be great. He was a big part of being able to feel comfortable trying a brand new weapon. He and I basically were the ones who broke down all of Kratos’s blade moves. I knew we could do it again. I knew it would be hard, because of the expectation, but I knew we could do it.
Him, plus Vincent Napoli, who was basically the main guy on all of this—Vincent was actually the guy who came up with the ax. We were doing the ax initially and I knew we would do something fancy with it, but I wanted to see if we could focus on just getting the holding of the ax and swinging it—make that feel like it had a different way of connecting with the enemies. Because once you get lost in throwing it and putting all the effects on the screen, you lose track of the close, intimate parts.
But he was so impatient, him and this guy George Mawle, the programmer—they’d both been working on the technology so that it wouldn’t just be an animation. Throw the ax and it comes back. It would be technologically driven, so it could stick anywhere in the world. They had a skunk works thing going on for months without telling anyone, and then they showed me, right at the time when I thought we had the foundation in there—they said, “Good, because here’s what we’ve got for this throwing thing.” I said, “I love it!” And they said, “Really? Because we thought you were going to yell at us.” “Why would I yell at you? This is amazing!”
That whole genesis of figuring out the ax—it seems to be born of a lot of people being very passionate and trying different things. But they regretted it very shortly after that, because then in every review—I was literally just walking through a level throwing the ax at things and seeing what it would stick in or not. All the artists were like, “Ugh.” There’s no collision here, no collision there. “Yeah, because we haven’t gotten to that yet!” “But I can throw the ax through it! Put collision on there!” The ax became the bane of the developer’s existence, because I was so in love with throwing it.
GamesBeat: I was curious about how soon the father-son concept came into it, or how soon the Norse theme came into it.
Barlog: The father-son came first and then the Norse myths came second. When I first started talking to Shannon, I think in maybe February of 2013, the idea was germinating. I didn’t verbalize it very eloquently. But when I got to the studio in June, I started talking to everybody about, all right—the first idea wasn’t that he was his biological son. We were going to have this kid there and you were never going to understand why he was even there.
As I started digging into the story, I thought, OK, there are a lot of neat ideas in here, really cool ideas about who Kratos is, who we are—the real cementing of that concept was when I got back to the studio and saw that everybody was old, like me. We all were older. We were so thumb-our-nose-at-authority young when I started in 2003. Everybody had kids. Everybody was gray. We were all looking a lot more tired than we were before.
When we talked about things, we talked about them in a different way. We used to be a very combative group. Sometimes the combative was just to be combative. Now it was this more measured way of approaching problems. I felt like these developers that I’d come up with—we’d all been apart for years, and we came back together feeling like we’d changed in a very interesting way. It’s not that we were different people. We’d just aged.
I thought that was it. That plus having a son, what that changes, what you go through. This is what it is. Then it was like—people were not that into it. “I don’t get it. Why are we putting a kid in here? That’s weird.” Even Jason McDonald, the lead combat guy, he had said multiple times, “I have a kid. Thinking about going into these scenarios, I don’t want a kid around me. That’s dangerous.” It resonated with him, but in a weird, protective way.
GamesBeat: There was this basic sensible thing about it where—I was not a big fan of God of War one, two, and three. I was not a God of War person. But I could get into a father-son story. That’s more universally appealing. It lets you do that reboot and get that fresh start with a lot of people. Was that an argument for it? What made you stick to it?
Barlog: There’s a couple of things. There was this sense that—I was telling people that we’d never really had a character—or maybe we have and I’m wrong. Somebody on the internet will call me out on this. But we’ve never really had a character that you grew with. You play this character, and then 20 years later in your own life, you play this character again and they’re further in their life as well. You’re growing on a consistent arc with them. They’re changing. For me, I thought that was really interesting.
GamesBeat: You had this design freedom. I’m curious about what that actually meant. When you talked to your bosses, what were those conversations like? How did you get the license to just do what you thought was best?
Barlog: Some of it deals with the fact that I worked on the franchise before. But I think that’s a small part. The reason that happens is, people like Shannon Studstill and Yumi Yang. Basically, the two partners I had through this entire project. They’re the shields and they’re the swords. They protect and then they fight back the hordes.
Shannon is there all the time letting everybody know—even if you’re not seeing anything, good things are happening. Have faith. She’s a staunch defender of the creative process. She knows that the creative process doesn’t always bear fruit for a while. It’s easy to get nervous. “Nothing’s being shown. Are you guys messing this up?” At times we show them stuff and that’s what they think. “You’re messing this up. This is terrible.” But it’s the sense of having that partnership where—you always have somebody who has your back.
In the beginning, the very beginning, there were a few discussions with certain groups within the company that had said, “I don’t think you should keep Kratos.” Certain people were saying that keeping Kratos was a good idea. I was being very closed about how much information I was handing out, but they all assumed that if I kept Kratos, we’d just make another God of War. At the high level I was saying, “We’re not going to do that. I’m not telling you what it is yet, but here’s the little bits of information.”
They said, “We think it’s a bad idea to keep Kratos. I don’t understand.” One person even said, “Is he going to put a backpack on and walk up to Scandinavia?” At the time we were pretty close to making that decision. We were in the final stretches, but we weren’t telling everyone at the company about it. He said that negatively, but it was actually, literally, that’s what we were going to do. I pitched him, the same person who said that, about a month later when everything was finalized, and he said, “I love this.”
It was a good example of that sense of—we don’t know what we want. We think we know we don’t want something. But if you can figure out the right mixture, suddenly it sounds great. That’s a testament to, one, the creative support I have from the partners, and two, not telling anybody anything until I figured it all out. When you pitch a half-baked idea it’s so easy for someone to pick it apart and hate on it.
GamesBeat: Did you bounce it off of anyone like Shannon? Or did you go to Shannon saying, “Here’s why you should trust me because I’m going to figure it out”?
Barlog: Shannon, I’ve worked with her since 2003. Her and Yumi, I have an inherent trust with them. But she’ll say, “Barlog, you have to get it together. I need a pitch. I need to know what’s going on.” There was a moment, when I had realized that we were writing the wrong game in our first draft—the focus went away from the father-son story and went far more into the plotting and all the other stuff. That was seven or eight months and I had to throw it all out. We had an outline and everything and I had to get rid of it. I knew it would make the writers upset.
I went to lunch with Shannon and said, “I know you’ll get upset about this, but I’ve been going down a blind alley. I have to go back out and re-assess. Here’s my high level.” This was before the action and the mother. This was just Kratos and his son on a journey. It had no heart to it. I realized that we were in the middle of a story, but not in a good way. I said, “I don’t have it all figured out yet, but here’s the highest level. It’s Kratos and Atreus trying to go to the highest mountain to spread his dead mother’s ashes.” She said, “All right. Do it.”
It was literally—at any other company you’d have to have proof and schedules and budgets and risk assessments and all that stuff to make that kind of change. It was at lunch where I gave her one sentence and she said, “You’re right. That’s better.” Before, she wasn’t saying what I was doing was wrong, because I don’t think either of us had figured it out yet. But once I’d gotten to that one sentence, there it is. That’s it. That’s the thing. I kept telling everyone, “This is what we’re doing. This is the goal.”
Then that became the battle of, well, who’s the big bad guy? After a year and a half, two years, I thought, well, there’s not going to be an antagonist in the same fashion. The antagonist is Kratos. It’s his inability to be open, his inability to actually be a dad. Baldur is a mirror. He’s not even an antagonist. He’s a mirror. His relationship with Freya is this sense of—she held on too tight. She made decisions for him. In doing so, she destroyed the relationship. This is the cautionary tale for Kratos. Do not make decisions for your kid. It’s not going to turn out well. He needs that reminder.
Every single element of the story deals with familial relationships. At all times, every character he interacts with is teaching him a good or a bad lesson, a caution. Don’t go down this road, or you should listen to me about how to be a family, how to be part of a family, and the responsibility. Whether you’re a kid or an adult in that family, you have a responsibility toward the communication and well-being of the family.
GamesBeat: I think of some of these games that have appeared as linear with a hub. Tomb Raider, the recent one, they called it a hub. You could do a lot of different kinds of missions, but there’s only one way out of it. Eventually you go to the endgame from there. The most recent Uncharted had that large level as well, where you could go anywhere in the hub area.
Barlog: We did that in the earlier God of War games. You had the architect’s temple, on the back of Cronos. That was a big hub-based thing with the concentric rings. God of War 2 was harder because we were doing the journey. We had little hubs here and there, but that was what we were leaning on as well. Create a large-scale hub that fundamentally changes each time you come back, that was actually a giant device that you have to figure out once you realize, “Oh my gosh, this is all connected.”
There was way more ambition. At one point there were like six water levels you were draining. You’d drain all the water out and have that whole open area. We had so much crazy stuff going on in there. I didn’t realize, “OK, this is way too much. It’s overwhelming. You can’t process it.” We discovered how hard it was for people to understand the realms, the idea that the realms all exist on top of each other, almost in different dimensions. The idea that you’re in one realm or the other and they share the same space, just in a different dimension of understanding—that was really complicated until we figured out a few elegant, easy ways to explain it.
GamesBeat: There’s this need for the usual set pieces. That and the over the top quality. You still wanted these cinematic moments, like the beginning of Uncharted, when he falls out of the plane. You want these big moments, but you don’t necessarily want them to be over the top anymore. I think of Just Cause 4 as completely over the top. You can do any crazy thing there is and put it on YouTube and everybody would laugh.
Barlog: I think the way we described it to the team – to me, this was the breakthrough moment, collectively – what we did before, in a non-pejorative, non-negative way, was like Marvel comics. What we’re doing now is like Marvel film. You can take something like a battle between Captain America and Iron Man and you put it in the film and it’s something my mom would watch. But my mom would not read a Captain America comic book.
We had a similar thing. We started looking at our concept art, at some of the ways we’d done things before. That was the goal. This was Clash of the Titans meets Heavy Metal magazine. It was big and bombastic and over the top. I don’t think that was a bad thing. But it was interesting to see if we could make the MCU transition. Let’s see if we can make the same fun crazy things – they’re fighting on the back of a dragon, hanging off the wings – but we treat it in a slightly different way. The grounding gives it a greater impact.
I think there are still places for games like Bayonetta and Devil My Cry that have this fantastically bombastic feeling to them. But I also think there’s a space to try this idea to transition into something that feels big and over the top, but reserved or reined-in just enough to make it feel like you’re really there.
GamesBeat: I read that one of the things you considered was having his wife as a secondary character, instead of his son.
Barlog: Yeah, that was—when I was initially thinking about stuff, the idea of having Kratos and Faye was there. The story behind their meeting is really good. I was struggling with whether I wanted to tell that in this game, whether that was going to be the opening prologue. You’d have a one-hour prologue. But this wasn’t the right place. I wanted this to really land, and I think the investment into a character is so great that you have to commit to just one. I couldn’t do a separate character and then play the whole game with Atreus.
I realized that I didn’t know if I wanted the entire game to be Kratos and Faye because of what we were going to reveal, because of how it all lays out. You kind of want to find that stuff and then see what the relationship between Kratos and Faye was like. If you do it the other way first, there’s so much you couldn’t tell. You couldn’t really talk about anything during the Kratos and Faye story. To me, during that period of time, there’s lots of interactions with the other deities.