GamesBeat: Peter Molyneux promised us that at one point, but–
Barlog: Right. Ironically, everybody kept warning me, “Don’t promise people all of these things you’re saying you’re going to do. That never turns out right.” What are you talking about? We’re totally going to do this. We’re going to make it happen. I suddenly realized, that’s the same situation that he was in. He desires these things, these great things, but sometimes those things aren’t possible. I had similar conversations with my team. “Don’t talk about this,” because they didn’t think they could do it, and I still talked about it. But thankfully I work with a pretty brilliant team. The craziest things are made to happen.
Also, the sense that—I think I said, “God of War needs a fresh start, but the player needs a fresh start as well. But we don’t want to just erase the past.” That was an important thing. When I was say those things, people would say, “Let’s just start over. Let’s reboot it.” But I didn’t think we needed to do that. As a writer, you understand how hard it is to build up backstory for characters, so you can have impactful moments. You have to build toward something and then pay it off. We built for 10 years! Let’s not throw that out. Let’s keep that, but let’s take chapter two. Let’s use that and have that resonate even stronger.
How about we make our audience grow a little bit, too? How about we open it up a bit and not just lead with, “Yeah, violence!” I don’t want to say that was a pillar, because it wasn’t really a pillar. It was a reality of warfare. Spartan warfare and what the times of the Greeks and the Romans—this was a very violent time period. It’s not like that was the only thing the game could be about. It was just a reality. But I thought, “Well, it hits harder and means something more if that’s not what you lead with.” You have an emotional investment in it, so that when those things happen, it means something. That’s why, in movies, it means more when you do it right. It’s why Last of Us is so good.
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: You had an open world-ish section of the game. How much of that did you want to have versus telling people where to go to the next part of the story?
Barlog: We kept describing it as “wide linear.” I was adamant that we couldn’t make an open world game. The cost of entry and the expectation level is so high that we’d never compete. We just don’t have the infrastructure and the systems. I don’t want to do that.
GamesBeat: You were 300 people or so?
Barlog: At our peak, yeah.
GamesBeat: Red Dead was more than 3,000.
Barlog: Yeah, I think they were closer to 4,000. At the time I thought the 1,600 that Ubisoft had on Assassin’s Creed was a lot. To do these things, to do the complexity they have, you just need a lot of people. For us, not only do we not want to invest in that aspect of it, but to me the world needed to feel large, and not empty, but with surprising moments of discovery. It could feel like there were areas where there’s not a lot going on, and then all of a sudden an entirely new level opens up that you weren’t directed to, that you just discovered.
Once we started saying wide linear—I didn’t have a term for it. One of the level designers actually started saying that. That was a good way to describe it, because I kept saying, “not open world.” That’s the worst way to describe something, to say what it’s not. It’s better to give a good picture. It was hard for people to understand that, one, I wanted them to do work that might not be seen, which is a really hard thing to convince people about. “You worked hard on this, and 50 percent of players might not see it.” I think that’s okay, because that 50 percent might be told by their friend, “Did you find this?” “No way, you have to go over here to see that?”
That was my experience with Zelda. I talked to other kids at school, and all of a sudden I’d find out that if you put a bomb next to a wall over here you’d find a secret. Those kinds of shared experiences, the sense of feeling like you’re the one discovering these things in the world, that’s very important. But the cost of entry for open world, the gambling systems and territory control—it wasn’t in the cards.
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.