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God of War is the result of the labors of 300 people at console industry leader Sony’s studio in Santa Monica, California. Yet it was the underdog in the battle for Game of the Year at The Game Awards, as Red Dead Redemption 2 was built by a team at Rockstar Games with 10 times more resources.
Even so, God of War was the surprise Game of the Year winner, even though it came out in April, long before the fall games that were fresh in everyone’s mind during the holiday season. I enjoyed God of War’s tightly woven tale that elevated the familiar story of a violent titular hero Kratos by showing us what comes next, in a new setting in the world of the Norse myths, after the maturing hero grows tired of all that killing, and he finds he must impart some lessons to his weak son.
God of War became one of Sony’s best exclusives on the PlayStation 4, with an average rating on review aggregator Metacritic of 94-out-of-100. I played it and felt its ending resonated, much like the finale of another Sony blockbuster, The Last of Us. God of War has a compelling beginning, shrouded in mystery. The God of War and his frail son go through the funeral rites for the boy’s mother, whose last wish is to have her ashes scattered on the highest mountaintop in the realm.
Kratos must hold back on his legendary temper, as he schools the boy Atreus on how to hunt his first deer. Even after the boy succeeds, Kratos cannot bring himself to wrap his arm around the boy in an embrace, though he tries and withdraws his hand, awkwardly. Yet we see Kratos change, as a mature god who regrets so much of his past life, as he tries to nurture the boy and make sure the boy makes the right decisions on his own. Their adventure stretches across 40 hours of gameplay, and the ending returns its sharp focus to the story of a father and his son.
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The story has many nuances, and, since the game has been out for a long spell, we decided to do a definitive interview about the making of God of War with Cory Barlog, the creative director at the Sony Interactive Entertainment Santa Monica Studio. We talked about how the team crafted the story and mechanics of God of War, and why the ending of the game turned out the way it did.
We also talked about how it was really helpful for Barlog’s creativity to step away from the franchise that he helped create. He went off to work on a Mad Max game tied to the recent George Miller movie, and he also helped reboot the Tomb Raider franchise. These experiences helped Barlog learn to focus his storytelling more.
“We’re going to start, and we’re not going to explain everything right away,” Barlog said in our interview. “We’re going to give you really powerful moments that feel important, but you don’t understand why. That way you’ll look back and they’ll have even more weight. But we want you to feel like you’re participating in the tail end of everything, and have this sense of what happened.”
We discussed alternate paths; Barlog’s nervousness about a similar Norse-based game, Ninja Theory’s Hellblade; the mirror of two other game characters who foreshadowed the relationship between Kratos and Atreus; and Barlog’s advice for game developers.
Here’s an edited transcript of our full interview. We’ve also broken out a few long excerpts as well as separate stories. Here are links to excerpts on the ending, the making of God of War, the alternate design paths, and Barlog’s advice for developers.
GamesBeat: I was a little confused about how much time you had on it. Five years, I’ve heard that in some interviews, but I think you said seven years on your reaction video.
Cory Barlog: Five years are the total time from when I got back. I think it’s just two months shy of five years, when you consider the release date. I came back in June 2013. We released in April. But I was thinking about the game a little bit before that. I wonder if it was—my son is only 6. I don’t know. Maybe I was saying that. But five years was the overall process. Yumi Yang, the producer on the game, likes to say four years, because she doesn’t count that first year. “You were just thinking in that first year. It doesn’t count.”
GamesBeat: I don’t think you ever fully described the circumstances there. You’ve been kind of vague about it. I don’t know if it’s super-secret Sony stuff that was going on, but you left, came back, that whole process.
Barlog: That process was—I had done God of War, where I came on for the last two years, and it was a pretty intense last two years. Then immediately I had to jump into writing and directing the second game. I had about a week to a week-and-a-half break in between those two games. Then I finished 2, and I was immediately going into writing and designing the third game after about a week’s break.
I’d been going for years without a break and shipping these games. I was burned out. I wanted, creatively, to get a different experience. I’m not certain how well I knew this or not, but I felt like I didn’t know a lot that I needed to learn, and I wasn’t going to learn it if I was making the same game over and over again.
I think initially I said, “Can I just work with some of these other people while staying at Sony?” Sony said, “No, we don’t do that.” Which makes sense. You’re an employee. So I said, “All right, I need to go do a Caine from Kung Fu and wander the Earth, meet people and learn.” I learned way more during that process than I ever expected. Working with George Miller was an education. It was eight college degrees in character development and directing all at once. And then working with a bunch of other studios. I did a little stint with Lucas. With Crystal Dynamics I did the Tomb Raider stuff. That gave me the perspective I needed. I don’t think I would have been able to make this game had I not had that walkabout.
GamesBeat: That was rebooting as well.
Barlog: Tomb Raider, you mean? Yeah. They’d been working on it long before I got there. I came on to direct the second one, actually, but they brought me in really early and said, “We’re having trouble with cinematics. We need someone to come in and direct the cinematics and finish these things off.” I came on and did that.
That was really good for me, because it gave me a good understanding of, when they were rebooting, what was their process? I ended up using that—this isn’t to say they were wrong. It’s just that the way they approached it, I looked at it and thought, “I’d approach this very differently.” They had a specific goal in mind. But it helped me to see, okay, these are the things you would do if this was the goal. What if that wasn’t the goal? What if the goal was not to reboot, but to reimagine, to continue a timeline? Instead of going back and telling an origin, this is a continuation in the chronology of the story. How would you approach that differently so you don’t just wholly change everything, but figure out how to organically develop it?
GamesBeat: Having a while to think about a game and then get to this stage — after the reception, after the game of the year awards — it’s pretty helpful to go back and think about what I really want to ask. I remember doing this with Assassin’s Creed, the original one, two months after it came out. And then Ubisoft told me, “No, we don’t want to do that interview, because that campaign is over.” It’s two months after the game came out! Isn’t anybody still interested in this thing?
Barlog: It’s amazing, in the game industry. You have a week or two and then you’re moving on. It’s great for gamers. A lot of games to choose from. But, man.
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 who 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: When you were thinking about, 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 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, okay, 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: I don’t want to see my dad rip somebody’s head off either.
Barlog: Right. They all had interesting perspectives on it. But then I recall a meeting that I wasn’t in, where Eric Williams was working with a bunch of people. Everybody was sort of hemming and hawing a bit. I won’t say they were complaining, because it wasn’t negative. They were just expressing their concern. Why is Cory so stuck on this kid thing? And Eric turns around and says, “We’re putting a kid in the game. That’s what Cory wants. Move on. Let’s come up with some ideas.”
It was literally at that moment that everyone just shifted. Let’s figure out how to make this work. That, to me—I didn’t hear about it until after the fact. I was feeling like—wow, I don’t know what I did, but people have suddenly shifted their perspective. It was all because of somebody else. “Focus on getting to solutions instead of complaining about what you don’t like.”
GamesBeat: There was this basic sensible thing about it where—I was not a big fan of the first three God of Wars. 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 who 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: 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.