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.
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.
GamesBeat: It’s a very tight story. Tightly woven, tightly written. I was thinking about why Red Dead Redemption 2 didn’t win at the big one at Game Awards, and that was vast and epic, but it was not so tight. You’re going through 105 missions in that game and sometimes you’re wondering, “Why am I doing this? What does this have to do with what they’re trying to say?”
Barlog: I can’t imagine the challenge of taking that on, with the scale that they work at. To be able to wrangle all that stuff together.
GamesBeat: You mentioned this restart. They told me that they built a procedural version of the game, where it was an open world, emergent, and not as focused on the story, not as directed. No master storytelling. They said it didn’t work, and so they started over. They actually built all that, and then started over.
Barlog: That’s amazing. The Last of Us did the same thing. Naughty Dog is notorious, to be able to do that. If it’s not working, throw it out. It doesn’t matter if it’s complete. You have to make it work. I have so much respect for what Rockstar does, because they look at that. They take those leaps.
Very few games – and I haven’t played everything, so I’m sure once again that I will miss something – but there are very few games that pass on positive lessons to people who play them about doing something that doesn’t require an immediate reward. There may be a reward and there may not be a reward. Red Dead, that sequence with the poison, where the guy gets bit by the snake? You have the choice to pass by and leave him there to die, or kill him and rob him, or give him some bandages, or actually treat the poison. If you suck the poison out you save him, and you don’t get anything. Thanks. That’s it.
But then later you’re walking through town and that guy starts talking about how you’re the guy. He’s so thankful that he buys you anything you want in the store. That concept is such an amazing thing to pass on to players. I guarantee you that there’s a percentage of people who are processing that enough to realize that doing a good thing might pay off later. You don’t need to get something immediately. That’s an amazing metaphor.
There’s the dog thing too, where if you feed the dog, when you have to sneak into town later on the dog won’t bark, because you fed him. Those kind of positive connections are amazing.
GamesBeat: I ended up accidentally shooting the dog because I pressed the wrong button, and then all hell broke loose from shooting the dog.
Barlog: I was robbing the train in the beginning. He says, “Take care of the leftover guys however you want.” I wasn’t going to kill them, but I forgot that I had my gun out. I thought, “Oh, I have to pull my gun out,” and I pressed that same button to fire. I had just gotten out of a cinematic. So I shot one of these guys, and everyone freaks out. Same thing. I’ve already started a gunfight, but I didn’t want to kill them.
They did a great job of introducing things slowly. That whole opener was utterly brilliant.
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: 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, “Okay, 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.
GamesBeat: Why did the beginning turn out the way it did. I looked back on a lot of beginnings, and this one was very good. It has a lot of confusion and mystery. You don’t know what’s going on. Why is she dead? You start in the middle of things, like in the ninth year of the Trojan War. It seems at first like the best part of it was at the beginning, but you’re starting almost toward the end. Why did you start in the way you did?
Barlog: That was a very deliberate thing. It took a bit of selling to people. We never do the beginning of the game until the end, but I knew right at the start of the project that I had to start convincing people. We’re not going to start the game with a giant boss battle. Early discussions, I was already laying the groundwork. In the previous games we were all about that first 10 minutes with a big giant creature. It was great, but it was also really hard, by the time we got to God of War 3. You ended up in this arms race. “It’s big, but it’s not as big as that other one.” You’re always comparing it to the previous one and going thumbs up or thumbs down.
We couldn’t do that anymore. We had to throw that arms race out. We had to focus in on what’s interesting. I use the example of Buffy, when they introduced Dawn as Buffy’s sister. They started the episode with the fact that everybody understood and accepted that Dawn was her sister, even though she’d never appeared in the show at all before. They just moved on. I think it was two episodes before they told you that it was a spell and it was all crazy and that’s why everyone was going along with it.
I thought that was really interesting. We’re going to start, and we’re not going to explain everything right away. 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.
The first time I pitched Shuhei Yoshida, the president of Sony worldwide studios, on the game, I couldn’t get a minute and a half into my pitch before he said, “Who’s the mother? What’s her name? Where is she from? Is she going to appear in the game? What does she look like?”
GamesBeat: One point it got across was that this isn’t a very graceful, polite dad. “Don’t be sorry. Be better.”
Barlog: That took a lot to get to. We went through so many revisions. Matt Sophos and Rich Gaubert were the writers and directors on Lost Planet 3. Say what you want about the reception, the writing and the character development on that game was absolutely brilliant. So good. When Rich came to work for us, he had suggested, “Hey, Matt, the other writer on there is really good. We should bring him in.” We took him to lunch and I convinced him to come on.
They had some really hard times. All three of us, to get that first opening section—it turned out that was something we worked on early. That became our vertical slice, our greenlight, and the beginning of the game. We didn’t intend that it would be the beginning of the game. We were just trying to find the voice of Kratos. But man, people hated it, hated it with a passion, on the team. Our first seven goes at it. One person wrote a really long email to us saying that this game felt like a child abuse simulator. Because we were trying to find Kratos. We didn’t want him to be too soft, but it turned out he was way too mean. Way too mean. Then we overcorrected, and we had somebody else read the temp dialogue. They said, “He sounds like Qui-Gon Jinn. He’s so calm. This is terrible.”
The needle kept going back and forth until we honed in on it. There it is. It was almost the same dialogue. That’s the interesting part. Moving things around, cutting things down, shading a few bits, and also finding the right read, so that it doesn’t feel angry all the time—for a good six to eight months people said it was depressing to play our game, because Kratos is such a jerk. They hated him. All right, that’s not good. We wanted it to feel true to Kratos, but it can’t be that hardcore.
GamesBeat: The end was good. It reflected a lot of that thinking. Again, it was tightly woven. You go back and you realize—like, why is he calling him “boy,” in that insulting way? Or even the fact that you’re somehow drawing attention to how Kratos doesn’t call him by his name. Were you trying to hide his identity, even that early?
Barlog: It’s a very interesting story about that one. This is the beautiful thing about the agility of storytelling, and being agile when you’re writing and directing something. Initially the plan was, the name would be the reveal. At the end of the game, even calling his son by his name, thus acknowledging and accepting him. Then we realized that probably wasn’t the right thing. But I was also using “boy” because I couldn’t think of a name.
The first stab at it, he was just going to call him by his regular name. But then we thought we had this great idea. What if he only refers to him by name at the end? That’s good, because it gives me more time to stall and come up with the name. Then we realized that’s not the right beat. At the end of the game he has to accept him as his son. That has to be the first time he says “son.” Because that’s so charged. It’s what Zeus used when Kratos killed him. He calls him “my son.”
That’s so emotionally charged for him that he doesn’t want to do that. He doesn’t want to acknowledge this kid, even though he’s important to him. The kid represents a second chance for him, but he’s still not ready to open up to him. But yeah, I didn’t have the name Atreus, I think, until probably a week before we released it in the metadata of the music tracks. I waited until the last minute.
We had so many names, hundreds of names, and I really liked Atreus. Everyone realized I was a fan of The Neverending Story and they said, “But it’s just like Atreyu.” And I said, “No, it’s a cool reference. It’s also a great mystery. People will think he’s named after the mythological Atreus and they’ll all go in that direction.” Because that’s not really the story of where he comes up with the name. Whatever name we choose, it’s going to be a soldier that Kratos served with. It’s going to be a personal thing for him. We had a name that kind of has a connection with Greek mythology, and everyone would start reading into it, all these different things.
GamesBeat: Now that we’re a bit more free to talk about endings, there’s the one name you discover at the end, and the immediate association is with a bad guy. Everybody knows this name as somebody who’s not—who doesn’t turn out well. And then he’s telling you the actual story of Atreus’s life at the end. I thought about it more and realized, what if you actually have a choice between being the other guy or Atreus? Atreus is a very noble character. He does a lot of good. Maybe this boy has a choice between whether he wants to turn out like this other name.
Barlog: There was a thought that went into that in the sense that—our identity, who we are, how much is shaped by our environment, how much is shaped by the expectation of who we are. To me, Loki is a great representation within the Norse myths of a child. Mischievous, trickster, getting into things. But not necessarily with dark intentions. There’s a little bit of darkness in the Eddas, but it’s not as exaggerated as it is in the Marvel comics.
But Thor, in the mythology, is a mean guy. He’s not a nice dude. We probably exaggerated him a little bit, but this guy literally was going to take children in payment for a slight. He was going to kill these people, kill a family because they slighted him, and they said, “Please take our children,” and he said, “OK, I won’t kill you. I’ll just take your children.” He’s not a good dude.
I liked the idea that setting these two things up shows that there’s an expectation, what people think Loki is really about, that’s really a neat little cloud that hangs over him. Then he gets to figure out, what is—who am I? It’s what we go through. It was, subversively, what Kratos was going through in the beginning of the game. Who am I? Who have I been for so long? This freight train of vengeance and violence. That’s still part of me, but who am I, now that I have this responsibility? Who am I, now that I’ve grown and been fundamentally changed by Faye?
Their relationship changed him so dramatically, but still, he was in the middle of it. He hadn’t finished growing. Her leaving so quickly, that basically prevented him from finishing that growth. He had to finish it with his son. He had to finish it on his own. That’s an important thing for everyone, to grow on their own.
GamesBeat: You had your own son. I wonder how much you see your relationship with him in this game.
Barlog: So much. There’s so much of this—the way that Kratos views godhood, as a disease he’s passed on to his kid, is the same concept I look at my kid, with my own psychological idiosyncrasies, my own obsessive-compulsive nature. He’s exhibiting all of that. I gave him that, because my wife is not that way. My wife has anxiety, but she’s nowhere near that—everything has to be done in a certain order, and my kid is that times 1,000, which is so heartbreaking. It’s the same way that–in that moment when Atreus rages out at the end of the game and knocks himself out and nearly dies. It’s seeing that terrible part of yourself in your kid.
Moments throughout the game are pulled from my interactions with him, and my interactions with my dad. Matt and Rich both have kids, so their interactions. So many people on the team, they would tell us stories about interactions with their childrens or their parents. These little stories would find their way in. That’s really interesting. The test for us was—all three of us sitting around, we’d say, “Somebody told me this story today.” And if all three of us said, “Oh, I can relate to that,” we’d feel like we could have more people relate to it. It’s something universal.
There were some things we put in and it didn’t work out. People would say, “I don’t get that at all.” All right, we’ll take that out.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting that there’s this God of War game, and a God of War story, but then also this father-son story that explains a lot of what happens in the game. It’s not hammered home in a heavy-handed way. It’s unconsciously operating on you. You don’t have Kratos psychoanalyzing himself or anything, but that layer is there. I think that’s also interesting, about how this resonates.
Barlog: One, I work with really good writers. Those guys are incredible. But I think the time I spent with George Miller, understanding his process of breaking characters down—he worked with a writer, Nick Lathouris, on Mad Max: Fury Road. While they were developing the Fury Road script, Lathouris had broken down the entire script with one page of script and one page of line by line, psychologically, what each character was going through, either in the screen directions or the dialogue. What’s the motivation? What’s going on in their head?
Reading through that and realizing how much actually goes into a glance, how much goes into a grunt, made me realize, “All right, we have to think about this so much more deeply.” When we’re leading with, first, the story about growing up—it’s easy to say it’s redemption, but that’s not really what he was going for. It really was about growing up. Kratos figuring out how to grow up, us growing up. Part of growing up is that idea of passing on information. What is your legacy that you’re passing on? What is the responsibility of that legacy? Everything leads into that, throughout the whole game.
A lot of times you don’t start like that in games. It’s just, “I’ve got a cool mechanic I want to use, let’s do this!”
GamesBeat: You build a lot of that thinking into some of the dialogue, and then you may have actors coming in and changing it.
Barlog: But that’s good. There are so many times where they just bring something that surprises me. I had to get more flexible with the idea that I’m doing seven-minute takes with six actors and one of them is nine years old. It’s hard to say, “Well, one actor said this one part of that take wrong.” So I automatically went into all the shoots being open to the idea of, “That was really good. A bit more of that.” But acknowledging that I can’t stitch all of this stuff together. I can do a bit here and there, but I’m looking for that perfect 7-minute take between everyone. Empowering the actors even more to own it a little bit, and giving them direction that’s a bit more focused on finding what they already know to be true, but just getting it out in the lines.
I figured out a different way to work with everybody and direct, because of that. Because literally, one camera shot in a cinematic means you can’t just say, “Oh, that’s fine, we’ll get it in the coverage. We’ll do close-ups and you can nail it there.” Everyone has to give a perfect performance, every single time. The more invested and owned they are of it, the better a performance you get. It’s amazing.
GamesBeat: Because you named the kid at the end, I do wonder whether you then felt—well, you’re committing to a certain sort of story path here. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a prequel. You know who’s going to be alive at the end of that story, because they’re alive in the last game. They had to commit to a certain storyline, where these guys survive. It almost seems constraining. Are you constraining yourself by telling people who this kid is? Is there a certain path that has to unfold in a future game?
Barlog: That’s interesting. For me, no, because I already know what I want to do with it. To me, this is part of the story. Everything that happens in this one is leading toward this vision of how we’re going to resolve all of this.
GamesBeat: Did you cut off the game at a certain point and decide that the rest is part two?
Barlog: No. It’s definitely one of these things where—everything beyond the game has the tent poles of, “I want this to happen, I want that to happen.” The important thing about finding out who he is in this game is it creates that sense of, who do you think he’s going to become? Because part of it is, like you’re saying—when you know what’s going to happen in Red Dead Redemption, Red Dead Redemption 2 isn’t necessarily about getting surprised by the actual ending. It’s being taken along for the journey of the characters.
I think that’s such an amazing thing, because it’s appreciating the moments as they pass, as opposed to saying, “Oh, I called it, this was gonna happen!” So many people, when they watch a movie or play a game, “I knew 10 minutes in this was gonna happen!” That’s great. But you don’t win anything. It’s not the point of watching something, to guess what’s going to happen. Sometimes it’s so predictable that you’re saying it to point that out, but the reality is, it’s about enjoying those moments and understanding what’s happening to these characters. How are they growing?
To me, playing around with the identity is such an interesting concept. If you’re presented with two possibilities of who you are—it’s what happens to us when you go to college, right? You leave high school and you decide that you aren’t really happy with who you were in high school. You’re going to reinvent yourself in college, because nobody knows you there. You can be somebody completely different. That doesn’t last very long. Usually you end up folding right back into who you were. Perhaps slightly modified here and there.
But that’s such an interesting concept to play with. You take somebody that everybody thinks they know, because of Marvel’s interpretation of it, but that’s not necessarily the whole character.
GamesBeat: This is an aside, but when Hellblade came out, did you have any thoughts on their take on Norse mythology?
Barlog: I followed Hellblade through their developer diaries from the beginning. One, because I like Ninja Theory. I think they’re a great group of developers. And then two, because they were into Norse myth, and I’m the most paranoid person ever, always worrying that everybody else is going to use the same ideas that we are.
There was a number of times where I’d come out of my office slamming the door and screaming and going, “Who’s talking to Ninja Theory?” Because they’d be doing something exactly the same way we were. It would happen over and over again. The reality is we’re working in the same mythology, so there are certain things you’ll end up coupling up on. But when they said that they were going to do a single camera shot, I was like, “Seriously? They’re going to be release before us doing the single camera shot thing?”
GamesBeat: I didn’t quite grasp the significance of the single camera. Why is it such a big deal? Why was it important to you?
Barlog: I’d worked with a lot of film people. The language of film is cuts. It’s lenses and position and composition and movement, coupled together in a linear format of close-up, medium shot, two-shot, close-up, crane. This is how they speak. We’ve aped that because we love movies, because we’re appreciators of the work that they do. We continue on with that.
But the idea of doing something that embraces video games, which is—the player is in control of the camera, right? Let’s give the player total control, so that when they’re experiencing this, they experience it the way we would experience it in the real world. When I go see the Grand Canyon, I don’t have a crane that accompanies me to give me this awesome distance shot of the Grand Canyon. I stand on the Grand Canyon and look at it. It’s just as amazing. I don’t need this crane shot to make it amazing.
Also, there’s this sense of immediacy that you get from never cutting away, never looking away, and feeling, almost subconsciously, that you have experienced this extremely intimate, personal portrayal. I knew the story needed to be intimate. I wanted no cinematics, no camera cuts. That’s the first thing I said. We’re not doing any cuts and you won’t ever lose control of the camera. You can walk around, and walk away, while people are talking, which freaked people out and rightfully so. We needed to figure out a camera thing before we could do all of that stuff together. So it gave us a bit more freedom to have the camera move in certain motivated instances, but we would never cut away.
Never cutting away means never looking away, to force you to experience these moments, whether they’re uncomfortable or not. You have to be there, and it has to feel personal to Kratos. To me, these were—the difficulty of grasping it is what people experienced the whole time. “I don’t get why this is going to be good.” Whether they would say that you can’t do drama—you can’t have action and drama without camera cuts. You need cuts to give people a break. I said, “No, you don’t. You don’t need that stuff.” You can make it feel like you start the game and you never look away, so it feels like you lived this life with him. You experience these moments as Kratos.
It’s one of these things where—we were making the earlier games, God of War and God of War 2. We had a camera designer who was being interviewed about working on the game. I think he had said, “I work on cameras here. Pretty much, if I do my job right, you have no idea that I do my job.” That was the end result with the camera. You don’t know why, but it feels more personal. That element, you may not be able to piece it together, but that element adds to it. That’s a critical, linchpin element of the personal nature of the game, even if you can’t say why.
It was hard to convince people with just a three-minute snippet of gameplay. When the game was finished I had a bunch of people come into my office and say, “I get it now,” after they finished the whole thing. After just playing an hour of the game or whatever, it didn’t make sense. But when you get all the way to the end—they were playing the 40 hours in two or three days. They were doing a hardcore push. It was more resonant, I think, than when you spread it out over weeks.
For me it was, perhaps, one of those battles that feels like it’s not—there’s no point. Why are you fighting for this? But I had the gut feeling. I just felt this was going to make a huge difference.
GamesBeat: When it came out in April, was there some worry that people might forget about it by now? All the fall games would be remembered.
Barlog: Oh, yeah. I wanted to get into 2018 to get away from Red Dead. I was very clear with everybody. Red Dead is going to be amazing. And once Red Dead comes out, there’s a line of demarcation. Pre-Red Dead, post-Red Dead. The way everyone is thinking about their games is going to be different. We just need to be away from that. We need our own time, so that way the Red Dead fervor is gone away. And then, of course, they moved. Great. Whatever, I’m embracing it.
I didn’t realize how great of a year it was going to be for games. It is just incredible. So many. From the Obra Dinns up to the Assassin’s Creeds and the Red Deads, everyone’s hitting on all cylinders, making these games that are heartfelt and beautiful and so polished. I think whenever we got into the Spider-Man hype, which was about a week and a half after we released, I was like—yeah, I’m really excited about Spider-Man. I don’t want to talk about God of War right now. I want to see what’s going on with Spider-Man. And then Assassin’s Creed was coming up, and then Tomb Raider, and then Red Dead. I just felt like—oh my gosh, even I’m forgetting about it. So yes, I was very worried that we would be forgotten.
GamesBeat: It’s been interesting to have this contrast this year with games that were on a fixed timeline, like Call of Duty. You can’t go longer than so many years because you won’t have a Call of Duty one year. Assassin’s Creed tried to stay on that for a while as well, have that one game come out every single year. But then you guys are out of that cycle. You were on a five-year cycle. Red Dead was seven or eight. You had this freedom to go forward and back and forward again. But it’s hard to argue that everything should be this way.
Barlog: The interesting thing, the thing that I think is a stark contrast to film—in film they announce the release date when they sign the deal with the director. You’re doing a Star Wars movie and it’s coming out in two years at Christmas. You know your release data and you have to hit that, all or nothing. Whereas in games, the best games come out when it’s done. I think we should never have parity with movies in that respect. We should always maintain that.
It’s way more complicated. Games that are rushed, that attempt to meet a deadline that’s arbitrarily set early on, everyone suffers from that. The only time that you get the benefit is when someone says, “Hey, we’ll sit on this for a year, so how about you have a small group of people tune it and make it better?” That, I think, is really good. But the bar has just been raised this year, by everyone. It honestly scares me, developing games in the future. How much higher can we raise the bar?
Everybody’s game I play, I’m just like—I have so much work to do. I can feel the fact that everyone is operating on this level that is so far beyond just last year alone. What will games look like in 2020? I don’t even know.
GamesBeat: The fact that you guys came out in April and still won this big award speaks to how much people remembered it.
Barlog: That’s true. It is amazing.
GamesBeat: Did all the Easter eggs make it out by now? Have people found them? Especially anything that would give a clue to what’s coming or not.
Barlog: I don’t think there’s anything people haven’t talked about in some fashion. Some things have only been briefly mentioned. A lot of our team, they’re avid monitors of Reddit and ResetEra forums and stuff. When people find a small secret, it may only be a small group of people that even acknowledges they’ve seen it.
GamesBeat: The name in the house at the beginning.
Barlog: Right. We never intended on that being the last secret. That one, honestly, I thought people would find fairly early. The one I really wanted to be the final secret, the really complicated one that I spent months on, where you had the collector’s edition map and two languages that we made up, and then a bunch of coordinates—if you realized that with the collector’s edition you got two toys, in the code it would tell you where to put the toys, and then you’d follow the code and find, at the end of all this journey of moving these toys around the map—in between them is the location where you do a secret code input.
You use the two coordinates, get the two toys to that point on the map, and then you translate the two languages we made up – and you can only find out about that if you played the game – so you know what to do when you’re standing in that position. I had to keep that a secret. I used the visual development guys and a designer to implement it, and we had secrecy amongst everybody, so nobody knew about it. I had a special tester work on it so we didn’t let anybody know the secret.
People found it in three days. Three days after the game came out. It was maddening. That was the one I hoped would take a while to figure out. Nope.
GamesBeat: With the whole industry doing so well now, what would you say as far as advice for creators out there, people who are coming up?
Barlog: An agglomeration of the best advice I’ve ever gotten. One, find your own way into your story. Find your own way into your game. Don’t let somebody else tell you what you want. Part of having a vision for something is, even if you’re taking on something that everybody’s familiar with — if you’re saying you’re going to make Assassin’s Creed — don’t let other people tell you what Assassin’s Creed means. Find your interpretation, your vision, your personal connection to it. If you don’t, it’s harder to make a true moment — if it’s not yours, if it’s not personal to you.
Trust yourself. That, to me, is a hard thing. I don’t fully have it yet. Sometimes I fake it, meaning—I’ll push forward on a decision that I don’t necessarily believe in. I know it’s right, but I’m scared that it’s going to end up being the wrong one. It’s felt by everyone on the team. The team doesn’t need to hear you say, “I have the answer.” The team needs to know that you believe in what you’re doing. They need to know that you’re pushing forward toward something. Even when you say, “I don’t know,” you say, “I don’t know, but we’re going to figure this out together.”
Whether you have a small team or a large team, you’ll always have a percentage of people telling you to do the opposite of what you think you should be doing. Then you’ll have a percentage of people telling you to do the opposite of what they’re saying. It’s a constant sea of doubtful voices. You have to navigate through that. The north star for every creative is that truth, that you have to believe in yourself.
GamesBeat: There’s this movement or discussion about how games might not need stories, or might not need single-player campaigns. Amy Hennig had her Star Wars game cancelled and said, “Games like this are terrifying to make,” because you have to get it right. I wonder what you think about some of the angst around storytelling and narrative in games.
Barlog: A thing a lot of people lose sight of is that games are more than one type of game. That’s the best part about gaming for me. I’m terrible at rhythm games. I don’t want to rhythm games to go away because I’m bad at them. Nor do I have a huge interest in, say, League of Legends. But I think it’s cool and I don’t want it to go away. There’s a place for that. That’s the best part about gaming.
It’s not just story-driven games or not story-driven games. There was a time when there was an attempt to make it us or them, dead or alive, that kind of thing. But I don’t think that’s the gaming we grew up with. Sometimes it was two players next to each other on the couch. Sometimes you played by yourself. Sometimes you play against other people on the internet. These things are all very good. I’m not a competitive player at all, but I don’t want competitive games to go away, because for some people that’s why they play games, to compete. That’s amazing.
Every creator has to follow what they believe. That’s the message I would love for every single executive to get, to clearly understand, and every single producer out there. Telling somebody to create a multiplayer game, when they’re somebody who creates single-player games, or the opposite—know the strengths of the people you’re working with. Play to those strengths. Don’t expect the fish to fly. That’s an important lesson for everybody to learn.
If I were to jump into a multiplayer game and try to make it, I would fail miserably. I just don’t know that genre. I don’t want to play it. I don’t discount those who do, because I think there’s an amazing group of great multiplayer games. But I don’t necessarily think that any of them are alive or dead. They just play in different pools.
Anybody who believes that Fortnite is not an outlier in the way that GTA is an outlier—they say, “Let’s do multiplayer because Fortnite makes billions.” Yeah, awesome, but it’s an outlier. Every kid coming up today saying they’re going to be Ninja. He’s an outlier. Everybody on YouTube is not Ninja, hence the reason he’s the guy who’s on the cover of ESPN Magazine and the Jimmy Fallon show. It’s not every streamer out there that’s doing that.
We get caught up in this concept of chasing the next big thing because we think we’re going to make billions. I’m all for making money. That’s great, because it funds the ability to make more games. That’s the cycle I want to be in. I don’t want this industry to ever go away, and I doubt it will. We’re doing very well. But play to the strengths of your people, to ensure you don’t end up forcing a square peg into a round hole.
GamesBeat: Sometimes I wonder if the thing that goes through game designers’ heads—“We have a nice story here, but how can we stretch it out 10 more hours? People don’t want a 6-hour game.” Is there ever actual pressure to make a longer experience?
Barlog: Not at Sony, not at Santa Monica. We’ve never had that. In fact, it’s usually the opposite. “Oh my gosh, too big, too much, get rid of it, we can’t do this!” I kept trying to convince people that the game was 20 hours: 10 hours for story, 10 hours of exploration. I was convincing them for a couple of years before the reality set in, that there was no way this was 20 hours. Then I was able to switch tactics and say, “I know, but we’re already invested. We understand what we’re going to do. We can do this. Let’s just be economical and find a way.”
Some of it’s a trick we play on each other. But for me, I didn’t want to make it long for the sake of being long. I’ve learned from long-format storytelling, like great seasons or multiple seasons of television, that the best payoffs are these longer payoffs. I don’t feel like just learning something and then paying it off an hour later. It’s cool, but the weight isn’t there. The feeling of experiencing this entire thing and then having a realization, the weight is so much stronger. It allows you to take your time.
We, in the game industry, are far more analogous to the storytelling of TV in how we’re dragging things out and having moments. Great TV still can have an off episode, but that episode gives you the breather, the palate cleanser, to appreciate the on episode, the one after that. If you just cram it all together — it’s difficult for movies sometimes, because they want to make multiples. Here’s movie one of a five-part series! The movie doesn’t feel like it pays off, because you wait a couple of years for the next one. Whereas with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, people are saying it’s a world in and of itself. The whole thing is an inclusive experience where I got what I wanted from beginning to end. I walk out wishing I could see more of that, but I don’t feel like I’m waiting for a payoff.
For me, that was the big thing in our game. I wanted people to be able to have a complete experience like I had when I was a kid. I’d take a game home and it wasn’t like, maybe the developer will give me a bit more later. You got it all. You got the entire experience there, and then you wondered what might happen next.
GamesBeat: Sometimes I feel like at least half of a great story is a good beginning and a good ending. If you have that it all pulls together. Last of Us has a beginning that resonates back through the ending. You guys have that too. The funny thing, when I was talking to Neil Druckmann, he was saying that in the latest Uncharted, they didn’t know what the beginning would be. They had this swordfighting thing and they weren’t sure if the mechanic was going to work. Eventually it did work, but they took it out of the beginning and had it in the ending. They wanted to have the symmetry in the swordfighting at the beginning and the ending, but for some reason it didn’t work.
He said that they never do the beginning until they know which mechanics are going to work in the game, and they’re sure that they’re not going to throw something out. You can’t have a swordfight in the beginning of the story if it doesn’t work mechanically yet. I wondered if you have a similar approach, if your beginning wasn’t there yet.
Barlog: It’s interesting, because we’ve always done the beginning last. What we ended up using for the beginning was something we were doing, but thinking we were throwing out. It was based on a short story that I wrote in the first year, to get everybody comfortable with the idea. I wrote it in the style of that Cormac McCarthy story about the father and his son. I never said “Kratos” or “Atreus” in the story. It was just the father and the son going out hunting.
That was a tone piece to help people think, “OK, I can see that. I get it. I see where you’re going.” And then we had to keep doing these things where—OK, we have to come up with a vertical slice. We don’t have anything? Let’s just use that short story. When we were brainstorming the beginning of the game, well, let’s use that short story. It ended up becoming this thing we kept leaning on. Surprisingly, we were doing the beginning of the game very early.
The elements, the real heart of the elements, came after we had cemented everything else. Things we were adding to it that really made it much better. Uncharted 4’s beginning, getting out of the orphanage, I thought that was so good. Such a brilliant beginning. The beginning of Last of Us was done in the last bit of the game. They’d done it, and apparently they had to reshoot everything, because they had a better idea.
That, right there, is why they’re the top of the game. They realize they have a better idea. They know it’s a better idea. Or they believe in it, so they’re willing to take the flying leap. I try to live that as much as possible. When there’s something better, it doesn’t matter what the consequences are going to be. We have to follow that. We have to say, “This is going to make it better. Let’s do it.”
GamesBeat: It sounds like you can’t get wed to your story, either. You can’t say, “This is the beginning, the middle, the end, I want it to be this way.” You find, at the end of the process, that you could rip it up.
Barlog: Sometimes what you’re doing is figuring out how pliable you are. There are certain anchors throughout the story, anchors that I still argue about with the writers today in some cases. But they’re non-negotiable. Those things won’t move. They’re important. They need to be there, because everything fans out from there. But by nature, we want to mess with everything. Knowing which things to say, “Nope, this is too far, can’t mess with that, but here, that’s fine.”
When you get to see everything together—we had a unique experience on this one in that we were constantly revising and writing the whole game. We didn’t have any “a ha” realization at the end. Everything worked out, because we’d gone “a-ha” all the way through. I think our big realization was that we had to cut a huge chunk and we needed to figure out how to fill it. What we filled it with made the game better. It surprised me. “Why didn’t we do this before? This is amazing!”
So in some ways it was great that we cut that, but—not only being flexible with the story, but knowing what not to be flexible with. You can easily get lost. I see a lot of games where they lose the thread because they cut too much. They rewrite a few things, and all of a sudden they don’t realize that they’ve just completely, fundamentally changed the story.
GamesBeat: You thanked David Jaffe onstage at The Game Awards, which I thought was interesting. Bonnie Ross yesterday, she got the Hall of Fame award from the Academy of Arts and Interactive Sciences. In both cases, the thing you’re getting recognized for is not something you started. The original creators are somewhere else. But you’ve developed a passion for this IP that ultimately has led to great things, maybe unexpectedly so. You’re continuing somebody else’s work, and I wonder how that feels.
Barlog: I was on the project, the first one, right from the beginning. But I never really felt—or I felt, but I didn’t want to ever verbalize, that I was part of the creation of the franchise. It wasn’t until Dave had actually said, “Cory and I are kind of like co-parents of Kratos. We’re the creators of this character.” I thought that was awesome, for him to consider me somebody who’s part of the creation of that huge thing.
Honestly, I would not be here without him. Not only did he create it, but he was the guy who took a chance on putting me in that position. I hadn’t directed anything before. I had a big mouth. I had an opinion on everything when we made the first game. But no proven track record to say, “This guy can handle directing one of these games.” It was definitely a flying leap, for them to say, “All right, you should take this on.”
It feels, for me, weird, in the sense that I’ve changed so much of it. But at its heart, at its roots, it’s still something Dave has created, and it carries forward through here. It’s similar, I imagine—I wrote and laid out God of War 3, and then left. It took me a long time to play that game, because it’s very personal, right? A different person has taken what you’ve done and changed it. That’s very weird. Dave described it as an ex-girlfriend who’s now happily married. In some ways it really is that sense of—Stig did a great job with God of War 3. After I played it I thought, “All right, that’s cool.” But it took a lot, emotionally, for me to play that.
I think he had the opposing end, this idea of somebody taking what he’s done. I would love for him to play it, because I’m the typical kid looking for Dad’s approval. “What does he think of it?” But I think the reality is, both of us, in our own right, we have a stamp on that, to say what this franchise is.