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.