Direc­tor and writer Cory Bar­log opens up about re­turn­ing to God Of War

PlayStation Official Magazine (UK) - - CONTENTS -

Direc­tor and writer Cory Bar­log re­veals how he’s teach­ing an old god new tricks.

Few peo­ple have stayed with God Of War for as long as Cory Bar­log, writer and direc­tor of Kratos’ re­turn on PS4. Af­ter taking up the man­tle of lead an­i­ma­tor on the first game, he re­turned as direc­tor on its se­quel be­fore leav­ing early into the three­quel’s de­vel­op­ment to work with Mad Max’s Ge­orge Miller, and jug­gle God Of War on Sony’s PSP hand­held. So why come back for PS4’s soft re­boot?

“I think it’s re­ward­ing, that’s the whole point of it,” he says as we sit down to chat. “These things take so long and so much of our lives that I felt like it had to mean some­thing to me. I had to feel like I was dig­ging a lit­tle deeper into this char­ac­ter and this world.

“For this one, it’s more like in­stead of babysit­ting it’s my own kid – mean­ing when I go home from work my worry never stops… at all. I am con­stantly think­ing about this, be­cause I think it’s such a big place for this fran­chise, this idea of say­ing, ‘Let’s take a re­ally bold move.’ Right from the be­gin­ning I kind of had this di­rec­tion I wanted to go in but try­ing to re­alise that I think ev­ery day the scale of it grows larger and larger to the point where you just can’t get your head or your hands around it.”

It’s cer­tainly a larger game, in both am­bi­tion and team size. But Bar­log is a dif­fer­ent man from the one who hun­kered down to make a Lethal Weapon/Gla­di­a­tor mashup work back on PS2. In the time be­tween God Of War re­leases Bar­log has dab­bled in film VFX and even spent time work­ing with his idol Ge­orge Miller on the Mad Max uni­verse. It’s all fed back into how he ap­proaches cre­at­ing this new God Of War on PlayS­ta­tion 4.

“I went to work with Ge­orge Miller on game stuff, but to also learn ev­ery pos­si­ble thing I could from some­body I ad­mire so much. He was re­ally very open and gen­er­ous, and kind of in­vited me in on a lot of the steps on a lot of the projects he was work­ing on at the time,” says Bar­log.

At the time, Miller was work­ing on the Happy Feet movies, but he was also work­ing with Weta artists on the Avatar mo­cap stage. “He let me hang out and talk to them about their process,” says Bar­log. “I got to work with Weta and got to dig in and learn how they ap­proach prob­lems. You know there was a lit­tle bit of the tech­ni­cal that I was able to ab­sorb but mostly, for me, what I walked away with was this un­der­stand­ing of char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment and drama that I did not have be­fore work­ing with him.

“We spent about two years in a con­fer­ence room, we’d go out there for weeks at a time and we would just hang out in the con­fer­ence room all day writ­ing and at­tack­ing dif­fer­ent prob­lems and try­ing to work out this over­all plan for the videogame that would even­tu­ally tie in with other prop­er­ties that he was work­ing on.

“That was in­stru­men­tal, as it was a child­hood dream to be cre­at­ing char­ac­ters in the Mad Max uni­verse with the guy who cre­ated Mad Max. But he sur­rounds him­self with re­ally smart peo­ple, with some in­cred­i­bly gifted sto­ry­tellers, and it hon­estly opened my eyes to how lit­tle I truly un­der­stood char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion. I still feel like I’m still scratch­ing the surface, but it def­i­nitely put me on a path to en­deav­our­ing to learn a lot more, and ev­ery­thing I did learn I try to bring back.”


There’s no bet­ter char­ac­ter to dig into than Kratos, and bring­ing this some­what one-di­men­sional ball of bald­ing rage up to date, to fit a cul­ture now used to the in­tro­spec­tion of The Last Of Us, de­mands all of Bar­log’s learned Miller-isms.

“Kratos is kind of this in­ter­est­ing, I hope, sign of the times,” in­jects Bar­log. “When we first came out with the games he was the an­ti­hero when there weren’t a lot of an­ti­heroes around. It was kind of like that un­bri­dled rage. Ev­ery time we did a playtest we al­ways got this in­ter­est­ing feed­back from peo­ple that had said, ‘You know, I’ve just had a bad day, I got in a fight with my boss or I just got a park­ing ticket, but I came to this playtest and it felt good to let it all out and dice up mon­sters with these re­ally cool blades’.

“So that at the time he was this con­duit for peo­ple to let out this rage, and it was fresh and it was new, like they didn’t say they were an­gry char­ac­ters out of the game world but this one was def­i­nitely, un­flinch­ingly an­gry. He just sort of dove into it, and leaned into it with all of his might. And through the it­er­a­tions I think we failed to grow with the au­di­ence and the world, be­cause Kratos was known.”

Bar­log de­scribes a de­vel­op­ment spi­ral where the more an au­di­ence wants some­thing, the more the cre­ative minds be­hind the game go out of their way to de­liver it. As the bud­gets get big­ger and the games


be­come more am­bi­tious, be­ing able to dou­ble down on ideas that work is the easy route to take.

“Even­tu­ally you get to a point where I think peo­ple are ready for a change, they just don’t know how that change is go­ing to man­i­fest,” says Bar­log, as he brings us up to date with PS4’s God Of War. “I think Kratos’ change, his evo­lu­tion, is not a whole­hearted, ‘Oh this isn’t Kratos any more’, a lot of peo­ple’s re­ac­tions are, ‘This is not my Kratos, this is not Kratos, he’s to­tally dif­fer­ent’, but I guess I chal­lenge that with the idea most of these peo­ple are not the same as they were when they were 15 or 16 years old. Think about the views you had of the world when you were that age, and think about how those views have changed through time, and mag­nify that by a thou­sand to have Kratos’ jour­ney as a god who’s never go­ing to die.

“He’s a guy who’s done some hor­ri­ble things in his past and he’s had an infinite amount of time to cope with that, and for me he is kind of in re­cov­ery, if you will, he’s ac­cept­ing this rage he has is never go­ing to go away so he has to fig­ure out how to con­trol it. And that ex­ter­nal source, that mo­ti­va­tion of, ‘I want to make to­mor­row bet­ter be­cause I want to show this kid that there is a bet­ter way’, that doesn’t mean he’s go­ing to go out and ride the horse and valiantly save the king­dom or any­thing like that, it just means that ev­ery day is a strug­gle and a war with tiny vic­to­ries that to the out­side ob­server may not mean any­thing, but to the per­son strug­gling with the prob­lem it means a great deal.

“I think his evo­lu­tion is, to me, the most in­ter­est­ing part of all this. In­stead of just start­ing fresh with a new char­ac­ter I have this char­ac­ter who has eight games of back­story and you get to see how he will evolve and change, and as ridicu­lous as it sounds it’s al­most hope­ful to peo­ple that change is pos­si­ble, but it takes so much work and per­haps it doesn’t look as if you’ve made a course cor­rec­tion, but when charted over time a tiny cor­rec­tion can man­i­fest as a mas­sive down­turn.”


We now know that big change was to give Kratos a son, and make their re­la­tion­ship and the theme of di­vided fam­i­lies a pivot on which to bal­ance the new game. The idea grew from a short story Bar­log had writ­ten. It was sim­ple and ef­fec­tive:

Kratos and his son go hunt­ing. But team­ing them up has meant marked changes to how we’ll play God Of War. For starters, there are no more Quick Time Events (QTEs).

“With­out the son I would still want to move away from QTEs. I think some peo­ple are nos­tal­gic for that, but for me I feel like there’s just so much more we can do, so many other ways we can en­dear. But def­i­nitely Atreus is a way for us to cre­ate a con­nec­tion to a char­ac­ter that is al­ways present,” says Bar­log.

In game this means the pair can com­bine to dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect. Press the face but­tons, such as r, and Atreus will per­form an at­tack, such as firing an ar­row or leap­ing onto an en­emy’s back, while Kratos lands an axe hit. We get the emo­tional con­nec­tion of a QTE but with greater free­dom.

Bar­log ex­plains: “I think the thing that is al­ways so fas­ci­nat­ing about games is this idea that you kind of hand over this tremen­dous amount of power and tools to a player and kind of let them do what they want, that in­stead of say­ing you have to hit this but­ton and then this but­ton and that but­ton to achieve what we’re try­ing to show you, we’re sort of just say­ing, ‘Here’s 20 dif­fer­ent things you can do, and you can mix and match them in any or­der you want,’ so that each time you ap­proach a sit­u­a­tion you’re kind of cre­at­ing the out­come, or at least the flow to­wards the out­come.”


Bar­log goes on to com­pare the com­bat to FIFA. “It’s the same game ev­ery time you play but it’s ex­tremely sort of non-de­ter­min­is­tic. Ev­ery game is dif­fer­ent, de­spite ev­ery game be­ing the same; there’s this drama that ex­ists in ev­ery single match, even when you’re play­ing the same teams. There’s a magic to videogames en­cap­su­lated in the idea that I don’t ever want to lose even if I am mak­ing some­thing that’s try­ing to tell a story, and we de­velop these char­ac­ters to al­low you to feel like there’s free­dom here, and that is the joy of games.”

When it comes to how we’ll re­late to the pair, Bar­log points to cinema’s abil­ity to im­bue ges­tures with mean­ing – how a sub­tle glance can re­veal a missed op­por­tu­nity. Bar­log sees Atreus in a sim­i­lar vein; he’ll re­act to your be­hav­iour, and how you treat him in re­turn can af­fect the game in real ways.

“As you move through the game you make choices about what you,

or Kratos, wants for Atreus, about how you’re go­ing to de­velop each of these char­ac­ters,” says Bar­log, ex­plain­ing: “When you re­ally ex­trap­o­late, it’s like this is about sort of putting out­fits and load­outs on char­ac­ters, but when you di­vorce it from that, and you’re in the mo­ment, you start to re­alise it’s very sim­i­lar to that mo­ment in Mad Max when he’s got the can of dog food and he’s de­ter­min­ing whether he’s go­ing to eat all of it and get the en­ergy, or if he’s go­ing to give some of it to the dog, and he’s go­ing to do that be­cause he wants to be able to sleep, and if he has the dog and he’s well fed he can sleep and the dog will warn him if dan­ger ap­proaches. It’s kind of like, you know, it’s sort of, again, like par­ent­ing. This idea of mak­ing choices for your­self and mak­ing choices for your kid, how you’re go­ing to sort of load bal­ance.”


Bar­log also re­veals Atreus won’t be the only reg­u­lar char­ac­ter to in­flu­ence how you play the game, and how Kratos be­haves. The dwar­ven duo Brokk and Sin­dri are along for the ride and play a cru­cial role in the game.

In Norse myth, Brokk and Sin­dri forged both Thor’s ham­mer and a gold ring that repli­cates it­self, and they are the ones who made the Le­viathan axe and the shield Kratos wields in com­bat.

“They are in­ter­est­ing be­cause we wanted to in­tro­duce a new way of de­vel­op­ing the char­ac­ter [Kratos], and the whole idea of the orbs and just go­ing into the menu any time you wanted for an upgrade path was some­thing we wanted to leave be­hind,” ex­plains Bar­log. “So we looked at a way to con­tex­tu­alise it more in the world. A chal­lenge I thought would be fun would be to have these two char­ac­ters, who also ac­tu­ally have their own story arc, who are there to help you upgrade as well as de­velop your com­bat per­spec­tive [new moves and spe­cials] for the two main char­ac­ters, but then also that they them­selves tie into the over­ar­ch­ing theme. That these two char­ac­ters ba­si­cally are in a feud, a fam­ily feud, that nei­ther of them has talked to each other in 50 years and they just com­plain about each other and blame each other for the loss of their ‘tal­ent’ and their abil­i­ties.

“As you go through the game, as you in­ter­act with them, you will dis­cover more of the story and more of the dif­fer­ent lay­ers, and through the in­ter­ac­tions be­tween them you are able to fully un­der­stand and ac­tu­ally help change the arc for each of these char­ac­ters.


The use of the dwarves as an upgrade tool, and the in­tro­duc­tion of Atreus as a moral com­pass and combo string, point to a game in which con­text is king. Bar­log wants us to be im­mersed in these Nordic realms, where the act of up­grad­ing an axe is done con­tex­tu­ally in­side the game world and not in a menu sys­tem. To an ex­tent, the idea was in­spired by some­thing very sim­ple: the old God Of War menu screens.

“The thing I re­ally liked about the early God Of War games was the idea that from the menu screen it felt like you went right into the game,” ex­plains Bar­log. “You’d hit Start and the cam­era would zoom out and it was like you were al­ready in the game, and I wanted to take that as far as we pos­si­bly could – this idea that once you hit Start on the menu screen you never look away, you’re con­stantly with Kratos, you are on this jour­ney that you have a more per­sonal stake in than ever be­fore.”

It’s meant we get the new, close-in cam­era sys­tem and a sparse UI. But it wasn’t easy get­ting to this point. The closer, third-per­son cam­era in­tro­duced new prob­lems, but also some unique ben­e­fits, which was a steep learn­ing curve.

“Even now we just got through a playtest that taught us a tremen­dous amount about the player’s aware­ness in the world, about how they


ori­en­tate them­selves, how they are ac­tu­ally nav­i­gat­ing and de­ter­min­ing where they want to go and where they are. I think that’s some­thing that, no mat­ter how many games you make, you are con­stantly ad­just­ing be­cause it is very, very nu­anced.”


It nat­u­rally af­fects how the de­sign­ers cre­ate the game’s lev­els, and in fact God Of War has gone through many it­er­a­tions, in­clud­ing one ver­sion that avoided cutscenes al­to­gether. “Many years ago we had what we called our first playable, and we had the as­pi­ra­tions of mak­ing ev­ery­thing com­pletely freeform,” re­mem­bers Bar­log. “I had started out with this idea of no cam­era cuts, that was some­thing I was go­ing to stand pretty firm on, but I started think­ing I want to tell a story in a non-stop­ping method, so you would al­ways be in mo­tion, you would al­ways have to­tal con­trol, so a lit­tle bit like what Half-Life had done, where they would lock you in a room but you still have to­tal con­trol. But as we de­vel­oped fur­ther on that one we de­cided we still wanted to di­rect them [the player] a lit­tle bit.

“We want to cre­ate this single seam­less ex­pe­ri­ence, but we don’t want to have so much free­dom that they end up miss­ing the point. It had all of these great lit­tle de­tails and se­crets in it, and if they are pay­ing at­ten­tion they’ll find those, and they helped us to home in a lit­tle bit closer.”

Bar­log also drew on his knowl­edge of past God Of War games, com­bin­ing cam­era sys­tems, point­ing play­ers to key ar­eas of the level and guid­ing their hand. But these didn’t al­ways work, as the power of PS4 meant the new, highly de­tailed lev­els con­fused play­ers dur­ing test­ing… be­cause there was more to look at.

“At any given mo­ment the player could look wher­ever they wanted, and we knew we needed to ac­count for that and speak to them as to what is im­por­tant, what is fun to look at, and what is not im­por­tant but guid­ing you to­wards the main goal. That was a very in­ter­est­ing ride, be­cause we wanted to keep that bal­ance of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion and dis­cov­ery of the world along with the puz­zling cere­bral el­e­ments, and the com­bat, and the story. It’s very fun and very dif­fi­cult.”

You’ll no­tice Bar­log dropped the p-word there, and puz­zles are back in PS4’s God Of War. But like much of the game they’re be­ing treated con­tex­tu­ally. There will be a rea­son for puz­zles, and uniquely Atreus – and how you treat him – will af­fect how puz­zles are solved.

“Any game mak­ers re­ally strug­gle with con­text, be­cause con­text works to a cer­tain de­gree be­fore you kind of look at it and go, ‘Okay, an­cient civil­i­sa­tions, why did they cre­ate all of these chal­lenges?’ un­less you say, ‘ev­ery­thing is all about chal­lenges’. But I think the con­text of the world and ground­ing it all in a sense of re­al­ity is al­ways im­por­tant, and I think with this game read­ing the old Norse lan­guage is quite im­por­tant.

“Atreus is the only one who can read the lo­cal lan­guage, and through­out the game he learns to read in many of the realm’s lan­guages. He’s kind of the con­duit for Kratos and the player into this world, so he is some­times the one who has a lit­tle bit more power in some sit­u­a­tions [those puz­zles] and a bit more knowl­edge about what other char­ac­ters are say­ing.”

Bar­log ac­knowl­edges that past games in the se­ries had puz­zles that felt pad-crush­ingly hard, sud­den dif­fi­culty spikes that sent many DualShocks to their doom.


“For some peo­ple these two puz­zles are hard, and for an­other these other puz­zles are hard; so I think it’s this bal­anc­ing act of like, ‘We want to give peo­ple the right sort of guid­ance’, and oc­ca­sion­ally we want some peo­ple to be stumped, but very rarely do we want them to get frus­trated to the point where they’re go­ing to throw the con­troller down – you never want them to get to that point. There’s a sense of ac­com­plish­ment [to puz­zles], be­cause I think if you were just al­ways hit­ting things you’d sort of get bored – I thought the cool mix­ture of God Of War was the idea that you were think­ing as much as tense and sweaty palms, you were try­ing to win the fight.

“Puz­zles are al­ways a dif­fi­cult thing, I don’t think I’ve played any games where the puz­zles are per­fectly con­tex­tu­alised, un­less the en­tire game is a puz­zle game built upon that con­cept.”

With so much change hap­pen­ing to a fa­mil­iar and beloved se­ries, it’s no sur­prise to learn that Bar­log has had to fight for the right to make God Of War his way. He does so from a po­si­tion of ex­pe­ri­ence, con­fi­dent his ver­sion of Kratos is the right fit for what we ex­pect from PlayS­ta­tion 4 – sub­tle, real, and re­flec­tive.

“There’s still al­ways that sense that at the end of the day you have to make the de­ci­sion whether you’re right or wrong,” ad­mits a stoic Bar­log, who says he had peo­ple pulling him aside at E3 2016 say­ing: “This is not God Of War, this is go­ing to fall flat, this is re­ally bad”. They had doubts over the tone, many didn’t like Atreus shoot­ing Kratos with an ar­row, oth­ers felt it should have ended on a gi­ant boss. “Just a lot of peo­ple were very doubt­ful of what we were go­ing to do,” he re­flects.

Bar­log ad­mits he doubted him­self in 2016 as peo­ple lined up to crit­i­cise, but he used the mo­ment


to steer peo­ple to­wards his vi­sion, say­ing to his de­trac­tors: “Look, I be­lieve in this and if it falls flat, it falls flat, I’m just go­ing to be fully leap­ing off the cliff”.


Of course, in hind­sight Bar­log was proved right. The 2016 demo was a suc­cess, everyone clam­oured for this new, ma­ture Kratos. “It’s not like I be­grudge them for hav­ing that fear be­cause they are very wor­ried that no-one’s go­ing to get this and everyone is go­ing to think that this was just ill-ad­vised,” con­sid­ers Bar­log. “But I think that [2016 demo] bol­stered ev­ery­body and ig­nited their spirit and en­thu­si­asm.”

Healthy crit­i­cism is a good thing, and, in fact, Bar­log has drafted in peo­ple he trusts who worked on the orig­i­nal God Of War to ad­vise, and when needed, chas­tise him. “I just needed peo­ple to give me the straight in­for­ma­tion, but even then they’ll say, ‘You’re dumb, why are you do­ing this?’ I ig­nore them be­cause per­haps I am dumb, be­cause you’ve got to go with your gut.”

To an ex­tent it all comes full cir­cle for Bar­log, hir­ing old hands to steer the good ship Kratos, and even tap­ping into mem­o­ries of Ge­orge Miller for sup­port in the hard times for guid­ance.

“If some­thing evokes a strong emo­tional re­ac­tion in me, I need to push my­self in that di­rec­tion,” says Bar­log, adding: “I learned a lot of that from Ge­orge, and I feel like there are a lot of sit­u­a­tions he was prob­a­bly in, that I even wit­nessed while I was there, that some­body was like ‘what are you do­ing?’ and he was like, ‘Trust me, I be­lieve in this’.

“In the end, I think, more of­ten than not it pays off, but that doesn’t mean you suc­ceed ev­ery time.”

But Bar­log is a man who can’t help him­self. To all those crit­ics who felt the 2016 demo needed to end on a bang with a boss fight, Bar­log de­liv­ered for them ear­lier this sum­mer. The 2017 E3 demo came to a jaw-drop­ping cli­max as the mas­sive World Ser­pent broke the surface.

“I watched some re­ac­tion videos and a lot of peo­ple had the re­ac­tion I was hop­ing for, which was like: ‘Oh my god, that’s such an amaz­ing boss and… oh wait, that guy’s go­ing to help you… what?’ What I find fas­ci­nat­ing about all of this is re­ally not just play­ing to what’s ex­pected, but to al­ways give ev­ery­body some­thing to think about while they’re walk­ing away.”

The new set­ting’s colder cli­mate has not led to Kratos wrap­ping up warmly.

Bar­log sees PS4’s God Of War as a chance to fi­nally give Kratos a rounded per­son­al­ity.

Con­text is ev­ery­thing in God Of War. Load­outs look to be han­dled by ‘giv­ing’ Atreus weapons – such as a dag­ger in this shot.

This sea­son in Scan­di­navia, beards are very much in. Ar­mour mod­els’ own.

Kratos’ axe, the Le­viathan, re­turns to his hand and can take on mag­i­cal prop­er­ties.

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