The god father
Sony Santa Monica Studio’s creative director Cory Barlog discusses the challenges, hurdles, naysayers and triumphs of his attempt to Modernise god of War as we go hands-on with the near-finished action epic
We take an older, wiser, but no less furious Kratos for a spin as director Corey Balrog reveals the challenges he faced in dragging the god of war into a new era of gaming on PS4
Very few game franchises and even fewer heroes in those series are afforded the opportunity to grow or age. very few game series manage to span three generations of consoles. very few developers are given the time and trust needed to pursue such evolutions. But then, very few series are god of war, and very few have a lead as iconic and magnetic as Kratos.
But times have changed, and the angsty, tortured, anti-authority antihero is moving with the times, much as his makers have. “We as developers here have grown,” Sony Santa Monica creative director Cory Barlog tells us. “I personally feel a lot of parallels in the fact that he left Greece and wandered, and I feel like I left Sony and I sort of wandered, and during that time I learned a lot.” Barlog returned to the studio in 2013 after a few years away working with Avalanche and Crystal Dynamics, having started out as animation director on God Of War, working his way up to writer and game director through to GOWIII before he left in 2010.
“I met a lot of people and I experienced development from a lot of different perspectives. I experienced a lot of different creative voices and understandings,” he continues. “After I finished the Tomb Raider game, I realised I wanted to make something that has a bit more dramatic weight and meat on it. The earlier games, they had some dramatic weight, but I think they were sort of reflective of that ‘thumb your nose at authority’ attitude of making an antihero. There weren’t a lot of antiheroes at the time. It was an interesting thing to tackle, and then after that it was like the second Prince Of Persia was a darker, meaner Prince and everyone was making the antihero. So it became the note that everyone’s hitting, and not to say that we weren’t also just hitting a singular note. I think that when we started working on this not only did I have inside me the desire to make something that meant a little bit more to me, I think everybody I was working with had the exact same feeling.”
And so Kratos has been wandering. For how long we’re not sure, and Barlog isn’t telling. In that time, however, he has left Greece and travelled north to a strange and in some ways far more magical realm. He attempted to isolate himself, but somewhere along the way he met a woman and they had a son, and now things are a bit more complex again. This all feels a little more sedate and emotionally contained than the Kratos we once knew, but underneath it all the Santa Monica Studio knows that what’s inside him cannot change. “During that time I think there’s a belief in his mind that he thinks he’s better off being away from people, because clearly when he’s around them he destroys entire pantheons,” Barlog reflects. “But the reality is that I think being alone with your demons does nothing but feed your demons. It takes him a long time to realise, and I think he almost needs to hit a rock bottom for himself before he understands.”
We found the term ‘rock bottom’ to be an interesting one with its connection to addiction and recovery, and mused with Barlog as to what degree he thinks that
Kratos had been hooked on his own anger like a drug.
As it turns out, it may run even deeper, as to the team’s mind all demigods come with a side effect; an unforeseen consequence of their mortal bodies carrying within them the power of a god. “Kratos’ side effect [to being a demigod] is this unbelievable storm inside of him,” Barlog explains. “I think that not only is it kind of this manifestation of his own physical being; it’s something that he has to just live with his whole life, figuring out how to cope and control. It is kind of something that he did become, in a way, addicted to. It was the easier route.”
It’s hard to believe that the events of Kratos’ seven previous games could be described as an easy route, but Barlog gets into the deeper psychological meaning of his observation. “It seemed like he took the hard route, but the easiest route is to blame other people for your problems, and honestly that’s all he did. It was the gods, it was Ares, it was Athena, everybody else was at fault except him. His way of fixing it was to have them remove the memories of the bad things that he had done. You don’t process anything and you don’t get through anything by forgetting something. You figure out how to live with it and not make the same mistakes tomorrow.”
In some ways this all goes back to his Spartan upbringing and the complete lack of empathy or selfreflection that it instilled in him. “It’s sort of a cycle of this guy was trained in one of the most brutal and psychologically damaging military training programs in the history of mankind. The Spartans are renowned for beginning military training at eight years old and 20 years of beating down the human in making the perfect soldier,” Barlog continues. “For him, in the Spartan code, it was so brutal that there wasn’t anything about it that was, ‘Good job soldier’. It was more like all you did was find the fault to make that fault go away, and when that fault went away you found another fault and you stamped it down until that fault went away. There was no benefit to compliments, to say that you did good.” Not, we would think, a great mindset for restarting life as a father, but that’s where we find Kratos as God Of War begins.
The relationship between Kratos and Atreus starts out very tensely, the dialogue terse and dripping with things unsaid. Emotions reveal themselves in the beats between lines. It’s in the things Atreus holds back from saying. It’s in the way Kratos reaches out for – but never comforts – his son. When Kratos tells Atreus curtly, “Do not be sorry. Be better,” we can’t help but wonder how common that phrase might have been during military training back in Sparta when Kratos was growing up, just without the ‘do not be sorry’ part. It’s not a lack of love holding either of them back, but perhaps fear; fear on both their parts that showing affection could be a sign of weakness. Whether there’s more to be fearful about for Kratos hangs in the air. What consequence could there be for the son of a demigod?
In Barlog’s mind, the developing relationship between father and son is all part of Kratos’ redemption and recovery. “The interesting thing for him right now is just making those small steps, the small ‘one day at a time’ kind of movements,” he tells us. “They yield little victories, and those little victories are the things that he is celebrating. The ability to actually relate to his son and give him a decent compliment, tell him he did something good. Because really, at the end of the day, that’s what Atreus wants. It’s what a lot of children want. It’s what we all want. We want to be respected and acknowledged and seen by our parents.”
Atreus’ desire for recognition and respect from his father is clear in how he tries to help and intervene in the action through the game. As a co-op partner Atreus is not immune to attack and can be picked up and threatened, mostly by mid-level enemies from what we’ve seen so far. Thankfully, a quick punch or tap with the axe will usually free him, but otherwise he is a great asset in combat. For instance, one challenging ghoul will evade attacks from any range, vanishing and reappearing to throw poison at you, but with its attention occupied by Kratos, Atreus can stun it with an arrow and open it up to a direct assault from his father. In wider brawls Atreus will call out to warn you of incoming attacks, giving you a verbal alert to supplement the visual indicator. And his arrows do chip away at health; they’re not just for show.
“The original concept was that kind of balance for Kratos, so that Kratos comes in with brute force, experience and strength, a hulk if you will, and I think his son always needed to be that balance,” says Barlog. “Even at the earliest point when my son started talking and I was realising, ‘Oh my gosh, that is something. This tiny little kid has more power than I do’. My son is learning Swedish
“There’s something about the fantastic that I think is kind of hitting a dopamine button that you’re going to get tired of”
“Clearly when he’s around people he destroys entire pantheons”
faster than I can learn Swedish, so now he is teaching me parts of the language. That kind of power dynamic is necessary. You can’t just say he’s more powerful than Kratos. It’s more like you’re in a land in which you don’t have the ability to learn the local language very easily.”
So as well as assisting Kratos in combat, Atreus is his translator in a strange land where he still hasn’t picked up the language. There’s magic in the runes of northern Europe that’s easy to see but difficult to understand. Much of what’s been shown of this realm is cold and unforgiving; stark frozen lakes, bare trees, barren and abandoned homes. But as we got to see after a couple of hours of play, something far more colourful and magical is revealed. We won’t get too much into it here, but let us just say that God Of War has lost none of its delight in the weirder side of myth and legend.
And much as this aspect of the relationship was drawn directly from Barlog’s own life, so the rest of the studio chipped in with stories to help flesh out the experience. “There are a lot of great, very real moments that came from us just really putting a mirror on ourselves and finding a moment that doesn’t just feel like we’re just writing this and throwing something in. This has a ring of truth.” And as we say, that comes across as much in what isn’t said and in the performances the team has captured.
But above all else, what was important to Sony Santa Monica Studio was that Atreus should never be a burden to the player, let alone an annoyance. “Even from the very beginning – we’re talking four weeks into this when I had first come back and presented a small Powerpoint – that was a very big point that I wanted to hammer home to everybody: this is not an escort mission,” Barlog insists. “This is not you constantly protecting this kid; it is more like you need to figure out how to make a connection, right? A connection that is going to save you. Kratos is the one being saved by his son. In a way, the son is just being guided through this milestone in his life.”
But Barlog admits to us it’s been a hard sell to players at large, and to his own team over time. “We did playtests and people just hated it, because they came in and they would have that viewpoint that is like, ‘I just don’t want to do an escort mission. I hate kids. I don’t want to carry a kid along with me. It’s dumb. Get rid of the kid. It doesn’t make sense’. Just a lot of doubt. But then once we got all of the mechanical back-and-forth between those two, once we got that feeling, the core loop of how he would be integrated within your moment to moment combat experience, it was absolutely that kind exclamation mark over the soldier’s head in Metal Gear Solid [makes alarm sound from the game]. Everybody just realised, ‘Oh man, this is great’.” Which was very much our experience playing the game as well.
And so much about the game seems like it has changed, from the setting to the tone to the combat. It all feels like a different kind of experience, and yet so much feels the same too. You can still go around smashing pots for resources, gathering health and other trinkets from fallen enemies, and chests are scattered around with useful items. Larger enemies require a more considered approach. Taking on the fire troll, for instance, you can interrupt its fire-throwing attack by chucking the axe into its arm. And further combos can be unlocked over time, for both range and close combat, offering plenty of opportunities for fights to evolve and change as you progress through the game.
Every step of the way, it seems Santa Monica Studio has been probing, questioning and challenging to find the right balance of old and new. “I was talking with some people on the first month of the project where people were saying, ‘I just don’t understand how we can take this more fantastic and mythological world and make it a bit more personal. Are we going to lose the danger and the spectacle?’ Barlog reveals. “And it was also the time I was pushing on, ‘Let’s push the camera in and not let the action get very far away. Let’s never make Kratos a little speck on the screen. Let’s always feel like we’re seeing everything from his perspective’. I think through the discussions the realisation is that most of the great experiences are often grounded or weighted in this sort of relatability. There’s something about the fantastic that I think is kind of hitting a dopamine button that you’re going to get tired of, unless it means something.”
For all the changes God Of War introduces, the camera is really the one with the most collateral effects, and it’s at the heart of bringing the fantastic and the personal together. By abandoning the fixed camera position for an over-the-shoulder view, we get a closer view of everything Kratos does. We may lose the spectacular shows of live combat from the past, but we gain an even more brutal and rewarding vantage point in return. With the camera as tight to Kratos as it is, we have never been drawn closer to him than now. His imposing figure, always clearly muscular, now feels almost monstrous next to his son. On occasion we glimpse him as if from Atreus’ point of view, and he is terrifying. And this close up we can even see the texture of the ashes
that were grafted to Kratos’ skin so many years ago. The full weight of the Ghost of Sparta’s curse is more apparent now than ever.
However, with the change of view comes gameplay sacrifices to help bridge the gap. “I was talking about the new camera, and when we were talking about if we do this new camera, I realised doing a jump is going to be really difficult,” says Barlog. “You can do it, but depth perception, the nausea inducing of constant double jumping, you’ve got to pull the camera further back, and I wanted the camera in as close as possible. So the same thing was going through our minds with the blades, because if you just said it’s Kratos with the Blades of Chaos in the Norse world, everybody is going to fall back on the patterns of Square, Square, Triangle. Even now, we offer in the game an ability to remap your controls to the classic God Of War controls, but we chose the control scheme that we chose because it is, to us and to timetested playtesting, the best layout, because you want to be able to have your right thumb on the analogue to be able to look around at all times, and if you’re constantly taking it off to attack it really makes it difficult. So I think we realised that it’s going to be hard for people to adopt a new control scheme with the same weapon. They’re not going to be able to parse that. But if you throw a new weapon in with the new camera and new location and new control scheme, it’s a little bit easier of a pill to swallow.”
So from one artistic and narrative decision to bring players closer to Kratos than ever, many of the staples of the character needed to be put aside. And while you might think the blades were the hardest thing to let go of,
Barlog feels differently. “For me, it was difficult, but once everything clicked with the Leviathan Axe and the ability to throw, recall, the ability to literally throw and freeze an enemy in place, and go about your fight and recall it later, just to me it was like, ‘Okay, I get it’,” he assures us. “The hardest thing to let go of was the jump in the beginning, simply because I’m one of those neurotic jump-button hitters, just running through a game jumping, much to the annoyance of most of the combat design team, when I was on the earlier games. I just adopted a whole new thing to annoy them, which was throw the axe into every surface in the entire game. When we would do group playthroughs where I would have everybody in the design team and art team in the conference room, I would be looking up at a rock or a tree limb and throwing the axe at it as I’m running through. People were like, ‘Stop it!’ There was a reason, because I wanted to make sure there was collision literally everywhere, and the earlier you start testing everything the better, but letting go of the jump for me was like, ‘Am I going to lose that constant input of the platforming?’.” From our experience, the action is different, but in a pleasing way. Combat is slower, but as brutal as ever. Chaining together light and heavy attacks gives you the same kind of rewarding juggle combos, crowd control is as important with larger groups, and stunning an enemy opens up the opportunity for a gruesome killing blow.
The camera perhaps doesn’t luxuriate in the destruction to quite the same degree as in the past, but that doesn’t make these moments any less wince-inducing. And while the axe appears for now to be the only melee weapon, you can also fight bare-handed, opening another branch of combos.
There’s also just more agency in the combat now than there was before. Every move feels more deliberate, threats come from everywhere and cannot always been seen. And with the camera in close, you’re no longer a spectator triggering incredible moves by a speck on the screen. You’re right in the thick of the action, aiming with L2, throwing with R1, dodging, rolling, punching and then recalling with Triangle, catching Draugrs as the Leviathan Axe returns to Kratos’ hand.
We only got a brief introduction to the deep and branching upgrade system that the game has to offer, too. Runes can be added to the axe that give you new special abilities, the axe itself can be upgraded to improve damage, defence and many other elements by the blacksmith Brok. He can also craft you new armour for both Kratos and Atreus, which changes their appearance in the game as well as offering better stats, and he can upgrade Atreus’ bow and generally buff your items with the resources you find on your travels. How we’ll come by him deeper into the journey we’re not sure, but perhaps we’ll meet his estranged brother Sindri, or else he’ll make himself available by some other means. There’s a full map menu to explore, but what we’ve seen of the early story doesn’t imply a lot of back-and-forth will be taking place.
The central mission for the pair is simple enough, although what is driving it remains a mystery, and the
force chasing them malevolent and unseen. Atreus’ mother seems to have died, and they wish to take her ashes to the top of the nearby mountain as per her final request. Kratos is convinced that Atreus is not ready, that he is too upset and quick to anger (he knows a thing or two about that) to survive the challenges of the journey, but with agents of Odin seemingly on their tale and wanting something from Kratos, they have no choice. Spectral birds called Odin’s Ravens can be spotted and dispersed by the axe (one of many collectable items in the game), hinting at the Norse god’s continued – but hands-off – interest. The local deity is aware of Kratos’ past and presence, and that’s not going to be good news.
An extended fight with an unnamed agent of Odin early on gives us a glimpse of the challenge ahead. His speed, agility and power all seem to far outstrip Kratos, and he is ultimately beaten (perhaps not permanently) by his hubris, underestimating the aging demigod’s will to survive. Kratos barely scrapes through the confrontation, and this was boss one. The challenges ahead for Kratos promise to be tough, and we have to say many of the fights we encountered took a lot more thought and patience than we first imagined.
But the spectacle of the whole thing remains massively impressive. That the PS4 delivers good-looking games has stopped being noteworthy on its own, but how Sony’s developers are harnessing that power to bring us new visions continues to impress. For God Of War, the big visual concept is a single-shot style that means there are no cuts from the start to the finish of the game. It’s a stunning idea that gives the adventure a breathless quality. “I have been chewing on this particular concept for years,” Barlog reveals. “Even before I got here I was fascinated with this idea about having a single shot all of the way through the game. We sort of started to do this in God Of War 1 where we went from the menu and went into the cinematic and then went directly into the game, and I thought that sort of seamlessness, the reaction from people was so positive.”
In just a few minutes of gameplay, perhaps even interrupted by death screens and hopping into menus, the effect may not be all that clear, but the whole really delivers. “It was definitely a tough sell in the beginning, because it’s not an easy task,” Barlog admits. “Even at the end of this everybody was looking at me saying, ‘We’ve put a lot of work into this. We hope it’s worth it’. Then they play the game, because a lot of developers are just so heads-down they haven’t been able to play it until now, and everyone comes back and says, ‘It’s unbelievable. I never would have expected it to matter as much as it does, but it really does’. People say, ‘I didn’t even think about it, but at the end I realised’. It really makes a difference. It makes you feel like you’re never taken out. None of the vocabulary of the camera is forcing you to do something or making you present or aware of it being an experience being told to you. You feel like you’re Kratos.”
The effect, then, is not dissimilar from how a single shot take in a film will add some unseen tension to a scene, but getting it done in live action takes insane levels of planning and choreography, not to mention nailing every line of dialogue, so we wondered what the challenges were for Santa Monica Studio. “I think the challenges are very similar to the film environment, but our trick is that everything does have to link up and the player is in control of certain things, so we have the variability of these events triggering in places that we don’t expect,” considers Barlog. “We have to figure out how to get them from where we didn’t expect to where we are expecting.”
And there are all of the cutscenes to consider too, the first of which Barlog recalled for us. “The first time we went on the stage to shoot, we shot a four-minute scene that had two height changes. We had to build a small set that had tons of different points that we had to touch. The actors had to then pick up objects, go upstairs, and I think we had five actors and this was the first one we had done. I was totally blinding myself saying, ‘Whatever man, it’s going to be amazing and we can do this’. I hadn’t really processed it completely about how difficult it was going to be until we got onto the set and really did the first take, and I realised it’s like a four-and-a-half minute single take with a nineyear-old actor trying to remember his lines, and all of the really complex blocking as well as the camera guy, Dori Arazi, the cinematographer who was running around in between them and trying to get different shots.”
But clearly with time the team has managed to bring all of these pieces together. The combination of the single-take stream of viewpoint and the tight camera, along with the performances of Christopher Judge as
Kratos and Sunny Suljic as Atreus, is coalescing to give God Of War exactly the kind of dramatic weight, along with its mechanical prowess that Barlog had been looking for. Striking that balance is everything he wanted to achieve with the game when he returned to Sony.
“Every game that I play, if there’s not a strong ‘why’ driving me through the game, like ‘There’s just great mechanics and it’s really fun and you can do all of these cool things’, that’s great, but after a couple of hours if I don’t have a ‘why’, if I’m not in there for a reason, if I’m not being driven by something that I care about then I feel like I just lose interest,” he tells us. “It may just be me and a small subset of people, but I feel that the games that I’m seeing becoming popular today, the ‘why’ is driving a lot of people and the ‘why’ is human drama. I think that while it’s personal for me, it’s personal in the sense that I’m pulling things from my own life in order to make the drama feel more real, but it is far more of a universal human interaction thing, as opposed to being placed in any kind of time period. It’s not like Kratos and Atreus are going to talk about the proper Twitter etiquette or anything like that.”
Having spent some time with the game now, we have felt the ‘why’ emerging from the game and enjoyed the fresh take on the classic God Of War approach to combat and action. Now, all that remains is for everyone else to see that for themselves when the game launches on 20 April 2018. It may not be the God Of War of old, it may not have the blades and it may not thumb its nose at authority like it once did, but this new take on Kratos replaces all of those elements with something just as compelling. As Barlog concludes, “The reality is people just need to play it and realise that it’s a different feel, but the DNA of what this franchise is is still there.”
“I’m one of those neurotic jump button hitters, just running through a game jumping”
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The weapons and armour of both Kratos and Atreus can be fully upgraded and modified, giving them increased health or perks in battle. The journey up to the peak of the mountain was going to be dangerous enough, but it appears that the local gods have...
Kratos has lost some of the fluidity of swinging blades around in combat, but the Leviathan Axe is a fantastic new asset. Its versatility as a ranged and close-combat weapon allows for a more tactical style of play.