Q&A: We speak to Cory Barlog about the newly released PlayStation 4 exclusive.
Sony's new God of War is finally out now on PlayStation 4. Early reviews came online last week--and critics across the board seemed to love the game. The action-adventure game is a reboot of sorts for Sony's long-running franchise. It mixes things up significantly with major changes to combat and a story that shows a softer side of Kratos who now has a son (and a beard). Ahead of launch, GameSpot spoke with game director Cory Barlog and lead level designer Rob Davis about the new God of War, and they told us about why they changed the combat, the difficulty of making Kratos relatable, and how the game almost didn't have Atreus in it. In a Very Important And Completely Serious Development, we also asked about why Kratos smashes health orbs with his feet instead of picking them up.
So how are you guys feeling right now after so many years of working on it? Just being right on the edge of launch? [We interviewed Barlog and Davis last week, just hours before the review embargo lifted]
Barlog: It is absolutely like the night before Christmas. I didn't sleep at all last night. I'm excited. I remain so proud of what we've done, so proud of the team and sort of the shift our entire studio has made. I feel strongly that this is the best thing that we've ever done. But, I would be lying if I didn't say I'm still afraid of the review embargo lifting, I mean, it's a very exposed time as a creative, right? It's like are they going to swipe right or swipe left? I feel that's literally what our feeling is, we're standing up in front of the class naked and we're being judged. But, I wouldn't want to do that with any other team. I feel incredibly confident because of the team that we have. [Suffice it to say, Barlog is happy with the reviews.]
How do you think about that dynamic between sticking to your guns and being confident in what you've made, versus responding to players if they want something to be changed? How reactionary do you expect to be once this game comes out?
Barlog: It's kind of that weird double-edged sword, right? There is certain stuff that we learn, especially even when you're just doing play tests, to know what is subjective, what is objective, right? That sense of there are certain decisions that we're going to make simply because, creatively, we believe this is a great decision. The realization of that decision is sometimes, like, 'Oh, we should have gone a little bit to the left, not a little bit to the right.' Those are great pieces of feedback, this is why we play test constantly, because then we wanna be able to make all those choices and mistakes before we get it out to the public.
But, there is that final arbiter of once it goes out to everybody; that's when things that we could have been blind to become a big deal. For me, I'm cognizant of it but the creative guns that we've stuck to, we're not going to alter any of that. The things during playtesting like people wanted the classic controls, they wanna be able to map things with Square and Triangle. For us, that was just not a good way to play, but we listened to people and said, 'You know what? Let's put it in.' It's not a terrible thing, the UI to be able to have the immersive mode, which is what I wanted initially, now it's like, no UI whatsoever.
But now, giving the players a choice it's like, you can control all of it. You can put on and off whatever you want in this experience. That kind of stuff I think is fantastic, that is what communication of the community is for.
Yeah. Now, I've played it about an hour, so far, and I've gotten past that first boss fight, which I thought was fantastic.
Barlog: Oh, good. Good, good, good.
The opening of the game ... in the past you've gone with these huge, bombastic scenes with Kratos fighting a larger-than-life character. But this time it's different. Why?
"I wanted people to be surprised, and pleasantly surprised" -- Barlog on God of War's opening sequence.
Barlog: [We wanted to] circumvent the expectation. So, [it was] very deliberate in the beginning that I was talking to people and saying, 'I don't want scale to be the crutch' and it's like, 'Oh, look we've put a big guy there and you take it for granted.' Any sort of resonance would be interactive, I want it to feel like you don't expect what's gonna happen, to happen. So, that feeling of when the Superman new experience begins and two strong characters duke it out, it feels more real, if that makes sense?
Barlog: We always have the Indiana Jones, James Bond opener, but I still wanted that, the soul of that. I wanted people to be surprised, and pleasantly surprised, right? Like you were saying, I think the circumventing of their expectations, which, by Ascension we kind of were not able to do that. Ascension has an amazing opener, but it was like, 'Oh, well we've seen big openers before. That's really cool but I sort of expected it. I'm expecting you to do that, so it didn't really surprise me.'
The opening battle plays out in multiple stages. Can talk about that design decision to make the combat flow that way?
Rob Davis: I mean a part of it is teaching the player without realizing that they're being taught something, right? And part of it is giving you practice, as well. So, any time you can get the player to learn stuff in a way that's actually fun, rather than just pushing them through more of a boring tutorial, that's always gonna resonate in your brain a lot longer and you're gonna be excited to use it again.
So, design and functionality-wise, I think the combat and boss team did such a good job, because you come out of that experience really knowing a lot about Kratos' combat and how to block, how to use rage, how to throw the ax. You get a lot of practice time with all those things, but as a player, you come out of it thinking, 'Whoa, that was a real God of War-style big whole opening.' And, what you don't realize, is that we've played a little bit of a magic trick on you to learn all this stuff.
Barlog: And also the sense that when you walk away from it, there's a stronger emotional connection to it, as well. Keeping things reduced allowed us to actually have that what's at stake, right? Atreus actually being a trigger, so that, as you're going through it, you see that, 'Oh wow, even in this blurry haze, Kratos was rough with his kid, but he's also super protective that when any sort of protection of a threat against him comes, that's when he rages out,' right?
That actually is shorter, that boss fight, than it was originally designed. So, we cut about 30 to 35% out of it, simply because pacing-wise, we were like, 'Alright, well we want that turnover, we want that what's gonna happen next and that feeling of, Wow, this thing is massive. So, that became a little too massive, which is great, I think part of the magic of working with this team, is everybody's just so creative throwing all these great ideas in there that we end up in that ideal situation, which is, you know it's done when there's nothing left to remove, right? There'll be so much cool stuff in there, you just keep removing something and making it tighter and tighter and now and it's like, 'Look, I can't take anything else away otherwise it'll collapse.' Perfect, we've got it.
I'm curious why you wanted to change the combat so significantly in this game.
Barlog: I think because we had made seven games with that combat system, and I kept looking around at how incredibly talented our systems and how my team was and going, 'Alright, I need them to take on the challenge that we had on God of War 1.' That challenge of nobody really knows what the system was...was just kind of a--I don't wanna say a mess, because that would make it seem like it was derogatory--just more like they hadn't found their sea legs in combat and working with [the team] we kind of fleshed out what is sort of the core Kratos, right? The L1 special, Square, Square, Triangle--I animated Square, Square, Triangle the first week I was there. So, and then that L1 and Square spinning special, that was the second week I was there.
I didn't wanna change it for the sake of changing it, I wanted to reflect how all of us have grown up and how all of us ... What we play is different, because God of War is a reflection of what we play, right?
You know, Resident Evil 4 came out in the middle of [God of War 2], right? And that game affected me so dramatically. And then, Resident Evil 7 comes out, and it show creators with, I think, a very strong vision and a really good team, can make these bold decisions, and actually have the audience follow them. Even if there was distance in the beginning, right? It's the, every time James Bond changes, right, they're like, 'Oh, Daniel Craig, who is this guy?'
Every time Facebook changes their layout.
Every time Twitter changes their layout.
Barlog: It is that natural resistance.
Davis: There's an old game design saying that the camera is genre, right? So, put the camera on top, make it more of like a mobile or a Diablo game, right?
Barlog: I love that; that's great.
Davis: You know, maybe more of a navigation game or something like that. Once you put the camera, like as deep as [the developers did], you're now in like more of an intimate, visceral perspective, right? Then, you've gotta start looking through everything in the lens of what does it mean to have it up close and we started talking about, 'Well, there's a lot more observation in this game.' So for the exploration and stuff, and you'll see them all as you keep playing. A lot of it comes from the perspective of, what does it feel like to have cursor on the screen and a camera that is really focused behind the player. So, wherever possible, we try to design with that in mind, and there's so much you can do with it. That sort of keeps it feeling familiar.
Davis: And, I think that's what Resident Evil 4 had when you could drop the pendants down, you would think to yourself, 'I really wanna get this, because I don't wanna waste at all.' So, their combination of poised camera exploration and scavenging was critical. In our case, it's all about recalling that axe.
Barlog: We fought a lot in the beginning over the camera distance. I wanted it close and the systems and combat team wanted it more farther away, something you would see in Arkham or the Assassin's Creed games and that back and forth battle finally led to [lead gameplay designer Jason McDonald] telling us to go away, spending a weekend playing around with it and said, 'I'll tell you what my recommendation is, just leave me alone because I'm so annoyed with you right now.' And, I didn't leave him alone, I annoyed him even more over the weekend.
"We fought a lot in the beginning" -- Barlog on changing the camera
But, on Monday, he kind of sat everybody down with a presentation and just said, 'First of all, you're gonna laugh, because I ended up closer than any of us wanted.' He was like, 'You want it here, I want it here, I ended up here,' and he's like, 'Let me tell you why I think I can make this work.' And, I started weeping inside, I was like, 'You're so great, I love this.' But, I win and then, everybody wins, tell everybody.
But, it was so well thought out. And there's a time when you can say, 'I want this,' and the [developers are] like, 'Fine, I'll just figure it out.' And, there's a time when they have an ah-ha and they go, "Oh, I really want to do this." The best stuff we ever do is when people say, 'I really wanna so this and I'm gonna take it two steps further.' And, that is the magic of working with Sony altogether, Santa Monica was great.
Davis: Think it was the right way to go, because you throw the axe a lot in this game and there's a lot you can do with the axe. And, I don't think players would enjoy it quite so much if it was looming all the way out and all the way back in.
In the limited amount of time that I've played so far, just the ax has that feeling of weight to it so when it gets recalled ... And, the camera being where it is, it feels like that's where you are, you're feeling the entire thing.
Barlog: That level of creativity and agency for the player, was something that we had talked about early on, but they didn't really know how we were gonna achieve it. On the previous God of War games we kind of had very fixed things that you would do, and you had some creativity, but the creativity was boxed in, right? And, that's not to say anything was bad about them, it was just how we chose to do it.
In this one, we really wanted to open it up in a sense that all of us could play the game very differently but we're using the same tools. And, the expansion comes from one of the upgrade choices that you're making, what are the moments and moment choices that you're making that make watching you play and watching you play so dramatically different. You can see when one of our really good combat-related testers would record some of the videos that we have teased, right? Because, he's just amazing, he uses every move, he just looks great doing it, and then you would see another person who just picked up the controller, and you're like, 'Wow, that's a completely different game, right?' Because they're making different choices, so I think that, to me, is one of the biggest victories we've had in this game, that sense that there truly is a creative choice you're making.
Also, how do you make a God of War relatable? In the bit that I've played so far, you can tell that he's firm but understanding with Atreus, but I'm just curious about the motivation for making him a person with feelings.
Barlog: I think so many people have leveled the criticism of, 'He's just one note,' but I knew, alright, look I want to try this apple, this idea of, again, circumventing the expectations of what you have for this. When I was at Lucasfilm, I read some of the scripts that they had done for a TV show they were gonna do, and a very well known Star Wars character, whom I did not like, was written in a way that I felt sympathetic to him, and I was very taken aback by it. One, because it was a written form of it and it was so powerful and I was like, I had really decided who this character was going into it, but then reading it and seeing how he was jilted and how he was manipulated and how sort of exposed his heart, if you will, to this other character and she stomped on it, multiple times, right? Kratos is a little bit of that sense of everybody thinks they know who he is, right? But, nobody is just one thing, right? And, it's not really good to be one thing.
And, I thought, alright, creatively, the best challenge I could ever take on is to actually make people reach the end of this game and go, 'I either feel bad, I feel connected, or I felt like that moment was specifically related to me, or I have gone through that same thing.' If I could achieve that, with a character that everybody thought, 'Whatever, he's just a guy that, in a cinematic, goes to kill people,' now that's an amazing thing.
And, I had just had my son, at the start of this game and I was kind of looking at it like 'Oh, wow, how much of myself do I wanna show here,' right? How much of my faults, right, do I want the mask and cover up and how many of the dumb things that I've done in my life do I wanna prevent him from doing? And, it's like, wow, that's Kratos, that's Kratos to a T, he has made the worst decision in his life, but be able to actually, earnestly, be a parent, right?
Say that he was a soldier off to war, come home every once in a while, then go back off to war, he wasn't really there because he was fairly ambitious in his military campaign. Now, it's kind of like, put him in a situation where he has no choice but to deal with it, right? And, in this game, he'd been trying to avoid it, even though he wants to figure this out, he'd been avoiding it for so long, the beginning of this game is all about forcing him into that situation. Honestly, for me, that's the most perfect dramatic ground to play in.
So, I'm incredibly excited to see where the story goes in that department, so please don't tell me anything else.
Barlog: I'm not gonna tell you anything, no spoilers.
Davis: To be honest, I was gonna say, but I think I'll leave it alone.
Barlog: I mean, the challenge also being thrown to every department, right, was this is thematically where we want to go. I wanna see us challenge ourselves in every part of the game, so that as you're doing exploration, as you're doing puzzles, it is all about the collaboration between the two and it's all about trying to develop their characters even in the lull moments. But, to their credit, the level design people have done amazing things that integrated not only the axe, but also this continually growing father and son relationship.
Davis: You might think, 'Oh, well Kratos is like the biggest badass there is,' so there's all these setups we can do with Kratos, but actually like having Atreus be an expert in Norse language and mythology is awesome because you can do a whole other set of design based on what Atreus is an expert in, that Kratos is sort of not, right? And then you get a bit of an odd couple relationship, right? You know, Buzz Lightyear's good at one thing, Woody's good at another thing, right? So, that's the foundation of a sort of odd couple.
And then, you got the fact that they're both in a strange land, so then you can do a third setup where neither of them really understand what's going on and then you get cool storytelling, level design, and puzzles and exploration intersecting because they're discussing the thing they have to work out together. They end up kind of with things Kratos is really an expert in, things the son is kind of an expert in, and things neither of them are an expert in. And then, when you can write to that, goal to that, design to that, that's where I think you have a new peanut butter and chocolate between Kratos and Atreus, but it didn't exist before.
I read that you were pressured to maybe cut Atreus from the game or at least significantly scale back his role. Could the game have worked without him?
Barlog: It could have, it would have been very different; the early phase when they told me, 'Man, this might be too hard, too expensive, we're already looking at so many challenges, it's maybe too much.' When I went back and said, 'Alright, fine, if it was not with Atreus, what would it be?' And, it would have been a very, very different game, right? The comparison I made was, 'Alright, it's gonna be All Is Lost with Robert Redford, it's gonna be one character who talks to himself occasionally, but generally, it will be very silent,' and everyone will talk in old Norse, so that you won't understand anything anybody's saying. And, I think that threat was enough for them to go, 'Okay, we'll take on Atreus.' So, it was kind of the creative director, passive aggressive, 'Oh, yeah? Well, we'll take all the toys away.'
I know a while ago, you were announced as working on a Mad Max game with George Miller. Is there anything you learned on that project that you took to God of War?
Barlog: Yeah, so nobody ever got to see the things that really excited me and George about that. Some of it definitely inspired what we were doing here, there was such a different thing. But, I think none of them really one to one had a knowledge of transfer over, but it's the developing the relationships on the road, the ideas and characters, figuring each other out as you go, was something that I started to explore in our draft of Max.
And then, it's just unfortunate the way that sometimes games go that they ended up going in a different direction, and George and I ended up not working on that one with them, but the learnings I got from that definitely made it possible, I think, to do this. Like I think if I had attempted this game, I'm not even certain if I would have attempted it, had I not worked with George. That is the impact he has.
I feel like prior to working with him, it would be like reading a book without your glasses and you have terrible vision, so you see the words, but they're blurry. Working with him, and starting to understand why drama occurs, why conflict feeds into the development of all the characters, that kind of put glasses on me to help me understand like, 'Wow, I really don't understand drama,' right? And, even now, I feel like I'm on the road and I'm on a journey that I'm about a quarter of the way through. So, I have a huge learning ahead of me but I started off on that, because I was pushed, I think, by working with so many amazing new ideas, he is surrounded by incredibly talented people who literally just throw gems out like nobody's business. And, I'm just like, 'Seriously? Are you not picking any of this stuff up, anybody? I'm gonna horde all of it, right?' So, yeah, it was amazing.
Why does Kratos smash everything to pick it up? Why doesn't he reach down and pick things up? Why does he have to crush it under his foot?
Barlog: [Turns to Davis] You wanna talk about that one?
I'm just curious.
Davis: I think, if I recall correctly, the animation went in of Kratos punching the chest and internally, we actually call it a punch chest. And, then Cory said, 'This game will never ship with Kratos punching that chest. I hate the punches, I hate the punches.' And, then something happened over time when he just warmed up to it, and it's so fun and snappy and it's so quick to do, and you know, it's that image of old Kratos that I think, once we saw everything in there, originally, it felt like Kratos was trying too hard to be brooding and what Kratos ... But, once you get everything back together, it was actually cool. It was cool to see Kratos doing a bit of his old stuff, especially when you're early in the game.
And the stomp?
Barlog: The systems guys were really hoping at some point I would change my mind, and not have you pick up loot, they were just like, 'I don't wanna go around and pick up loot.' I'm like, 'Seriously? The orbs were the past, and that's cool, but in this one, there's something satisfying about collecting your rewards from a heard earned fight,' right? And, the compromise that I made with them is that they said, 'Well, look, picking up health is super annoying.' They gave me a great example, put me in a fight that was really hard and I kept getting hit when I was ... And, I was like, 'Alright, I get it, that's good point. What are we gonna do?' And they're like, coincidentally, they load something up really quick and they're like, they did a stomp with a crystal and I was like, 'Okay, I get it, I can dig it.'
But, yeah, the punch chest was one of those things where it was so well known for Kratos that I wanted to make sure we didn't overdo that and then end up having him just hit everything because he was just known for that, but like Rob said, I think it fit in the tapestry because he didn't do it for everything. It became the one focal point and then the stomp just became, to me, a great gameplay decision, that they had a great [idea] and said, 'Look, we need speed and pace so that while you're in a fight, you can quickly go over, eat your health, and then get back into the fight.'