"It Has to Be Personal" Says 'God of War' Creative Director Cory Barlog

PlayStation

How fatherhood, 'Dark Souls' creator Miyazaki and 'Mad Max' director George Miller inspired a sequel that's been five years in the making

How fatherhood, 'Dark Souls' creator Miyazaki and 'Mad Max' director George Miller inspired a sequel that's been five years in the making

Set hundreds of years after the apocalyptic conclusion of God of War 3 where the son of Zeus finally wreaked his revenge on his father and destroyed the old gods, the new God of War for PlayStation 4 picks up with Kratos living in northern Europe, hidden away from civilization while raising his young son, Atreus. So far, little has been revealed about what Kratos has been doing in the intervening years – sulking, presumably – or who the child's mother is.

At E3 in Los Angeles last week, creative director Cory Barlog – who worked as an animator on the first game in 2005, and as game director on the award-winning 2007 sequel and for part of production of the third game – and his team at Sony's Santa Monica studio revealed a second trailer for the game in as many years. This latest illustrates how the new game – due next year – will focus on the relationship between father and son, and the bond that gradually builds between them as they learn to depend on each others' strengths. Kratos, though older and wiser than we've seen him before, is still a formidable warrior – now wielding a powerful battle axe called Leviathan, forged by the dwarven blacksmiths that also fashioned Thor's hammer, Mjolnir. Atreus, born into this new world is, to some extent, the brains of the operation. While he struggles to defend himself (although he can be triggered to attack targets with a bow and arrow using a dedicated button on the controller) his core skill is interpreting the new world for his father, serving as translator and guide.

While walking us through the events of the trailer, Barlog reveals that he really doesn't like games that punish you for things that aren't your fault. He assures us that Atreus will never feel like a burden, and – unlike some games that rely on the interplay between co-dependent characters – will never cause you to fail for something you didn't instigate yourself.

During a series of conversations during E3, Barlog opened up about the inspiration for the new game, and how being a parent has made the whole project something far more personal than anything he has worked on before.

You worked on the first two God of War games, but then you left midway through development of the third game in 2007 and you were associated with a few things before you worked on the Tomb Raider reboot at Crystal Dynamics in 2010. You came back to Sony three years later. Why did you step away for a while?
When I finished God of War 2, I was really excited to work on 3 and I wrote the script, we did the levels, laid everything out – but I'd reached that point where it was jump or back off. I'd also started meeting with a bunch of other people creatively. Because the game had been doing so well, it really opened some doors to start talking to people I admired. In those conversations, it dawned on me that I know so little. My understanding of character development and story was like reading a book without glasses. I was just interpreting. I was reading a story recently about the creative director of FromSoftware, the Dark Souls guy. Miyazaki, right? He was talking about the fact that he couldn't read English, but he loved the D&D books. He created his own stories by interpreting what was in the pictures in the source books. That was what inspired him to make a game where you don't really understand what's going on, and you're interpreting things as you play. From a creative and storytelling perspective, I felt like that – I really wasn't reading the words yet. I thought I could, but after meeting with so many people, I realized I had a lot to learn, so I went on a creative walkabout. I went and met with a lot of creative people and tried a lot of thing so I could just get better. Get clearer.

We heard you were working on a Mad Max Fury Road thing for a while.
I worked with George Miller for a while, yeah. The first time I went to his offices in Sydney, he had this conference room that was lined with storyboards. They went all the way around the entire room. He literally, for two hours, walked me through every frame of Fury Road. That's how he built the script for that movie – it was all storyboards. By the end, I'd literally experienced the entire movie through these storyboards. I got to see how he saw each thing. It wasn't him saying 'this happens, then this happens' – it was digging into why things happened, and what was going on beneath the surface.

Miller is truly a journeyman of storytelling. He never feels that he knows everything. He'd tell me that he'd go home and watch his son play games. He'd ask questions and deconstruct everything. We'd play God of War together and he'd ask 'why did you do that?' It was amazing. When you consider everything he's been through, he's still so committed to learning.

One of the lessons I learned from George, and some of the other people I met with, is that it has to be personal. Any great writer or director takes advantage of that exposed nerve. That vulnerable position that shows who you are. It's about taking these things from your life. There's nothing more powerful than channeling something that really happened and comes from your life. It's scary to put your personal experiences and your heart into something, because failure can hurt so much more.

Though it's clearly an epic adventure, it seems like the real engine for the game's story is the relationship between Kratos and Atreus. Was that what you intended from the very beginning?
All of us at the studio that are parents were either experiencing the same thing, or different versions of the same thing. At the beginning of the project, we had these discussions about the different milestones you go through as a kid. The classic milestones of your life. It's interesting to see the universality of that. The first fireworks show you see, the first roller coaster, the first beer you have with your dad. The initial seed was to look at the earlier games and ask what if this was all just backstory? How would he transition forward? Why would Kratos change? What keeps him motivated? That's when we started looking into this idea.

I work a lot. I don't get to see my wife that much. I don't know if I want to be that person that's just working all the time. I have to make that conscious effort. Actually, when I was finishing up Tomb Raider – I was living in downtown San Francisco and Crystal Dynamics was in Redwood. I was working late and not getting home until one or two in the morning non-stop. I just realized that this was horrible. I was experiencing my kid's life via text message rather than really being there.

Sometimes it paralyzes you to not know what to do as a parent. You worry about making the right decision and worry about what you might be doing wrong and it can make you unable to make any decisions.

I think all parents experience that to a degree. It changes your relationship with everything. Will we see that in Kratos?
That's what I wanted to end that first demo with last year. This is a person that is so completely and utterly decisive on the battlefield but now he has to experience a moment that is so foreign to him. In a sense, I also think that he feels he hasn't earned it. He is someone who punishes himself more than anyone else.

He also always seeks the easy way out of all his problems, when you think about it. At the end of God of War 3, when he's crawling away from Greece having destroyed an entire pantheon, he just wants to put it behind him. That's when it comes full circle back to the opening scene of the first game when he throws himself off the cliff. He wants to die so he can escape from it all and he just can't. He can't escape.

So he just wanders alone for a long time, getting as far away from Greece as he can. Saying he wants a fresh start is too small a thing. He wants to break the cycle. He wants to be able to show somebody else how to not make the same mistakes that he made, and maybe that will help him break free of his curse.

So is he more vulnerable, even fallible in this story? And is that all because of his son?
I think parenthood is all about doubt and fear. You never know if what you're doing is going to screw them up. You don't know if you're doing enough, or if you're making the right choices. For Kratos, that's the big thing – godhood for him was a disease. It was thrust upon him without his permission, and it was something that ruined his life. He knows deep down that he needs his son in order to change. He needs the humanity this kid is offering him, but he also knows that he's passed on a very horrible burden. Seeing that develop in him just cuts like a knife. It's that sense of the worst parts of ourselves being reflected back by either our significant others or our children. It's the same thing – you're living with someone and you realize that something that annoys you about them is actually you. You end up being more annoyed because you're annoyed with yourself for doing it. Even more so with your kids – you don't want them to go down the same road. As parents you want to tell your kids not to make a dumb decision, but as kids you just don't want to hear it.

For Kratos, the stakes are just so much higher. He has to teach his kid about the massive burden of being a god. For Kratos, being a god is knowing that there's a target on your back all the time. Everyone wants to take him down because he's a threat.

I don't just want to make another game. It's not about just shipping something. I want to make a game that really means something.

So is there an element in this game of him dealing with his status as a god? Is it like in American Gods where he's clinging to his power?
He really doesn't care about power. He's almost giving up all of the things that made him a god. He's shedding it all and he just wants to disappear. He wants to be at a point where he doesn't have to fight, but it's so much a part of him that he can't break it. He realizes that he has a monster inside of him and he's never once reined that in. He really has no idea how to actually go about doing that. He tries and fails in this game, and I think that's what makes him most interesting as a character in this game.

But like the Pixar rules of storytelling, the secret to a great story is that the main characters fail. Them failing over and over and over again is why you root for them. It's because they pick themselves up and keep going. It's not because they succeed. Success is great, but it's not as sweet unless they've previously failed and picked themselves up.

Is that a hard thing to convey in a video game, given what you're asking of the player?
Anything other than fear and anger are very hard emotions to elicit in a video game and to tie into a game loop. It's not enough to just watch a cinematic and maybe feel something – you've got to earn it to feel something deeply.

How much of the story in the game really draws from your own family experiences?
I had several talks about the story with my wife, who is Swedish. I always wanted to add things that criss-cross throughout the mythology, so I've been talking to her about whether she thinks what I'm trying to do is trivializing her culture and history. I wanted to make sure I was doing something that was cool versus making it lame and traipsing on something sacred. There's a personal aspect because I'm connected to this a lot more than it being just a story. I was working in Sweden when I met her, and I just hope I'm honoring Sweden.

During E3, my relatives are visiting us. Her parents are out. I'm working late, and sleeping on the couch. Everyone's running around and speaking in Swedish and I'm just acutely aware that even after all this time, I don't speak the language. I'm just abhorrent at languages. Just terrible. I was kicked out of German class at school because I just didn't get it and I was being disruptive. I ended up taking art classes instead of language classes. Thank god I at least had that.

Is this where Kratos' reliance on his son's understanding of the local languages comes from? Does this also explain why he's so obstinate?
I think that he's still a combination of Jekyll and Hyde. Deep down, there is a human being. He was trained in the most brutal military regime that has ever existed – Sparta. It was just vicious. They started training at like six. They would beat them in the streets to toughen them up and then not feed them for weeks. That is a way to grow up that really changes you. We're a product of both our environment and our genetics. So for him to try and recover even a small part of his humanity is a very, very long struggle.

A lot of people misinterpret Kratos – they think he was just all about the rage and that was why he was so awesome. But if you really look at it and pay attention, there was a lot of regret. He has an almost childish view of the world. There was definitely a case of arrested development of his emotional growth because of this vicious military program. He really believes he can wipe out all the bad things he did and get a do-over. But he was conscious even in the first game of all the bad things he'd done.

So, be honest... how much of this new Kratos is really you?
It's interesting how much I'm putting in there consciously, and how much is just unconscious. Stuff like little bits of dialog here and there. The initial inspiration was to show how every human being changes when they reach that point of their life. Life is filled with so many different milestones in which we're transitioning to that next phase. Each one makes you reflect on where you were with the previous, but also look back further. I look back at who I was in high school, who I was in college, who I was directly after college and starting work. I'm still me, but I've fundamentally changed along the way. I'm a very interestingly social-introverted person – meaning I'm far happier alone in the hotel room watching TV shows than being out socializing. But I love talking about the work I do. I love talking about video games. Talking about something I've read or seen recently gets me super excited, but when it comes to making small talk about sports or – anything – I'm just abysmal at it. There's even a line in the game that I realized afterwards was me. The kid says "My dad doesn't like people either," and that's totally me.

It's been a few years since the last game. Do you think the time that's passed between games has helped you change the approach to the characters?
I hope so. I know we're going to have a contingent of people that will go, "This is not my God of War," but it's important that people are open to actually playing this. They'll be rewarded. But for the ones that just refuse, well, there's still seven games they can go play.

As a creative person who's dedicating five years to something – I don't want to do just the same thing. You have to give a lot of yourself to this. One of the things I talked to Sony about when I came back was that I don't just want to make another game. It's not about just shipping something. I want to make a game that really means something. I want something with heart. I want something that I can show my kid and really say that I'm proud of what it says. I want to be able to tell him that I loved working on this, but I also feel I gave a piece of myself to it. I think that would be a great lesson for him to take away from this. If you give a piece of yourself, and are really sincere – that's the reward.

Is there stuff you've worked on where you've really not felt that?
In the early part of my career? Sure. Stuff like that X-Men fighting game or Backyard Wrestling? I mean, c'mon, dude. There's some stuff that's just bad. There was a lot of hard work done on those games and some great people, but we worked at an external studio that was just dependent on that check coming in every month and we just had to accept that whatever was wanted, we just had to do it. You don't put your heart into stuff like that. It's hard work and it's stressful and you lose sleep, but you don't get to do something that's meaningful. All the work I did at Santa Monica though, it meant something to me. This one for me is something special.

It would be just Kratos, he never says anything, all the other characters speak in a different language and they very rarely speak. It would be 20 hours where nobody talks. It would have either sucked or have been really amazing.

Is the games business capable of sustaining that kind of interest?
I think so. I think that it ebbs and flows with the audience as well as the creators. What we find intriguing to make is often a reflection of what's happening out in the world. It's a balance of trying to get publishers on board and to think that it's awesome and something they want. That's why I love Sony. I've never worked anywhere quite like this and the way that they say how creative is in charge. They are probably the best partners I've ever worked with. They really get involved – all the parts that I don't understand. I am literally the worst person with our finances – my wife takes care of all of that stuff, because I'm an idiot. I would not presume to understand that stuff on the business side. I think it's fantastic that Sony love what we do. They want us to make great experiences. They give us the leeway to really take some risks.

There was a time at the beginning of this project where it looked like it was going to be so big and so difficult that we were encouraged to really consider scoping this thing down. It was suggested that maybe the son was something that we shouldn't do – and to me he's really the core of the game. But I did the due diligence and looked at what I would do if I didn't have the son in there. Literally the only thing I could think of was the most expensive art house game of all time. Y'know, All is Lost. It would be just Kratos, he never says anything, all the other characters speak in a different language and they very rarely speak. It would be 20 hours where nobody talks. It would have either sucked or have been really amazing. At no point did Sony ever say I had to do that, though. There's the creative reality, the financial reality, and then, of course, the human reality. If you have this many people and this much time – what are you going to do?

Our game is so much bigger than anything we've ever done. God of War 2 was big – and I just kept adding stuff to the point that it had the biggest footprint you could imagine because we wanted to execute on the vision. This one is so much bigger, but I'm just as ignorant.