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Where ‘God of War’ Went Right

Creative director Cory Barlog on four crucial ways in which the hotly anticipated title skirted the pitfalls that could have derailed its development to deliver an experience that stands alongside the best games of the current console generation

Getty Images/Sony Interactive Entertainment/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

Every entry in the God of War trilogy, which appeared to great profit and fanfare on PlayStation 2 and 3 from 2005 to 2010, featured a fixed camera. Players controlled Kratos, the cursed Spartan warrior on a bloody mission to murder manipulative Greek gods, but couldn’t control the games’ visual perspective, which generally hovered far enough from Kratos to capture the piles of bodies that built up around him, as well as the larger environment. The fixed camera gave the God of War wizards at Sony’s Santa Monica studio greater control over what was on the screen, which allowed them to craft incredible vistas despite the limitations of last decade’s hardware. But it also stripped players of some of their agency and proximity and connection to Kratos. We saw God of War’s world the way the developers dictated, and not always the way that Kratos did or we wanted to.

Late last month, the PlayStation 4 welcomed its first original God of War game, whose title—just God of War, with no numeral suffix—reflects the goal behind the reboot: to strip the series down to the studs and redefine how God of War works. The latest installment introduces a new setting, a new structure, a new primary weapon, a new control scheme, a new Kratos and, yes, even a new camera—one that hangs close behind Kratos by default, but also gives players the power to look wherever they want. The adjustable camera may not be the game’s most important addition, but it is among the most immediately noticeable, and perhaps the most emblematic of the mechanical and narrative richness and freedom that set the new God of War game apart from its beloved but less full-featured predecessors.

The latest release’s lofty review scores, which moved Sony Santa Monica creative director Cory Barlog to tears, rival the original’s and surpass its sequels’, an improbable achievement considering the almost unquenchable expectations that arose amid the long layoff between titles, a period during which many challengers laid claim to the action-adventure/hack-and-slash territory the series previously staked out. Much of its success stems from the vision of the 42-year-old Barlog, whose history with the God of War franchise goes back to the beginning: He served as lead animator on God of War (2005) and game director and writer for God of War II (2007) and, for part of its development, God of War III (2010), in addition to writing for God of War: Ghost of Sparta, the 2010 PlayStation Portable game. Barlog left Sony in late 2007 and undertook what he calls a “creative walkabout” before returning to the company in 2013, putting much of the old gang back together and, over five years of labor, building the game that became God of War.

Last week, I sat down with Barlog to discuss four crucial areas in which God of War skirted some of the pitfalls that could have derailed its development to deliver an experience that stands alongside the best games of the current console generation.

Kratos in ‘God of War’ Sony Interactive Entertainment

Less Linearity Worked

Throughout God of War, Kratos constantly tells Atreus, his son and companion, to stick to the pair’s appointed task: scattering the ashes of Atreus’s mother from the highest peak in the nine Norse realms, where the events of the game take place. It’s clear, though, that the developers’ sympathies—and, they hope, the player’s—lie with Atreus, who longs to take in the scenery, discover hidden areas, talk to supporting characters, and accept sidequests. In most games, I tend to be a Kratos-style player, powering through single-player campaigns in a Sisyphean attempt to chip away at my pile of shame, but even I had a hard time resisting the siren song of God of War’s optional content. Almost from the start, God of War puts players’ distant destination on screen while also encouraging them to deviate from the route that would take them there.

Relative to previous entries in the series, God of War is a gigantic game. The website How Long to Beat, which provides crowdsourced data on how long games take to finish, currently lists the latest God of War game’s main story alone at 18 hours, with “completionist” playthroughs averaging 49 hours and an “all play styles” average of 26.5 hours. No previous God of War game has a “completionist” average of more than 17 hours. Based on that data, then, there’s roughly three times as much to do in the new God of War as there was in any earlier installment.

That length flows from the game’s emphasis on exploration, which Barlog says was a cornerstone of his vision from the start. Past God of War games were largely linear: Players proceeded along a mostly pre-scripted path, solving puzzles and dispatching enemies in an obvious order. In the years since the first God of War debuted, though, the makers of big-budget titles have shifted toward less linear games set in massive “open worlds” that players can traverse in more than one way at their leisure. When he worked on God of War II, Barlog says, he wasn’t ready as a director to stray too far from the original game’s template. But this time, he says, “I knew that I had to take on the complexity of everything.” Thus, while the first God of War was influenced by more compact, action-centric titles such as Capcom’s Onimusha and Tecmo’s Rygar, the reboot is a blend of both disciplines. “There is a good portion of this game that is influenced by more modern games, simply because we are older and playing different games, but still have the roots that have influenced us from the beginning,” says Barlog, who cites both the Beastie Boys and the long-running Resident Evil series as cultural institutions that successfully reinvented a popular product the way he wanted to with God of War.

Kratos rowing a boat Sony Interactive Entertainment

While the industry’s open-world model initially felt freeing, though, the open-world game has become a commodity with its own strict confines. Many prominent open-world series, such as Middle-earth and Ubisoft moneymakers Assassin’s Creed and Ghost Recon, have followed a formula that time has turned tiresome, characterized by massive maps littered with repetitive activities, collectible trinkets, and excessive hand-holding. Although their environments are enormous, exploring them sometimes seems more like crossing tasks off a to-do list than spontaneous play.

“Everyone was like, ‘Oh, so we’re gonna make it an open-world game,’” Barlog says. “And I was like, ‘No, no, I don’t want to do that because every open-world game I play feels like I get a lot of homework in the beginning.’”

Barlog says that instead of eliciting resigned determination to grind through the game, he was hoping to inspire the same hushed surprise he felt the first time he wandered around the 2005 PS2 classic Shadow of the Colossus and came across one of its titular beasts striding across the game’s lonely landscape. “I really felt ownership over that discovery,” he says. “I was curious, and that curiosity was rewarded with the fantastic discovery of a Colossus. Everybody had the same experience, but it was individualized. It felt like mine. And I was like, ‘I want to capture that.’”

One principle Barlog’s team followed is that no part of God of War should be there just to pad the playtime: Any mission that the player is asked to achieve should add to the game’s considerable lore and strengthen its sense of place. “Everything should be connected,” he says. “When we go off and do a favor or a labor, it should still connect back somehow to giving you information about the world.” Similarly, he says, “there isn’t anything that you pick up that is useless,” adding, “everything creates that sense that it means something.”

Last year’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, another new triumph that reimagined a long-running series, was a game without gates” that let players go almost wherever they wanted almost from the start. Despite its less linear structure compared to previous God of War installments, the new game has gates—often literal ones that can’t be opened until the player powers up Kratos by finishing a subsequent sequence. Occasionally, that leads to unfamiliar frustration when players bang their heads against barriers that they can’t currently cross or discover that not every Norse realm is accessible. “There’s always a balancing act, and sometimes it’s not going to work completely,” Barlog says. There are also instances when the game reuses certain enemies one too many times or requires backtracking through previously explored areas that could have been avoided with a more liberal use of the fast-travel mechanic that kicks in later on. “If we could fix [every sticking point], we would, but sometimes with a game of this scale, you’ve got to accept that some people are not going to like [a certain part],” says Barlog, whose team is still pushing out patches on a near-daily basis to resolve small, unspecified issues.

Sporadic examples of slightly imperfect pacing are an acceptable price to pay for the memorable moments when players stumble across something they didn’t know they could do. For Sony Santa Monica, designing so much more square footage meant becoming comfortable with the knowledge that many players would never see some of the team’s work. But that sacrifice paid dividends in the diversity of players’ experiences, which was reflected in the feedback that Barlog and his colleagues received. “By the middle of the production of [old God of War games], I could tell you the top five moments that each playtester would say, ‘Yep, that was my favorite moment, that was my favorite moment,’” Barlog says. “On this game, all the way to the end, we never had consistency on that. We had the weirdest spread that we’ve ever seen.”

Kratos looking at a mountain, holding an ax Sony Interactive Entertainment

The Tone Took a Turn

Before 2018, there wasn’t much nuance to the character of Kratos, who exhibited few emotions aside from a hypermasculine rage, the trait that helped make him a PlayStation poster boy. In the years preceding the original God of War, Barlog says, the antihero protagonist “just wasn’t a very popularized thing in the video game industry. Darker themes, also, were not as popularized. And I think God of War sort of gave rise to the concept of the power fantasy and darkness. And as developers, we sort of carried on that tradition.”

Kratos was a trailblazer who became a cliché: always angrily rampaging, irredeemable, and merciless. “As a director, I was not in the right place in my development to stop and look and ask why about all these things,” Barlog says. “It was more like, ‘I’m going to make it better than the previous thing.’ And we got stuck in this concept of topping ourselves over and over again.” During his years away from the franchise, when he collaborated with George Miller on a Mad Max game and worked on the Tomb Raider series, he reexamined whether upping the anger was actually serving the series well. “Sometimes the simplest things are lost because we can do so much,” he says. “We spend time [going], ‘Look at all the things we can put on screen!’ and we get lost in our own ability to do something, versus, ‘Why am I doing this? Is it making it better, not just aesthetically, but is it furthering what the message is that I’m trying to tell?’”

God of War III sold more than 5 million copies, a record for the series, but the story had grown stale. When he returned to the franchise, Barlog considered starting from scratch with a new character, releasing himself from the conventions of Kratos. Ultimately, though, he realized that remaking Kratos would be more meaningful than putting him in storage to stew and smolder somewhere off-screen. “If he didn’t change, it would feel disingenuous to the journey of every person on this planet,” Barlog says, adding, “I looked at it as the most satisfying challenge, to circumvent the expectations of the audience. Take a character that everybody thinks they know, where that deep history is out there. And we don’t deny it, and we don’t run away from it, and we don’t hide it. We simply say, ‘Now we’re going to show you something you don’t expect.’”

Kratos holding Atreus’s arm Sony Interactive Entertainment

While Kratos still hardly has a sense of humor, he’s now at least the object of jokes, a straight man surrounded by wisecrackers including Atreus, the comedy duo of dwarves Sindri and Brok, and the decapitated Mimir, a.k.a. “Head,” who spends most of the game attached to Kratos’s belt. And while the old God of War glorified and reveled in its avatar’s homicidal tendencies, the new God of War focuses on the slow excavation of his sensitive side. Kratos remains a killer, but he’s also a father who’s awkwardly, desperately, painfully trying to teach his son not to be like him. Not only is the game more mature and less exclusionary, reflecting the maturation of Barlog and Sony Santa Monica, but it’s deeply emotionally affecting for players in a certain frame of mind. Barlog says he borrowed the idea for subverting the player’s conception of Kratos from TV shows that play with the morality of longstanding characters, specifically citing the thought-provoking portrayal of Kingpin on Daredevil. “That turn was so powerful that I went, ‘All right, as a creative individual, I want to do something as impactful as that,’” Barlog says.

Tampering with a character as iconic and marketable as Kratos could have been considered risky, but Barlog says that by studying other games that were coming out and meeting with warm receptions, he realized that the industry was “at this tipping point where games wanted to challenge your perception of what a story could be.” Today’s gamers, he continues, are “not just enamored [of] a giant world that’s got cool stuff. Eventually that wears off [and] … you get bored because there’s only so many times you can pull the trigger at something. And you’re like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ I’m excited that that’s where we are now.”

Kratos holding up both hands while Atreus looks on Sony Interactive Entertainment

The New Outweighed the Nostalgia

Every would-be rebooter wrestles with the J.J. Abrams–esque dilemma of how much material to recycle, and God of War’s creators weren’t immune to the temptation to keep players on a steady diet of member berries. “I brought on a bunch of people who were part of the original game so that we could all make sure that we checked ourselves, to make sure, ‘Is this just fan service, and is that fine? Or are we just overdoing it at this point?’” Barlog says. He didn’t intend to turn his back on the series’ legacy entirely; “I think we still need to pay our respects that this is the franchise, these were the beginnings,” he says. But, he adds, “I never wanted to get so hung up and stuck on nostalgia, because I think it’s a difficult road to go down.”

Barlog’s solution to the nostalgia trap was to change the look of the series without robbing it of its core mix of combat and puzzles. If the game still felt just as satisfying to play, the surrounding newness would be perceived as a positive instead of a cause for complaint. “I had talked to people in the beginning of using the phrase ‘familiarly different,’ and what that describes is that the DNA of God of War is there, but you’ve got to feel it,” Barlog says. “You’ve got to hold the controller to see it. If you were to look at an image, a lot of people reacted with, ‘Oh, this is not my God of War, this is not God of War.’”

One departure from tradition that stands out in a single screenshot is Kratos’s new weapon, the Leviathan Axe. The axe can be swung, thrown, and magically recalled from its target, which makes it both a melee and a ranged weapon. It’s a brilliant addition that opens up new gameplay possibilities, but it’s not the Blades of Chaos, Kratos’s customary dealers of death. The Blades do appear eventually, but not until a dramatic unveiling more than halfway through the game. Barlog had to dig in his heels to delay the Blades’ big reveal. “The duration of time it took to get the Blades was very deliberate, and it was a lot of resistance, because, ‘Oh, this is taking too long, we gotta move it to the earlier part of the game,’” says Barlog. The wait enhances the anticipation when it dawns on the player that the Blades might make a comeback. “It’s all about that point that when you get in the boat, and before you see Athena, you’re going, ‘Are they doing this? Is this happening? Are they doing this?’” Barlog says.

When they do, it’s worth the wait. But even after the Blades make their grand entrance, they don’t displace the Leviathan Axe. The two work in tandem, the nostalgic supplementing the new in a lethal ballet. “It can negate the experience, the fun, or the moment if all you’re doing is giving them fan service,” Barlog says. “Maybe a few times you do it, and that’s good. You just have to pace it out.”

Krotos battling a monster Sony Interactive Entertainment

The Depth Wasn’t Too Intimidating

By the end of God of War, players have a whole armory at their disposal: axe, blades, barehand/shield attacks, and even Atreus, who launches arrows and summons magical creatures on command. With the right combination of button presses, players can switch among all four forms of attack mid-battle, using one weapon to target one weak point, a second to fend off another enemy that’s resistant to the first weapon’s effects, and Atreus to create a diversion and do damage from afar. The complex combat system is inventive and rewarding, but it also has the potential to intimidate. Throw in the game’s RPG elements—unlockable abilities, upgradeable equipment, stat-boosting runes—and the game’s menus and inventory screens run the risk of scaring off casual, mainstream players who may miss the old, more easily accessible system.

Giving God of War depth and replay value without compromising its playability, Barlog says, “was the hardest challenge I had from a design standpoint, simply because it was so big. And there wasn’t any one person that had their head wrapped completely around it. We were all carrying pieces of it and trying to see how these pieces fit together.” Because Barlog and his team had never attempted to build a combat and inventory system with so many interlocking parts, they looked at “everything” for input, from Assassin’s Creed to action RPGs like Bloodborne and Dark Souls and online games like Destiny and World of Warcraft. Even so, he says, “It took a lot of testing, and even late in the game, we’re talking like the last three months of the project ... it was still getting worked out. We were going, ‘Maybe that isn’t working. Maybe we should try this out.’”

Kratos holding an ax in a wintry forest Sony Interactive Entertainment

The resulting system won’t be to every player’s liking, but the studio took steps to make it more forgiving. For one thing, players can tweak the game’s difficulty at any time; at lower levels, they can button-mash without mastering the system’s subtleties. For another, the game starts slow, with the first few hours doubling as a disguised tutorial and giving players time to acclimate to the combat and character modification. “People say, ‘Oh, it takes X amount of time to really get the game going,’” Barlog says. “And for me, as an older director now than I was in God of War II, I wasn’t in a rush. I wanted an experience that I get when I watch a great television show that takes its time so that I appreciate the things that happen in the later seasons.” And until the pace picks up, the axe, coupled with a more compelling Kratos, are sufficient incentives to press on.

God of War’s wide array of options helps the game sustain the player’s interest, whether for 18, 26.5, or 49 hours. “It’s when I mix this with this, that it’s something mine,” Barlog says. “And you will mix two other things, and now you have ownership over what that is.” It took a similar alchemy—linear and nonlinear, new and old—to make God of War one of the best games of both 2005 and 2018.

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