The New God Of War Is For The Monster In All Of Us

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Video games are about separating from reality. At their best we fall into their digital worlds, leaving behind the cares and frustrations that drove us to seek distraction in the first place. This need for separation means that we often don’t associate creators with their creations. Sure, you’ve got your Todd Howards and Miyamotos and Kojimas out there, but by and large the games we love are labored on by anonymous artists (who really reads end credits closely?) who put so much of themselves into the games you enjoy. Sony’s upcoming God Of War is one such game. And Cory Barlog, creative director for Sony’s Santa Monica Studio, is one such person.

“I’ve been here since the beginning. I feel like I'm half-father to Kratos,” he told Player.One.

Father is a loaded term in this context. The biggest change coming in 2018’s God of War is a Kratos who is seemingly mellowed, a bit, by fatherhood and the responsibility of caring for his son after the boy’s mother dies.

 

Barlog spoke openly about how the team, himself included, felt connected to this new side of Kratos as many of them have become parents themselves. The first God of War released in 2005. That means the creators now have an additional 13 years of life experience to draw from, although Barlog admits soul-searching isn’t a panacea for creative woes.

“I feel like that reflects the studio, that reflects my team, that reflects my audience. I feel like we're all growing up together,” he said. “[But] single moments of truth, the sort of authenticity that I think a lot of people can relate to, is hard. It's very hard. It's by no means a given to do these things just because you pull from your life.”

Kratos is well-known as a fiery, passionate hero who is full of fury and vengeance. But, to Barlog, that made him a one-note character. After three games of angry Kratos, Barlog and the team at Sony Santa Monica knew they needed to go deeper.

“Rage is one emotion we were really good at in the previous games, but the human experience is far more diverse,” he said. “Drama is definitely not about characters who stagnate. And I think Kratos fell prey to stagnating a little bit.”

Audiences may not have thought so. The God of War franchise is a global blockbuster with more than 24 million copies sold so far. It is one of the brands most closely identified with PlayStation, and Kratos is nearly a god in the real world, given the millions of fans he has worldwide. Barlog thinks that our love of Kratos has more to do with who we are than how he behaves.

“It allowed, I think, every individual person to embrace the monster inside. I don't care who you are, we all have a darkness, a monster inside, of varying size. Some people have a very developed version of it, some people just a little bit of it, and it's a balancing act at all times. And I think Kratos allowed people to freely explore that,” he said.

It’s no small thing for fans to have a character who delivers that kind of release. So it’s a big risk that this time around Kratos is going to be different, because it means we’ll have to be different too. The “thing” that everyone loved about the franchise, that blood-drenched catharsis Kratos delivered after a bad day, won’t be the centerpiece in this new story. And Barlog is OK with that.

“We're shaking it up. We're taking a different approach to it,” he said.

That approach is not easy, nor painless. Barlog describes himself as an “exposed nerve” during the development and beyond. He is sensitive to criticism, never satisfied and averse to celebrating his many successes. For him, a successful game just means more leeway for risk on the next project, and the next and the next. God of War won’t be a greatest hits-style rehash for the PS4. It will be something new and challenging, the product of a lot of people and a lot of effort and a lot of mistakes.

“I'm wrong on a daily basis. I think that's the beautiful part of the creative process is that you fail over and over,” Barlog said. “It's hard to find the authenticity of Kratos to not be a jerk, but also not be inauthentic. Not just be a happy dad. It was a hard road to find that balance.”

Finding that balance is an ongoing process. Barlog explained the studio relies on lots of playtesting to develop game mechanics as well as narrative devices. The buck stops with the players, essentially, and even ideas most of the team think are bad are given a chance to reach players before they’re scrapped. Like Kratos, the God of War team isn’t looking for compromises when faced with creative obstacles.

“When you settle, that's the worst thing you can do creatively, you literally have to be trying to tweak the knobs as its going out the door,” he said. “It's never going to be done, even after it's out there.”

God of War is expected to be “out there” sometime in 2018 for PS4.

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