'God of War' Creative Director Cory Barlog on Nihilism and Fatherhood
'God of War' looks to show another side of the brutal Kratos. We asked Cory Barlog how that might play out.
All 'God of War' images courtesy of Sony
A year ago, God of War brought the house down at E3. Though many expected Kratos would return to gaming at some point, few expected Sony would make this strong a tonal shift—suggesting a game where Kratos understands there's a world beyond rage and anger.
A year later, that project is finally coming together, with the game scheduled for early 2018. (From what I hear, it might actually hit that.) This year's trailer still highlighted the relationship between Kratos and his son, but also teased what you'll be doing most of the game: fighting.
I had a chance to sit down with God of War creative director Cory Barlog for a few minutes at the show, where we chatted about his five-year-old son, what being a father has meant for developing a game about violence, and whether Kratos should even be allowed a chance at redemption. As my recorder clicked on, we were discussing Kotaku's in-depth piece on the troubled development of Mass Effect: Andromeda, and how it mirrored many other games.
Cory Barlog: I read through that one, and I was like "God…"
Waypoint: It's heartbreaking.
Barlog: It is, because I feel like every game I've ever developed has elements of that, where you're just like—it's always a mess, it's always chaotic, but somehow you pull it together in the end. But sometimes, I guess, you can't correct the wobbling of the steering wheel.
You certainly know this better than me, but I suspect you have this hope at the beginning of a project that when you reach the end, it'll all coalesce. "Alright, the bets we we made, they're coming together." Sometimes, those bets don't pan out. And that's one thing I wanted to ask you about. The last time you worked on a God of War project, the scale of production was a lot different.
Barlog: Soooooo much different.
I'd imagine these days it's a lot harder to swerve.
Barlog: Oh my god.
If you make a commitment, and if that doesn't work or you start to realize…
Barlog: It's like turning an oil tanker.
Have you had those experiences for a project at this scale? Even asset production alone must make it so much longer. Oh, we want to build a new area? Well, ehhhh!
Barlog: So much longer. Scanning the kid's face and setting up the rigs for the kid was like two years. [laughs] Two years! Back in the old building, we cast him and scanned his face and then we were only recently finishing some of that stuff up. We're talking years of development for one small part the game. It is absurd, the sheer enormity of all of this.
God of War was a 40-60 person team. It was a lot of very different, very passionate, very crazy people.
Now the motion capture is 40-60 people.
Barlog: I know, right? It's just ridiculous. And there's a lot of great animators who came on to transition to motion capture, but we're still doing a lot of hand animated stuff and creatures because you just can't mo-cap certain things. Mo-cap actors won't let you throw them over a building.
Barlog: I feel like we're close to allowing that.
The technology is coming. [pause] During the presentation, you referenced your child quite a bit. And when I talked to you last year, you did the same. I have a 10-month old now, so I'm going through some of the same things.
Barlog: You seem well rested.
[laughs] E3, in a way—I sleep better than I do at home.
Barlog: That's true. I don't want my wife to find that out. Staying in a hotel, I get zero interruptions and sleep all the way through the night. It's amazing.
How much of that experience of the last five years reflected in this game? How much of Kratos' pseudo-redemption arc is informed by your own personality, your own experience with your kid?
Barlog: It's a lot. It's a lot. It's the little things. There's a line in there [the game] where the kid comments on how someone lives by themselves, and says "Yeah, my dad doesn't like people, either." That's from my own life. I'm very—I love talking about games, I love talking about movies and TV shows and love what I do at work. But after work, I don't want to talk to anybody. I'm super private. I stay home. When I do these things, I stay in my hotel room all the time, just sitting there.
I feel somewhat of a connection. There's a lot of moments throughout. We've pulled milestones, moments throughout childhood, whether they were my own childhood with my dad [or others]. The first time you see a fireworks display, the first time you go on a rollercoaster, the first beer you have together. All these kinds of milestones that you have together that you remember.
They stick with you in life. We're trying to look at those and bring them and transpose them into the world. It brings a bit of truth, right? They're born from a real moment. It's not this artificial thing that you're creating. This is actual moments that human beings have, whether they were the kid or the adult in the situation. They all had these rites of passage with their parents. I try to bring as much as I can into it.
Do you talk to your kid about what you work on, given the nature of the violence?
Barlog: Eh, he's still really young. He's bilingual, so he's learning Swedish and English. He's still—when he says goodbye to me in the morning, he says "OK, buh-bye. See you later." He says the entire thing, the whole exchange—all this, then just closes the door. He's fantastic. I think, when he gets older, I do want to show him all this stuff.
He knows you work on video games?
Barlog: I don't think he knows what a video game is, but I did take him to work the other weekend, and we have one of those Gran Turismo Sport simulators that they have on the show floor with the sweet white trim and the curved screen and the steering wheel. He basically watched the video replay and moved the wheel and loved that. He wants to go to daddy's work all the time now. [laughs] He thinks that's the greatest thing ever. I don't think he has any idea that's what I do. But when he gets older, I can't wait. I want to show him all the crazy stuff that we're doing in VR, man.
I've had free time at the hotel to do VR because you can't really do that when you've got a kid punching around.
The cables! Mine's 10 months, so everything's in the mouth, and you just cannot put them anywhere near a PC or cables.
Barlog: But it's amazing, man. I've been playing so much of that stuff and realizing that he's going to have some incredible experiences when he's older. Some of the stuff he's going to be playing. Trying to imagine that is just...man.
I think that about, too. All my daughter can figure out is the screen moves on the phone, but when I look back at how games have changed for me in 30 years, what it's going to be like even just 10 years from now, five years from now. I can't fathom the way they'll even interact with games.
Barlog: We'll be considered flat. [laughs] Your game is so flat! How did you play this? It's just on the screen.
You talked a little bit about Kratos maybe not growing up, but realizing the world is more than just himself. When you play first three games, Kratos is an asshole. He's a dick. He doesn't think about the consequences of his actions. I'm curious how you're approaching the idea of giving him the space to learn. Isn't it also possible that he's just a monster? Maybe he's just a bad person.
Barlog: There's always that possibility, but I think what's interesting [as a storyteller] is to be able to take a character all the way to the brink, to take a character to the point where they're wholly unlikable. They are anti-hero in some way, but I think it's interesting to even just look at this feeling of like—how can you bring them back from the brink? How can you redeem them in some ways?
Think about the life Kratos has had. As a child, before—spoiler alert!—Deimos [Kratos' younger brother] was taken, he was alright. Even for a Spartan, he had a pretty decent life. But everything started stacking up, bad things started happening to him.
We truly are a product of our environment. Our environment influences so much. But I don't think we are irretrievably affected.
So it's philosophy. The idea of nihilism, that Kratos is completely irredeemable, is incongruent with how you'd like to believe how people work.
Barlog: Absolutely, absolutely. How he is, how everybody is. [pause] Everybody has that arc in their life. I think it's within all of us to make bad decisions, to take the wrong road, but there's always a possibility of—maybe it's a small move. That's the thing about Kratos.
He doesn't necessarily have to become a good person.
Barlog: He's not going to become a paladin going around and saving the world, but the reality is that—this is a backstory. The first eight games are a backstory to this interesting character who's now unfolding, to take this opportunity to say "Hey, this isn't a reboot. This isn't a starting over. This is chapter two. Chapter one, Greece. Chapter two, Norse mythology."
As we progress in, we suddenly see this potential list of mythologies that he could start interacting with, and the difference effects. How he affects this mythology, how he interacts is so different than how everything went in Greece.
It all begins with why he's doing this and how he ended up on this. Not a lot of it is planning. He may be a very good tactician, a strategist in the moment of a battle, but the idea of planning his emotional development? Not really good for him.
It seems like it could also be a nightmare for this kid. For the first time, he's being exposed to the monstrous elements of his father.
Barlog: Yeah. But it's present the whole time, right? He only knows that. He only knows the world that he lives in with his dad. They've lived in this forest, a very small area. They're going out on the road together. Dad is just Dad.
You don't really know any different. That's just a parameters for his life. As he starts to learn who he is, how he fits into all of this and who his dad is, it's an interesting sort of way that—he sees life differently than we see Kratos. He allows us to see Kratos with a slightly different lens because he's experiencing it all differently.