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E3 2017: God of War's Cory Barlog on How Creative Conflict Shaped Kratos' New Adventure

Cory Barlog’s family has a tradition. Every night before bedtime, he and his wife read their son a story. Barlog reads each page in English, then hands the book over to his wife so she can read passages in Swedish. Their son, now five years old, has taken command of their ritual. He’ll point to a line and say “English” or “Swedish,” and the appropriate parent will narrate.

Despite his best attempts to learn the language, all but the most basic words and phrases still sound like gibberish. When his in-laws come to visit, his household is filled with the sounds of Swedish conversation. Barlog boards an emotional roller coaster during those long weekends. Pride in his son’s bilingualism gives way to befuddlement. Frustration and helplessness close in like a fog, especially during lengthy exchanges. Then his son translates, like a beam of light cutting through the mist, and relief washes over him.

The parallels between Barlog and his son and Kratos and Atreus, protagonists of Sony Santa Monica’s upcoming God of War, run deep. Kratos, long a vehicle through which players unleash mass destruction and bloodshed, is a stranger in a strange land. Atreus not only speaks the native tongue, he speaks several. When Kratos gets stumped in conversation or while deciphering runes, Atreus steps in, a living, breathing skeleton key able to unlock linguistic mysteries.

“I had a little bit of the inspiration while I was on Tomb Raider,” Barlog told me, “about my son and sort of how that changes an individual, and the concept of change on somebody who you think could probably never change: Kratos, the antihero. He'll never be able to change, right? But as I started having these weird, writer musings, I thought, What would he do in this situation? What would he do in that situation? Exercises you do to get inside a character. I realized, Wow, this is actually really fascinating. Imagine that the first seven [God of War] games were chapter one. They were the backstory. I think that's amazing. How rarely do you get an opportunity where people are so familiar with that character, but you can treat that [history] as, ‘This is the beginning of their adventure. Watch how this character changes.’”

Cory Barlog, director on God of War. (Image courtesy of Venture Beat.)

Fury Road

Years earlier, Barlog would never have imagined Kratos capable of evolution. A de facto mascot for Sony’s PlayStation brand, Kratos was a bottle of rage perpetually shaken and ready to explode over the murder of his wife and son. Lead animator on the hack-and-slash original, Barlog stepped into the role of director when creator David Jaffe passed him Kratos’ bloody baton. Although Sony Santa Monica tweaked God of War 2’s combat system and told a new story, the sequel stood on the shoulders of its predecessor. Players guided Kratos through platforming sequences, puzzles, and action scenarios—all inspired by creatures and myths from Greek mythology.

God of War 2 released to positive critical and commercial reception. It was more of the same, and that was what fans wanted. Barlog, on the other hand, needed to recharge his creative juices.

“Right after [God of War] 2, I had hooked up with some people at CAA [Creative Artists Agency] just because I wanted to start meeting as many of the creatives who were local,” he said. “I still had so much to learn, so I was like, ‘This is an opportunity.’ God of War was getting a little bit known, so it was nice that people would actually want to talk to you, and then you could pick their brain, which I did in my fanboy-ish way. So, it was cool because I got to meet with a ton of people in this six-month period.”

George Miller, Mad Max creator and Fury Road director.

Fortuitously, Hollywood director George Miller was in town visiting collaborators on Mad Max: Fury Road, then eight years out from being released in theaters. One of Barlog’s new friends at CAA tipped him off that Miller enjoyed talking with game developers. Barlog went through the grapevine to arrange a sit-down and brought along a copy of God of War 2. Picking up a PS2 controller, he played and talked about the design decisions that had gone into this and that segment. Miller sat and watched, silent throughout Barlog’s soliloquy.

“I had no idea if I was connecting with him just because he was sort of staring at it,” Barlog remembered. “I was like, I don't know if this is going very well. Then, suddenly, he was like, ‘This is amazing!’ We just sat there for, I think, two-and-a-half to three hours, talking about movies, things that inspired us, what was going on with me during [God of War] 2 and what I was trying to do. I was telling him that he ruined me for flying forever because of his piece for Twilight Zone. He said, ‘Oh, that's great.’ He just felt like this creative, kindred spirit.”

Barlog’s meeting with Miller inspired him to evaluate his career. He and other frontrunners at Sony Santa Monica had mapped out a story for God of War 3, planned for release on the new PlayStation 3. If he left now, he wouldn’t leave his teammates in a jam. “I kind of realized, ‘You know, I don't know if I should do this,’” he said. “There was always a new director on each of the God of Wars, and I was like, ‘I think if I do this, I won't grow. I might simply keep rehashing.’ I took the leap and spent a lot of time with [George Miller].”

For two years, Barlog and Miller spent hours locked away in conference rooms batting around story pitches for a Mad Max video game that would tie-in with Fury Road. Ultimately, the project fell through. Just Cause developer Avalanche Studios ended up taking the reins on a game, released in 2015 to coincide with Fury Road.

Barlog had no time to dwell on the fact that his and Miller’s collaboration had borne no fruit. The hours they had spent learning from one another were invaluable to him, and led indirectly to his next venture.

“I ended up working with LucasArts for a little bit and had an amazing experience there,” Barlog said. “I got to go the [Skywalker] Ranch and do a story conference. That was, seriously, like a kid in a freaking candy store there because I was the first video game person in the Lucas group to be invited to one of their story conferences. To this day, I still don't have any idea how it happened, but they made it clear, ‘You do understand how big of a deal this is? Don't screw this up. Don't make us look back.’ I was like, ‘All right. Cool. That sounds awesome.’”

Barlog’s amazement grew with each name included on his conference list. There was David Rambo, showrunner for the original CSI; Matthew Graham, who wrote the UK version of Life on Mars; and Lisa Randolph, a writer on The Shield. Each conversation opened Barlog’s mind to new methods for exploring characters and stories.

A Lot of Heart

The next leg of Barlog’s creative walkabout took him to Crystal Dynamics, where he directed cinematics for the studio’s 2013 Tomb Raider reboot. Although offered more direct input into the story and direction of the next game, 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider, Barlog felt a familiar wanderlust fluttering through his belly.

“I liked where [Crystal Dynamics] went with the reboot,” he explained, “but I was also looking at it going, ‘There's some cool stuff to be done, but I don't know if I have the strongest personal connection.’ I just wasn't finding a way in. I had a story I think I wanted to tell in that one, but I don't necessarily think that's where they wanted to go with it.”

All the while, Barlog stayed in touch with Shannon Studstill, vice president of product development at Sony Interactive Entertainment. Many of their conversations had centered on the birth of Barlog’s son and how fatherhood had impacted his view on game development and the world at large. “There was this weird the-stars-aligned moment where I started talking about, ‘Look, I want to do something with a lot of heart. I want to do something that means something. I want to do a game that nobody's expecting, and I think I want to do it in God of War,”’ he recalled. “She said, ‘I'm very intrigued. Let's talk about this.’ I think that began the snowball of us continuing to talk, and then in the summer of 2013, I headed back, and we started really digging in.”

Barlog returned to Sony Santa Monica and took up the mantle of director on God of War. Although it appropriated the title of the original game, God of War is not a reboot. It will follow 2010’s God of War 3 as Kratos enters the realm of Norse mythology with Atreus at his side.

While Atreus will play a major role in the story, Kratos remains the central protagonist. Teaser trailers have shown him battling gargantuan monsters and ripping enemies to shreds with his trademark flurry of blades, but his primary antagonist this time around is the rage that has defined the character through seven games. Animus fueled his greatest victories, while at the same time transforming him into a hero in name only: Any lives saved as a result of his adventures were, by and large, incidental.

Barlog’s mission upon returning to the God of War franchise was to do the impossible: Force Kratos to reconcile his past and move on. Mentoring Atreus provided the perfect impetus. “We did that Director's Live thing,” Barlog said, referring to a roundtable video piece with all God of War directors published as a bonus feature on 2011’s God of War Origins Collection for PS3. “But even during that, [Jaffe] was talking about, ‘Kratos needs to get over it. He's talking and complaining about all this stuff about his wife and kid. Spider-Man was responsible for the death of Uncle Ben, and you don't hear him bitching about it all the time. Get over it.’”

At first, Barlog laughed off Jaffe’s diatribe. The more he thought about it, though, the more he realized that Jaffe had verbalized thoughts that had nagged at Barlog during work on God of War 2. Kratos’ fathomless wrath had reduced the death of his wife and child from character motivation to plot device. “Even in this one, we're not forgetting about it,” he assured me. “It's not as if it doesn't exist. It's absolutely part of his timeline and history. But he really is trying to figure out how to move forward. I think that's an important message: For him to make a change, constantly sitting there and dwelling on the past is going to do very little for him.”

Finding the Line

For Kratos to move forward, Barlog needed the cooperation of his development team at Sony Santa Monica. Everyone had a different idea for how Kratos should comport himself, and just how much the core of his character should change. “A big part of this job is constantly selling and convincing and holding the line, and knowing when to give the wing to someone else,” he said. “That was a hold-the-line moment for me, because a lot of people were very resistant and going, ‘This is crazy, why is he doing this?’ and ‘This is not Kratos. Kratos is this and that.’ I tried lots of different things.”

Barlog’s initial thinking was to couch God of War in a more grounded narrative. Not realistic, per se—just far enough removed from the first seven games to demonstrate how dramatically the team needed to rethink the character. “I needed them to reset,” said Barlog. “I needed them to go as far away [from previous God of Wars] as possible so we could start moving toward the line, and find it. I needed to get them all in the most uncomfortable place they could be so that, therefore, we could slowly make people more comfortable with the character we're going to end up with.”

Kratos swung like a pendulum between far ends of his character spectrum. “It's not happening overnight,” Barlog said of the character’s growth. “He's still going to stumble, he's still going to fail, just like we did when we started. We were writing Kratos, and the team was just not feeling it early on. It's very hard to find the balance of this guy. We either went too far and everyone was like, ‘This is so depressing, Kratos is so mean. He's terrible. It's a child-abuse simulator; he's yelling at his kid all the time.’ We went, ‘Okay, we went too far there.’ Then we pulled back, and people said, ‘He's like Obi-Wan Kenobi now. He's too nice.’ Then we had to find that just-right spot.”

Like his leading man, Barlog faced battles every day at work. Nevertheless, he held to his vision. Of all the lessons he had gleaned from his time with George Miller, commitment proved the most useful. Miller had recounted to him the uphill battle he had faced in casting Tom Hardy as Fury Road’s titular character. To many of his constituents, Mel Gibson was and always would be Mad Max. There was a time much earlier in the film’s troubled production when Miller had agreed. Gibson had been cast, locations locked down, vehicles built and ready to roll.

“They were ready to shoot,” Barlog said. “Mel was on board, and then the [Iraq] war broke out, which limited access to their location, which then made them have to put a pause on everything. That pause started to create time and distance, so they had to start reevaluating everything. They had to rebuild all the vehicles; they had to redo everything.”

During one meeting, after Hardy had been cast, Barlog suggested to Miller that they include a Mel Gibson-themed Mad Max character skin as an unlockable in their upcoming game. Miller disagreed. “He started talking to me about how it was important to commit fully,” Barlog recalled. “That was an interesting moment of me realizing, yeah, there's this really cool part of nostalgia, but there's also the sense of: This is the direction this project is going. That full commitment really shows confidence to the audience as well, to realize, oh, this is a new chapter of the world.”

Grand Debuts

God of War appears poised to make good on Barlog’s commitment. Sony debuted the game at E3 2016 in the form of a trailer that focused almost entirely on Kratos’ new direction: from violent, dispassionate, and selfish to keeping a close eye on his son as they roamed new environments. The character will never rock the boy to sleep while singing a lullaby, but such behavior would lack verisimilitude. Watching Kratos work his way back from the proverbial abyss, putting as much distance between it and himself as he can, makes for a more compelling arc.

This year’s pre-recorded gameplay footage blended Kratos’ surprising new direction with more of what fans were expecting. In between snatches of conversation with Atreus and standing guard while his son decoded runes and riddles, Kratos leaped into action, spinning and bludgeoning and stabbing. Although God of War won’t be released until sometime in 2018, Barlog and his team appear to have struck a balance between old and new, thoughtful and angry.

Watching this God of War flounder and grasp until finally achieving a happy medium has reminded Barlog that he’s a parent in more ways than one.

“I think the fact that I'm doing this, the fact that I worked on the first one and the second one--I have a very deep history with this franchise, so I think someone coming in who has no franchise, and who would rip it up and throw it around, would probably feel to people like, ‘You're destroying it,’” Barlog said. “But I feel like a co-parent of Kratos. [David] Jaffe and I are kind of co-parents of this guy. Of all people, he and I are the ones who could look at God of War and say, ‘We need to look at this completely differently. It's a totally different animal.’”

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