If you watched the debut of Sony's new God of War earlier this week, you've probably already formed a fairly strong image of what the game is like. For example, you'll know that it stars a big, muscly bearded character who appears to be Kratos, the recognizable protagonist from the series' past. And you'll know that Kratos appears to be caring for a young child.
During a demo of the game at E3 2016, God of War creative director Cory Barlog confirmed that the young boy in the game is Kratos' son. And yes, that is the same Kratos from the previous half-dozen games in the series, although he is now voiced by Stargate SG-1's Christopher Judge instead of T.C. Carson. Despite the clean naming convention, God of War is a continuation of the series' story, and it takes place after the events of God of War 3.
Oh, and also, yes: This is a game about fatherhood.
This is a game about fatherhood
In particular, God of War is a story about a father who has made a million mistakes, who has consistently made the wrong choices in life. Rather than accepting responsibility for those choices, he has lashed out in anger at everyone around him. That would be Kratos, our "hero." This isn't Kratos' first family — he was tricked into killing his wife and daughter earlier in the series — but the developers said they're not revealing the name of Kratos' son or the boy's mother because those bits of information are important to the game's plot.
While Barlog is staying quiet on how Kratos got from the deadly finale of God of War 3 to the more relaxed opening of God of War, he said there's an important thematic reason he wanted to continue this story rather than reboot the series.
"I feel like Kratos' origin story has been told," Barlog said to Polygon. "That was the Greek era. And when I started imagining this full game, I started seeing this massive timeline come out and realizing the Greek era of games was just the beginning of the character."
Barlog compared it to seasons of a TV show like Arrow. The Greek era was the first season, and in the first season Kratos was, well, a pretty big asshole. As Barlog and his team at Sony Santa Monica move into what they're envisioning as the second season, Kratos is trying to learn to control his rage, to make smarter choices, to be a better person. And all of that is focused through the lens of trying to be a good father.
"I found it more intriguing to take this huge wealth of development of this character and see where we can go with it," Barlog said. "We're taking on the challenge of taking a character that is so dark, so antithetical to making the right choices, and trying to find out what it would be like if he took the right choice. Starting over is fun, but I feel like it's much more challenging as a writer to take that on."
It's a surprising (and surprisingly thoughtful) change of pace for a franchise that was once best known for its over-the-top levels of gore more than anything else. But what does it mean for actual gameplay?
"Kratos is a flawed human-slash-god who has made so many mistakes"
For one, Kratos' son will be with him for the entire game, and he will slowly but surely learn from his fearsome warrior father. During combat against mythical creatures, players will be able to tap a button to give the boy an order. This single button is contextual, changing the order depending on what you have targeted at any one point.
But as the game progresses and as Kratos gives lessons, his son will become more skilled, more likely to actually be helpful and even self-sufficient in battles. If you watched the E3 demo video, you may have caught notices popping up saying things like "Knowledge Gained: Archery +50." These stat boosts are tracking the development of Kratos' son, not the main character.
Barlog believes this process of passing on Kratos' accumulated skills and wisdom to his child will help players connect to the antihero, even as the studio is admitting and exploring how terrible he has been in the past.
"As a parent, when you mess up, you don't really mess up and everything stops," Barlog said. "You kind of mess up and keep moving on and reflecting on all the dumb choices you made. With Kratos, he's a flawed human-slash-god who has made so many mistakes, but we sort of force you to just make those mistakes. He's placed in this situation where his mistakes are constantly reflected back at him in his kid. He is constantly mirrored and constantly reminded that he is trying to do something better."
Barlog himself has a child who's 3 and a half years old, and he says he's constantly amazed and terrified by the habits the kid picks up from his parents. Barlog is obsessive about keeping everything neat and organized; now, so is his kid. And often it hurts Barlog to see those parts of himself that he's not completely happy with reflected in his child.
Basically, Kratos is dealing with an emotional process that every parent should be able to recognize — minus the bloodshed and powerful mythical beasts, of course. Barlog promises God of War will still have plenty of that stuff too, along with the giant action setpieces the story is known for. But for the game's debut, Sony Santa Monica wanted to focus on what's actually new to the game.
Beyond the budding father-son relationship, additions to God of War include larger, more complex level design — although it's not a full open-world game, Barlog stressed — and a new camera system that emphasizes the more intimate, personal approach to the game. If you watch the demo carefully, you might pick up on the fact that the camera is one "take." It never cuts away at any point. According to Barlog, that remains true for the full game: The camera will smoothly transition from cutscene to gameplay and back again, without any cuts.
"We needed to do something different," Barlog said. "Everything about this game is changing, and I think even the reveal was about that."
Whether or not to try to stuff more action into God of War's debut was hotly debated in the Sony Santa Monica office. But in the end, the studio went with the more subdued style because it's what is most true to the game.
"What we wanted to show — the first and foremost pillar of this game — is Kratos and his struggle with raising his kid and figuring out how to be a human and how to be a dad. It's figuring out how to teach this kid to not be like him, to have the best parts of him and leave the worst parts out."