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God of War - Kratos and Atreus

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God of War: the quest to redeem Kratos

Sony’s Cory Barlog on making a static character grow

SIE Santa Monica Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Do you remember the first time you realized Kratos might just be an asshole?

When the original God of War came out for PlayStation 2, I was a 19-year-old freshman in college, and my reaction to meeting protagonist Kratos was one of wide-eyed astonishment. I thought he was a badass, an unstoppable, rage-driven killing machine with just a touch of angst that I found novel.

By the time God of War 2 was released in 2007, I was deep into my college life and didn’t have as much time for games. But remembering how much I enjoyed the original, I found a few weekends to devote to the sequel. While I loved the game, I found myself increasingly less invested in the story and character of Kratos, despite having liked him so much initially.

God of War 3 was then released for PlayStation 3 in 2010. I was 24, done with college and in a full-time job — albeit one based around video games. I was eager to finish the trilogy and see my time with Kratos come to a satisfying conclusion. By the end of that bloody third act, however, I found myself feeling an emotion I hadn’t expected: exhaustion. Kratos was no longer an action hero I loved spending time with; he was a big jerk who treated everyone like shit and never seemed to learn any lessons.

As someone who’s been involved with the God of War franchise for most of its life, I half expected Cory Barlog to push back against these experiences. He was the lead animator for the first game before stepping up as director for God of War 2, and initially for God of War 3 as well. He eventually left Sony and passed the third game on to a different director, Stig Asmussen. But Barlog has now returned to the creative director role to lead the new, non-numbered God of War. Over the series’ history, no other individual has played as significant a role in as many of its games.

And yet, when I bring up my increasing dislike of the series’ protagonist, he doesn’t scoff or disagree.

“You grew with him,” Barlog tells me, smiling. He’s not saying that Kratos has grown. Rather, I’ve grown alongside a character who has remained static; that’s the explanation for my shifting feelings toward him. And that is one of the biggest problems Barlog is looking to fix in God of War.

A new chapter

“That sense that he’s just a ruthless badass, that’s what you find endearing at first,” Barlog says, speaking of Kratos’ 2005 debut. “But it becomes the thing that turns him into a jerk. He doesn’t go anywhere. He doesn’t grow. He’s still in that rage mode. It’s fascinating, because that character has fallen farther and farther.”

A quick look back at the plot of the original God of War trilogy and its multiple spinoff games illustrates the depths to which Kratos has fallen. In the first game, Kratos is revealed to be a Spartan warrior who made a deal with Ares, the Greek god of war. That deal granted Kratos victory in his military campaigns, but it also pushed him into a never-ending bloodlust that led to the death of his wife and daughter at his own hands.

By the end of the third game, Kratos had ripped through the entire Greek pantheon, killing off Ares and a couple dozen other gods and goddesses. Along the way, he discovered his true lineage: He was a secret son of Zeus. The third game ends with Kratos brutally beating Zeus to death before seemingly taking his own life.

Though Kratos has always been driven more by rage than anything resembling true humanity, the third game is where he truly seemed to go off the rails, taking down every god he came across, from Poseidon to Hera to Hermes.

“He lost the sense of humanity to the point where it was almost comical,” says Barlog. “Almost every cinematic began with Kratos just killing the person that was in the cinematic. Like, alright, this isn’t going to go anywhere. It’s interesting, because it really plays on that bombastic character of things, but at some point you have to take some stock. That point, obviously, in our universe is when Kratos has eliminated an entire belief system.”

In the new God of War, we discover that Kratos’ suicide attempt didn’t take. The antihero has gone on a long pilgrimage, and after what Barlog calls “an indeterminate length of time,” he has found himself in a new land, interacting with a new pantheon — the Norse gods.

“He spends a long period of time in which he’s trying to isolate himself, believing that is not only what he deserves but the way he’s going to fix things,” Barlog says. “He knows at the end of God of War 3 he has not resolved anything. He realizes he’s cursed. This guy is going to live forever. No matter what he does, he can’t frickin’ die. That’s part of the torture that he has to endure, but in order to endure it, he realizes that he needs to change.”

Though Barlog is hesitant to get into exact details of the circumstances leading into the beginning of God of War, one thing is clear: In order to illustrate the changes Kratos needs to go through, the development team needed to give him a foil, a companion who could force out the good in a cynical, cruel character.

Enter Atreus, the son of the son of Zeus.

God of War - Kratos and Atreus approaching the top of the mountain SIE Santa Monica Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Family matters

Like many game developers, Barlog got into the industry at a young age and often at the expense of other parts of his life. Now entering his 40s, he has a wife and a 5-year-old son — a reality that has openly shaped his approach to redefining God of War’s protagonist.

“The son is the humanity that Kratos lost,” says Barlog. “He’s that mirror that’s reminding him that there is a different way, a way that he might have forgotten so long ago.”

But Atreus is more than just a mirror. He’s also the key to Kratos understanding the unfamiliar land he’s now journeying through. While we don’t know the full backstory yet, Barlog reveals that Kratos’ son has grown up here, without his father around, and now that the two are reunited, Atreus’ father relies on him to read signs and speak the local languages.

This scenario is pulled almost directly out of Barlog’s own life.

“My wife is Swedish, and my son is learning to speak Swedish,” he says. “At 5 years old, he speaks better Swedish than I do, and points it out quite often. My in-laws are in town, and everybody’s speaking Swedish, and I have no idea what they’re saying. My son is kind of the conduit to understanding a little bit of what they’re saying.”

While the God of War debut at E3 2016 focused on Kratos teaching his son, the footage showcased at last week’s E3 2017 revealed a more balanced relationship. In the new trailer, Kratos gives Atreus a lesson on fighting:

“To be effective in combat, a warrior must not feel for his enemy. Close your heart to their desperation. Close your heart to their suffering.”

This brutal doctrine doesn’t go unchallenged, though. Atreus pushes back on Kratos:

“But not everyone is bad. Mother always said to be open to those who can help.”

This exchange reveals a key part of the philosophy behind God of War and how it is shifting from the previous games where, as Barlog said, Kratos would kill almost any character he had a conversation with. The trailer shows Kratos and Atreus interacting with multiple non-player characters who aren’t enemies. It even has a touch of humor in a scene featuring Sindri, a dwarf who, alongside his brother Brok, created many of Norse mythology’s most powerful weapons, such as Thor’s hammer.

“The dynamics of storytelling are very important,” Barlog says. “To just be serious and morose all the time, I think, would not be very enjoyable. Bringing a tiny bit of levity throughout this experience — Brok and Sindri are two characters who have very interesting and unique personalities.”

Barlog says that in addition to being comic relief of sorts, Brok and Sindri will serve an important gameplay function by upgrading Kratos’ equipment. They’ll also have their own side story that is affected by Kratos’ presence in their lives.

These aren’t the only characters Kratos will have to work with alongside his son. The new trailer ends with what Barlog describes as a “zig when you think we’re gonna zag.” Kratos and Atreus summon the World Serpent, a massive snake creature of the sea. Any player familiar with the series knows what this means: It’s gotta be an epic boss fight.

Not so fast. The creature speaks in an ancient language. Kratos asks Atreus what it said. “He wants to help us!” Atreus shouts in response.

“He’s actually going to be someone who helps you on this journey to complete your goal,” Barlog confirms. “Not everyone is going to want to hug Kratos, but not everyone is going to want to kill him.”

God of War - Kratos and Atreus meet the World Serpent SIE Santa Monica Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

The wider world

While 2018’s God of War marks some long-needed evolution of Kratos as a character, Barlog wants some of the gameplay and structure of the series to evolve as well. Many fans watching the debut footage saw the huge forest spaces Kratos was traversing with his son, and jumped to the conclusion that the game took place in an open world. For his part, Barlog begs off that specific wording.

“I knew right away that I did not want to make an open-world game,” he says. “I did not want to make a game in which people felt like they were doing a checklist of things.”

In Barlog’s mind, open-world games have become synonymous with a certain type of game design — vast spaces that are filled with repetitive tasks and side quests that are more about following closely given instructions than curiosity. God of War, by comparison, will not have side quests that players are guided toward.

“Kratos and Atreus have a goal that takes them all over the world, but always just off in the distance, there’s something that catches your eye,” says Barlog, describing the guiding philosophy behind God of War’s world design. “It’s this idea that we’re going to reward people for being curious or looking around. We’re not really ever going to put them in a position outside of that core experience, forcing them to do something.

“It’s the idea of seeing this little cave entrance off in the distance, boating over there, and actually going inside the cave, and coming out and seeing an entire level you never knew was there. It’s that feeling of being rewarded for your curiosity. It’s just huge. That’s why I play video games. It’s about existing in a world.”

Though the early God of War games were largely linear, Barlog believes his design vision for God of War does tie back to them in some ways. Even from the first game, the developers would often place landmarks off in the distance, giving observant players an early hint at areas they would visit much later in the game. The original God of War even had one complicated puzzle with a hub area, hinting at much greater ambitions for what the series could do.

Barlog says that one area took the developer something like three years to get working properly.

“Even on God of War 2, we had a limited amount of time, so we didn’t tackle openness as much,” he says. “I started trying to dig into it a little bit on the third game, making Olympus smaller in breadth, but more folding in on itself. But with this game [God of War 2018], it’s based on classic adventures from when I was a kid. I remember going to movies and seeing sprawling land stretching out in front of me, and everything was ripe for exploration.”

I suggest that what Barlog is describing sounds similar to Dark Souls and its sequels and spinoffs — games that are more or less linear but reward exploration greatly. Barlog smiles at the comparison. He calls the original Dark Souls “obtuse, and gorgeous, and so perfect,” but he believes God of War handles things a little differently.

In summation of the world design, he returns, quite naturally, to a metaphor taken from parenthood.

“We guide you in the game on this path, like holding your kid when he’s riding a bike for the first time. Then we sort of open the world up by letting go with one hand. The world is a little bit bigger, a little scarier, you’re wobbling a little bit. But right when you start to feel steady, then we open up the world even more, both hands off. You’re just free to go. And that’s still not even the last time. We open it up even further, so everything becomes bigger. You’re never required to go over and do anything. You’re always encouraged that this is your goal. But, hey, if you want, go explore all these other things. It’s such a vast mythology. It’s so wonderful.”

God of War - woman and Kratos caring for Atreus SIE Santa Monica Studio/Sony Interactive Entertainment

The greatest challenge

I’ve now spoken to Barlog twice and seen God of War twice across two E3s. It remains one of my most anticipated games, but I still find myself worrying about whether or not it can succeed. The sheer enormity of the task that Sony’s Santa Monica Studio has built for itself is staggering. I want to believe that even a character as reprehensible as Kratos became can grow and find new life, just like I want to believe that even the most horrific criminals in real life can be rehabilitated. But is that a story they can really pull off in a bloody action game?

One of the comparisons Barlog often returns to is television. He refers to the original three God of War games and their spinoffs as “the first season” of Kratos’ story. They introduced the character, made you like him and then took him to a very dark place.

2018’s God of War marks the beginning of season two, in this metaphor. It’s time for the tone to change, and for the story to go in a new direction.

“When a great TV show takes a character and makes you hate him, and then takes that same character and makes you like him, that is brilliant writing,” says Barlog. “That is great creativity right there — to take someone right to the edge and then bring him back and make viewers like him. That’s brilliant, man. That’s the power of the mediums that we work in.”

He points to Wilson Fisk, the antagonist of Marvel and Netflix’s Daredevil series, as the perfect example. That show didn’t back down from displaying the many ways in which Fisk was a bad guy, but it also managed to elicit sympathy toward the villain from many viewers by playing up his humanity.

It’s a tall order for any video game to pull off that kind of subtlety — much less a sequel to a series known for spectacle and bloodshed. Barlog isn’t backing down, though.

“It’s ambitious, but I think we can do it,” he says. “I’m confident.”

We’ll find out when Sony launches God of War on PlayStation 4 in early 2018.