There’s something seductive about the notion that a great video game materializes full-cloth, and that a successful artist simply moves from one big project to the next. It conceals the nasty business of creativity, ambition and the fickleness of making a life in the arts. Take for example, the latest God of War. In my review, I called it holistic, speaking to the near-absence of seams where its beautiful art direction, streamlined story and ambitious design connect. But just because the work didn’t leave behind a mess doesn’t mean there wasn’t one.
The game took five years to develop. The project saw a massive story revision. And some of its biggest mechanical ideas, like Kratos’ son accompanying him on the journey, nearly got left on the cutting room floor during tense arguments from passionate individuals on both sides.
One of those people is director Cory Barlog. Before God of War, the last game that he directed and shipped was God of War 2, which was released in March 2007 — over a decade ago — on the PlayStation 2. Barlog didn’t stop working in the interim. He took a fascinating, albeit circuitous, route through the game industry, one that reflects its challenges and limitations, inescapable even by directors of massive hits. Barlog spent time at LucasArts, consulted on numerous projects, lived in Australia, worked on a Mad Max video game, directed cinematics for the Tomb Raider reboot at Crystal Dynamics. Along the way, he saw and experienced the sheer scope of the AAA games business during a period in which the stability of big-budget games seemed uncertain at best, and to some analysts, doomed. It’s a valuable perspective, one I’ve long wanted to hear more about.
Barlog published a video of his reaction to positive reviews for the new God of War. He breaks down into tears like a runner collapsing at the finish line. But what I want to know about is the rest of the race. I had a chance to chat with the designer on the eve of God of War’s release, and asked him to share what he learned from both his period as creative sojourner and director of a project that, at times, felt impossible.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
Cory Barlog, God of War director:
“I use the comparison of saying I [was] kind of just in the wandering phase. You know, the sort of Pulp Fiction line of wandering the Earth like Caine from Kung-Fu. Getting in adventures and shit.
“That [period between the God of War games] was the time of creatively seeing all the different ways that problems are approached. You know, at LucasArts I had an incredible experience, being invited into the story and character creation process by George Lucas. I spent a weekend at the [Skywalker] Ranch with a bunch of incredibly talented writers and showrunners — really great head writers from various shows. We were all just kind of talking about this Star Wars thing. It was very rare to have anybody on the game side of Lucas to be invited to this, so I’m not really certain how it even happened, but was very thankful to get an insight into that world.
“My work with KMM and [Mad Max director] George Miller was amazing, but it was really, you know, me and George and Doug [Mitchell]. That was sort of the chemistry. And I was working with another studio and they were really great, but you know, there’s the intermediary at the publisher there, and it just was never really, I think, coalescing in the way that it needed to, and it felt like they needed to kind of do their own thing.
“When I was at Crystal [Dynamics], these guys were reinventing their franchise and how they’re approaching things. When I came in, I was going to direct the follow-up, but their cinematic heads had departed and sort of left the cinematic kind of in a bunch of pieces on the floor, so I rolled up my sleeves and took on the cinematic director job for the last year and a half. It was great. It was a fun time. It taught me a lot about the way that they work, and I think every one of these experiences taught me that I have a very specific way I want to work.
“Every one of them offered a small piece of that, but I think everything kind of led back to the idea that I needed to be a part of starting something, right? And even though that sounds weird because Santa Monica is so established, it felt like when I came back [to Santa Monica Studio], we really did hit the reset button, and we kind of started from day zero, and we kind of built from there.
“Shannon [Studstill, vice president of product development at Sony Interactive Entertainment] and I had many conversations before I came back, and part of that conversation was that there was this amazing feeling that we had when we were making games back in 2003. [There was a moment] in my first few months at the studio: Shannon and Dave [Jaffe, director of the original God of War] and I, and all the designers and artists, were standing around a film station at, like, 3 in the morning, putting together a build for [Tokyo Game Show]. And it was awesome. There was a feeling of being part of something bigger than ourselves. There was so much pride and so much enthusiasm.
“And not a single person [in the room] was asked to be there. Some people didn’t have anything to do; they simply were just so excited about what we were working on. I wanted to get that back. I felt like every place I’d been, [there were] amazingly talented people, absolutely, but the creative clicking I had with a large group of people seemed to happen most profoundly at Santa Monica.
“I think the biggest takeaway I had from it, because I think about this recently, was this idea that before I went on this walkabout, we’ll say, I didn’t know that I didn’t know — if that makes any sense.
“And I thought, ‘Oh I get it, I totally understand, I know how to make things.’ Because I’d made something before. But that doesn’t mean anything. Making something doesn’t mean anything. If you don’t get it, if you don’t understand what you’re doing, it’s very easy sometimes to stumble across. It’s not to say that I didn’t have any abilities whatsoever. It was just, perhaps, I wasn’t in full control of those abilities.
“I feel like now, after having been exposed to so many different creative influences and processes, I still have a lot to learn, but I at least understand that I don’t know what I’m talking about. [laughs]
“[So my initial] conversations with Shannon began over email. Just like, ‘Hey Barlog, what’s going on? I’ll be up in San Francisco, let’s grab dinner.’ And then that discussion spawned into this idea of a very cautious, ‘Are you happy with where you’re at? What are you thinking about?’ And I happened to be at this point where I realized that they’re so incredibly talented at Crystal. Tomb Raider 1, the first set of the reboot, was amazing. What I wanted to do was going to make a massive departure from what they had done. They had already laid the groundwork. It wasn’t going to be as creatively interesting for me to just continue to take the next few steps.
“I was like, ‘You know what? If I want to invest my life into something, I want it to really mean something, and I kind of want it to come from a large portion of who I am, to really put a lot of myself into it.’ So, I started sharing those high-level ideas with her: ‘I have another big game, I don’t really know what it is.’ I intimated that, you know, I think it might be a God of War game. ‘I don’t have the specifics; I just have some feelings, some ideas from things that I learned. But I wanna really take a crack at this thing.’ Our conversation continued. She got excited. It kind of came down to, ‘Let’s get you in here with some people and we’ll put a small team together and we’ll start banging around some ideas.’
“Then I kind of gave her just the early, early, early version of the pitch, which was, that I feel like I’m so different from when I made God of War 1 back in 2003. I feel like having my son sort of changed a lot. And the fact that my dad and I sort of wrote the first draft of God of War 2, and here I am kind of taking on that role of a father. There’s something interesting about that part of the journey, and perhaps Kratos might be ready for that part of the journey.
“To actually do a game where we focus in on his desire to do something different. To make some better decisions, instead of complain and blame everybody else. But it would come down to: He has a son in this game. And she’s like, ‘Well, that’s really interesting.’ I think just that highest level of it was the beginning.
“But I think you’re right: There is no point where someone is like, ‘I have an idea for a game,’ and it’s just smooth sailing and it just ends up being that. I mean, we went through a lot of ups and downs, to the point where there was one maybe week, or month — probably a month — in which I was having to contemplate what if didn’t have Atreus in this game, what if I had to lose that aspect of the game, what kind of game would we be?
“The idea for the game is a boxing match, and it’s about surviving a thousand rounds of just getting pummeled. If by the end of that thousand rounds you still have that same idea, then you’re good. Then it probably has passed muster, and you’re ready to actually go into some kind of production for it. But you have to fight so hard for that idea.”