God of War reviews have largely focused on two elaborate ways in which the game expands upon the series and the action genre. The first is Atreus, Kratos’ son, who accompanies his father and the player on the journey, serving as emotional foil, combat support and tour guide. The second is the single camera shot, a presentation choice in which the camera never cuts away from Kratos across the story’s dozens of hours. Both are technical feats. And both were nearly scrapped during production.
I recently had the chance to speak with God of War director Cory Barlog about the challenges he and his team faced during the game’s five-year development cycle. The project, he explains, went through a number of intense ups and downs. I asked him to share some of those low points, and how the team fought to keep its most ambitious and challenging ideas. He obliged.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
“I was able to get that core group of 10 people convinced that this might be a good idea — to investigate [Kratos] having a son throughout the game. We started investigating the technical feasibility and the production realities of it, and that is when people start putting time, personnel and money to the concept.
“And all of a sudden, reaching the moon has actual distances next to it, right? Whereas, like, look into the sky: ‘Oh, it’s not that hard, the moon’s right there. I can totally reach it.’ And then when the real distances get down on paper, you realize, wow, that’s a huge trip. And that’s the scary part.
“So I think there is a part of the experience — perhaps just tenacity and maybe a bit of stupidity — where you just have to power through that giant lake of doubt. Everybody is going, ‘There’s just no way. To do this companion correctly, we’re talking about this many people for this much time, costing this much.’
“When I started talking about the way we’d have the drama unfold, I was like, ‘I’m gonna do it in one shot and I want everybody to be on [the performance capture] set at the same time.’ So they were like, ‘Well, that’s really difficult when you’ve got actors that are all different sizes and that you have to keep sort of calibrating the different things.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to need actors to be all the same size, so we have to figure it out. Either we have to reanimate on top of it or we’re gonna recast different actors.’
“And that was just one of the hurdles, but there was a point where it was like, this is too expensive. The companion will probably be the straw that breaks the franchise’s back.
“Sometimes people are a little bit hyperbolic in the early phases when we don’t have a lot of information. So I had the sobering talk with Yumi Yang, my sort of production right hand throughout this entire journey. And she said, ‘You should really be responsible. Do the due diligence. See what it would be like if you didn’t have a companion. If that turns out to be the thing you can’t do, is there a game there?’
“And I was like, ‘Alright, fine, I’ll do the due diligence. I don’t think there is a game there.’ And what I came back with was kind of a very large version of All Is Lost, that Robert Redford movie where it’s basically just him in a boat. And I was like, that’s what it’ll be like. We’re gonna do this and it’ll be Kratos by himself and it’s, like, you know, the most expensive art house game ever made. There’ll be almost no dialogue. There’ll be like 10 lines of dialogue in the whole game. So I went with the really extreme end, which I think is the creative person’s equivalent of a 10-year-old having a tantrum.
[Laughs] “And I think in a way that worked. They saw that. ‘He’s going to the extreme. All right, let’s talk him off the ledge.’ And I said, let’s just approach the problem one step at a time. But understand that [Atreus] and the no-cut camera, these are larger problems than all of us. We’re gonna just have to jump off the cliff together and take it on faith that we’re gonna solve this. Because I don’t think we’re gonna solve it on paper. We’re not gonna work out a plan now while trying to do something that nobody’s done before. [We’re not going to go], ‘Here it is. Here’s the budget. This is how long it’s going to take. We know exactly how many people and we’re never gonna make any mistakes.’
“No, this is what we do. We make mistakes professionally all day, every day. And it’s about getting back up, recovering and being smart after making those mistakes. And learning from every one of them.
“I would say that even though I started with the Atreus thing, [the single camera shot] was the hardest thing to prove to people [that] it was gonna be worth it. Because there is no individual test you can do to make people feel what you feel when you play the whole [finished game], right?
“They had to take it on faith that when I was saying, ‘Look, you’re gonna get a sense of immediacy and connection to these characters, an unrelenting feel to the adventure that you can’t get in any other way,’ I can’t cite something else. There is nothing else I can show you. We’re gonna try this and we’re gonna be the first people to do it. Of course, it took five years, so other people attempted it while we were making [the game].
“[The single shot] was a hard, hard, hard sell. I mean, to the point where 40 percent of the team came to me after the game was done. They’d played it and they finally said, ‘Oh, I get it now. I didn’t agree with any of your decisions on this. I thought we were wasting a lot of time. I don’t want to do this ever again, but now I play it and I get it. OK, this is cool, this is how we should totally do this from now on.’”
“That must feel nice.”
“It does feel nice, but there’s a unique thing here at Santa Monica that: You don’t get to feel good for very long, because this team is — they strive to be the best at everything. So, even if I’m proven right on something, I get about a week, and then after that it’s like, they call me out on everything after that.
“So, I get a little honeymoon period of ‘cool, you were right.’ I was like, ‘Oh, that’s awesome,’ and I was thinking, this is wonderful, we turned over a new leaf. A week later, it’s like, ‘You’re an idiot, what are you doing?’ I’m like, ‘Oh OK, we’re back to normal now.’” [Laughs]