When you see commercials or ads for the new God of War game, they always end with Sony PlayStation’s slogan, “Greatness awaits.” Well, for this particular game, they might need to change the slogan to read “Perfection awaits,” because that’s exactly what the new God of War game is. Just hours after the review embargo lifted, the wave of praise flooded in, and it’s already being hailed as a masterpiece by many outlets. On Metacritic, it currently sports an admirable “95” Metascore, with over 30 reviewers ranking it with the rare and coveted “100” score.
The God of War universe itself has also gotten a much needed makeover. Gone is the franchise’s signature 3D bird’s-eye view, linear-path format. Similar to the style of The Last of Us, players get a more up close and personal third-person, over-the-shoulder view of Kratos. From the moment you press the start button, the camera never leaves him. There are no time jumps, fades to black or other cut-away transitions. You now experience Kratos's brutal journey in real time. Thanks to the latest motion-capture technology, the game’s graphics look more realistic and detailed than ever, and you get to experience it all in a breathtaking, mostly open-world format complete with a huge world map (nine realms in total), side missions that are definitely worthwhile, weapons crafting and a dazzling score by Bear McCreary (The Walking Dead). It may only be April, but God of War is certainly a big contender for Game of the Year.
One guy who is certainly on cloud nine right now is the game’s director, Cory Barlog, who took on the daunting task of reinventing the franchise from the ground up. But Barlog is no stranger to the God of War universe. While employed by Kratos's makers, video game developing house Santa Monica Studio, Barlog started out as a lead designer on the first game which debuted in 2005, and would go on to write and direct God of War II, as well as pen some of the series’ prequels: Ghost of Sparta and Chains of Olympus. He parted ways with Santa Monica Studio during the early stages of God of War III, but after a long hiatus, he came back to develop and helm the new God of War reboot, which is, in case you can’t already tell, a triumphant return.
Just a few days before the game's release date, Playboy caught up with a very glowing Cory Barlog to talk to him about the long five-year process of making this game, reinventing Norse mythology and why video games don’t always translate well to the movie screen.
God of War currently has a 95 on Metacritic, the highest score of the franchise so far, and over 30 of those reviews have given you the rare, perfect “100” score. How floored are you right now?
It’s unbelievable. When an embargo is lifted on something I did, I have this ritual where I lock myself in a hotel room or my office and sort of experience all of the feedback alone. I don’t know what it is—there’s something broken inside of me—but I tend to go to the negative reviews first. I don’t know if that’s to get it out of the way, but it’s pretty interesting with this one because it doesn’t feel like we have a lot of the negative stuff.
It’s almost all raves. The lowest score is an 80/100.
It’s been amazing. We worked so hard for so long on this thing, and I couldn’t be more proud in the people that I work with. We crossed a finish line, upright, making this thing.
Your biggest critics will be the hardcore fans, who are salivating for this game. When it was revealed that Christopher Judge replaced Terrence C. Carson as the voice of Kratos, it caused an uproar with them. Has that died down a bit, or do you still get angry fan tweets about that?
Yes, but not as much. It was pretty intense in the beginning, and I sort of knew that was going to happen. It’s not a decision that I made lightly. I made it over the course of a year.
I think once people play the game and get a feel of the new, older Kratos, they’ll see that Christopher Judge is the right fit and accept him.
The thing that gave me some confidence will all of this was, I had had a conversation with George Miller [director of Mad Max: Fury Road] back in late 2009, we were talking about the Mad Max video game, and I said, “You know what would be really interesting? When we do this Mad Max video game, maybe we can have an unlockable Mel Gibson skin, so you can play the whole game as the original Mad Max.” So he kind of heard my whole argument out and came back and said, “When they switched the new James Bond, and Daniel Craig was cast, everybody in the world was like ‘What are you doing? Daniel Craig? Who is this guy? He’s not James Bond. No way. Sean Connery this, Roger Moore that.' And then Casino Royale comes out, and it’s amazing, and everybody forgets. And that’s what we’ll repeat when Daniel Craig chooses to move on.”
At the time, George had not cast the new Max, and he sort of just said, “You got to do what’s right for the story.” So it was an idea of like, alright, I’m going to have to do the same thing that he had to do. The story has kind of an internal engine, and in order to get that engine to run at peak efficiency, all of the pieces have to be perfectly placed. That is one of the pieces, and you got to feel it in your gut. And when you feel it in your gut, and it’s right, you just got to go for it regardless.
I was very pleased to see actor Jeremy Davies’ involvement in the game. Do you have a team that hunts down talent for you, or do you have already have certain actors in mind when you’re first writing the story?
I’m pretty particular—I work with the writers. Carlo Casella is actually a guy I’ve been working with for a while. He’s kind of like this weird encyclopedia of every actor under the sun. He’s the guy that just watched everything. So he was sort of an endless fountain of crazy casting ideas. Jeremy Davies had come up several times in conversations. Then again, Jeremy is Private Ryan from Saving Private Ryan. He’s Faraday from Lost, so there was a little bit of that, “There’s no way he’d agree to do this.”
Initially, I approach each of the casting ideas like, “Let’s open our mind to any possibility,” but there’s still that, “Seriously? Do you think they’ll even consider?” And I’m always surprised. Everyone in this game was not only cast because they were great performers, but because the first meetings with them were like hanging out with an old friend. My first meeting with [composer] Bear McCreary was two-and-a-half hours of us basically telling stories around a campfire. He is someone who I feel like I have the Vulcan mind meld with creatively, so I had to work with him. With Chris Judge, it was the same thing.
Let’s talk about the beautiful score by Bear McCreary of The Walking Dead fame. Now, with the exception of Black Sails, Bear is mostly known to score modern-era movies and TV shows, a lot of them science-fiction, like Battlestar Galactica, 10 Cloverfield Lane and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to name a few. What made you feel he was the right guy for the gig?
Peter Scaturro, the music supervisor of the game, suggested him. I talked to him about what I was looking for in the music. And my son, his name is Helo because when my wife was pregnant with our son, we were watching Battlestar Galactica, and that show just sucked us in like crazy. Our favorite character on that show was Helo, so [Peter] had remembered that we were such big fans of that show, and he was like, “Well, the guy who did the music for Battlestar is quite good, and I’d love to approach him.” And I was like, “Are you serious?” So I started researching him, and I was like, “Wait a minute. Bear McCreary—The Walking Dead, Outlander? This guy is amazing. Yes, please!” And then I came back down to earth after that conversation realizing, there’s no way. This guy is so prolific; he’s never going to have time to do this project.
He’s local, so he decided to come in for a meeting, and I was super nervous. I was like, “OK, I have to be charming and impressive for this guy because I really want him to do this.” And then I became this caffeinated crazy person, trying to sum up 40 hours of a story in a 2-hour meeting. It felt like everything I was saying, he was clicking on, he was saying, “What about that? What about this? Well, that’s really interesting.” It felt like one of those great creative conversations you have with a person you’ve worked with for a while. I had this very impatient moment as we were walking through the studio at the very end of the meeting. I was very ungraceful and stopped and said, “Look dude, are we going to do this or what?” [Laughs.] And he’s like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” I, unfortunately, did a high-five after that, and that’s how we sealed the deal.
This franchise has been around for 13 years now, and it’s known for its Greek-mythology setting. This one takes place in a realm of Norse mythology, which must’ve been quite an undertaking. You must’ve been buried in books for months before tackling the story.
The initial research was to look at all mythologies to find the right fit for all the things we wanted to do in this next one. We settled on Norse, realizing that this provides the perfect opportunity for isolation for these two characters to really tell their story together, as well as this fantastically irreverent sense of humor that the Scandinavians have in all of their mythology. Then we spent a good year-and-a-half to two years, really immersing ourselves into everything. The unique thing about Norse myths is the many interpretations. There are lots of different translations, but then also, you’ll have scholars really looking at this, saying, “Well, I think these three characters are actually just one character.” Or, “I think these two different characters are two different characters, but their gender is different.” Everybody is reading into it and finding their own interpretations, which I think is great for us. That gives us the freedom to really mold Kratos and Atreus into this world in as natural of a way as possible, while respecting the work that inspired it.
When designing the Norse god characters, did you try to deviate away from the various looks and designs you might see in books or art? There’s also Marvel’s version of Norse mythology, which is now part of pop culture. You’ll hear words like “Ragnarok,” “Midgard” or “Bifrost” in the Thor movies, so I would imagine you would need to design someone like Odin, to not look or sound like Anthony Hopkins—that way, your world has an identity of its own.
Yeah, when we were creating a lot of this stuff, I’m kind of looking at all of these characters, and I’m always kind of picturing, What is our version and our take on all of these things? Like, our versions of Brok and Sindri are taking a little bit of the springboard from the mythology of these two dwarves who are responsible for creating some of the fantastic artifacts of the myths. The most interesting characterizations began with Brok being this mixture of Quint from Jaws and Al Swearengen from Deadwood. And his brother being the Adrian Monk of blacksmiths, the guy who’s kind of afraid of everything. But they all have reasons on why they became who they were.
As we look at various characters, the way they are in the original myths are very differently from the way Marvel went, which is great. That allows us to use the foundation of the myth itself and then take our own spin and really make it original. Some of it comes from casting certain people, and those people just bring something of their own. In just a natural, organic flow of conversation while talking about the character, they’re like, “What about this? I was thinking about this,” and I’m like, “Oh, my God, that’s amazing. You literally helped me unlock the puzzle box of this character by bringing in your own life experiences to it.”
The father and son aspect is the heart and soul of the story. Are there any father and son stories that served as an inspiration and influenced you while making this game?
The first thing that influenced me was my own relationship with my father, as well as my own beginning relationship with my son. Those sort of drove a lot of these individual moments. But prior to coming back to the studio, I had read The Road—that one is just an amazing book that tells a story in such a unique way, and it was so different from a lot of the things I had ever seen. There’s little bits of The Tree of Life that had inspirational parts to it. Even The Road to Perdition or Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. The slightly irreverent relationship between Henry and Indiana had these interesting moments.
But I think the most poignant material came from our writers—they both have sons, and they had stories they would tell about interactions they’ve had with their kids. Or, just random conversations I would have with a team member in the kitchen where they’d talk about something that happened over the weekend, and I’d be like, “Can I use that?” “I’m stealing that” is something I would say to people a lot because they’d talk just about their lives, and I’d be like, “That’s amazing, that’s so good.”
It sounds like you’re open to hearing suggestions from your team. During your brainstorming process, were there ever any major disagreements over which franchise staples should or should not make a comeback? It seems like those infamous Kratos sex scenes are nowhere to be found, and I can see some of your longtime staffers or fans expecting to see those back.
Oh, yeah—there were lots of disagreements. The creative process of making a game comes with lots and lots of disagreements. I was pretty adamant in the beginning of saying, “Hey guys, the early games were from our college years. We were kind of doing things because we could. There’s nothing wrong with that, but we’re all older now. Let’s look at things differently. We need to allow the character to grow as well.” Sometimes in the past, I think we got stuck in this concept of, “Well, that’s just what we’ve always done, and this is what people expect.” Well, that’s the interesting part. As creatives, we want to challenge ourselves as well as the audience—we want to circumvent their expectations because that’s where surprise and delight are actually born. We don’t just give them what they want, we give them something they never knew they wanted.
There was an idea behind the violence of the earlier games to have that sort of Heavy Metal magazine level of in-your-face bombastic-ness. There’s an interesting aspect that we don’t ever have to lose the violence, but if we actually incorporate the “why,” if we contextualize it and we use it sparingly, it’s more effective. That was a hard thing for some people to get because they were just looking at it from surface level. “No, this is the checklist! This is what God of War is!” And I’m like, “No, we’re so much more than that.”
There have been whispers about a God of War movie before. You’ve been so invested in this world for so long and know it so well, do you have any interest in taking a dive into Hollywood and writing and directing an actual God of War movie?
For me, I look at it like this. What we do in games is kind of establish a longterm relationship with the audience in the same way that TV shows get invited into your home every week. I think the struggle that video game movies have had is that video games are so much more than the cinematics. There is the time between cinematics which makes up this engagement where you play the game for 30 to 50 hours, and that’s like two seasons of TV. That’s something that excites me and engages me, and I would love to tell a story within the television format. Or in the Netflix model, because I’m impatient, I binge-watch, and I love when they release an entire season at once. I’m not a fan of one episode every week. I would love to see that, and I could be tempted to do that.
Are there any plans for God of War downloadable story expansions and add-ons?
Currently, there’s no plans for a DLC because everything that’s set up in the game is a set-up for if we get to do another one. My big thing on this game was that I wanted to recreate the times I had when I went to the game store, brought it home and everything about the game was on the disc. I wanted to recreate that moment I had when I first played Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and you reach the end of the game and—spoiler alert—the castle flips over and you realize you have so much more of the game to play. That’s amazing. You pay 60 bucks, and you feel like, Man, this game just keeps giving, and it doesn’t ever stick its hands out again. I wanted people to feel like we respect them the way I was respected as a consumer so long ago.
You set the bar so high with this game, some will see it as a tough act to follow if you do a sequel. Do all of these rave reviews intimidate you, since people will likely expect you to outshine this one?
Whoa, that’s interesting. No one’s really asked me that, but yeah, it’s intimidating as hell. [Laughs.] It’s one of those things that you don’t expect, you secretly hope for, and when it does actually happen, it does scare the hell out of you. When I plan these things out now, I’m super obsessive. I want things in this game to be so well-thought-of because I’ve already thought about the next two or three games, so when I mapped this thing out, I mapped out a lot of things in the future, so I could pepper in things that people will find when they go back after potentially playing the sequel and go, “Oh, my gosh, they thought about that. This is actually present in the first game!”
To me, those are the most interesting worlds. It feels like we didn’t just focus on this one game. So yeah, I’ve got things mapped out, but that doesn’t take away the fact that it is very scary and intimidating to take it on. That’s why I am going to take a break, clear my head and hopefully come back so reinvigorated—and bored. That’s the thing you need to be creatively. I got to be bored so that I can come back and just be wanting to get back in the ring and be punched for another few years.
To purchase God of War, visit the official website.