When you make a game that manages to end up as one of the highest rated games of all time, and a game that manages to successfully and boldly reinvent one of the most beloved series ever, you know you’ve managed to do something impressive, and make your mark on the medium. And yet, with God of War, that’s what Cory Barlog has managed- a reinvention of a beloved franchise that has ended up as one of the most praised games of this generation, and indeed, ever.
The mindset when you are going into creating something this different, and emerge on the other side this triumphant, is intriguing to us- how does a game developer approach that? That, along with various other things, were what we got a chance to discuss with Cory Barlog recently, when we had the chance to have an extensive chat with him on all manner of things. Buckle down and prepare yourself for a hugely interesting discussion with Cory Barlog about everything and anything.
Just be mindful that full spoilers for God of War follow. So, if you haven’t played or finished the game, it’s best you close this window right now. This is your final warning! Spoilers inbound!
"We’ve worked so hard and so long on this, and it feels like for five years, I’ve been fighting and pitching and defending, and trying to sell everyone under the sun on this game. And I think, it coming out and having this kind of response is fantastic, and it’s so good for the team to have that kind of feedback."
Congratulations on the release, God of War is a 95 on Metacritic, it’s gotten 10/10 scores all over the place, and it’s the third highest rated game of the generation, behind only Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild. How does it feel receiving this kind of praise, global acclaim, and fan reaction?
It feels weird. We’ve worked so hard and so long on this, and it feels like for five years, I’ve been fighting and pitching and defending, and trying to sell everyone under the sun on this game. And I think, it coming out and having this kind of response is fantastic, and it’s so good for the team to have that kind of feedback. It is hard to believe that it’s real, but it’s amazing, and I am excited to be considered up here with a lot of these games, because I definitely fought so hard for it, to do something that is as inspiring to others as the games that are inspiring to me.
Yes, I saw your review reaction video, which was by the way, the sweetest, best possible reaction to something like that I’ve seen.
Oh, thank you!
And I can understand how, after putting five years of your life into this, it was a difficult process just to get the game pitched, I can begin to understand how it might feel at the end of that process to get that kind of reaction.
So, one of the things that I was actually curious about was, this is a game that is extremely story focused. There are so many parts of the game that can be spoiled by just a single screen. A single screenshot of Kratos with his Blades would ruin the halfway twist, or just a screencap of the ending scene with the subtitles on ruins the whole surprise. So how is it that you somehow managed to keep all of it secret, and not let any of it get leaked beforehand?
Yeah, that nearly killed me. There is a lot of stress in trying to get people on board with concepts and ideas, and pitching and convincing and trying to keep everyone on target, and that’s really hard, right? But then in the end, for the last year and a half, I had to ensure that everyone across the world aligned with what we were doing, and didn’t let any information out on an incident in the game. Wow. I have never experienced that much stress. It is a wonder that nothing got out- actually, I think it did get out, some information leaked, but fortunately it didn’t permeate too far out into the ether for everyone to catch on to it.
We were able to keep on top of it. But it was very stressful, trying to ensure that everyone could get the same experience, and it required a lot of great collaboration between the marketing and PR groups to be flexible, when I would have a fit of some sort, and realize “Oh my god, we have to get this out now, we have to do this, our plan was to do this, but let’s just go!” Or something might be getting leaked, and just getting on top of that as quickly as possible, even though the information was there, it went away fast enough that nobody caught it.
Or, maybe they just didn’t believe it.
Yeah, I had the advantage that there were enough fake leaks out there, that even a real one could be written off as one of them, even if it did come from a larger organization that everyone knows like the ESRB. Which actually happened, when the rating description goes live, and we’re saying, “Oh, crud! We didn’t talk about this, that’s giving too much away! And then they took it down. And there was never any malicious intent from anybody, I think that’s the best thing. I think everyone saw the same need, that once you play the game, you realize, “no, no, no, you have to experience this for the first time when you play it on your own”, right? It’s like going into the Sixth Sense, and- have you seen The Sixth Sense?
Yes, I know the final twist.
Okay, I just didn’t want to spoil it for you! The ultimate irony, “here’s my example of why you don’t ruin stories for others, by ruining this movie for you!” But yes, it’s like someone saying, “oh yeah, watch The Sixth Sense, Bruce Willis is dead throughout, it’s awesome!” And you’re going, “awwwww”.
Well, now I have no reason to!
Yeah, it loses all weight. And this game is built of hundreds of moments that are like that, and there were many times when it could have gone bad, like the whole Khan thing with Star Trek Into Darkness, where the creators got some flack because of the secrecy, right? And we were starting to get some people upset because we weren’t sharing a lot of information, and it’s harder to convince people that they’re not hearing anything because it’s important that they experience it for themselves.
"We were starting to get some people upset because we weren’t sharing a lot of information, and it’s harder to convince people that they’re not hearing anything because it’s important that they experience it for themselves."
You’re not being jerks when you’re trying to hide it, you’re trying to hide it because it’s the best way to experience the game.
Well, it worked out, because there’s this crazy amount of speculation about the game’s story at this point. Because the game sets up so many things for a sequel, and it’s sort of like with Metal Gear and Zelda, except unlike those, this one is also drawing on an existing mythology. So, there’s people going crazy, thinking about exactly what happens in the sequel. And is this sort of fan theorizing something you anticipated?
I think when we first started, no. But then as we kept going, and with the little bit of information we shared — our E3 2016 reveal, we showed—the amount of people who started theorizing from that, really had me like, “wow, okay, they’re going to town with this thing.” So I definitely thought, I like to thread in so much into these stories, that’s it not just randomly dropping something in. It’s like, “okay, here’s my plan for this, we’re not going to do anything about it this game. But here’s what we’re going to put in so that when people look back, they know that it all started from there!” There are things on the surface, that everyone knows about, there are things in the middle ground that some people have seen, and there are things far in the background that nobody has seen, but when you go back and when you play again after playing a second one, if we make a second one, they will all kind of start to make sense.
I said earlier that in my head, I tend to plan far into the future, because it really allows me to understand how everything will flow, and to understand a general development of each character. I don’t know how many games this storyline will end up being. Because, you know, if I think five games in advance like I recently said, the five games in advance actually goes beyond this storyline, and into another storyline, so I know how this progresses, I can skip ahead even further in my head if I have to. But how many games in this franchise? I have no idea if I’ll even be alive when those future games happen, especially if I have to make another one of these, that will just kill me.
I hope not.
I hope not as well. I think that will be bad. I will try for better balance!
One question about possible follow ups I have is, right near the end where Freya leaves with Baldur’s dead body, Atreus turns to Kratos and asks him if there would ever be a time where Kratos would let Atreus kill him. And Kratos says, “if it means saving your life, yes”. Given the really thorny history Kratos has with killing his father, it sort of felt like a really heavy handed foreshadowing and echoing.
(Laughs) Well, it’s interesting. That moment wasn’t part of the original script. That moment was born out of, I think I think probably 10 playtest sessions in a row where people were just hating what we did to Freya. They were so invested, they loved the character, and then we would have one or two people in each set who were really angry about it. And I was fascinated and trying to understand what we didn’t do right with that moment. And finally, after I think ten people had given that comment, I was really looking at it, and talking to the writers, and said, “I don’t know what it is we missed”. I would extrapolate this information and basically, what we’re saying here is, whether half-kin or not, that “my mother or father or brother or sister is someone I would give my life to protect”. That’s a weird family thing that I feel like is engrained in everyone- but that verbalization made me realize that it is not entrained in everyone, that it’s not something that can speak for every single person. Or maybe it’s just not something that they‘be really thought about. Whereas we are able to look at every aspect of every decision our characters make.
So the thought was, “what if we allow Atreus to be the audience who’s really struggling, and placing their feedback on understanding our development of Freya versus why she made that choice.” Because one of the last people had basically said “I just don’t understand why she would be so weak, and let her son kill her, why did you make her weak, she’s a strong female character.” And I’m thinking, she is, I don’t understand why people aren’t seeing that. So from that, Atreus can say exactly what they’re saying to us. And then Kratos- which gives us this amazing moment, one we didn’t even realize we were missing, I don’t even think he realizes its significance, he just thinks he said something really nice to his son- after that, that sense of “I will give up my life for you”, he’s giving permission to the audience to understand that this is not something that makes you weak. This is something that shows you have the strength of character to say that someone else’s life is more important than yours.
And her whole drive as a character was to create Baldur via magic as this permanent, lasting legacy for her. Everything else, magic that she created, magic that blossomed and withered, everything was fleeting, but Baldur was the lasting effect, he was the legacy for her. She just lost herself a bit with how far she went with creating that legacy. And those lines clicked 100% after that, no one had any confusion, no one interpreted that she was a weak character because of that, which is great, because that’s one of the things where people interpreted it two ways: one, where they went, why would she let her son kill her? And the answer is, it’s her life or her son’s, and she as a mother would lay down her life for her son’s. But two, Kratos was not protecting her, he was not doing any of that for her. In fact he knew when he did it that he was going to become extremely unpopular, that he was probably going to make an enemy out of someone who treated him very fairly throughout the entire game. But he was doing it for his son. He was doing it so that his son did not witness a child killing their parent, he did not want that legacy passed on to his son. And I think those two points are so critical to the ending and that landing. And I think that, because of that moment, those points all land good, because nobody was trying to focus on the wrong moment there.
I did have one question for the sequel: there’s this huge, huge plethora of side content in this game. And, in some cases the side content is even better than the main content, it’s really good. Do you plan on actually continuing any of the stories you started in the side quests and side content in the sequels, if there are sequels?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Every one of those things is a part of the whole tapestry, they are critical to propping up the whole story. We are putting a lot of pieces in motion, and when going into the second one, all those pieces are leading into the whole. The whole is a very complex story, that I am trying to figure out how to break down into the simplest elements, so you can push through it with a clear understanding of what your goal is. So, using the example of a beginning of a game, of Fallout 3, it’s a complicated game, it’s a vast and crazy labyrinthian story, but begin that game, you find out “my dad’s Liam Neeson! My dad is missing!” Now find your dad. Right? And that’s the pivotal driver. It’s a reverse Taken.
And you have a simple way to drive through it, but you have a lot of complicated things happening around. So as we set things into motion in the first game, there’s a lot of pieces now, but it should always be driven by that simple underlying understanding of the pivot. But yeah, everything will continue, there is stuff that is in here that is set up that people will be surprised, that’s not just a part of it, but will be an interesting consequence. Everything in the world has consequences!
"Who I was in 2005 versus who I was when I came back in 2013… very different, I approached everything very differently. So it was a little easier, I think, it was harder to get people convinced, but from an understanding of how to figure this game out, it felt natural. All the stuff I was approaching, the way I was telling it, the way I explained it to people in the beginning was, “look, this is how we’ll do it.”"
That’s the one thing that was missing from the original games in a sense: Kratos did a lot of things, but never had to suffer their consequences. And that brings me to a question I had, which is, going into this God of War game, versus God of War 2, what was the difference in mindset in approaching them? God of War 2 is more like a summer popcorn blockbuster in terms of what it is, versus something so much more measured and moderate like this one. What was the difference in mindset?
I was really a different person. Going from 1 to 2, I was directing my first game, and I had to I figured out how to be a director, how to create a game from scratch. Even though we had foundationally everything built from the first one, I was figuring out the entire flow of this game, and trying to understand “how do we do that?” And I think I went from overly ambitious to under ambitious to the perfect mixture in the middle- I believe. Some believe it went a little too long!
I think it’s one of the best paced games I’ve played!
Oh, thank you! I’m very happy that it turned out the way it did, and it was the first thing i worked on, and it really gave me the confidence, I think, to start trusting my instincts. And when I finished writing and planning out 3, I realized I was pretty burned out at that point, I didn’t think I was going to survive… I went from 1 to 2, then took sort of a half a year or year of planning on 3, all without a break, from 2003 to 2008, all without a break. And that was exhausting. And I realized, even at the time, that I don’t know anything.
I started this in a vacuum, and I haven’t learned anything beyond what I know on my own. I have to learn from other people. So for me, it all worked out really well, but doing that’s changed me fundamentally. Who I was in 2005 versus who I was when I came back in 2013… very different, I approached everything very differently. So it was a little easier, I think, it was harder to get people convinced, but from an understanding of how to figure this game out, it felt natural. All the stuff I was approaching, the way I was telling it, the way I explained it to people in the beginning was, “look, this is how we’ll do it. Simple story, complex characters. And we’ll figure everything out from there. Focus on this father and son journey, a coming of age for both of these characters, while they’re on the road. That’s it. Everything else, we’ll come up with as we go. We didn’t start by plotting “this is so-and-so, he wants to kill so-and-so, and he wants this”. Those characters came from the interactions in the story, and what they would offer, and the concept of limiting the number—something that I think we were criticized a little bit about, too. There’s not a lot of characters. There’s not a lot of bosses. And that’s intentional, 100%. You look at the first God of War game, not a lot of bosses.
Yes, three bosses.
Not a lot of characters. And I think that’s good. I thought of God of War 3, I love it, but it’s like a swan song for Greek mythology, so there’s a lot of characters, which we spent two games building up relationships for. Now, we’re introducing Kratos to a new world, and like a fish going into a tank, he needs to adjust. We need to leave the bag in the water for a little while before we release him in so he can go free.
So this brings up an interesting point, and I’m sure you’ve heard this a lot. A lot of people have said that you took inspiration or cues from The Last of Us. And I’m not even necessarily asking about that, but using that as a segue, one thing that stood to me as I played God of War was how much the UI, for example, was so similar to Horizon. So what kind of technology and idea sharing is there between your studio, and other studios at Sony WWS?
Oh, as much as we have time, we’re always talking to each other. For the UI specifically, we looked at tons of games, you know, like Destiny, Battlefield. There are so many different games, and each one of them handles this in a different way. So we can go, “Oh, that’s interesting, we should look at how they work around this”. “Oh, that’s cool, look at how they did that well”. It inspired the things we don’t know very well. We found other games like this where they had things like many layered menus and a crafting system. And this was our first time doing this, so it’s not perfect, there are many improvements we can make on it.
The thing with The Last of Us, is, for me, I think a lot of people mean it as a dig, which I’ve never really understood. Like, “oh, you’re just doing your own Last of Us”, so, o-Kay. One, I am incredibly inspired by Neil and his team, they are absolutely otherworldly with their abilities and how talented they are and how much they bring to and elevate the medium. And I think to me, I would love to be considered as somebody alongside, or even within the proximity of someone who helped elevate the work that we do. Help make people see the work we do in a different light. So I will never ever be bothered by the fact that we are being compared to The Last of Us, because I think it’s truly a watershed moment in our industry. So to be considered in the same vein as that is fantastic. But I think it shortsells any idea when you say there’s a similar part to something else, like “aw man, The Avengers is ripping off Batman. You’ve got people running around in outfits”. Of course, there are outfitted people and there’s superhero stuff, but it’s not just ripping off Batman.
I think we’re all inspired by each other. We’re all riffing on each other. At the end of the day, every one of us is ripping off stories from the Greeks and from the Bard, and from everything. There’s nothing new, even “new” is inspired by something. We’re all, either consciously or unconsciously, we’re inspired. I think that’s a good thing.
And I think that’s the best part of working at Sony right now, I have access to all these incredible developers. I am able to talk to people over at Sucker Punch, Guerrilla, Insomniac, Naughty Dog. And we are open because we are all part of this connected family. There’s very few people I am not able to talk to in the Sony first party family, and get inspired by their actual process and detail. And that’s the kind of thing we sort of lost as we became owned by corporations-as developers, we don’t get to share as much, everything is proprietary and involving secrets. GDC is no longer the thing where everyone is like “hey, let me show you that code, that shows you exactly how I solved this rendering issue problem”.
We’re starting to see a little bit more of that, but within Sony, we have these things called Creative Share Weeks, with several developers, where we send our developers to their studios for a week, and they send theirs to ours for a week. And they get a desk, they’re working on the game. And then at the end of the week, they give us a sort report card of, “hey, we solve problems like this, you solve them like this. Hey, your way is better” or “our way is better, and let me show you why”. And that kind of sharing is born is amazing, that is something that is truly born out of this creative thing. We are better because we share.
"I will never ever be bothered by the fact that we are being compared to The Last of Us, because I think it’s truly a watershed moment in our industry. So to be considered in the same vein as that is fantastic."
Like there’s this collective creative consciousness everyone adds to and taps into.
Yes. There’s so much technical stuff to do it. There’s obviously an authorial and creative aspect that’s a bit more ephemeral, but with technical people, when you find out, “they’re taking one step to solve a problem, we’re taking fifteen. What the heck. Let’s figure out how to solve that”.
Yeah, and sometimes you might not have even known there’s a problem at all, and just have been exposed to it via interacting with someone else.
One of the questions I had was specifically about the new God of War’s relationship to God of War 3. When we left Kratos in 3, he had stabbed himself with the Blade of Olympus to release hope to mankind, then the post credits scene showed us that he sort of dragged himself away. In this game, we see Kratos years later. He married Faye, he’s in the Norse realms, and all of that- but the game never actually tells us how he got from point A to B. And now, here you said the idea was to focus on the father son story for this game, but… is this something you lan on tackling eventually? Or is this something that as far as you’re concerned is irrelevant to the larger story?
Oh no, it’s super relevant. It’s one of those things, that as I started to break things down, and I looked at the timeline, the sort of rough outline when I was thinking about this, this aspect was so much more interesting once you found out who Faye was. Once you discovered Chapter 2 in his journey, Chapter 1 became more interesting, and if you told it chronologically, it would give away too much that would make the realization that Atreus has less special. And the realization needed to be after the coming of age of Atreus.
So I realized that it’s important, and we hint at it, Kratos talks about it a bit, but we do when we share things with other people, even our children, we’re guarding. When we feel the relationship is matured enough that they’re ready to hear what we have to say- and with Kratos, what he has to say is pretty dark- his journey from Greece to Scandinavia is essentially him hitting absolute rock bottom, and meeting Faye when he has hit rock bottom. And it is that relationship that pulls him out of that, that forms the sort of unfinished sculpture of Kratos that is at the beginning of the game.
But it is to me way more interesting- there are other avenues, other stories we are telling, but I do want to tell that very specific story of Kratos directly linked from 3 to this game, and what happens to him. It is deliberately undefined, this period of time, because I do think there are multiple stories there. I think there’s an overarching story, and then there are several smaller stories. One of those adventures, that I don’t know if anyone caught, was our homies over at Yatch Club Games and Shovel Knight. So Kratos was actually on the journey from God of War 3 to Scandinavia. And that’s when that happens. That’s one of the things he does along the way.
So Shovel Knight is officially canon now.
Okay, I think a lot of Shovel Knights fans will appreciate that.
Yes! So when we were talking about this early on, there was the sentiment of, “why would we even do this?” And I think it’s a really cool way to show that he did get into adventures from the end of 3 to this one. And we made it so we wouldn’t put a lot of attention on it- there was actually a line that I think we ended up changing, where he said “my future lies to the North”. It was just too obvious, if anyone had caught that, they would have immediately guessed he’s going towards Norse mythology. So we took the specific direction out. But it was the concept of him wandering around and having these adventures. And these experiences get darker and darker, and he descends farther into solitude and madness. And that is a fertile ground to really understand “Oh my gosh, I know what he was like in the first game in the Norse myth story, wow, he was this far down?” That is a much cooler realization than telling it chronologically.
Sometimes stories told out of order are better than stories told in order.
Yeah. And my intention at the beginning was to tell it chronologically, until I worked out, “no, this is what I want to tell, and this is way more interesting when told this way”.
I think I agree. It would have been a little more boring if Atreus had been able to get to the point where he is at the end of the game by the middle, because I think that is such a perfect culmination of everything that has happened until that moment.
"That moment for Kratos when he goes to take the Blades, he takes responsibility for his past. He doesn’t try to hide from it or run away from it, he owns it, and owns it in such a way that “I personally am responsible for all of this”, which is something he has never done in the past."
Speaking of the relationship between this game and the older one, there’s a moment halfway into the game when Athena shows up. And, I think, that’s this really cool nudge and wink for fans of the older games. You get the Trophy, “Hello Old Friend”, she says “You will always be a monster”. How much- when you’re so dramatically deviating from what the older games were like with this newer one, how much of all this was also put in with the intent of sort of, reconcilatory, placating gift for old fans? Was that on your mind at all?
It was on our mind to ensure we never did fan service for the sake of fan service, that it always had a really strong reason to be there. I knew from the beginning that we would have the Blades. I wanted the Blades to come in late in the game, so that you really adjust to the new weapon, and I wanted them to come in right after the point where you gave up hope on them showing up in the new game at all. And they seem to be right at that perfect place, because watching people play, they seem to have the exact reaction that you want them to have. Disbelief, giving way to enthusiasm, giving way to, “no, that’s probably not what they’re doing”, giving way to disbelief again, and then utter excitement. “No way!”
To me, that is awesome. It transcends the concept of- if you put it in, because it means something, that moment for Kratos when he goes to take the Blades, he takes responsibility for his past. He doesn’t try to hide from it or run away from it, he owns it, and owns it in such a way that “I personally am responsible for all of this”, which is something he has never done in the past. And instead of blaming everyone else for all the crap he has done, instead of saying, “I’m not a monster, make my visions go away”, it’s like, “no, I am a monster, I get it. But you’re no longer the one pulling the strings”. And I think that the Blades represent a servitude to the gods, that he was their puppet. So him telling them, at the very moment that he goes back to them and wraps them around his wrists, that they don’t control him anymore, and to stay out of his head… that’s a magical moment for Kratos. From a franchise perspective, that’s something we never did. He never took responsibility for his actions until then.
It kind of felt like God of War grew up in that moment. It’s the first time Kratos takes responsibility for everything he has done until then.
One of my questions now is, and I know you’ve been asked this a lot, but I’ll ask this again for the record, is New Game Plus something you have considered?
(Laughs) New Game Plus? Oh yeah. It is something I wanted so badly, right? And it is this Sophie’s choice you have to consciously make as you enter the last eight months of working on a game. You have a huge list of features, and so many of these things kind of get pushed down the list. And, the impact, the involvement of New Game Plus, kept pushing it further down the list, because keeping it would cause a lot of other stuff, and a lot of other stuff meant stability, and polish, would be delayed.
But it’s something that everyone, I don’t think there’s anyone here who didn’t want to do New Game Plus, we just kept running out of time. Because, I think, what people don’t realize is, “you had five years, you had so much time!” No, we literally worked to the last second, refining and polishing, and tuning, and trying to make this as perfect as possible. Which is why Photo Mode didn’t even get started until after we went Gold. It was on the list, we had it in the previous game, but the engine was changed up, so we had to rewrite it. And that relied on the enthusiasm of the programmers to sort of get behind it after we just ran a five year marathon, to jump right in and start on that one…
New Game Plus is definitely the same in that we all love that kind of concept, it’s just, we haven’t had the time to get started on any of that stuff. So it is definitely something that I am still trying to convince people of, but we’ll have to see where it shakes out.
Going back to something we were talking about earlier was telling stories out of order. And there’s this really cool mural early in the game that depicts the final boss fight. It basically spoils it. I think that’s a crazy cool thing to do. But were you ever worried that players who might have familiarity with Norse myths might put two and two together, especially when confronted with something visual like that?
Yes and no. Initially when I came up with the idea of placing the mural back in the house, as kind of a beta drawing sort of thing, it was part of the idea saying, she always surrounded Kratos and Atreus with the history that she wanted them to know, even if she couldn’t let them know. So there’s things in the house that also indicate towards what’s going on. And, I talked to the lead environment artist who placed it in. We talked about placing it in there, and I said, “we should mess it up a little bit, and make it feel like a rougher version, a sketch of it”, but, if you pause the game, and take a screenshot, then you’d kinda of understand how it all connects to the end. I wanted that because every time there is a reveal or a twist, it has way more impact if you can look back and realize, no, we gave you information, you just had to pay attention.
The Blades are a perfect example: when Kratos is standing at the door hatch of the Cellar, and him and Atreus are about to go off to the journey on the mountain, and Atreus says, “I thought you said I wasn’t ready”, and Kratos says, “You’re not, prove me wrong”, when he closes the door, we pan down and hold for like ten frames. And that ten frame hold is like a subtle indication that something important is there. Coupled with the line of “you told me never to go down there”, we’ve set up enough that when you go back, you’re thinking, “oh, no way”. It feels satisfying, because it doesn’t feel like we just randomly made it up. We’ve been hinting at it from the beginning.
I wanted to make up for what I feel is my biggest blunder on God of War 2, which was the lack of clear setup that Gaia was the narrator, this idea that maybe we needed a fourth wall breaking thing, where maybe when Kratos was bleeding he actually heard the narrator- that feeling and that questioning was never there in God of War 2, and it feels super abrupt in the beginning of the game. And I took that criticism to heart. And I was obsessive about how this project would be so that every single reveal has several supporting foreshadowing in the beginning. And usually, throughout the adventure, we’re reminding them of this, so you can go back and go, “whoa, they were saying this all the way back there!” So much so, that when you play Game 2 and 3, if there is a Game 2 and 3, you will go back to the first one, and say, “no way, this was indicated in the first game”. Because I am an insane, crazy planner at this point!
(Laughs) One of the really interesting things that I found in this game were Atreus and Mimir acting sort of like helper characters, like a non-annoying Navi. How do you balance being actually helpful, but not being “Hey, listen!” overbearing?
It’s just being open every step of the way to knowing the feedback. So when the feedback comes in, it is always going to be negative. Very rarely do you ever get something that says “It’s perfect!” Right? Usually it’s a list of fixes, and we barely have time left, and we still have a list of fifty things to do… so knowing when to take in the feedback, and when to say “it’s too much!” So to know that players are reacting to this, and this is what they want fixed, so let’s do it, or leave it.
It’s a gut instinct that through development I have to learn to trust. Because when things get annoying, you get fifteen, twenty people telling you they’re annoying. If three people out of twenty say this, and maybe they’re the three people who’re the leads on this project, then maybe it’s because they have an emotional attachment to the project and that’s why they are reacting so negatively or positively to it. And I need to look at what I think, what do I feel. And sometimes if I don’t have a clear answer, I just ask myself, “if I had to choose right now, what would I choose?” And what I pick, I feel like that is what the right answer is. So, constant evaluation.
"There are several bosses that I had to cut throughout the game simply because we got about 15 to 20 people on each boss, and those bosses go anywhere from a year to two each."
So is there anything, now that the game is out, and you are no longer compelled to go back and work on it anymore, is there anything that you’re looking at right now, and thinking, “I would have wanted to do this differently or better”?
You know, there are several bosses that I had to cut throughout the game simply because we got about 15 to 20 people on each boss, and those bosses go anywhere from a year to two each. Which I think is something a lot of people underestimate, “there’s not enough bosses in this game!” You’re kind of being greedy, because while I’d love like ten more bosses in there, this game would have taken like 20 years to make.
So, I was definitely, there are even theories out there where people are looking at characters and going, “who is this character? Why do they have a giant statue in Helheim?” And wondering why we spent time and effort on that thing, and maybe that’s because it was a giant boss at one point. And that’s the nature of development, as you start to look at its nuances, you realize that there’s a place where ambition overshadows resources and time, and you want to do so much, but you just have to end up choosing the things that will make the greatest impact. it is hard to know what to let go of, but you need to get to a point where you say, “you know what? This thing is not as important as the other thing, I will fight for this other thing, and let this thing go”. That is the years of experience that will let you know what’s important to you and what you’re trying to make.
So speaking of all the things that players are noticing – and it’s a massive world, it’s littered with all sorts of secrets – is there any major cutscene or story or something that has not been stumbled upon yet?
Ooh, wow. No, I really, really believed the sweet live action game I put into the collector’s edition would be something that would take players a while to figure out. I think the only thing they didn’t figure out is that the two toy pieces of Brok and Sendri have little markings on the bottom of them, and the intent was to actually put them on the correct position on the map, and to have them walk the journey. So people didn’t realize that you could have them walk that journey on the map, and then reach that point, and that between them, that secret treasure was hidden. And I love that secret, and I had to keep it secret from most of the team, simply because I knew, the more people knew about it, the easier it would be to leak.
I always think that people usually figure things out within hours, and the fact that we went a week without people figuring things out was impressive. It would be like the nuclear disarmament cinematic in Metal Gear that only got leaked because of a bug or something, and it probably would have gone unnoticed beyond that otherwise… I don’t think I have anything as amazingly meta as that. But I still think there is one thing that no one has found yet that I know for certain, because I haven’t seen any stories about it. Now I’m not going to tell you what that is, but I don’t know if there’s any cinematics per se, it seems like people have been able to get all the permutations. Not one person, but everyone collectively.
So everything else has had at least one person stumble upon it.
I think so. Like, I haven’t seen stories about all of it, but I have to imagine the amount of energy and time people are putting into the game, so many people are Platinuming it, putting 40-50 hours into it, which is amazing… because I definitely felt skiddish saying 25-30 hours when I was first asked about the play time for the game, and I know that every time anyone says “this is how long something is”, there’s a group out there that says “I want to prove you wrong. I finished this in four hours, you suck.” So it’s surprising that people are putting more time into the game than I ever expected.
It’s one of the things you notice with games like Metal Gear or Zelda or Skyrim, where people are posting crazy things they stumbled upon in the game years later. So who knows, maybe a year from now, someone will have stumbled upon the final secret.
I guess my last question is, what would you say were your favourite games over the last five years that were an influence on this one?
The Witcher 3 is just utterly astounding, there’s so much source material via the books, and the first two games were just great, but they really crescendoed and refined what they did with The Witcher 3, and that was just astounding to me. It’s just such a good game.
And definitely Uncharted and The Last of Us, especially Lost Legacy, because this idea that it challenges the concept that “Uncharted is only Drake!” No, actually, Uncharted is a feeling. This unbridled sense of adventure and possibility, and I think it’s amazing that they ere able to do it, and do it with what seems so effortlessly.
Horizon. Now that one- to come out two weeks before the much lauded Breath of the Wild, and still be this game that sticks in the brain of so many gamers: how amazing is that?
Obviously, Breath of the Wild is brilliant! I love it. But it also says something about Guerrilla’s ability as game makers and creators to be able to punch through the noise – and I don’t mean to denigrate Breath of the Wild by saying noise! I just mean that, when a game of that scale, and that sort of critical and fan impact comes out, it just seems like everything else gets lost. And Horizon didn’t get lost, they created a moment in history, which is just absolutely amazing.
Now this one is recent, so it didn’t impact our game, but it is influencing the other games I look at in the future… I have gone through the first four or five hours of Far Cry 5, and they did a lot of really cool things in there, a lot. They made a lot of really smart decisions, in the way that they engage and draw you in. That made me take notice, I was very impressed.
And, of course, Black Flag and Origins, those are just amazing. Ashraf Ismail is just amazing, and he has a team numbering in the thousands, he has a full country. I feel like I have a lot of people to deal with, that dude is dealing with an absurd amount of staff, it’s ridiculous! It’s so absurd. Both of those are just superb, and I have not played them all the way through. My break begins in about a month, and I hope to go through my backlog then.
And the one that had the most impact on this game was Resident Evil the series, in general. Those guys are unafraid to reinvent themselves multiple times, and to do it in such a dramatic fashion, that show of boldness is very rarely shown in the industry. That to me was inspirational, like when Resident Evil 4 came out, and we were all blown away. We all realized it was a line of demarcation in gaming history. And that feeling was replicated again last year with Resident Evil 7, and we were already well under way with our game at that point, but it still served as reinforcement for our team that fortune favours the bold. You have to, as a creative, as a group of creatives, you need to be brave. You have to jump off the cliff. Because that is where greatness is.
"The one that had the most impact on this game was Resident Evil the series, in general. Those guys are unafraid to reinvent themselves multiple times, and to do it in such a dramatic fashion, that show of boldness is very rarely shown in the industry. That to me was inspirational."
Absolutely. And the Kratos sort of jump: “the gods of Olympus have abandoned me.”
Ha! Yes! That’s awesome! (Laughs)
Thank you so much for your time, and for talking to us about so many things. And thank you for the game, it’s awesome.
Thank you as well, this was wonderful!
It was! And I will be looking forward to what you do next, really excitedly.
Aw, thank you. You will very much enjoy my Vacation: The Game (laughs)
I am pretty sure there is a PlayStation VR Vacation game.
Oh my god, that’s amazing.
Anyway, thank you so much!