When Cory Barlog was still in early discussions with Sony to work on a new God of War game, he went through a major personal transformation: he became a father. Barlog was the director of the second game in the series, but had moved on after leaving God of War III eight months into its development, working on projects like Tomb Raider and a Mad Max game. He had a few ideas about what to do with a new God of War, but it was only after having his son that he was convinced that he had another story to tell in this universe.
"That really started germinating all of the ideas in my head," he says. "I see the world through a different lens now."
Barlog's own personal transformation mirrors that of Kratos, the burly and angry protagonist of the series. While the new God of War initially appeared to be a reimagining of the series — it switches from Greek to Norse mythology, and is called God of War, and not God of War 4 — Barlog insists that it isn't. Instead, it follows the events of the previous games in the series, and builds off of them. "It's not a reboot," he says. "Kratos has entered a new phase in his life."
"It's not a reboot"
In the new God of War's debut trailer shown at E3 this week (which Barlog says is close to what the game's opening sequence will be like), we see Kratos and his new son hunting. It's a much different Kratos than we're used to; he's still angry, but is showing some restraint. He scolds his son with cold platitudes — "Do not be sorry, be better." — but toward the end of the scene, Kratos manages to keep a relatively cool head when his son accidentally shoots him with an arrow.
For Barlog, this chance to show a much more nuanced character was a large part of the appeal of making the new God of War. In previous games, Kratos was largely one-dimensional, a very angry, very violent killing machine focused entirely on revenge. The new game sees him trying to move on from that past — and often struggling. "This is a guy who can go up against a giant Atlas and not flinch, but the idea of giving his kid a hug scares the hell out of him because he doesn't know how to relate," says Barlog. "He has lost so much of his humanity. What an interesting journey to get that back."
"The idea of giving his kid a hug scares the hell out of him"
Many of the elements of the game have been designed to bring you closer to Kratos, and hopefully make him feel like more of a real person. The camera, for instance, is much closer in the new game, letting you view the world from Kratos' perspective. It's a big departure for a series known for its detached, cinematic camera angles.
Similarly, Kratos' son is an integral part of the experience. Barlog says the two remain together for most of the game. In fact, he's so important that a button on the PS4 controller is dedicated to interacting with Kratos' child. Barlog is taking some of his own personal experiences — "that frustrating sense of a kid not listening, running ahead, doing what they're not supposed to" — and make them a central part of the experience.
The transition from angry Kratos to Kratos-as-a-dad is a bit jarring; it's easy to be cynical about a game wanting to make a previously one-dimensional character into a deep, multilayered person. But by tying the parenting theme into multiple aspects of the game, from the narrative to the actual game design, the new God of War might be able to do the near-impossible: make you care about Kratos. It also has another benefit. By making Kratos' son a pivotal part of the experience, Barlog is potentially setting up a future in which God of War's story can extend beyond its iconic lead.
"There's a massive plan in all of this," says Barlog.