Games Interview: God of War Director Cory Barlog on bringing the series back to life, inspirations, mo-cap and podcasts!

I recently had the opportunity to chat with the god of Santa Monica Studios Cory Barlog, about this week’s God of War. It’s a small indie title, not many people have heard of it before, but we thought we would jump in on it and get into some of the creative process and behind the scenes gossip we all love.

Cory has been a staple of the God of War series since its inception way back in 2005 and even though he only originally, directed God of War 2, the man himself has probably been the biggest veteran of the series from the get go. Working as lead animator on God of War and then writing and directing God of War 2, he also wrote God of War: Ghosts of Sparta and God of War: Chains of Olympus for the PSP. He helped in some of the production of God of War 3 and now in 2018 he finally gets to show off his new work in God of War for the PlayStation 4. We delve into his thoughts on the series new looks and design, the new actor and voice behind Kratos, Christopher Judge and we discuss what he loved to do in his downtime and the type of Podcasts he loves. Lets chat!

The Iris: First up, you must let me geek out a little, okay? So, I have to say thank you, Cory, for helping me realize how amazing video games can really be for the main stream who are mostly adults. Still, to this day many people are absolutely, fucking ignorant to this form of media as being anything other than games for children.

All of you and the team at Santa Monica changed that in a lot of ways and showed everyone else in the industry it can be done and it’s very profitable. I grew up with Kratos from the very first game back on PlayStation 2 and loved your very own awesome sequel, God of War 2! Even my user name on the PlayStation Network’s been SonofKratos for 12 years now and I’ve got my Pandora’s Box and Kratos figurine in my man cave out the back. I couldn’t be happier speaking to you right now.

Santa Monica Studios

Cory Barlog: That’s so fantastic, thank you. Such kind words there.

The Iris: I was thinking, what does one ask the man that helped bring Kratos into the world of interactive entertainment and helped them become the biggest icons in the world of PlayStation? So, I thought maybe asking how angry did you all need to be when creating and directing the God of War games? Because I can picture a cold shower on the entry to Santa Monica studios and some Lego pieces lying around for people to tread on?

CB: It’s interesting. There was this phenomenon that we sort of discovered when we were making the first game and it sort of carried over into the second one that, every time we brought people in to play test, they would talk about how much fun they would have during the play test because they either just woke up or one guy had just gotten a parking ticket like 30 minutes before he did the play test. Another one just had a fight with his girlfriend and another one had been yelled at and embarrassed by their teacher. They all kind of had these reasons to sort of let out this kind of inner anger, this sort of monster inside, which sort of became this kind of guiding principle of Kratos having this monster inside. We sort of let the monster out at all times, which was very good, I think in the beginning.

It was a time in the industry when I think a lot of people resonate with that. They all kind of needed that release valve. I know, for me, making games is really hard and wonderful and frustrating and exhausting and I had no shortage of inner turmoil that I still have today, I just handle it in an entirely different way. Because it truly is like trying to get your hands around a bundle of 4000 kittens. It’s just impossible to fully get it under control. I think that drilled a lot of my, sort of, passion, I think, throughout this and making of this series of games.

The Iris: Just a little about the game. Are we actually going to find out what has happened in the gap that was left at the end of God of War 3 leading into this instalment? Or is this being treated as sort of a retcon of the series in a way?

CB: Hmm, I saw this amazing Buffy (the Vampire Slayer) episode, quite a long time ago when they first introduced Dawn, the sister, they kind of just went with it. They just started the episode and then everybody knew who she was and everybody was just assuming everything’s fine and they just went on for like four episodes before they explained what happened and how she got there.

I thought, there was something really interesting and powerful about this idea of writing. This adage, entering the scene late so that you kind of put everybody at the same disadvantage. Everyone is at the same sort of sense of being off kilter. They kind of have to just accept everything that’s going on. That kind of ‘no cut’ camera, the idea that we will never say, “Meanwhile, this is happening over here,” is feeding into that concept as well. What we find out is what Kratos is willing to tell his son. All of it is really wrapped up into this idea of this relationship between Kratos and his son.

I kind of again, pulled it from my own life, that when I had my son, I kind of went through that same, I guess, internal struggle of all the things I don’t like about myself. How am I going to steer him away from doing those things?

The Iris: Without telling him what you had done?

CB: Yeah, right. All the mistakes I made, how do I prevent him from making those mistakes. Without seeming like the hypocrite? I did the same thing. Sort of reminding me of all the times I accused my parents of the same thing. It’s fascinating, you kind of then look at all the things you’ve done in your life and how much of myself am I really going to show to my son, or is it going to be, I’m going to try to be the perfect person, so he never sees that I’m just a normal person with faults, ups and downs.

That relationship between Kratos and Atreus is kind of driving how much he’s willing to share and then how much, by proxy the audience then gets to find out!

The Iris: It’s been 11 years now since God of War 2. What are the biggest difficulties you’ve come across from designing a game back then to now?

CB: Well, I mean, in God of War 2, we had gotten a lot of the groundwork laid from doing the first God of War. We kind of … we were on the same platform with the PS2, we really understood who Kratos was and the rules and what we were doing is making everything better. Taking that next step for me, was setting up what the third one would become with the journey’s he was going on. With this one, it’s like starting from scratch. All new engine. A new camera perspective. A new sort of weapon and sort of combat loop, I guess as we refer to it, is the way that he would kind of interact with the enemies. All of this (while) still trying to maintain the same DNA of the game as it was previously, but to give that sense of freshness to it.

In actuality, we took a war on like 100 fronts. It was definitely, I think as a whole, was the most challenging. The most challenging thing I dealt with was the concept of the single camera shot. That saying, I sold it to people as, “Don’t worry, it’s no big deal. It’s really easy. It’s going to be amazing. Trust me. It won’t be that hard.”

I was really wrong. It was complex. But I mean, it was so worthwhile because I knew, even if I couldn’t explain in some sort of formula, it’s more of a feeling you get. That’s kind of what the sort of single shot is, is that you won’t be able to identify this and why it feels so good. It’s just that you will have this sense of immediacy throughout the entire game that everything is happening to you, it’s happening in that moment, and everything you’re experiencing, you’re taking in is all sort of at that face value, instantaneous sort of response.

The Iris: You’ve got so many ridiculously great minds at Sony and PlayStation at the moment. My favourites, including yourself, Neil Druckmann, David Cage and I know David Jaffe was one of the creative minds that brought Kratos to life originally. Do you still keep in touch with many of these people while you’re trying to implement certain game features and the series going forward? How much input do you have from others?

CB: Well, when you’re in development it’s a lot harder to keep in touch with people because, usually, we have a contact a little bit at conventions like E3 but all of us are so busy with our own individual games. The usual catch up is spotting somebody at a conference then you sort of throw out, “Hey, I’m working on this, what are you working on? How did you solve that issue?”

There’s a lot of this fun sort of cross pollination with the Sony studios life. To me it’s so amazing to work there because we have something called creative share week where we would send a bunch of people from different departments out to Guerrilla Games and then Guerrilla would send similar people out to Santa Monica Studios.

They would go and our designers would basically live as designers in Guerrilla for a week and come back and say, “Well, they have these tools and this is how they work and they solve this problem and it’s a really interesting way that we never thought of.” Then the same thing for them, their designers would come out and we’d sort of put them to work, basically. They’d be designing stuff for our game and same thing for theirs. The comic designers actually went out to the Horizon (Horizon: Zero Dawn) team and designed one of the weapons in their week while they were there. It’s truly amazing because I think for a while studios were so siloed.

Now that Sony kind of has this focus on making incredible single player experiences and so many people, like you said, are just masters of doing this. I’m fortunate because I feel like I have the best, sort of, colleagues to make me better at what I do.

The Iris: I spoke with Christopher Judge a few months back for one of his trips down here to Australia. Chris being the new voice of Kratos, I tried digging some dirt back then, but the man is a rock and a wonderfully voiced rock, however, he did mention how incredible it was working with a child actor, I think it was Sonny? He was amazing. What made you replace TC Carson as a lead voice actor and go with someone just as brilliant as Judge and has TC Carson had any feedback about it?

Cory: Well, it was not a decision I took lightly. The no cut camera was definitely forcing me in a situation where I needed to get all the performances on the set. I needed to have five actors do a four and a half minute scene together and then be able to take that scene and implement it straight into the game.

TC is an unbelievably talented, just brilliant voice actor, but he’s also not the size of Kratos. We actually had him in the Mocap (Motion Capture) suit in Ascension (God of War: Ascension) and while I was not directing that one, I was able to kind of see the process that they under-went and it required a lot of animation over the top.

While he was in the suit, they ended up having to re-shoot a bunch of stuff with a larger actor and then hand animate a bunch of stuff on top of it, which kind of added to the complexity and the overall schedule. As I started looking at it and realizing, ‘all right, well we initially did some tests with TC hoping that we could kind of keep him, then just sort of eat the costs on the back end to kind of animate over and recapture somebody else.

But, from a performance perspective and the fact that the game would’ve been about a seven year development cycle, nobody was all that excited about that, so, as important as it was, we kind of needed to look at there’s just a new way of making games that is different from the PS2 and even a little bit of the PS3 era, is that we mo-capped everything.

All of the motions were motion captured this time around and to get all these actors on set and to get their performances, I knew I had to find an actor of imposing size that would be pretty much to scale to the size of Sunny (Sunny Suljik who plays Kratos’s son Atreus), who was very tiny. We had cast him when he was nine years old and he is just an incredibly talented actor, but also just really, really small. Him and Chris next to each other, pretty much is almost a close match to the ratios. Then, it’s just very different when you look at an actor, or a human being who actually had 250 pounds of muscle versus someone who does not. They just walk differently, they carry themselves differently, and it’s definitely a different performance.

The Iris: What do you do outside when you’re not working? What are your hobbies outside of creating such a good, bloody epic characters in God of War? Do you listen to podcasts when you’re working?

CB: Yeah, actually, you know it’s interesting. I’ve been getting a lot into podcasts lately. Mostly for the little walks that I have to and from work and then a little bit of the very limited down time that I have during the day, I also try to spend as much time as I can with my wife and son. I’ve actually been listening to Missing Richard Simmons, that’s the more recent one that I was listening to.

It’s just that weird and fascinating story that in 2015, he just sort of disappeared from public life. This has been going on for years apparently and I’m just catching up on the podcast, I have like six episodes. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the podcast S-Town? I highly recommend that, it’s just one season, I listen to that one and kind of had the feeling I had when I watched the movie Adaptation, where I reached the end of the movie and went, “How did I get here? How did we end up in the Everglades with twin Nicholas Cage’s and with one of them hunting him down and people grinding up flowers to make drugs, when we started in a restaurant with 20 Nicholas Cage’s trying to pitch an adaptation of this woman’s book about orchids?” To me, that’s fantastic story telling inspiration, which is a lot of this current game (God of War), that was the goal. I wanted people to reach the end of the game and just wonder, “Oh my gosh. How did I get here? I can’t believe I started where I started and I ended up here and I feel like I’ve just been on this long, exhaustive, emotional and exciting adventure.”

The Iris: I listen to a podcast called The Filthy Casuals, it’s basically the best video-game podcast in Australia. So, look that up on your podcasts, The Filthy Casuals. It’s just three Melbourne based comedians that just talk video games and just talk shit, and it’s hilarious. You want some Aussie humour, that’s the one to listen to.

CB: Yeah. Filthy Casuals, I’m going to check it out and it was wonderful to chat with you, Thank-you.

I am sure you all know by now that God of War will be released exclusively on the PlayStation 4 on April 20th, 2018.

If you haven’t checked out our other piece The Art of War, a Brief history of the God of War series, then take the leap HERE and go check it out now. For now, I can’t wait for this game to grace my gaming shelf.