How God of War devs nearly made Kratos “too nice”
God of War developers talk first drafts that didn't make the cut.
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God of War's journey Norse begins this week and the ragin' Spartan has a new voice actor, a new primary weapon and a big bushy beard. With any iconic character, drastic changes come at the risk of upsetting fans and losing the essence of what made it a classic in the first place. Kratos, in particular, is known for being one of the medium's angriest leads so when a more tender, reserved reboot series was first announced, there was some trepidation among fans of the brutal series.
There's not a shadow of a doubt that the changes made were for the better. A week before release, God of War has experienced unwavering critical acclaim. Our own reviewer Adam Mathew called it, among many things, "a fine mix of addictive combat, devious puzzles and exploration" (you can check out his full review here).
We recently had the chance to sit down with Cory Barlog and lead level designer Rob Davis to talk all things God of War and we wanted to know: Were there any changes throughout development that felt like a step too far?
For this particular event, Sony took small groups to Eveleigh Works, a blacksmith in Redfern, to craft our own Leviathan Axes. With metal clanging in the background, belt grinders abuzz, Cory leans back in a makeshift throne, "Hmm, a step too far..."
One person said this so hard to play, it’s like a child-abuse simulator
Cory recalls the early drafts, particularly for that opening scene we got a look at back at E3 2016. In earlier versions of that scene, it was the writers and sound designers doing voice work. They were "very vocal with their feedback," said Barlog. "We bounced between being really mean, one person said this was so hard to play it’s like a child-abuse simulator because we were trying to be so true to Kratos that it was just mean. Just all-around mean."
So in this early version, it was the bastard Kratos we've come to know, but he hadn't grown at all or learned from his ill-fated drive for vengeance. "So we reacted to that immediately, and made him too nice," said Barlog. "People said he was like Qui-Gon Jinn. You know, just so calm and relaxed. So we over-corrected there."
Cory vividly remembers the moment Santa Monica Studios found the perfect balance for its new Kratos in a line of dialogue that ended up in the final version of the game: "Then there was that moment, you know 'Only fire,' take a breath 'only fire when I tell you to fire'. That was the aha! moment when we realised, oh okay, he’s still a jerk but he gets control of it once he realises it and he masters his anger for a second."
Brok is essentially Al Swearengen and Sindri is essentially Adrian Monk
So then it became a matter of surrounding Kratos's fiery temper with a foil: the intelligent and curious Atreus, the no-nonsense Freya and the oddball dwarves, Brok and Sindri. "We were always cognizant of the levity. We knew if we were making a longer game, we couldn't just be serious the whole time," said Barlog.
Making this Scandinavian-set God of War, a series not known for its levity, a little light-hearted wasn't as difficult as it sounds. Barlog said, "Norse Mythology is an inherently humorous thing. Scandinavians have a bizarre sense of humour."
The trick was, again, finding that balance between too light and too serious. The first draft started with cranky-pants Kratos introducing a bit of comic relief with Sindri and Brok, but that brought with it its own problems.
"Brok and Sindri were these fascinating characters we could use to inject a bit more life into it all. I came to the writers and said listen 'Brok is essentially Al Swearengen and Sindri is Adrian Monk. These are the two archetypes we need to think of.' So Brok is this artist with cursing but he’s a sweetheart. Whereas Sindri actually went through something traumatic in his past that’s actually turned him into this fairly neurotic person," said Barlog.
This all shines through in the final version of the game: Brok's foul-mouthed rants bounce off Kratos's steely demeanour whereas Sindri's neuroticism is at odds with Kratos's rough-and-tumble approach to barrelling through the realms. The game is all the better for it, as both characters not only provide some much-needed respite but also develop their own charming sub-plot as the game goes on. However, Barlog admits "sometimes it went too far."
Whether it was too dark or too light, fine-tuning God of War's new and returning characters was a constant challenge for the team at Santa Monica Studios, but one that has paid off in spades.