It’s easy to talk about what made 2018’s “God of War” so successful. The PlayStation 4 exclusive was a beautiful game, with an emotional story that transformed Kratos from an angry, two-dimensional anti-hero into an empathetic figure who, at the end of the day, was a father struggling to raise his only son.
But perhaps that’s why “God of War” director Cory Barlog didn’t go down that path for his 2019 Game Developers Conference panel. While he did touch on parts of the development process, those stories were mostly told to reinforce an overarching theme: how to deal with failure and self-doubt. Barlog talked about how much he doubted himself — even how much the team doubted themselves — while making “God of War.”
Add to that the stress that comes with being in charge of the next iteration of a multi-million dollar franchise, and you begin to see how much of a mental toll development can have on the people behind these blockbuster games. It was a remarkably personal topic, but that’s precisely what made it so relatable to the hundreds of people who showed up to learn from Barlog’s experiences.
Losing the thread
When Barlog and Sony Santa Monica began development on the “God of War” reboot, they played it fairly safe. Barlog was calling it “God of War 4,” already settling on the idea that the story would continue the timeline from the previous games and give players a new perspective on the vengeful Kratos. Inspired by the 2009 post-apocalyptic movie “The Road,” he wrote a short story for the team so that they could get a sense of the tone he was aiming for.
But after the first year, Barlog realized something: The script he was working on was all wrong. He said it “meandered” too much and didn’t spend enough time exploring the two main characters, Kratos and his son. This version of the story assumed players already knew about their relationship and was filled with plot elements that, while exciting, shouldn’t have been the main focus. So to the dismay of the other writers, he scrapped that script and started writing a new one.
For this version of the story, he honed in on the concept of breaking the cycle, not only for Kratos and his murderous past but for the company as a whole.
“It was breaking the cycle for us as a studio, getting caught in that rut of saying, ‘Well, we did the last game. So let’s keep putting things on top of it,’ instead of really digging in and saying, ‘We’re just gonna rip this thing up and figure something new out,’” said Barlog. “It was me as a developer having some sort of confidence in what I was doing and trying different things … even though I would experience doubt all the way through [development].
“But it’s also Kratos breaking the cycle, this cycle he’s had since the beginning, of the gods screwing with his life, him being an absolutely crap father, him blaming the rest of the world.”
The stressful lead-up to E3 2016
Fast forward to 2015, when Sony Santa Monica was busy preparing for “God of War’s” big reveal at the 2016 Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles. Instead of just having a teaser trailer, Barlog wanted to do a live gameplay demo during Sony’s E3 press briefing. The show was nearly a year away at that point, so he figured that’d be enough time to make something cool and different.
The problem was they had so much work left to do. Among other things, the engine wasn’t finished yet, they were still nailing down the art direction, and they hadn’t built the beginning of the game because they’d been busy working on the middle section (the mountain area). Barlog described this hectic time as trying to “take an inaugural flight on a plane while we were building the plane and also drawing the blueprints of the plane.”
Initially, he wanted the demo to take place inside the mountain and end with a giant screaming monster before cutting to black (he called it “so cheesy” in retrospect). Despite his gut telling him it wasn’t great, he ignored it and pitched his vision to Sony’s events and PR people. No one directly told them that it sucked, but he could tell that they were losing interest halfway through the presentation. So with the blessing of Sony Santa Monica head Shannon Studstill, he took another crack at it.
Sony was much more receptive to his new idea — a slow reveal of Kratos and Atreus before they go out hunting — and the developers began focusing on what they were going to show at E3. Since it was Barlog who was going to play the nine-minute demo on stage, he had to spend two months just rehearsing, making sure he could execute every fighting move and every camera pan perfectly. To help him out, the team built hidden bowling lane-like “bumpers” to prevent Barlog from failing too much. But he said he still had “many, many opportunities” to mess up if he positioned himself the wrong way or hit the wrong button combination.
And Sony had several contingency plans in place if the live demo crashed while Barlog was on stage, including a backup PS4 kit and, for the worst case scenario, a trailer that’d play if nothing else could be fixed. Understandably, the director was scared and nervous, especially on June 13, 2016, the day of the reveal. He barely slept the night before.
“Throughout all this time, I’m constantly just in my head, having this voice [telling me], ‘You’re gonna screw it up,’ and having all these potential mess-ups that I could do,” said Barlog.
When it came time to walk up a set of stairs to the balcony where he’d play, Barlog was freaking out because he suddenly forgot everything about the demo: his stage cues, what the individual buttons do, everything. With just minutes to go before the press briefing began, he was desperately trying to remember what to do. It was only when “God of War” composer Bear McCreary started conducting the live orchestra that the details came rushing back to him.
In the end, Barlog and the team pulled off the demo without a hitch.
“Throughout all of it, all of us, and me especially — I was experiencing doubt every single step of the way. It was the impostor syndrome times a thousand, this feeling of what I have to say isn’t valid, what I’m doing isn’t all that good,” said Barlog.
“And pushing through that, breaking through each one of those walls … sadly lead to another wall of doubt. But that was the process! That was the process of pushing through all of that and ensuring we can get to that end result.”
If there’s one thing that Barlog wanted GDC attendees to take away from his talk, it’s to heed his advice about what to do whenever the voice of doubt — whether it’s coming from you or the people around you — inevitably pops up during the creative process.
“Remember that those voices are wrong. And sometimes, they’re right. … I was right to doubt that crappy demo because it was crap. That’s the messed up part about doubt in general: that it’s right as much as it’s wrong,” he said. “It is up to all of us, individually [and] for each individual situation, to be honest with ourselves, to trust ourselves, to trust the people around us … and really endeavor to push through every one of those fucking doubt walls because on the other side is always something better than where you were at in the beginning.”