I didn’t go into E3 2016—the biggest gaming convention of every year—expecting to come out excited for a new God of War game. But sometimes even jaded old me gets surprised.
I’ve seldom seen as meteoric a change in a series from one game to the next as the new God of War. The well-loved PlayStation series appears like it’s been transformed, from a sophomoric sex-god-murder-machine power fantasy to an introspective examination of fatherhood and personal responsibility.
Sony introduced the new God of War—or #DadofWar, as I’ve been calling it—to the world during its giant E3 press conference, which was really more like a concert than a typical presser—it was scored by a live orchestra. Sat high on the balcony of Los Angeles’s historic Shrine Auditorium, I watched trailer after trailer for exciting new games while Sony executives strolled across the impressive curved stage-screen, their footsteps punctuated by live timpanies and horns.
The God of War trailer opened not with Kratos, the series’ iconic sociopath protagonist, but a young boy playing in the dirt. Up until the moment a very bearded Kratos emerged from the shadows—the theater erupting in cheers—I still didn’t know what I was watching. The demo began with a hunt, Kratos doing his best to contain his temper while attempting to impart life lessons to the boy. They track a deer, traverse some ruins and fight an enormous troll, Kratos showing off not just his new magic throwing axe but a softened demeanor as well. Apparently the many years and seven previous games of murdering everything in sight—including the gods themselves—took its toll on the immortal warrior.
That, or it was simply fatherhood that changed Kratos. In a behind-closed-doors meeting later in the week, God of War director Cory Barlog escorted assembled press through an extended look at the same demo, explaining further where this new Kratos came from. My first thought when I saw Kratos trying—and sort of failing—to keep his temper in check was that he seems like a shitty dad, but speaking to Barlog I realized this may be one of the most honest portrayals of fatherhood ever seen in a game.
“After I had my son I kind of saw the world differently—it changed me creatively,” Barlog told me later. Kratos, a character who’s been known to fly off the handle and murder foe and friend alike—basically anyone within reach—now struggles to check his temper for his son’s sake. Kratos wants to teach the boy—whose name and mother haven’t yet been revealed—the right lessons. Barlog said he’s struggled to make sure his own three-and-a-half-year-old son doesn’t grow up to have the same flaws he has.
Writing what you know is going to get you to the truth a lot faster.
“The players and [game] makers have all grown together,” Barlog said. “This sort of subject matter appears to be coming up in a lot of games, and I do think it is because a lot of us who are creating it are entering different phases of our lives. It’s changing how we view the creative process. It influences us because honestly, writing what you know is going to get you to the truth a lot faster. Trying to have no anchors in reality, even when you’re making science fiction, fantasy, anything, you have to have an anchor, you know? Something that feels real, relatable, to everybody.”
Barlog worked on the original three games in the series, serving as lead animator on the first and director of the second before departing Sony partway through development on God of War 3. Before rejoining Sony Santa Monica to direct the new God of War he spent time at LucasArts, the now defunct developer of many Star Wars and other games, where he read scripts for a canceled live action Star Wars show that portrayed the cackling, lightning-fingered Emperor in his more sympathetic younger days. That was another inspiration for the new Kratos, Barlog told Venturebeat—making a detestable character into someone audiences can actually see themselves in.
“It was amazing that Sony was behind this,” the director told me. Such a huge shift in tone, theme and character this far into a blockbuster game series is basically unheard of. Barlog said he discussed his “crazy idea” for God of War years ago with Sony Santa Monica Senior Director of Product Development Shannon Studstill, and when they pitched it to the studio together around a year later “everybody in the organization got on board very quickly,” he said.
Even with this huge shift, God of War is still “God of War.” I think Sony (wisely) chose to focus on what’s new and different—of which there’s plenty—but the familiar still bled through whenever Kratos’s dadly veneer cracked. The immortal warrior chucked his axe at foes and called it back with a wave of his hand, splitting enemies in half while his son hovered nearby. He unleashed his signature “spartan rage” on the troll before pinning it so his son could get a shot, although he managed to control his anger when the arrow sprouted from his shoulder instead. At the end, when they’d finally bagged the deer they’d set out to hunt in the first place, Kratos helped his son give their prey a swift death, faltering only when his new, presumably unfamiliar fatherly impulses told him to reassure the boy with a touch of his hand.
“God of War is like my and the team’s child,” Barlog said. “I’ve been associated with this franchise since the beginning, in 2003, you know. My child [the series] is, what is it, 13 years old now? And I feel like I have this tremendous responsibility with it, but I also feel like I have so many more stories. Once we started working on this one, to me, I’ve already mapped out like the next eight things that this can do. This reboot—or, refresh—has actually allowed us to look at a much more interesting future.”
And what about his own son? “He’s only three and a half,” Barlog said. “I imagine a world in which he will play it and hopefully see the—a little bit of the personal side behind all of that. See the—kind of a letter to him.”
Mike Rougeau is Playboy.com’s Gaming Editor, in charge of all things video games. As a devoted dog dad he relates to Kratos now more than ever. Follow him on Twitter @RogueCheddar.
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