Game Director Cory Barlog offers insight into how the character of Kratos' son took shape.
As you’ve likely picked up on in the two trailers released to date, Santa Monica Studio has some big, bold ideas for Kratos’ impending PS4 adventure.
Gone are the gods of Olympus. With his vengeance complete, Kratos now quietly resides in the realm of Norse gods and monsters. But he’s not alone. Central to the studio’s bold reimagining of its long running series is the introduction of Atreus, Kratos’ son. The youngster will be at your side throughout the game, as father and son embark on a deeply personal quest into the Norse wildlands.
However, this is not your typical stroll in the woods. The pair’s quest represents both a physical journey from point A to B, but also an emotional one. Atreus is Kratos’ second shot at fatherhood, and to get where he needs to go in that regard, he’ll need to confront his rage and rediscover his humanity. Conversely, Atreus will need to come to terms with his own destiny and learn how to behave less like an emotionally vulnerable child and more like a god. Like I say – no teddy bear’s picnic.
To find out more, we sat down with Game Director Cory Barlog at E3 last week, and he was happy to give us a step-by-step rundown of how the character has taken shape:
Deciding on Atreus’ appearance wasn’t easy…
Once Cory Barlog had settled on the game’s central conceit, the first challenge was deciding what Kratos’ offspring should actually look like. Given the protagonist’s enormous personality and iconic appearance, this was no small task…
“At first I tried to describe to our artists what Atreus was about to go through, and what he had gone through,” recalls Barlog. “I gave them an idea of the world he was about to experience – a world that is not going to be friendly. But I don’t think that really helped the team figure it out.”
Next, Barlog and his team collated reference images, but again, they continued to struggle to visualize Atreus.
“At one point we actually sat down and said to ourselves, ‘What would Kratos actually look like aged 10? Let’s do a drawing of that and see if there’s something analogous we can work from’. But that didn’t work either – it was just really goofy and weird.”
Atreus’ look is based on a real person
The team continued to run up against a brick wall, right up until the casting process began. But then serendipity struck…
“We met Sunny Suljic and his audition knocked it so far out of the park, that I was like ‘Gosh, this kid is incredible.’ And here’s the crazy thing – he looked exactly like I imagined Atreus should look.
“And it just went from there. The initial images after we scanned his face were just so striking, and that was even before we had hair on him. He has these big blue eyes and that look of innocence, but he also looks like he’s seen things. He was perfect.”
Kratos and Atreus relationship was defined in a short story
Just as challenging as deciding on his appearance, was crafting Atreus’ personality and the dynamics of the father/son relationship. The bones of this were initially defined by a short story that Cory wrote at the very beginning of development to serve as a foundation stone for his writing team – Rich Cobert and Matt Sofos.
It was straightforward – just a brief snapshot of Kratos and Atreus out on a hunting expedition in the woods – but it gave the team vital context to help them make Barlog’s vision a reality.
“I created that story for the rest of the team,” recalls Barlog. “They could read it, they could visualise it, they could feel like they were there. They could go, ‘Ah, that is who Kratos is now, and that is his son.’ I think that short story really helped the team frame it.”
Sure enough, that short story became the basis of the E3 2016 reveal trailer.
Defining Kratos’ ‘parenting style’ took time…
So, exactly what kind of dad is Kratos? After all, this is the guy who ripped Helios’ head off and used it as a lantern – he’s not exactly the touchy-feely nurturing type.
“Figuring out how to nail that was hard,” agrees Barlog.
“Kratos is not a guy who’s going to talk to you a lot. I think a lot of us have fathers who are from a generation that is not very loquacious. They were men of few words. It doesn’t mean you had a bad relationship, it just meant you weren’t very chatty a lot of the time.”
It took time for the new, more mature Kratos’ to take shape, and the writing team’s first attempts didn’t always hit the mark.
“Certain people on the team had a lot to say about our early drafts,” recalls Barlog. “I think one person said a very early version was actually depressing to play; that Kratos was just too hard on Atreus and we had gone too far.
“But that feedback eventually led us to the magical moment in the original E3 reveal, where Kratos is starting to yell at Atreus and then catches his breath. He has to calm down, speak through gritted teeth and explain to Atreus what he did wrong. And that’s real; that’s a moment of truth. It didn’t come immediately; it came from that initial struggle with the rest of the team.”
How do you teach a boy to become a god?
As noted above, there are two ambitious narrative arcs in God of War on PS4. Firstly, how exactly do you chart the journey of a regular boy on his way to becoming a god? That’s a tough ask for any writing team.
“Well, it’s not so much Kratos teaching Atreus how to be a god, but how not to make the same mistakes he did,” Barlog clarifies.
“To Kratos, being a god is a disease. It’s a disease that he’s passed onto his kid, and he doesn’t want that. In our children, we often see our own mistakes – the worst parts of ourselves amplified. But Kratos hates everything about being a god. All he wants to do is make sure that the mistakes he’s made are not passed on and repeated.
“But then, of course, he also needs to make sure his kid can take care of himself – it’s not a friendly world out there…”
And how do you teach a god to be human?
In turn, it’s up to Atreus – albeit perhaps subconsciously – to teach his father how to be human. So, of the two, who has the toughest job?
“Atreus!” replies Barlog without drawing breath.
“Kratos’ humanity is locked up in a vault deep inside him. The way to get to it is long and hard. But once Kratos gets there, relating to his son will be like riding a bike. It’s just been stamped down for so long.”