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Dev Spotlight: Cory Barlog

The creator of God of War is an inspiration to all of us.

April 2018 saw the release of Santa Monica Studio’s highly-anticipated God of War, which received myriad accolades and 10s across the board. However, behind the game’s success is a tale that deserves to be told, as its lead developer, Cory Barlog, is nothing short of an inspiration to aspiring creatives of every discipline.

Speaking at Devcom 2018, Barlog revealed the trials and tribulations involved in the five-year production cycle of God of War to the world. Although many people would assume that developing a game as well-received as this was all sunshine and rainbows, Barlog articulated the harsh realities that are inherent to producing something that you believe in while nobody else does.

Barlog wanted to do something new and innovative with God of War. Inspired by the continuous camera roll used in films such as Rope, and Birdman, he believed that he could make an engaging game in which gameplay never ceased. This meant that there would be no cutscenes, and that elements of the story would need to be displayed from the same third-person perspective as the active gameplay camera angle. Narrative and gameplay needed to be intertwined at every point along the way. Barlog couldn’t get anybody else on board with this idea initially, but he eventually found what he was looking for in the John Woo film, Hard Boiled. Woo’s film managed to balance action and story without ever needing to change shot, and this was what he wanted to do with God of War.

Cory Barlog

However, although God of War‘s camera-work was the recipient of praise from fans and critics alike, it was the subject of major controversy throughout the development process. For five years, Barlog wrestled with people who had no faith in the project. The finished product inevitably had these very people join in with the choruses of praise, but during development, they thought the idea was ludicrous. At Devcom, Barlog responded to this, saying “Really? Five years and now you get it? You couldn’t get it at four years?” Five years of work against being told “no,” and Barlog had finally won them over. After losing battle after battle, Barlog won the war.

Although the camera was an innovative endeavor that pulled off a high risk/high reward gamble, it was outshone in both risk and reward by a different aspect of the game: Atreus. Early on in his Devcom talk, Barlog mentioned something that had been said about God of War that he’d never forget:

God of War is like my dad’s muscle car. Uncharted is like a sexy McLaren sports car, and I want to drive that.

This comment resonated with Barlog, who recognized that the ruthless Kratos of the original trilogy hadn’t aged particularly well. Thus, 2018’s God of War became Barlog’s effort to change the franchise into something new, by “giving Kratos a reason to be better.” Although the eponymous God of War enjoyed fame for being a dick in the Grecian setting of the original trilogy, he “wasn’t going to be such a dick all the time” anymore. The way in which Barlog’s team sought to accomplish this was to make Kratos a father. This was easier said than done.

Cory Barlog

Barlog recounted in his speech that “there was a point where the director of production came to me and said I was going to have to start designing a game without Atreus.” This was because of the difficulties involved in presenting Atreus in the way in which Barlog had intended. They simply couldn’t get it right. Eventually, Barlog took a trip to Naughty Dog with his lead programmer. Atreus was set to play a similar role in the narrative to The Last of Us‘ Ellie, and Naughty Dog had done a fantastic job with her. Although this trip was enlightening, the problem was far from resolved. Barlog’s superiors wanted Atreus out, and there was far more work involved in getting Atreus right than he had anticipated. However, it was too late to cut him from the game. It fundamentally wouldn’t work without him.

Barlog broke this down by explaining:

I was very childish, and designed the most expensive arthouse game you’ve ever seen, which had Kratos saying three words throughout all of it. She realized what I was doing and said, “fine, fine, keep him.”

Kratos, who wasn’t supposed to be a dick anymore, had the entirety of his new character rooted in his relationship with Atreus. If you think back to playing the most recent God of War, you’ll be able to see that every single part of the game that humanized Kratos was linked to his son. If Barlog wanted to make this game a “McLaren sports car,” Atreus was absolutely necessary. It is in Kratos’ relationship with his son that we can see a maturity in his character, and by extension, a maturity in the franchise.

Cory Barlog

Although these things may seem to be minor setbacks, or petty disputes, they really weren’t. Throughout the entire process, Barlog and his team were told “no,” over and over again. Not only were they told no, but their insistence on making the game they wanted to make was largely problematic right up until the reviews embargo was lifted. Barlog said that “at the beginning, (he) wanted to give up. At the end of the game, there were some dark, dark points.” He went on to say that without the help of Shannon Studstill and Yuni Yang, the studio GM and executive producer, respectively, he “would not have continued.” Consider how well God of War was received, and how important it is in contemporary gaming. Now, read Barlog’s words again. The man behind one of 2018’s most critically acclaimed releases spent five years of his life working on something that he wanted to give up on. Fortune favors the bold, and Barlog’s perseverance was the epitome of boldness.

Even at the end, Barlog felt doubt. He openly admits to “pushing the game out the door going, ‘Well, I hope it works.'” And it did. It worked, and it worked well. Barraged with 10s, God of War became an overnight sensation. Barlog, upon seeing the overwhelmingly positive response, wept. He didn’t weep tears of joy; he wept because a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Five years of being told “no.” Five years of fighting. Five years of doubt.

Cory Barlog

“Never, ever give in to doubt,” were the exact words Barlog used towards the end of his speech. He continued:

That is the worst thing that I had done periodically throughout. Initially, I tried to compartmentalize it, pretend that it didn’t exist, but that also is stupid. It doesn’t work. Feel it. Feel the doubt, process it, and then shut it out. And then move on.

Those are the words of someone who persevered against all odds. Cory Barlog is an inspiration to creators all over the world. God of War has been praised as one of the best titles to have been released in years—and rightfully so. However, it is the man behind it, and the team behind him, who are deserving of that praise. They didn’t only give us a great story in the game—they gave us a real, tangible story of prevailing against all odds in order to accomplish what you believe in, even when nobody else believes in you.