God of War was easily one of the best games of the 2018. It broke all kinds of sales records for Sony, garnered massive critical praise, and picked up dozens of awards for its storytelling, plot, design, and performances.
The decision to reinvent Kratos – formally little more than a grunting, angry rage machine – was a bold one from developer Santa Monica Studio, but it’s one that clearly paid off. Players were treated to a layered, delicate, often deeply affecting story of the deep ties between parents and children, the consequences of violence, and the struggles of leaving one’s past behind in an attempt to be better.
God of War recently celebrated the first anniversary of its release, and among other goodies and surprises, Sony and Santa Monica Studio just released a genuinely wonderful feature length documentary about the development of the hit game, called “Raising Kratos.”
The whole things charts the progress of God of War from concept to release, with all the stresses, pressures, setbacks, and joys that happened along the way. It clocks in at just under two hours, and when you have the time to spare I seriously recommend you sit down and give it a watch.
If you’ve got some time, you can find the documentary below. If you’re a little busy right now though, there’s no need to worry – you can read on below for ten of the biggest moments and revelations from the documentary.
Santa Monica Head Specifically Wanted To Bring Cory Barlog Back
Shannon Studstill served as the executive producer on God of War, and is the head of Santa Monica Studio. According to Scott Ronde, the Senior Vice President of SIE America, it was her idea to bring Cory Barlog back into the fold.
As one of the directors on God of War II, Studstill saw value in Barlog’s experience as one of “the original vision holders” on the franchise, and she wanted to give him the time, space, and resources to reinvent the franchise. As Ronde says, the studio didn’t just wanted bigger and better, they wanted “bigger and better, and different.”
I don’t need to tell you that Barlog turned out to be an inspired choice of director, and it was fortunate that when he returned to the studio to work on the new God of War, he was a different person. Having started his own family in the years between God of War II and the reboot, Barlog had all kinds of new experiences and ideas to bring to the table.
The Studio Thought People Were Bored Of The Old Kratos
It was just as well Barlog was ready and willing to shake things up, because the “overwhelming” vibe at the studio was that the audience were pretty much done with the old Kratos. As Barlog explained, the Ghost of Sparta either needed to “go away” or “needed a fresh start”
This inspired the team to set about finding a way to reinvent the iconic character without completing erasing what had come before. The main thing Barlog wanted to do, perhaps as a result of his own experiences in having a son of his own, was to move Kratos away from the generic, revenge hungry, hyper violent murderer image that people associated with him.
Barlog said during an early meeting that the idea of Kratos as a troubled anti hero was always alluded to – especially in the first game – but admitted that it “didn’t really go anywhere.” This was something that needed to change.
Some Of The Team Weren’t Into Kratos Having a Son
The idea that Kratos would have a child as a companion in God of War was something that Barlog had in mind from a very early stage. In the documentary, he points to the fact that the first game sees Kratos mistakenly murdering his first family, which inspired the themes of second chances and redemption.
It is such a departure for Kratos when the first thing you talk about is him being a dad right? When his previous experience in being a dad was murdering his family, and that definitely gives people pause.
Initially, the character that would become Atreus wasn’t even going to be Kratos’ son – Barlog’s first pitch was simply that an older Kratos would have a mysterious, initially unexplained child companion. Thankfully, this proved to be the spark that inspired the decision that Kratos would be more interesting as a dad, though a few people at the studio were genuinely unsure about how it would work.
Jason McDonald, Gameplay Design Lead said:
I was all in on some of it, but the son thing? Not at first. Definitely not at first. Mainly because from my perspective it’s like, I’m trying to think of combat and where we can go next and then I see this tiny kid running around Kratos and I’m like ‘my god, all he’s gonna do is slow Kratos down and make things hard, and nobody wants that in the game.
Sony President Was “Horrified” With The Game The First Time He Saw It
By all accounts, everybody involved with the project from the early stages knew there were a lot of ideas floating about, and they were unsure how much of it – if any – would actually work out.
While the vision was fairly clear at this stage, having a buddy AI in Atreus that would lead the way, as well as one constant over the shoulder camera for the entire game was easier said than done. In fact, the first time Shuhei Yoshida, the President of Sony’s Worldwide Studios for SIE, came to check on an early prototype, he was less than thrilled by the state of what he saw.
Yumi Yang, Director of Product Development said:
The second he left the room, I was like ‘that was not good.’ There was something in his facial expression that’s telling us there’s an issue here, and Shannon calls a little while later and says ‘Shuhei had some notes.’
Barlog would later explain that he was aware Yoshida was unhappy, but didn’t realise quite how unhappy he was until a colleague took him to one side and explained that the President had told him he was “horrified by how bad it was.” Ouch.
Casting Kratos And Atreus
Atreus actor Sunny Suljic is an immensely talented young actor, and clearly one to watch in the coming years. He recently starred in Jonah Hill’s excellent MID90’s, but you only need to have seen his performance in God of War to know that he’s going places.
As it turns out, Suljic originally thought he was auditioning for a movie when he went in for the Atreus role, but very quickly welcomed the idea that he was about to star alongside one of the most iconic video game characters of all time.
Watching him in action in the mocap scenes as part of the documentary further cements what a versatile performer he is, and he can even do a backflip, so yeah… he’s much cooler than most of us.
In God of War, Kratos is of course played by the wonderful Christopher Judge, who came on the scene at the point where Barlog had almost given up on finding the perfect actor for the role. Much like Suljic, he was initially convinced that what he was working on wasn’t a video game – but for Jude it was because the script was so damn good.
My agent called, and I wasn’t really sold on auditioning for it. I know it sounds silly now, so I read the script and I called my agent back and I said ‘I thought you said this was a video game?’ It was literraly like the test you’d do for a TV show or movie.
Kratos’ Iconic Theme Was Basically An Accident
The music in God of War was uniformly outstanding, but special mention has to go to Kratos’ somber, epic theme. In just a few notes in manages to stir up feelings of an oncoming storm, of something ancient, and angry. As it turns out, it nearly happened by mistake
The game’s composer Bear McCreary explained that he was just “playing around with a melody” when he stumbled across a series of notes “so simple” that he jokes he “almost wrote it by accident.”
But, as McCreary reasons, Kratos is a man of few words, so it’s fitting that his theme should embody the same ethos.
The E3 2016 Demo Was Stressful For Everyone
Okay, so you probably won’t be surprised to learn that everybody at Santa Monica Studio was absolutely bricking it in the lead up to the game’s first official reveal at E3 2016. With so many changes to the established God of War formula, nobody knew how it was going to be received.
On the day of the reveal, key members of staff were in the audience, though they weren’t allowed to tell anyone they worked for Santa Monica for fear that would give the game away. As the curtain dropped and Kratos appeared on screen for the first time in years, the reaction was explosive and awe inspiring.
What followed was a lengthy gameplay demo that was actually being controlled live by Barlog himself backstage. Multiple members of the team admit in the documentary that they had no idea if each section of the demo would run properly until it did, so it was very much a white knuckle ride for all involved.
Over 3,800 Unexpected Bugs Caused The Delay
It’s rare that any project the scale and scope of God of War runs smoothly. Despite Barlog believing that the studio was absolutely on track to meet the game’s release date of March 13, 2018, one particularly hairy moment in the documentary reveals that at a time when there were supposed to be zero bugs in the database, there were just over 3,800.
After the game’s eventually release, PlayStation would upload a video documenting a number of these glitches, many of which are genuinely hilarious (check it out above). Unfortunately, when you have a deadline, discovering you have nearly 4,000 more problems to deal with than expected is probably not so funny.
At least we can all look back and laugh about them now.
Barlog Sees God of War As The Beginning Of “Many More” Games
In a particularly frank moment in the documentary, Barlog revealed that he absolutely believed that if he really, properly screwed up with God of War, then it would be the end of the franchise.
I think everybody recognises that we get one shot. If we screw this up, I don’t see us making another one. You know, this was a massive bet.
Thankfully, after another successful E3 show, with development on track for the revised April 20 release date, Barlog addressed the team in much higher spirits. After thanking everybody for their tireless work and input on what was easily the most ambitious project the studio had ever taken on, he described the last few years as a “first step” in what he hoped would be the beginning of “many, many more games.”
While he didn’t specifically say these subsequent games would be God of War titles, it’d be foolish to assume that the director wasn’t fully committed to returning to Kratos and Atreus again, especially given recent teases.
The Tree At The Start Of The Game Is A Metaphor
Towards the end of the documentary, we finally get to see the game “go gold.” As Barlog excitedly carries the disc containing the finished version of God of War over to a PlayStation 4 to test it, you can see the relief, joy, and passion on the director’s face. It’s joyous stuff.
As the game loads up and Kratos wearily rests a hand on a tree before chopping it down – you know the moment – Barlog reveals that this tree is essentially a metaphor for Santa Monica Studio’s approach to the entire game.
This tree is a metaphor for the franchise of God of War. At the very beginning of this we chop that f**ker down, so that we could chop it up, then carry it around, and then burn it.
While we see a glimpse of the video below at the end of the documentary, it’s worth the sharing the whole thing again, as I can’t think of a better piece to leave this article on.
You might have previously seen Barlog’s emotional reaction to the incredible reviews that God of War received, but after watching a two hour documentary all about the sheer amount of effort he and his team put into this game, it’s given a whole new context.
Every one at Santa Monica Studio put their heart and soul into reinventing a tired, dated franchise, and in doing so created one of the most incredible games of the last decade. They deserve every success and bit of praise that’s come their way in the past year. Here’s to the future.
Ewan Moore is a journalist at UNILAD Gaming who still quite hasn’t gotten out of his mid 00’s emo phase. After graduating from the University of Portsmouth in 2015 with a BA in Journalism & Media Studies (thanks for asking), he went on to do some freelance words for various places, including Kotaku, Den of Geek, and TheSixthAxis, before landing a full time gig at UNILAD in 2016.