There are many characteristics that make Santa Monica Studios’ new God of War game different than any other. But the most obvious of them is the introduction of Kratos’ son Atreus, who accompanies his father on a trying and treacherous pilgrimage to the top of a mountain where they plan to scatter the ashes of his deceased mother.
The father-and-son dynamic between Kratos and Atreus is a central to both the plot and the gameplay in the new God of War, and it’s partially inspired by creative director Cory Barlog’s real parenting experiences.
In the new God of War, launching on April 20 for the PlayStation 4, Kratos is learning what it means to be a father — a gradual process that occurs over the course of the story. Kratos is distant, reserved, and short tempered in the beginning, but he slowly opens up to Atreus. Knowing where to start with Kratos’ character was particularly difficult, says creative Barlog, since it would set the pace for the rest of the game. “That was kind of our Rosetta Stone,” he says. “Once we found that, we built everything off of that.”
Having a young son of his own, Barlog says it could be assumed that Kratos is based in part on himself. But he also gleaned some important ideas about how to build Kratos’ character by observing the ways in which his wife manages parenting’s many challenges. Barlog points to one story in particular that provided a breakthrough for developing the right tone for Kratos, who came off as being too mean in early drafts of the game. “My son gets very fixated on the order of things,” says Barlog. For example, his now 5-year-old son would get upset if Barlog or his wife did something as simple as putting on a pair of pants when he wasn’t in the room, because he felt like he had to be there to do it first. “We had a moment where my wife was a little frustrated,” he says. “She sort of yelled a little bit and then stopped, took a breath, and said: ‘Look, you have to understand that this is the order of things,'” he says.
That seemingly minor interaction gave Kratos’s personality a crucial component that it was lacking. “The stopping and the pausing to take a breath, that sort of thing shows that the person that explodes and gets angry is making some sort of effort and they’re conscious of it,” he says. “That’s Kratos. He’s not very good at it yet but he’s making an effort.”
Although Kratos is the father figure, it becomes evident throughout the game that he often relies on Atreus for help. Atreus, for example, deciphers important markings that Kratos can’t read which are often necessary for advancing to the next step in the game. There’s a language gap in Barlog’s own family, too. He tells me about how he and his wife, who is Swedish, would read their son bedtime stories before putting him to sleep. Barlog would read one line of the story in English, while his wife would read the next sentence in Swedish. When it was Barlog’s turn to read, the child would often say “Papa” and point to the next line. Barlog recalls one evening in which his son turned to him while his wife was still reading in Swedish and continued to point. “[It] was kind of like, ‘Hey man, you really need to get it together,'” he says. “I thought that was cute that he was very aware that daddy is a terrible Swedish language speaker.”
Barlog borrowed from his other life experiences in a more straightforward manner. There’s a scene during an early portion of God of War in which Kratos and Atreus meet a witch. Oversharing in a truly childlike fashion, Atreus says something to the effect of: “Father doesn’t like people either,” when the witch mentions being reclusive. “That line is pulled directly from my wife,” says Barlog. “Every time we meet new people she likes to tell them right away that I don’t like people.”
Throughout the development process, Barlog drew inspiration from the stories and experiences of his colleagues in addition to his own, although not all of these insights ended up in the final game. A story shared by one of the game’s producers about coercing his children into completing their chores was particularly interesting to Barlog when it came to developing Atreus’ mannerisms and behaviors. When the producer would repeatedly ask his children to complete a routine task like cleaning their room or taking their dinner plate to the sink, they would sometimes yell and act out before calmly following instructions. “It was just out of frustration,” says Barlog. “And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.'”
Barlog initially gave Atreus a moment like this in the beginning of the game when he doesn’t correctly follow Kratos’ instructions while learning how to hunt. In an earlier version of the game, Atreus would scream at his father at the end of the scene in which Kratos says the line, “Only fire when I tell you to fire.” “We had it in there for a while,” says Barlog. “It ended up being one of those things were more and more people [said] it’s breaking the flow of everything, so let’s just remove it.”
Ultimately, the relationship between Atreus and Kratos is important for more than just storytelling, says Barlog. It’s also essential to God of War’s underlying message. “Feeling emotion is not inherently a sign of weakness,” he says. “If anyone walks away with anything from this game, I hope it be that.”