God of War 2018 shook up the franchise dramatically – as both 2018's director Cory Barlog and God of War Ragnarok's Director Eric Williams put it, that game tore the house down to its studs, only so they could build it back up again.
That radical reimaging of what Kratos' journey could be is one Barlog directed and shepherded through to its acclaimed launch, and though he had grand plans for the series, as he told us in our God of War spoilercast, he isn't directing Ragnarok. Williams, a veteran of the franchise who has been involved with it in some form or another since 2004 across many of its entries, is now sitting in the director's chair. In speaking with both Barlog and Williams following Ragnarok's first gameplay reveal, though, it's clear not only how integral Williams has been to the entirety of this new era of God of War, and how much he understands the responsibility of leading the charge.
"I've been with the studio a long time, this franchise means everything to me. I've worked on a lot of different games at a lot of different studios, and there were only a few that really felt like they could be home once I was done consulting and wandering around the landscape of video games," Williams told IGN. "It just happened to line up that 2018 was very successful. [Before that], we had a little bit of a rough spot with the studio and this was like, 'We're going to come back, rebuild it strong again, and have a good foundation for the future.
"I've worked with every director on the franchise in a different capacity. I worked with Cory as an animation lead. I worked with David Jaffe as a director. I worked with Todd Papy as a level designer. I worked with Stig as an artist. And with Ru [Weerasuriya] and Dana [Jan] at Ready at Dawn in different capacities. Learning from each one of them, to me it's just doing right by everyone that's come before me and taking the franchise in the right direction. You don't want to be that director that sends it off the rails. A lot of big franchises this can happen with, and so I just want to pay respect to what we've done in the past and still try to keep it fresh for the future at the same time."
For Barlog, the transition to Williams as director has its roots in how closely the two worked together when God of War 2018 was taking shape. In fact, Barlog credits Williams with really pushing him and the team to go as far as they did with the foundational changes and updates to the game.
"When Cory and I sat down and first talked about , he was like, 'Well, we're going to tear the house down to the studs.' I was like, 'What does that really mean?' We went back and forth on whether some things were just sacred.
And I was like, 'Well, if we're going to do it, we have to do all of it.' We got to those places where it was, no blades, no jump, new camera, companion, all that," Williams said.
"I remember that point when we were talking about ripping everything down to the studs," Barlog said, offering his take on that time. "Everything I've ever worked on with Eric, Eric is the sounding board and also the boundary limit testing, where I didn't want to say to him, 'I want to take all of it out and then I want to re-examine it and choose the things that work and figure out how to build them.' I was like, 'Oh, we'll keep some stuff,' just to see how his reaction was. And his reaction was 'Well that's dumb. You should absolutely just take it all out.'"
Barlog and Williams' camaraderie comes through as they both reminisce about this moment, Barlog recalling how much trust they had in one another by how frank and honest they could be.
"Either we're really bad for each other or in this instance, we are really good for each other in the sense that we push each other beyond our comfort level," Barlog said.
A Directorial Transition
That push resulted in IGN's Game of the Year winner of 2018, Santa Monica Studio's new God of War. At the time, Barlog spoke at the time of thoughts surrounding the story specifically told in that game, and so I was curious about how he and Williams addressed letting the latter take the reins, and what, if any of Barlog's original intent, was kept in the plans for the sequel now that Barlog was no longer directing.
"There was a lot of discussion in the beginning. A lot of me wanting to understand where his head was at, what was interesting to him," Barlog said. "There are obviously certain things where I'm like, 'Okay, I really want these things. They're laid out in the chronology and the timeline and I have some plans and then some hopes and desires.'"
But Barlog made it clear it wasn't as if he had demands for how Williams' vision needed to play out. He genuinely wanted Williams' take on things, and simply asked him to respect the storytelling that had come before, which of course Barlog had full confidence in him to do.
"It was much more of, 'What are the things that are interesting to you? Where is the true north of where you want to go? And then in doing so, if you choose to not want to do any of these things [we created], totally awesome. Just don't destroy what those things are. Either ignore them, move around them, but keep them somewhat in place so that we can build this larger latticework of what everything is.'"
And for Barlog, once he understood where Williams wanted to take things, and how it was built from a similar shared interest in exploring the emotional, relatable core of this story, he felt confident in what the future held.
"[When Eric landed on] 'This is what you're going to feel, and this is the conflict that exists between these two characters, but the details and the specifics of all of that are not known.' In my mind, [those specifics] didn't really matter because they're all driven by the engine of that idea. And [his take] was so solid that I was like, 'All right. Yeah, we're good. I have nothing left to teach you Padawan.' So then I just sort of took a nap for about two years."
Which would certainly explain why Barlog had never heard of it all this time.
Barlog and Williams both said that, when it came to specifics, there were only three core things Barlog asked Williams for – and no, of course they didn't spoil what those things were. Williams thought those aspects lined up with his vision as well, though he was open and frank about how, following that discussion, the path forward wasn't always an easy one, but the two trusted each other's creative process thanks to their history together.
"There were tough times, I'll be straight up honest, where he was like, 'Hey, I think you're messing this part up. Look at it again.' And I'd be like, 'Okay, f**k you.' And I'd walk out of the office and then come back like 10 minutes later and be like, 'God damn it. You're right. Let me go look at that,'" Williams said. 'Then other times he'd be like, 'Hey, I thought about that thing again. Maybe don't put as much stock into that as I was saying.'
"That's the good thing about the creative process and having somebody you can bounce off and be very fast with. We can be very off the cuff. Back in the old days, we'd probably argue to the point where people were like, 'Are they going to kill each other?' And then we go to lunch, literally five minutes later, we'd go to lunch together."
Back in those old days, the two, amusingly, mentioned they had an outlet as well – playing competitive fighting games like Marvel vs. Capcom 2 with one another.
Finding Williams' Truth in God of War
Williams further elaborated on how, as he was trying to discover his in and what interested him most about taking on this sequel, he held onto a piece of advice Barlog gave him.
"One of [Cory's] best pieces of advice early on about this was, 'You've got to find your way in. If you can't, then we have to have a different discussion,'" Williams said. "I was already a little, 'Oh shit, this is scaring me a little bit.' But it's when you're uncomfortable, that's when you can do your best stuff because you're ready to grow. Finding the way in was tough. Once I jettisoned what I thought people wanted it to be, it was like, 'Okay, well what do I think is right for it?'"
What was right for Williams was an exploration of trust in relationships, particularly centered around Kratos and Atreus, but extending out into the wider cast, including characters like Freya, Thor, and more.
"There's something that happens in boxing a lot. You'll have this very, very skilled young boxer and his father is his trainer, his coach, his manager, his everything. And it gets to a point where the kid is so good that it's time to go pro, right? That's where the promoters and all this stuff starts to come in and wants to pull him this way, and the dad's like, 'Stay with me. We'll do this right, you'll be champ forever. You go over there, they're going to send you to the wolves, you're going to get knocked out,'" Williams explained.
"And Kratos has this mindset. It's like, 'There'll be a time for this, but now is not the time. We don't need to go pick a fight. Let's just grow and be together and have this time.' But the kid, being young, wants to go, right? That young boxer wants to get out there, wants his title shot."
So what Williams is after with this new chapter in their story, is understanding, exploring, and giving validation to both those perspectives, and hopefully offering players something to connect with in turn.
"Atreus' got two names. He's already split by default, right? And I think those are really interesting things as you start to grow because, I'm sure as you remember, you get to a certain age in high school and it's like, 'Do I want to be this person? Or do I want to? Do I want to try on this personality this year?' You don't know who you are yet," Williams explained.
"Somebody that's already grown, they can sympathize with that, but they're also like, 'Oh man, you're going to make a lot of bad mistakes that I could tell you about. But me telling you is just going to make you make them more, I got to just let you do it. But I also don't want to watch that happen.' So that's kind of what Kratos is going through."
"It's so beautiful. The truth in each of their perspectives, that sense of if the kid had just listened to his dad, he's going to have that career. But there's that little paranoia inside the kid that, 'Is he holding me back because he doesn't want to let me go?' And while the father can always have that well-meaning, there's never a way for him to fully know," Barlog elaborated. "Each one of them has a pretty valid point…there is no clear-cut right answer ever."
Wanting to explore such emotionally complex ground in any medium, let alone an interactive one, is never easy, and Williams wasn't coy about how difficult it could sometimes be to find the right balance of things, and wanted to do right by the work Barlog and the wider team, including Williams, had done previously.
"I feel like if we do the job that I hope that we do, it'll only enhance the previous game. And the previous game, when you go deeper, will enhance this game, when you start to see little connections made," Williams said. "I know some people always want it to be a completely brand new game. That is a difficult task to undertake. This one is an evolution of what we've made, something that sits beside it."
And players will have a chance to see for themselves just how God of War Ragnarok complements its predecessor when the sequel hits PS4 and PS5 in 2022.
Jonathon Dornbush is IGN's Senior Features Editor, PlayStation Lead, and host of Podcast Beyond! He's the proud dog father of a BOY named Loki. Talk to him on Twitter @jmdornbush.