The Father in You: A Conversation with Cory Barlog

img_6198Warning: This post does contain some spoilers for God of War.

 

When you become a parent for the first time, your life changes. Some of the ways are large (like financial challenges and lack of sleep), and some of them small (it will now take you 6 hours to watch a 30 minute sitcom), but no matter which form that change takes you can be certain that your life will never be the same again. One of the biggest changes is that the lens with which you view the world is refocused. Things that you used to obsess over now seem trivial, and the small moments that you didn’t give a second thought to are now some of the most important in your life. Parenthood can also have a huge effect on your career and how you view your work. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Cory Barlog, Creative Director on the biggest game of the year, God of War. We spoke about reinventing the series, how fatherhood inspired the new direction, and the difficulties of being away from your family during development.

Returning Home

Cory had made a name for himself with his work on the original God of War trilogy. He was the lead animator on the original game and game director on its sequel. He had begun work on God of War III before making the decision to leave Sony Santa Monica in 2009. He eventually joined Crystal Dynamics to work on the reboot of Tomb Raider, and he says it was towards the end of that game’s development that he began to contemplate his next move. “I was talking to the head of the studio in Santa Monica about potentially coming back and had said ‘I’ve been really sort of mulling over God of War in my head a little bit, and I think I might actually have a God of War story in my head still”.

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photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

In August of 2013 it was announced that he would be coming back to Santa Monica Studio, but returning to the world of God of War after several years away, he noticed that time had changed his perception of these characters. “When I got back to the studio, I kind of saw that everybody that I had worked with ten years ago was old. We were all old. We were all looking at the world differently.” It wasn’t just the passing of time that had changed things either, Cory and several of his team had also become parents in that time. I heard from all these people that I haven’t seen in so long, the stories of their lives up to that point. Having kids and just the things that have changed them, experiences that have formed them by that point, and I realized when my son was born in the crunch mode of Tomb Raider, when it was the last push and very difficult times all around, and I also realized how much that had affected me and changed me, and it all just sort of clicked into place in that realization that Kratos needs the ability, the opportunity to change.”

Father Figures

The new God of War would tell the story of Kratos and his young son Atreus. As the game begins Atreus’ mother has passed away, and the two of them embark on a journey to honor one of her last wishes. Cory explained that becoming a parent for the first time really impacted how he approached returning to this well established character so many years later. Specifically, the idea of teaching your children and passing down your knowledge to them really struck a chord. “(It was) my own sort of self-reflecting in the beginning of fatherhood that made me realize, wow, there’s so much going on here, right? One of the core themes was this idea behind identity of how much of our real selves do we show our children? And in my case it’s not really that big of a deal, but in Kratos’ case it’s a big deal, and that baggage specifically reflects on what he’s wanted his whole life. That if he has a son, and that son is a god, that his son never knows he’s a god, then in some ways he’s able to pass on the thing that he never got, which was ‘I just wish I never knew any of this stuff happened. It’s terrible. Again, he begins the game with really terrible fatherhood lessons, and that is the intent is that he goes through realizing the error in his sort of lessons and his ways, and he has to figure out how to step up and actually be there.”

The relationship between a father and child is at the core of God of War, and for those of us who have had complicated relationships with our fathers, there’s a lot to emotionally connect with in the game. Cory says it was his team of writers who helped to create so many moments that would resonate with players. “It is a testament to the fact that I’m working with two really good writers, Matt Sophos and Rich Gaubert, and they both have sons. So, all three of us kind of have a similar situation, and we bring different perspectives on that same situation. So, all of these little moments that sort of add up to the overall relationship are built individually by ‘Hey, this happened’ or ‘Hey, this is really interesting.'”

In some instances, Cory and his team took very specific moments from their lives and added them to story. These small moments added an authenticity to the relationship between Kratos and Atreus that helped to make it feel so real. He explained to me how one moment in particular made it into the game. “The story I tell is the wine scene that, at its root was based on ‘what are these milestones in fatherhood’? Having a beer with your dad, going on a roller coaster for the first time, seeing a fireworks display, just all of these big moments that you sort of remember, because they are the firsts that you share and in that moment, it wasn’t written for him to do the ‘Ahhh’ thing,” (referring to a moment in the game where Kratos and Atreus share a drink during a rare moment of calm.) “My son had done it the day before we were shooting, and it was just something he did, and then I did it back to him, and then he did it back to me, and we kind of just had this back and forth three or four times, and I was like ‘Oh, that’s so sweet’. Then I was on the set, and I just kind of like, oh my gosh, this is what is missing.”

It wasn’t just the type of story that he wanted to tell that was influenced by his becoming a father, he says it also in many ways changed the way in which he approached the development process. “I would say that on many days, not all days, I am a bit more measured and reflective in my decision making. I think Shannon (Head of Santa Monica Studio) had pointed it out and said ‘It has calmed you down a little bit’. So apparently I was little hyper and a little crazy at times.” The unpredictability of parenting and the sometimes chaotic nature of it all also gave Cory the freedom to let go of some preconceived notions about the process. “We spent a lot of time really just challenging other people I think, and as a director and as a writer, it was less about me understanding the characters. Even though I understood them, it took me working with a lot of other people to realize ‘Wow, I do not understand anything’ and that’s okay.”

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Atreus and Kratos

Expect the Unexpected

“I think a huge aspect of fatherhood is the fact that there’s not a friggin’ manual.” Cory saysWhich is not some revelation that’s new. It’s just more like, ‘Oh, okay cool. I don’t know what I’m doing’, and when you go home for the first time and you’re the one that puts the car seat in, and there’s this baby that’s a week old or less, and you’re going to put that baby in the car seat that you yourself installed, you have no clue what the hell you’re doing.”

Any mother or father will tell you that parenting, like creating any work of art, is a barely controlled form of chaos. Sometimes the best (and only) thing you can do is to recognize that and accept that things will not always go according to your carefully laid out plans. “There’s a true understanding of you kind of have to either give in to the universe just a little bit and recognize that, okay, things are going to be alright. People have been doing this for hundreds of years, millions of years, but what you don’t know is not a reason to stop. What you don’t know is not a reason to not move forward or doubt yourself. It’s simply to say ‘Move forward. make your mistakes. Be smart'”.

When you become a parent for the first time, many people will try to prepare by reading as many books as possible, or get advice from family and friends that have been through it already. But one thing that you’ll learn very early on is that there is no definitive roadmap for being a parent, and no amount of preparation will guide you through all of the twists and turns that life will throw at you, it’s an unpredictability that is not completely unlike creating a game he says.

“There are no two children that are the same. Every one of them comes with their own unique set of challenges, and that is, honestly, the perfect metaphor for the creative process, because every project is its own mystery box. It has its own unique set of challenges, and human beings are labryinthian hallways that you have to navigate to try to figure out how to get to the end. Because it doesn’t matter if you know that your destination is straight ahead to the north 500 miles. That will not be the path you’ll take. You will go the most acutest, winding, bizarre, unusual path, and even if you end within spitting distance of what your original destination was, it doesn’t look anything like you thought it would.”

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One Chapter Ends…

Video Game development is a notoriously demanding profession. In recent years, stories of long work hours and time away from family have become common in the industry and there’s been a fair amount of debate about developers being overworked. Cory admits that during the development of God of War it was sometimes tough to find that balance between putting everything into your work and being there for your family.

“It’s a big responsibility to do this specific job, but also in some ways, I think that I sensed this was one of those moments that I needed to put every single thing I had into it, right? That it was going to be something, I mean at least when I came in and really started processing this idea, it was something that I felt like I was going to be proud of to actually tell my son about. That I hoped that when he is older, that we can sit and play it together. It would be something that I put a lot of myself into that I actually was proud to show everybody in my family.”

Now that development is over, and he is wrapping up the promotional tour for the game, Cory says that he’s looking forward to both getting to spend more time with his family again and slowing things down a little bit. “It’s (been) totally stressful. but even more stressful is getting my wife and son back so that we are all together. There are things that we’re going to do, but I think we’ve all traveled a lot over this last half a year. So, I think we’re going to have the best stay-cation ever.” And when asked about what his next plans might be, Cory made it clear that he plans on staying put for the forseeable future. “To me, Santa Monica, I feel like it’s a part of my legacy, and I’m a part of its legacy. We are intrinsically tied together, and I really do feel like what we’ve done is take step one of many.”

As our conversation came to a close, I gave Cory a moment to do what every parent loves to do, brag about their child. I asked, if he could single out just one moment, what would be the one thing that he has been the most proud of when it comes to his son and being a father.

“It was the first time he ever told me he loved me, and the first time he said it was really amazing and hit me like a ton of bricks. I just broke down at that point. It was really amazing and it ended up affecting me so much that there is a moment in the game which initially there was silence, and it was like ‘Oh, I think this is the time he needs to say that he loves his mother’. It is such an impactful moment for me that I was like ‘All right, well, I think it’s really good’, and we put it in and it’s actually for me, again, every time I play it I get to that moment and I just sob uncontrollably, because it is such a strong memory for me.”


There’s much more of our conversation with Cory Barlog! Look for the entire audio version of the interview soon on an upcoming episode of Mega Dads Live!

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‘God of War’ art by Adam Leonhardt

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