Power and Pathos: Previewing God of War III

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Since the days of antiquity, scaling Mount Olympus has been a metaphor for doing something beyond the abilities of mere mortals. Borne on the back of the Titan Gaia, Kratos–the God of War series’ brutal anti-hero–starts off the upcoming PS3 game by doing just that. Climbing Olympus symbolizes both the accomplishment of achievement and the enormity of ambition that Sony’s Santa Monica Studio faced while building GOWIII. The last game served as a high point in the last days of the PS2 and expectations have been running high for the angry Spartan’s final reckoning with the gods.

Last Wednesday, Sony held a preview event for God of War III that allowed members of the press to play the early moments of the game. The game opens with a sweeping fly-through of Olympus as Zeus rallies his fellow deities. With Helios, Hades, Hermes and Poseidon listening, the speech by the King of the Gods centers on the peace and prosperity his reign has brought to Greece. But, instead, he comes off as a pompous, self-serving jerk who deserves Kratos’ wrath. Aside from Zeus’ ego, the other thing that strikes you is the enlarged sense of scale of GOWIII’s world. The Titans are enormous yet they reel in pain from the mortal-sized gods’ attacks. There’s chaos all around as gods throw themselves at Titans and you really get the sense that you’re in the middle of a massive mythological war.

When I finally got to play the game, the familiar fluidity of God of War’s combat came right back to me. That’s especially impressive considering that I really hadn’t played as Kratos since GOWII. (And, no, I’m not counting the time I spent playing with him on the Soulcalibur: Broken Destiny PSP game.)  The levels I ran through had Kratos facing off against the usual undead soldiers on Gaia’s body while giant sea creatures summoned by Poseidon try to her off of Olympus’ cliff face. If that sounds like a lot going on, it is. At one point, Gaia’s arm gets wrenched awkwardly by a sea monster and the camera zooms out and flips upside down to find Kratos climbing across. Scads of grunts and a few more giant seahorse/crab things show up and get smacked down as the level continues. The platforming elements really show off the size of the levels as Kratos swings across vast expanses of sky to go from point to point. A fight with a centaur ends with a bloody disemboweling so detailed that you can see individual entrails. At the end of Kratos and Poseidon’s throwdown, you gouge the sea god’s eyes out by clicking in the left and right analog sticks. Seeing that happen actually made me gasp in surprise and made clear that the level of violence in GOW III will be more gory and more personal than in previous games.

As I talked to members of the development team, I got the sense that the development team feels like the type of game they’re building–a solo action/adventure title with no shooting and no multiplayer–is an endangered species. Game Director Stig Asmussen said he was just glad to see a game like Bayonetta get made, given that it’s not in the genre that tends to rule the sales charts these days. I got the chance to speak with Asmussen and other members of the dev team. Below, you’ll find their thoughts on Kratos’ evolution, how the PS3’s capabilities changes the way the God of War story unfolds.

What does the power of the PS3 enable you to do that you couldn’t do before?

Sam Caterson, senior producer: In terms of how far we’ve come… the quick answer is that an in-game model there! [points at menu screen] That’s the graphical progress. With that, there’s so many different things you can do on the tech side and the design side. All those different elements push each other. 99% of the cinematic sequences now you see are in-game. Before, the cinematic sequences had a very distinct style that stood apart from the gameplay. We’re able now to make those sequences. I think from a game experience point-of-view that’s hugely important because it doesn’t break the illusion for the player. The player doesn’t get the opportunities to put the controller down and get a drink. I don’t want to sound like I’m drinking the Kool-Aid here. When the cinematics start, you can tell that you’re not controlling the game anymore. But at any minute, it might snap back to gameplay.

That’s huge. I guess the negative side of it from a narrative standpoint would be that there aren’t these kind of convenient breaks for people to say, “I wanna stop playing the game and go and do something else.” Now, it’s more like, “I wanna see what’s going on next!” From a developer standpoint, that’s exactly what I want. I don’t want them to put the controller down; I don’t want them to get to Chapter Twelve and say, “Okay… going to bed now.” I want the response of “Oh, God, it’s 3 AM and I’ve gotta go to work tomorrow but I need to find out what’s next.” That’s my goal.

Bruno Velasquez, lead in-game animator: Now we’re able to create a lot more detailed characters. We use the same models for the cinematics as we do for the in-game action; there’s no difference between them. We can really get the camera close to Kratos’ face. Before maybe the model didn’t hold up quite as well, that’s why we had to do pre-rendered cinematics in the game. Whereas, now, the model holds up well enough to be in the cinematics.

What does this add to the experience in terms of storytelling?

BV: I feel like it takes away this disconnect that we had before. It used that you’d be controlling Kratos and then all of a sudden you go to this hi-res pretty cinematic where you could obviously tell that it wasn’t the same model of the same Kratos. Even though the pre-rendered cinematics were good for the storytelling experience, now I think the ability to use in-game models for these big moments in the story creates a more seamless experience. Because you’re seeing him look the same way in the cinematics, you really feel like you’re controlling the same Kratos.

Were there things you wanted to do on previous God of War games but couldn’t and are able to do now?

BV: In terms of specifics, it’d have to be the Titans. In God of War II, there’s a scene in which you landed on Atlas, one of the Titans. He was more of a level or a set-piece unto himself. He was chained to the world and was more of a level that you ran on. Now, we can have the whole Titan move.

So it’s more of a mix between a living, breathing character and an backdrop environment?

BV: As you can see in the opening sequences on Gaia, the Titans can emote and articulate. In God of War II, if you zoomed out the camera on the Atlas levels, you’d see that Atlas was a fully modeled character. Now we’re able to animate these massive characters even while Kratos and other smaller ones are fighting on them.

That’s a pretty big evolutionary jump.

SC: In terms of how we tell the story and the elements we use to tell it, in God of War I, we used a lot of lengthy hi-res cinematics. In God of War II, it was still a lot of cinematics but we used more in-game cinematics. For this game, we’re using almost entirely in-game cinematics. How that changes the storytelling is that structurally, financially and execution-wise, it doesn’t make sense to have a whole bunch of hi-res cinematics, broken up by big 20-minute chunks of gameplay. The analogy I think I can make is that we’re telling the same kind of story but with different pacing in smaller chunks. The technology allows us to do that.

So, as far as story, do you think you’re getting where you need to go faster?

SC: We’re getting where we need to go with more gameplay in-between. Instead of going “five-minute cinematic/20 minutes of gameplay/ five-minute cinematic,” we’re going “30-second cinematic/gameplay/30-second cinematic.” It’s spread out more.

Does that mean the differential between these two elements–cinematic and gameplay–is less meaningful now for you guys?

SC: The differential’s less meaningful because the technology allows us to do more. The reason we used hi-res cinematics in God of War I was because, say, we need to have a lightning bolt come out of the sky and disintegrate something. We couldn’t do that and really make it look good using the in-game engine. And we want it to look really good, to drive a point home. We can do that now without taking the player out of the moment as much. In I, it was “fight three guys and watch a three-minute cinematic of the lightning bolt” With III, it’s “fight five guys and do a quick sequence with the lightning bolt” without having to change the camera angle that the player was already fighting in. Same scenarios but the technology’s allowing us to change things up.

We could have done those things like the lightning bolt but not at the quality we wanted. It wouldn’t have looked the way we wanted it to. And part of the idea of wanting it to look a certain way is wanted to things to be impactful in the story. So, take something like the look on Kratos’s face when he kills his wife. We could’ve done that with the in-game model we had back then, but it didn’t have any joints in the face because we couldn’t do that. We couldn’t blend the textures to get the brows to crinkle… It wouldn’t have been very emotional at all. So we had to do a hi-res version to get all that. Now, on PS3, the character on the home screen has 20 to 30 joints in the face alone. And he’s got blended texture maps on top of that. When his brows crinkle, that’s done by the textures morphing into one another. So, overall, we can get a lot more emotive in-game than we could before.

Will Kratos be going through more of an emotional wringer because you can animate it better?

SC: He’s always gone through the emotional wringer! From the very beginning, we wanted to make a great action game but with a story that was impactful and meaningful. We didn’t want anyone to be able to dismiss the story, where they couldn’t pay attention to it and not have a lesser experience.

What’s changed about Kratos over these three games?

Stig Asmussen, game director: He’s actually gotten angrier. He’s been messed around with so much and he’s just getting madder and madder. Other than that, not that much has changed with him. What you’ll see in God of War III is what he thinks about the manipulations. We’re gonna dig a little into his head and things that happened in the first game are gonna have relevance to this one. And Kratos talks a lot more in this one.

The Greeks used myths to understand the world…

SC: Christians do, too. So do Muslims. I don’t think there’s a religion out there that doesn’t.

True, but I meant we have more scientific knowledge now. In those days, Helios stood for the sun, Poseidon for the sea and Aphrodite for love. What do you think Kratos represents?

SC: For me, I think that changed with each game. In the first one, Kratos represents the classic flawed hero. He screwed the pooch in the worst way possible by killing my family and, not only will the world make him atone for it, he’s going to make himself atone for it. God of War II changed it to where Kratos found someone he could be pissed at with Zeus as his father figure. God of War I focused on Kratos, II shifted the focus to the world around him. In God of War III, we’ve made the conscious effort to return the focus to Kratos and we delve into his mind.

In Greek tragedy, the tragic hero has a hand in his own fate. Is Kratos less sympathetic if he were to be understood that way?

SA: You’re talking about hubris…?

Exactly.

SA: Well, that’s what we learned in God of War I. His fatal flaw is the fact that he wants to be the best on the battlfield. He blindly gives up everything for his need for victory and his need for power. He was warned by the Oracle in that game. She basically tells him, “You go in there and you’re f***ed.” And he does it and winds up killing his family.  The whole thing’s been designed to follow a Greek tragedy. The gods turned him into a monster and the monster that they’ve created is coming after them.

You guys have obviously ramped up the considerations of scale in the game. Did you develop any tricks to keep players from losing sight of Kratos on the screen?

There’s one thing we have to take in account that a movie doesn’t: it’s one thing to make sure your eyes can still focus on an object; it’s another to make sure someone can still control that object. We make sure to always use establishing shots and we push in the camera so you can see what’s happening up close.

Speaking of camera angles, the finale of the fight with Poseidon is in the first person but is from Poseidon’s perspective. What was behind that decision?

SA: Power. It lets you know it feels like to get your ass kicked by the most vicious guy around.

It’s a striking choice in terms of where it places the player. The obvious move seems like it would be to put the character that the player’s controlling in the first-person view…

SA: We didn’t want to do the obvious thing there. We wanted to flip it around. A lot of the game is about shifting perspectives. That level starts and Kratos is a speck on Gaia’s shoulder but when that fight with Poseidon comes around, he’s the one who’s filling up the screen.

Look for more on God of War III over the next two weeks.

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