Interview: Santa Monica Studios’ Aaron Kaufman on the new God of War

aaron kaufman - santa monica studios

Earlier this week we brought you a hands-on preview for God of War, Santa Monica Studios’ revived juggernaut and PlayStation’s most prolific release for 2018. The event was hosted here in Singapore, and there to talk about the game was Aaron Kaufman, Santa Monica’s senior online community strategist.

Kaufman is the guy in charge of all the teasers and content we’ve been seeing up till now. He handles social media, crafts content strategies, and dabbles in all of the other licensing and relationship work that goes on behind-the-scenes. In short, he’s a well-connected member of the Santa Monica family, and he graciously took some time to answer our questions.

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God of War is appearing in a very late stage of the PlayStation 4 console cycle. Were there any deliberations to launch the game earlier? Maybe as a console launch title?

Aaron Kaufman: I think after we finished developing God of War III, or after God of War: Ascension, we really wanted to take a step back and rethink about where Kratos was going to go next, and that takes time. And one of the things PlayStation is the best at is giving their developers time to make the right game.

There was no deliberate reason, whether it’s coincidental or not, that maybe we’re nearing kind of the latter half of the PlayStation 4 cycle. So there was no deliberate timing on our part to be either in the beginning, the middle, or the end. The deliberate timing was, “Give us the right amount of time to make the game that we want.” And, you know, that was in the order of more than four years.

Can you please share the reasons why you’re using the Norse mythology this time?

There are a couple of reasons. One is Cory Barlog, who’s our Creative Director, really felt with the team that Norse offered the richest universe in characters and environments. Norse history is filled with a lot of incredible stories between the gods and Thor, and Brokk and Sindri, and all these weapons. And there’s the Aesir, and the Vanir, and their first war, and there’s just so many different ways that God of War could intersect that.

And I think on the, kind of the environmental front, Norse mythology is set in a very cold, and dangerous, and dark place in Scandinavia. It was very important to us that Kratos went somewhere where it felt like he could be isolated, and he doesn’t really know that he’s in the land of Norse gods and monsters. He’s kind of encountering a lot of these things for the first time. And Atreus, knowing the language because he was taught how to read runes by his mother, he’s translating the world for him. So even the Stranger that Kratos encounters at the beginning of the game, he’s never seen him before. He doesn’t know who this man is. So I think those are the really the reasons that led us to Norse.

We looked at Egyptian. We looked at Mayan. We looked at all kinds of mythologies, and one thing that’s nice, too, is those mythologies exist still, you know? Wherever it is in Cory’s head that he wants to go in the future remains to be seen.

Was it easy transitioning from Greek to Norse mythology?

I think it was easy because we almost got to start from scratch, right? We acknowledged the core mechanics of a God of War game that we built in the Greek era, which probably more than anything was the combat, just how smooth it is and how it flows. I mean, you’ve played it and I think you get a sense of that.

Something that’s a hallmark of God of War games is that larger-than-life feel, you know? The first time you encounter the Colossus of Rhodes or the battle with Poseidon, those are – every written story about the greatest moments in gaming, those come up, and we want there to be moments like that in the Norse version of this.

So I think the team had a lot of ambitious ideas at the beginning that have seen the light here, in the way the Leviathan Axe works, in the camera not cutting away in and out the whole game. These were things that made going into Norse very challenging because we wanted to fundamentally change the game, but still keep it feeling like a God of War game.

Cory Barlog has stated in a few interviews that the game would ditch Quick Time Events (or QTEs). Why is that so?

I think we feel like QTEs were something that God of War arguably brought to the genre and it was used in a lot of other action-adventure games. And I think for us to continue to do that probably is a step backwards, keeping us grounded in the past when we want to evolve. So, from a mechanical standpoint, that played a role.

But even just from an emotional standpoint, we didn’t really want the player to lose control. Sure, there’s moments where you see the troll being decimated or an enemy’s head being cut off, but right before that split second, you have full control and that was very important to us. We wanted everything to just feel grounded in plausibility, in realism, keeping the brutal violence. But removing the QTE was, by and large, a design choice that we felt needed to happen to push our game forward, not keep us stuck in the past, and not take control away from the player.

The first God of War came out in 2005. 13 years and many games later, Kratos has aged; so have members of the development team in Santa Monica Studios, as well as the God of War fanbase. Is this game sort of like a mirror reflection of that?

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. It absolutely is. Bruno Velazquez, who is our principal animator, made this great analogy saying that God of War used to be developed during our college years. It was all about being loud, and partying, and, “Let’s do whatever we want and make the biggest, flamboyant action game.” And now we’ve grown. We’re more mature. We’re wiser. We’re making more informed and strategic decisions.

I think there is a “why” to this game more than any other God of War game, right? Like Kratos has a purpose. He has a why. There’s a story here that keeps you invested, wants to keep you pushing forward.

And for us as developers at Santa Monica, my son was born during the development of this game. He’s two-and-a-half years old. The game was in production at that point. There were so many babies born [laughter] during this game’s development. There are so many of us that are parents and that have been with the studio for a long time. A huge chunk of the original God of War team is still here. We all used to be younger, and now we’re older, and we’re parents. Santa Monica as a studio has grown, and you will see the parallel of Kratos and his son going on this journey. Breaking into a new era is absolutely parallel to where we are as a studio today.

How will the God of War franchise move on? Are we going to see the end of the Kratos storyline, and see Atreus taking up the mantle in future games?

I think for this game we are laser-focused on their journey together. Where they go, when they get to the end of this journey, is something we really want people to discover. Atreus is going to grow.

What’s interesting is that there’s not a day and night cycle in our game. We don’t really tell you how many hours passed by – it took you 25 to 35 hours to get there because you played the game that long [laughter], but we don’t say how much time has actually passed. He will look and feel the same exact age when you get to the end, but he will be so much more grown-up as a warrior. He is going to encounter a lot of dangers.

As much as their mission is about getting to the top of that mountain, they’re on this dangerous road. They have never ventured out into the world. Atreus has never been beyond the protective stave that his mother put there to shield him from the dangers. So, every step he takes, he’s discovering something new, as is Kratos in many ways. I think fans are going to love it.

The game is structured as a journey from point A to B, but exploration is one of the game’s key pillars. Will there be any backtracking to earlier areas to find things that you’ve missed?

There will be mechanics in the game that enable you to back travel. I think this section of the game that you’re playing – you get a sense of the exploration to kind of veer off the path. There are things later in the game that are going to enable you to explore other realms, to back travel to other realms. How you do that with the boats and the different mechanics at hand is something that we want to leave as a surprise.

But yes, we wanted to make a game that is not open-world, but that is wide enough that players can discover, and collect, and make sure that they Platinum (Ed: Trophies achievers here). That’s very important to the team from an exploration standpoint, because you need to craft, you need to harvest resources, you need to get Hacksilver and XP, and you need to discover all 12 triptychs and all of Atreus’ toys, and so we make sure in the game that you’re able to do that.

Will we get to read more, understand more, about what happened at the end of the previous game? The time difference between God of War III and now?

No, and I think that was a very deliberate choice. We are kind of taking for granted that God of War fans who finished God of War III, they don’t really need to know what happened between then and right now. Because it’s very evident from the very first frame, just by the way Kratos looks and the way he’s engaging with his son, it’s very well implied that he is tired. He’s worn out.

Now we’re running this campaign called the Lost Pages where we’re telling a lot about the backstory, about the origins of the Leviathan Axe. We’re telling the story of the first time Atreus went into the woods and got in some danger. We have a comic book that we’re doing with Dark Horse that talks about how Kratos learned to deal with his anger in a very precarious situation. And all these things start to kind of fill in that backspace.

But at the end of the day, we want to keep players looking forward. And that is really the theme of the game, looking forward, looking at a better day tomorrow. That’s how Kratos is looking. He’s not forgetting his past. He knows it. It’s there in the back of his head, and he wears it on his shoulder. And that’s very, very, very important. Nobody learns and grows without acknowledging their past. And we think God of War fans will be just fine with that.

Are there any Easter eggs or hints to his past within the game?

I would say the only Easter egg I’ll tell you is the one that we’ve already shown, which is in a former trailer. Kratos is in what looks to be a treasure room and he’s holding up a vase, and he sees a reflection: a painting of himself holding the blades. That’s obviously in many ways a nostalgic throwback to fans, a little like, “Hello, everybody.” But I think again, we’re really focused on creating a new universe. And the nostalgia in this game is really just about the spirit of Kratos more than anything, that he’s still strong and heroic, and the axe feels as powerful as any past God of War game weapon you’ve ever had.

One of the more visceral touches to the earlier God of War games are the souls you collect from chests and monsters. Now we have Hacksilver. Why the change?

So Hacksilver is essentially our virtual currency in the game. It’s what you use when you go to Brokk and Sindri’s shop to upgrade your weapons and your armors. I think it just goes back to that idea of what’s plausible in this world. Hacksilver, to the team, felt like something that could really exist, that it was physical. You could feel it. You could touch it.

The souls in the Greek era felt very spiritual and magical, and they belonged in that era. So I think for the team it’s like, “What feels right in this universe?” and not, “Let’s just bring past God of War elements over here.” We still let you bash a chest with your fists, so like— I think we posted a GIF on social not that long ago where we showed that Kratos can still break chests. He can’t break a door open, but he can break a chest [laughter].

The first God of War had a controversial way of regaining and increasing health — you know, the sex scenes stuff. Obviously, we don’t get that in this game, so how far have things matured in terms of content? That was done deliberately, right?

It’s very deliberate that we don’t have the mini-games from the past in this one. But it’s not really from a standpoint of what’s more mature or not, or what’s controversial or not. It’s from a standpoint of what belongs in this universe. What would Kratos and Atreus truly encounter in this new Norse mythology world that they’re in? From a design standpoint, from a story standpoint, they just have no place here. It just didn’t feel right. We didn’t want to just bring past elements into this game just for shock value.

There’s clearly lore in finding the triptychs, but are there any gameplay benefits in finding all of them?

Yeah. There are no gameplay benefits behind it directly, but if you collect them all you do get some bonus XP. You get an award at the end that adds to your resources. So the reward is there, you don’t get new skills and abilities by finding the 12 shrines, but if you explore through the UI, and I encourage you to, you’ll see that as you collect things – all of Atreus’ toys, the shrines – all those things add up in different ways to unlocking XP, unlocking abilities, things of that nature.

I think the main takeaway is that there’s nothing in the game that’s throwaway. There’s absolutely nothing in the game that doesn’t have a purpose and a reason for being there that leads to something else. And that’s probably one of the most important things about the game.

Thank you.

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God of War releases worldwide for the PS4 on 20 April.

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Aaron Yip

Aaron Yip

Aaron Yip is an industry veteran with more than 15 years of experience. When not spending time on his gaming PC and consoles, he can be found in Hyrule solving ungodly puzzles and collecting gems.