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Making Kratos More Human

October 8, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

In the latest God of War game, Ascension, the protagonist, Kratos, is human. It tells the story of his rise to power -- and in this interview, lead designer Mark Simon talks to Gamasutra about the challenge of approaching a character that got almost too powerful, too unpleasant, too inhuman -- and making him a man again.

How do you pace a game, and its story, to make players feel both the lows and highs?

It's also the first game in the series to feature multiplayer, and there are challenges to that, too. What tricks do designers let themselves get away with? How do you keep players from exploiting only the most effective attacks? Simon weighs in on that too.

Obviously, the God of War series is very violent. Is it part of the game design? Is it actually integral to the way the game plays, and the way the players interact with it?

Mark Simon: I think it's integral to the game. And the reason why I think it's integral to the game is... I'm very simple-minded, but in terms of Kratos as a person, and who he is, one of the things I've learned early on at the studio is that Kratos is visceral, and he is brutal, and that's how he interacts with everything, and that's part of what makes him alpha.

If he didn't interact in that way, it wouldn't feel like him as a character. So, essentially, you take him out of character, by having him not interact with things in that fashion. So, as far as his interaction with the rest of the design I feel that it is integral to him.

And we recently had various people come and talk to us about these sorts of things... I wasn't a member of the original God of War team; I got there at the end of God of War 1, beginning of God of War II. And when I played God of War 1, the thing that I learned about the character was that he was this tortured hero that had this checkered past. And he did some horrible things that he really, really regretted, and he really wanted to take it out on the god that signed him up for this deal, and the god had a plan for him and that's why he went through what he did.

And when we started the game that we're working on right now, that's what we wanted to return the story of the hero about -- what would happen to a person that was put in that situation? It's a crazy situation that he's put in. Let's go back to that time.

And the thing I've tried to push is, if you look at Kratos as the monster in God of War III, because there's nobody else but the monsters you're interacting with to show how monstrous they were. And it sounds stupid, but it really means something to say, "That guy was just a statue worker," and he saw that creature, and, "Holy shit!" and then he ran away, and the creature was bloodthirsty, and went after him, and tried to slay him.

And Kratos, in 1, was running towards the town square when all the creatures were chasing all the people away, and he's running straight into it to go fight those creatures. And that, I think, gives you a different impression of the creatures. I think that gives you a different impression of Kratos. Kratos in that instance becomes... He's more of a hero; he's doing something heroic. It might be to his own ends, but he's doing something heroic.

And by the end of III, maybe he wasn't -- and maybe it was the design that Stig [Asmussen, director] was going for, that he wanted him to feel like more of a monster in the end -- but in this game, we don't want him to feel like a monster. We want him to feel like he's more heroic, and what he's doing is more heroic, and something you can relate to.

Is that a response to criticism, or is that just a response to the natural evolution of the story? Or giving players something you think is more satisfying? Where does that come from?

MS: It's definitely not a response to criticism, but it is a response to the direction. So [God of War: Ascension director] Todd [Papy]'s direction has been to push Kratos in more of a human nature, and that goes across all aspects of the design, and the story, and everything that he does.

And I think it's because he wants to tell a different side to the hero. That might be a reaction to criticism; that might be the story that Todd wants to tell. But I think in the end, I think for a fan of the series, and I think for people who play games in general, I think it's more satisfying as well, because then you have a little bit more you can relate to. It's not so one-dimensional, you know?

How do you reflect something more humanistic in the design? Especially when the main way you have to interact with the world is basically just to wail on it.

MS: Right. [laughs] Well, it's more human... I'll have to take some example... Something that's a little bit more human is in interaction with the climb, for example. Kratos climbed in the previous games -- he stabbed the walls and he got through, and it was very effective. Allowed us to place walls. He had fights while he was on walls with guys that spawned off of walls, and stuff like that.

And in this game, Kratos climbs on walls like you or I would climb on walls -- maybe better than you or I would climb on walls, but uses his hands and uses his foot placement. And we don't have -- in the demo that we're showing -- his hands slipping off and stuff like that, but we have his hands slipping off of things and him struggling. And that is the challenge -- to just move along this wall, and not fall off. That is human. Whereas before as a demigod it was like, "Oh, I'm through!"

Or it's more human to fight against a monster. And when the monster gets the upper hand against you, and you have to fight to stay alive, is more human, and generally not encouraged in most of the other games. They didn't get the upper hand. The Minotaur did in the original game. They got away from that, and became more along the lines of the stuff that he did was more about how he killed guys in an effortless fashion in four or five different ways. And now it's, "Well, how do we get the creature to get the upper hand?" and you've got to fight to stay alive. I think that's more human.

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Ron Dippold
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He definitely got too powerful, too unpleasant, too inhuman. By the end of GoW3 my feelings about Kratos were 'Christ, what an a@#hole.' You've got the Dragonball power escalation problem and he'd long since run out of people to kill for any good reason. It doesn't sound like Mark Simon actually believes this (Todd Papy does), but at least he realizes it can get kind of boring and has some mechanical ideas that a prequel lets you get away with. I'll definitely be interested in seeing if they can pull it off.

Christian Nutt
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The sense I get more from Mark is that he (rightly, I suppose) doesn't see it as his job to worry about it -- but rather Todd's to make the calls on how the character develops, as it was Stig's call in GoW3.

Ron Dippold
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Fair enough; seems like Mark's got a good grasp on the mechanics, not his problem if the story's bad. The interview makes complete sense in that viewpoint.

Doug Erickson
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"so we thought about it, and blue skied a bit, and finally we agreed as a group that after all the rapey-murdery stuff kratos should feel bad. not too bad, because we don't want the player to feel bad, but, y'know, kinda hangover 'what did i do in vegas' bad."

Juan Fdez. de Simón
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Ah, who are we kidding?

The single player story is still going to be the same old male-fantasy-power-trip that we all know and love, only this time maybe Kratos is a bit less of an asshole at the start and then, rest assured, he will become a much bigger, badder asshole at the end.

What I'm really interested in is the multiplayer. Competitive group based hack'n slash multiplayer is something that no one has gotten right yet (Anarchy Reigns didn't do too well) but I think that if executed properly it has A LOT of potential.

Also, I think it'll be cool to see in which way (if any) tweaking and balancing the combat system and the different strategies for multiplayer has influenced the single player side of the things.

Christian Nutt
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My earlier interview with combat lead Jason McDonald goes more into those multiplayer questions:

Michael DeFazio
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Always thought the:
"Gods quarreling and being petty ...treating humans (even their champions) as disposable pawns"
angle (a la "Clash of the Titans") was not emphasized enough (or at all) in the series, which would have allowed me as a player to empathize more with Kratos' plight. by the 3rd installment, Kratos just comes across as a "grade A party pooper".

i (as player) didn't quite empathize with Kratos savagely killing someone like Poseidon/Hercules/Hermes/Hera/Perseus... I mean, yeah, they are in your way but is gouging his eyes out/disemboweling/chopping his legs off...really necessary? :)

As much as I loved the creativity involved with setting up mechanics and gameplay for these (Poseidon/Hercules/Hermes/Hera/Perseus) boss fights... the story setup to those moments could have been stronger... For example:
Imagine if Poseidon/Hercules/Hermes was personally involved in executing a legion of Kratos beloved and loyal Spartan soldiers? That would have at least allow me to savor the moment rather than cringe at the death of a character looking to overt the end of the world. (Motivation is a big part of revenge)

Anyways, seems like they decided to bring him back down to earth a bit... (Hey I'll cross my fingers they do something like have a flashback sequence to Kratos before his downfall to become the Ghost of Spata, think it would be interesting to see more of his rise to a spartan captain, and perhaps we can see some bare-fisted fighting... just a thought)

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Duong Nguyen
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Kratos as a character has traveled his potential story arc, he's become the penultimate power in his universe, killed off all the Gods, etc.. To downgrade him every new iteration so he can fight lowly Minotaurs again while grinding back up to full power, always seems like a narrative step back. They need to create a new character to carry the GOW franchise to tell more interesting stories and in turn leads to more interesting dynamics, imo.

Thom Q
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I got an idea, probably a bit silly, but uhh.. Maybe just retire the God of War series? Or would that counteract rule #1: once you got an IP that did well, suck it dry till the very last penny!

I did smile a bit when I read " a character that got almost too powerful, too unpleasant, too inhuman ".
You mean that he actually became the God of War at the end of the first game? ;)

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Thom Q
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True. But once big money gets involved, creative businesses always go for the lowest risk -> making their product to please a broadest possible demographic, which explains the current state of the top selling Movies, Music and Games.

Michael Alexander
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I'm glad to hear they're "trying" to do something a little different to develop Kratos on a more human level, but really... a problem with devs over what feels like the last decade is that they're afraid to move on to a new IP. I'm all good and well with the trilogy scheme for movies, games, books... but dragging it past that is when things become blaringly dull and tired.
These people have a lot of talent and passion for this, great. Focus that into a new direction. If they want to stay with the ancient Greek/Roman, et al theme, choose a new hero/anti-hero. There are thousands of years of REAL history to put a spin on, and thousands of years of mythology to adapt as well.
If we can make a game of travelling the Oregon Trail... we can make a game about almost anything based on even a small part of history.

Eric McVinney
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Here's the thing I find really interesting about the series, and that is that they never brought up or went with what was mentioned at the end of GoW 1. If anyone recalls, there's a scene (still art, more like) of Chronos's skeleton being found in modern time and what looked like being investigated by the military. The mention of his brother was already put into the PSP (IIRC) title, but what of this? How about a modern day GoW that still carries on the series, but in a more "spiritual" way (i.e. King's Field -> Demon's Souls).

Roy Rottschafer
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I always thought Kratos was a real dick, I never liked the games.
I tried the first one and was done with it pretty quickly. A good friend of mine tried to get me to play parts 2 and 3 also, but ended up showcasing them to me by playing them himself.
To me there's a lot wrong with the series as a whole and although of course the opposite can (and probably will) be argued by many people here and on other sites, I stand by the following:

First you should know (to at least be able to understand me a little bit) that I'm a European and somewhat of a history buff and a great fan of mythology, especially Greek mythology, which has a very rich and diverse history and also tries to make Gods more human by giving them human traits and faults.

Even with all that, they ARE still Gods, and are supposed to be ridiculously powerful.

Now, from a gamers' point of view I'm always very interested to see how developers and story writers weave that 'reality' into the tapestry of their game, and unfortunately they get it wrong most of the time and to me it actually feels they are insulting the culture and the history of something so rich and ancient all for the sake of 'just entertainment' or trying to create what the blind masses may perceive as a good game. If I actually was from Greece, it would not be strange for me to even see this as a sort of blasphemy..

Especially so with God of War. What I'm about to say may sound racist, but isn't intended as such, so please bear with me and don't rip one remark out of it's context.
To start of with, the only thing that is somewhat Greek about Kratos, is his name, but even that isn't because it's not Greek at all, it's American-Greek, aka made up. The word or name Kratos does not even exist in Greek and has no meaning whatsoever. They probably used it because they thought it 'sounds cool'.

Then his appearance: to me he looks like a black guy with a bad paint job, and he seems to act pretty 'ghetto' or 'gangsta' too. For all I know it's 50 cents' ancestor from the hood and that seems VERY out of place to me.

So, the character to me has no 'feel' at all within these Greek surroundings, he would fit much better in a game that was taking place in an Eastern or African setting, like Egypt, Africa or something more along the likes of a Conan game.

And to me personally the most idiotic and disturbing thing is how a mere mortal (even though I can understand using artefacts and Godly power ups makes one more capable) would be single handedly able to slay the entire pantheon of Ancient Greek Gods, who themselves have powers beyond the comprehension of men, and to get into power had to slay and/or imprison the Titans, creatures almost equally powerful that would probably swat Kratos like a fly without even so much as an afterthought.

Kratos as a character feels empty and meaningless, his plight far too unimportant to have any sympathy for, let alone personify with. 'Almost' too inhuman? He's an ass and a very unlikeable person, period.

From all the games I've played, previewed and reviewed that are somewhat in the same genre and are from about the same period, Dante's Inferno impressed me way more.

The general fault with ALL of these games is that developers try to make them into these big, American Hollywood blockbusters while the stories themselves are already cool enough and need no 'enhancements' in the bigger, better, faster format that's so mainstream in these kind of games nowadays.

The reason why I liked Dante's Inferno way more is that in that story it IS possible to feel sympathy for the character, the combat feels less superficial and I certainly have no problems with slaying nasty demons and hellspawn, so as a player that gives me way more satisfaction because it 'feels' like I'm doing something good, or righteous. (as opposed to slaying Gods revered and respected by millions)
And even though Dante's Inferno is also not strictly following the original story, it at least seems to show it some respect and therefore makes it a better experience when playing it.

Another game that gets my okay for respecting mythology without changing too much is Rise of the Argonauts. Try it if you haven't already. (although it's an entirely different sort of game than GoW or Dante's Inferno)

All in all, like I said in the beginning, this is just my opinion but that does count enough for me to never play another God of War game again. Reading from other comments that the first one was also the best, doesn't help this any further either...

I do like to agree with some of you that a new character/IP is needed to revive this series and I also think that developers/studios in general (somewhat understandably, seeing how things are going with quite a few studios) are playing it safe by sticking with what they have and trying (with mixed results) to 'improve' these character sets and so on instead of moving on and making creative juices flow again instead of making them stagnate by limiting them into working in the confines of an already finished series.

As for other commenters: Michael Alexander: spot on, and Eric McVinney's idea is also rather intriguing...

And finally, Mark Simon: there's only ONE God of War and his name is ARES!

Michael DeFazio
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From a "mythology" perspective
I suppose (having military experience) I would levy similar arguments on practically every military movie ever made (I have to suspend belief when I watch them, because I'm thinking "this is unrealistic, people don't act this way, this is not military tradition/custom/etc.")

Sometimes you cant get too caught up in it, you have to just enjoy yourself without too much critical analysis.

...And just my opinion based on some of your statements

--Kratos as a character feels empty and meaningless, his plight far too unimportant to have any sympathy for, let alone personify with. 'Almost' too inhuman? He's an ass and a very unlikeable person, period.

I think the first GoW had it's moments, (it's your typical "greek tragedy") but there was still something missing from the saga to totally connect the dots, but I thought his plight was well-realized (it's your simple revenge story), 2 & 3 though... I agree with your sentiment

--he looks like a black guy with a paint job
The voice actor for Kratos is a "black guy" fyi

--Dante's Inferno impressed me way more
I own both, and am hard pressed to see any improvements that DI had over GoW, (including story and lore)... I mean Dante's Inferno (the book) narrative wise was not about fighting off hordes of demons, I also thought the combat in Gow (pick any one) was superior, but to each his/her own.

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Jeremy Reaban
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I think this is a mistake. Part of the reason the Halloween reboot basically failed was it tried to take something that was pure evil, and rationalize that evil by giving him a backstory.

Kratos might not quite be the Greek version of Michael Meyers, but he's not far off.