The Making Of: God Of War

If you want a picture of the distant past, imagine a set of flaming chains smacking you in the face forever. “Very early in the process we were struggling for our voice,” remembers David Jaffe, the director of Sony’s brain-splattered fever dream God Of War. “I took one of the artists aside. I told him I wanted to see what would happen if Terry Gilliam made a pop-up book for kids: over-the-top, bombastic, operatic.” He pauses, thinking back over three years of gruelling development. “It was a huge job. I gained 40 pounds on this game. I did irrevocable damage to my marriage.” In case we’re missing the nature of the undertaking, he adds: “All through development, I listened to Queen, particularly the Flash Gordon soundtrack.”

As unlikely as it seems for an experience as comprehensively Earth-shattering as the rage of Kratos, we’ll start with a subtle distinction: “I wanted our game to be something that allowed players to feel they were watching a great action-adventure movie,” says Jaffe. “It was important that I understood the difference between that and making a game that made you feel like you were the star. They’re very different things: if we made a game that made you feel like you were participating in an action movie, it would probably be Zelda: exploration and puzzles. That’s what it would probably feel like if you actually were Indiana Jones. We wanted a much faster pace.”

Whether you grasp the difference or not, it’s obvious that movies play a crucial role in the director’s creative process. “GOW was definitely a response to the movies I’d grown up with: Raiders, Clash Of The Titans,” admits Jaffe, who originally planned on becoming a film-maker. In an era when designers are sniffy about easy links between games and cinema, he embraces the similarities, possibly because they pose a challenge. “I love the potential of games a lot more than I love the games that are out there,” he admits. “There’s a couple every year that remind me why I love games, but there’s a movie every two weeks that makes me fall in love all over again with movies.”

In 2002, after a successful run with the Twisted Metal series, Jaffe found himself in a unique position at Sony’s Santa Monica Studios, given carte blanche to make whatever game he wanted. “I knew I wanted to make a cinematic action-adventure, and I’d always loved mythology,” he recalls. “You can’t be a fan of superhero comics and not be a fan of Greek mythology. It’s the same thing: giant monsters, great adventures. Gladiator had just come out and reintroduced me to swords and sandals, and I had been playing Onimusha. Here were these guys making their own take on Japanese history. That was the final wiggle of the tooth before it popped out: ‘We could do the same, but with Greek myths!’”

Rowdy, violent and brilliantly tailored to the baser instincts of 13-year-old boys, God Of War has a powerful handle on its subject matter, harking back to Greek mythology’s origins as entertainment, rather than its fusty leather-bound present. As the game started to take shape, Jaffe’s natural appreciation of the material translated well into design: it wasn’t difficult for him and his team to reach into the stories and pull out entire set-pieces. “One of the first documents I wrote had you using a Gorgon head as a weapon,” says Jaffe. “The Cyclops? Let’s come up with puzzles about tricking him to open up cracks in the level by smashing at you with his club.” The work of American classicist Edith Hamilton was a useful influence. “I took a trip to Japan and had her book with me, and I was just marking ‘great mechanic’ on every page. There were certainly things we had to invent, but so much came straight out of the myths.”

Not everything was that easy. Announcing a game that feels spectacular is one thing, delivering on it is much harder. Although the set-pieces were coming together – GOW makes great use of scale, featuring huge vistas where towering gods trample over battlefields, and a temple on the back of a Titan – the game still felt flat. The real struggle facing Jaffe’s 60-strong team wasn’t content so much as character. “I didn’t want the hero to be an avatar you projected your own personality on,” remembers Jaffe. “I wanted to make Kratos a real person with his own way of doing things.”

Today, with his scarlet-swirled skin and cruel eyes, Jaffe’s Spartan is a swaggering chunk of gaming royalty, as deadly as that other Spartan, the Master Chief, and significantly more charismatic, but in the tense early months of the project, the team couldn’t bring him to life. “I was looking at other games and saying, ‘This sucks’,” Jaffe recalls. “‘Why doesn’t our character move as well? Why doesn’t he look as good?’” A change in personnel was called for. “We’d got a great lead animator at the start who’d worked on the Lord Of The Rings films. A quarter of the way through, we both realised he wasn’t right. He was a phenomenal film animator, but the kind of animators we were looking for were guys who worked on fighting games, who understood animation but also understood the dance between that and combat, who could make the combat really fluid, but understood that if you make it too fluid, you’re controlling a ragdoll.” It was only with new animators hired – chief among them Cory Barlog, who would go on to direct the sequel – that Kratos, and the game, began to flicker to life. Suddenly, the epic story was matched with an epic lead – a brutal killer as fearsome as the pantheon of grotesques stacked against him.

With the project finally clicking, the team could start to focus on specific objectives. “We wanted to find a way to convey character in-game,” says Jaffe. “We ended up with a lot of what are now called quick-time events. The motivation was, ‘How do we convey a character who’s brutal, but also trained? How do we convey that without taking the control away?’” QTEs, a test of dexterity accompanied by some rewarding scripted bloodshed, seemed an ideal solution. They aren’t just reserved for spectacular deaths, either: they function within the game’s puzzles, bringing life to a handful of sequences, including a standout moment in which Kratos hugs his family to transfer health to them. “All of that idea of trying to get everything into the gameplay rather than the cutscenes really coloured a lot of our decisions,” admits Jaffe. “A lot of games at the time really weren’t taking this kind of thing into account.”

For the combat itself, Jaffe turned to the masters of upmarket brawlers, Japanese developers. But while many reviewers noted similarities to Devil May Cry, in reality the team had its eyes on a different model. “I was going for Zelda in terms of depth of combat,” laughs Jaffe. “I was looking for the presentation of DMC, but I wasn’t interested in doing a deep system. To me, the combat, the spatial challenges, the exploration: they were all pieces of the adventure, and all of these came together to push the player along. The actual game loop in GOW is very simple. If this had been the kind of game that didn’t have much money, it would have been an absolute failure, because if it wasn’t for new things to do around every corner, you might feel the core mechanics are actually quite shallow. They’re intentionally shallow, because we didn’t want them to overpower the experience. If we’d been DMC, your headspace would have been filled with a lot of fighting mechanics that would have pulled you out of the journey. Our combat’s not deep, but thanks to great animators, it is fluid.”

God Of War was a huge risk, but it had to be. “I really needed to roll the dice on this one,” admits Jaffe, looking back over the finished product. “I didn’t know where to go with my career other than this. It was hard, though. I was such a perfectionist – good enough was never good enough. We got great results, but it came at a cost. How much to push is still something I struggle with.”

And, despite the game’s success, Jaffe feels he’d approach the project somewhat differently today. “There are cinematic moments and character moments I’m proud of, but I think maybe it was too combat-centric. Today I would make it more like Zelda, ironically: I’d immerse you in being the hero rather than watching him. By making that game, I’ve realised there’s more to be mined from gameplay that way, rather than just taking people for a ride.”

Jaffe stayed on as creative director at Santa Monica for another year, overseeing Barlog’s directorial debut on God Of War II and creating the multiplayer-focused Calling All Cars, but he’s since left to set up his own development studio, Eat Sleep Play. Yet, even with Kratos behind him and the birth of a second successful franchise to his name, he still feels the potential of games remains untapped. “I love my job, but last night I was watching Casablanca and thinking: ‘What am I doing with my life? I any closer to making something that resonates like Casablanca?’” laughs Jaffe. “I’m fine with making diversions, but when I talk about games’ potential, I think God Of War was a stepping stone. I’m real proud of it, and I may never be involved again in a game as good, but there’s a lot more to do, both in terms of reaching a bigger audience and just affecting an audience more; affecting them so they carry it through their lives as a fond memory.”

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