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.
Do you think that that violates the power fantasy deal you made with your audience in prior games? And if so, is that interesting or cool to do that?
MS: Well, I don't think it does, because what it does is it provides another end of the spectrum. I think that if you are constantly the overpowering guy, eventually that starts to become dull, and dead, and you never get the other end of the spectrum.
In order to have conflict, you need to have another end, so you need to have the ebb and flow where you have to play defense a bit in order to feel like you need to overcome something that's more powerful. And if you don't have that -- if you never have to worry about being overpowered by something else -- then it's not a good accomplishment, or great a feeling, when you do overcome that.
At GDC Europe, Jörg Friedrich, lead designer on Spec Ops: The Line, said they realized they needed moments of defeat to make the moments of victory mean something. Like you said, though maybe you didn't put it this way, God of War can get a little one-note, maybe, if you're just bashing your way through the world.
MS: Yeah, and that gets dull. And even if it becomes more and more epic, and more and more grand in terms of how you're trying to sell it, it's a lot simpler to just not be victorious one time. What happens if you fight a boss and you lose? If you end up fighting that boss later in the game, you have the knowledge of fighting that guy earlier in the game that you lost to. So when you're fighting him, you might know like, "Oh, at the end of the game the hero's always going to win", right?
Or maybe not! Who's ever tried that? Who's ever said, "You know what? We're going to make this so different that we're going to have you get a different reaction in the end", or a different reaction midway through the game.
And I think that that is very interesting; I agree with that designer and what he's saying. Because I think that what he's saying is that he's providing a different challenge for the player, and also casting a little bit of doubt... Everybody has the all-powerful -- I shouldn't say "everybody has", but many of the action games are all about the all-powerful guy, and some of the more interesting interactions are the ones where they're not all-powerful, and you feel like you're fighting against it as you go through. I'm attracted to that type of character design.
It seems like it's a tension between what our instincts are in terms of game design and storytelling. Things are always getting better and more exciting, you're always getting more powerful, you're always winning bigger battles -- versus what we expect out of drama, which is that there's going to be multiple setbacks on the road to victory. In any movie, you'll see the characters go low before they get high again, so it's maybe a tension between our instincts in game designer and instincts in storytelling.
MS: Right. It's the Rocky Balboa principle, right? You've got to feel like you're rooting for the underdog in this battle for you to get that emotional payoff sometimes. The Fighter, another boxing one, is another great example of that. I remember watching that movie and like standing up and being excited -- and I was watching it by myself at two in the morning -- because I felt like that guy had overcome a lot to get to where he was at. And it was a fight movie, and it was drama, but it's the same thing, I think, in video games.
We're a storytelling game, too. We'd like to be considered great stories. I know how much work that Todd and Marianne and Ariel and Will and Stig and Cory and Dave and all those guys have put into the story of God of War. Those guys have put a lot of effort into that story. And as a designer, you don't want to discount that work, nor the experience the player has from that story, just so that you can keep your principles alive of "brute alpha male".
So sometimes I think it's good and I think it's better to... I don't think that you get rid of the fact that the character or the hero feels powerful, because it's good that Kratos is the way that he is; that's what is attractive about him. I come home from my job or whatever, and what I do, and I want to play a guy that's different; you don't want to play somebody who's like me, you know?
Is there a way to do that through design? You did allude to the idea of showing more vulnerability in his animations. But is it simply a matter of animations, or is there a way to do it through something else?
MS: Well, yeah, I think it comes from even set design, situation design, and how he progresses; sometimes it's okay to take a situation and have him take a step backwards before he makes progress.
And you were talking about drama and how you'll chart out the emotional level of somebody, and you want to take somebody down before you bring them way up again. And challenge can be the same way, where you take somebody down in terms of challenge to where it feels effortless and easy right before you put them in front of something that feels monumental and impossible to overcome.
But the other example -- I was talking to somebody earlier today. The example is you run against a creature that has this massive advantage against you -- maybe it's speed, for example -- and you get your butt kicked by it, but you are able to overcome it. And when you get through that challenge of fighting that character, you feel great, because you're like, "Man, I was able to do that!"
And the next time you run into that character you're like, "Aw man, this guy again; he's such a pain." But then when you defeat something or you acquire something that now, when you face it the second time around, you have the upper hand against it, you feel like you've made this progression. And it's extremely rewarding to be like, "Now I have this! And now our encounter is going to be very different." So now you've gone up and you've peaked out, in terms of the reward for that fight.
A few months back I spoke with combat lead Jason McDonald about the fact that part of the promise the God of War series makes to players is that while there can be some depth to the combat, you want people to pretty much be able to play the game without too much complication. What do you think about that?
MS: Okay, so this is what I love about Jason McDonald. Jason McDonald has been with the series the entire time. A true combat designer, the best combat designer I've ever worked with. And he's a hardcore Street Fighter player -- extremely "Don't ever wanna get in a fight with this guy." Even when I play multiplayer with him and Vincent, who's our multiplayer designer, I don't want to fight them because they kill me on a regular basis, and they're really good.
The best part of it is that when we get done having playtests and fights and stuff like that, we'll talk about ways to take balance and tweak it, or ways to make it so that the player who's novice -- in my case, compared to them, I'm a novice -- how I will advance faster so that I can have a more challenging fight with the advanced player.
So for me, the barrier to fighting games is always that. If you run into somebody in a fighting game who knows what they're doing, you're not going to have fun against them, because they're just going to obliterate you, and you're not going to feel challenged, and maybe put the controller down and never play the game again. And the challenge for us, as designers, is to make sure that that person felt like they made enough progress fighting against that guy who was really good.
But the next time around he has a different strategy that will potentially challenge that guy who's very good at it, and continue to develop more and more strategy as well as pick up on the strategies that the advanced player uses, so that the playing field levels out faster.
So for us as designers, we have to level that out faster. So in our iteration right now, and even on the multiplayer end, is that's what we're trying to do. We put the novice in against the veteran and we see how we can get it to balance out, for mode, as well as just straight one-on-one combat or two-versus-one combat, which is even a crazier balance.
How do you help someone learn through play? Because obviously, as we all know, only the dedicated are going to sit down and practice.
MS: Well, there's that, and it's kind of like learning, right? It's not kind of like learning -- it is learning. Everybody learns in different ways. So I remember I had a teacher once who told me that the worst way to learn is the way that you're currently sitting, you're sitting in a classroom and I'm instructing; that is probably the worst way to learn. And I think the best way to learn is to experience.
And the most frustrating thing for a designer is anytime somebody's experiencing something, but they're not learning anything, they keep doing the same thing over and over again. Watching the God of War playtest can be like that sometimes, watching them try to do a puzzle and they do the same thing over and over and you're like, "How do I get them to do something different?"
And I think that's the same thing in combat design -- how do you get them to try something different, instead of trying to do the same thing over and over again?
So here's some of the stuff that we do. You can give them messaging when they die, and it doesn't seem like much to do something like that, but what if it's related to how they die? Then when they die, every time they die, that's a learning experience. You can give them clues based on things that happened while they're playing, in terms of readability, which is huge in fighting games, for sure. Because if you get the feedback that you did something well, then you'll continue to try to do something well. But if you don't get any feedback, then we lost an opportunity to teach you that you did something right.
God of War III, for example, you fought the first boss, and when you were hitting it and hurting it, it wasn't playing hit reactions, and because it wasn't playing hit reactions, you didn't know if you were doing good or not. So as designers, in a way, we made a mistake by not giving you that opportunity to let you know that you were doing well.
So for our novice players, the more that they get the feedback that they're doing well, or the more that they get the feedback that they're not doing well, the faster they will learn, and the faster they will bring themselves up a notch so that they can be a challenge, as well, to the more seasoned players.
As well as exploits. I feel like the seasoned players, or the veteran players, will have found specific exploits that they get really good at executing, and they use it over and over and over again, ad nauseam, when they play. And maybe because it's pushing the dopamine into their head that, like, "Every time I do it, and I get the kill, and I feel great!" And after a while it starts to deaden for them.
But if you recognize the exploits and are able to balance them, then somebody spends more time trying to find the way to get past the challenge, or kill a guy, or complete an objective. And if there's lots of different ways to complete an objective -- whatever that objective is -- then they spend more time exploring ways to complete an objective, and then that's the essence of game.
That is exactly what game's all about. Because then when you do it, and maybe you do it a new way, you get that, "Ahh, that was great, I did it; I completed it this way!" And maybe you're talking to me later and you're like, "Oh, but I did it this way." And when you put that in a challenging environment, where it's me versus you trying to do the same exact thing, that's why I come to work every day.
That made me think about something, which is that players will ruin the game for themselves if they find a convenient way to move forward, even if it's boring, even if it's tedious. But if they find something that works, they'll stick with it even if they are ruining the game for themselves. I do it.
MS: Yeah, I do it. I do. And how do you stop the player from ruining the experience for himself? It's a crazy challenge, but I think if you playtest it enough...
Even designers, I think, what we tend to do sometimes is, you leave in that exploit for yourself that you like to use. Then maybe what you should do as a designer is look at the exploit that you've provided for yourself, and fix it, or address it in a different way. Don't leave it in as an exploit for yourself that other players are going to find, and they're going to use. And it takes the experience and goes from this really wide, "Hey, I'm going to try to find all these ways to complete this," to "I'm going to only use this one perfect way to do it." There has to be something to counter that.
If it was in a versus situation it's "this thing combats that", then this isn't the only one exploit that you can do all the time. Like if you were going to do a turret, the nice thing about a turret is that it has a limited line of sight, of how you can look left and right, it has range that you can move left and right. Although anything that gets in front of it has this like incredible killing power, right? But the limitations are you have no idea what's coming from behind you. You can only turn it so far. You're stuck and you're locked into one position.
If you don't provide, as a designer, a way for the other players to flank the guy who's using the turret, to potentially stay away from that guy, and then come up when he can't see you, then you've made that the all-powerful thing that everybody will exploit. So if you have one of those, you have to look at it and go, "There's got to be a way that you can Kryptonite this thing." And I don't know if it's possible to do that for everything that you do in a game, but I do think that that's the challenge of game design, is to make sure that you are doing that in as many places as possible.
Now, that being said, my guess is that Jason McDonald talked about square, square, triangle. And that's something I think that even [former combat and systems lead] Eric Williams would say, where you need to be able to do a specific, very simple and basic combo in order to get through the game, and not require the player have to do the uber-powerful specials in order to get through the game; he's got to be able to do the most basic moves, because they want him to be able to progress.
So yeah, we still probably have that low level; you don't have to do the most complicated moves in order to defeat creatures in combat and get through the game. But the challenges, essentially the combat puzzles that we're going to put in front of you, require you to fight a boss that there's no way that just square, square, triangle is going to get you through it. You're going to have to complete other challenges when you fight him.
God of War III example, Hades, you went into this sequence where you were chained up with him and you were fighting against him. It was unique and you might've been pressing square a lot, but you were also moving the analog stick to stay back, fighting your way off of the edge before he pulled you down into the river so he could kill you. And if you got past that and not died, you completed a challenge that wasn't just "I pressed square, square, triangle to defeat this creature."
So is it more about providing situations with variety, or are those also teaching experiences about mixing up the gameplay? Like the battle you just described, is that about teaching someone that there's something else they can do? Or is it just more about taking them out of the context where they can just spam the same attack.
MS: I think, in boss battles, it's definitely about variety of challenge. And we've come to be known for that. We want every new boss encounter to be different than any other boss encounter that's ever been done before. And we want it to be unique. We don't want to copy anything that anyone's ever done before; you want to try something new.
So that's where we spend a lot of time and effort, trying to provide new experience, new challenge, and something that, when you get done with playing the game you remember that sequence. You might not remember the goat fight you had, the goat captain outside of this arena. That was more of a challenge that was similar to a lot of other challenges in the game, but you sure as heck remember that fight against Hades.