God of War Ragnarok broke the internet last night, capping an impressive PlayStation Showcase with a trailer that revealed an older, more combative Atreus, an angry Freya, a glimpse of Thor, potential allies, and a worrying amount of new enemies. It was epic and emotional and just, everything.
GamesRadar+ spoke to the two men that made it all happen, Eric Williams, director of God of War Ragnarok, and Cory Barlog, the director of 2018's God of War. Luckily, it seemed to be a peaceful transfer of power between the two veterans of Sony Santa Monica.
"We had this workshop at the beginning of the game and they had this thing where if someone was taking over your job, you had to give them a 101 in that job," explains Williams, who has worked on the God of War series since 2004.
"So Cory being Cory, you know, he gave me a blank legal pad and it's got 'Game Directing 101' at the top, and then in quotes under it in very, very small print it said 'everything' and then the rest of it was blank. And I knew he was trolling me. But I also knew he's being the most honest, because he's always that way with me. It was like, 'I could tell you a bunch of anecdotes, all this stuff, and none of it will matter, because it is literally everything'."
Williams explains that's because being the director of a God of War game means dealing with people leaving the project, or needing advice, or help with broken code or marketing. Directing God of War means problem-solving with little room for error, and it's a responsibility that Williams doesn't take for granted
"It's literally everything at once. It's a lot to step into. And that's what I've always valued with both our friendship and our partnership is that it's very honest, very candid. It's a very blunt relationship. And I think that phrase that best sums us up is that clarity is kindness. In that kindness, sometimes there are arguments because it's just like, 'I'm gonna be straight with you.'"
It's hard to sum up the affection that this is said with through the written word, but it clearly gets to Barlog.
"You son of a bitch, you're gonna make me cry," Barlog replies.
"One of the things that we've had many discussions about, and one of the things that I'm always so impressed with – and one of the hardest things I think about this job – is pulling out the truth you don't want to face. Going deep to those things that scar you or scare the shit out of you," says Barlog.
"That is the grain, that little sand-sized grain of truth that you're going to get in that's going to fuel a good portion of this experience. I felt like I could have not even given that advice because, you know, instinctively, I think he lives in that place of being able to examine... I think he is more fearless than he knows."
Williams says if he could time travel back to 2004, to the Eric Williams that was first starting at the studio, his advice would be to stay stupid. "When you're kind of dumb, you're not afraid to ask questions. The word 'expert' is kind of, like, really sad to me. Because it basically dates you, because you know everything about something that's already done. Well, what we do is different every day. No one's ever done what we've done the same way. So you want to stay that hungry kind of student and be very curious."
Williams wants to hold onto that feeling of being a kid and saving the money from his summer job to buy a game. Reading the notes on the back of the box on the way home. He wants to remember that energy. "You know, I have a friend back home that I grew up playing Street Fighter with and he has a son now who's a teenager," he continues, "and he just launches in like, 'you make video games!' And he's just going nuts, you know. And it's like, that's the kid I wish I could tell [2014 Eric Williams] about because he was so excited."
You're gonna eat lightnin'
With Williams taking over production of Ragnarok, it means Balrog has to step back. It's not unusual in a series for game directors to change, move on, but it's notable for God of War because Barlog was so open about what the game, and Kratos' journey as a father, meant to him.
"I'm sort of on the sidelines. I'm like Burgess Meredith, just sitting there outside of the ring telling him 'No pain, Rock, no pain,' not really helping that much," jokes Barlog, referring to Rocky Balboa's trainer Mickey Goldmill.
"It is definitely that weird, ethereal 'stepping outside of yourself concept' where you're challenged on a daily basis to know when to take your hands off the wheel, right? To be able to be there – to be the sounding board – to set a few of the expectations and say 'these are important, let's make sure we hit these,' but to really try to place yourself in their shoes. As a director, you don't want somebody else telling you this is how I would do it."
"His take is his take," Barlog continues, "and his take is influenced by his relationship with the team and their take on everything. So that is kind of this amalgam – this mesh – of every single thing, and it's unique to those moments in time."
Showcases and Slurpees
Barlog is off working on something new, top-secret of course, at Sony Santa Monica. Now the baton passes to Williams. And how did he mark the great unveiling at the showcase? After talking to his team, he called his grandma.
"I didn't even watch the live event until later that night. I just kind of drove around LA and I talked to my aunt and my grandmother for about two hours," says Williams of God of War Ragnarok's big moment at the show. While he wasn't watching he was aware his phone was buzzing with the most text messages he'd ever received as he spoke to his family.
"I just talked to them calmed down, you know, had a Slurpee. Then later, started responding to people so they wouldn't feel like I was being a jerk ignoring them."
Barlog, who has some experience with these things, can't contain his delight at the story. "I love this story even more now because I didn't know about the Slurpee detail," he says. "It's like watching a DVD box set of the same story with five minutes of unreleased footage added to it."
While Williams might not feel completely comfortable for the spotlight just yet, the excited reactions to the trailer are important, and something he will hold on to as the long development process continues. "You almost have to be like a squirrel, keeping those nuts in your cheek for the winter. It's going to be a long road and you got to remember these high moments."
God of War Ragnarok will be released in 2022.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.