Greek gods, you know how it goes.
In March 2013, I chatted to Sony Santa Monica over the phone about God of War: Ascension for the online portal of Official PlayStation Magazine UK just before the game was officially released.
Unfortunately, as a result of Future’s entertainment brands being reorganised now under a supergroup under the GamesRadar name – which also resulted in the closure of the much beloved CVG whose excellent work seems to have now been lost into the ether – most of the content written now links to SEO-powered feature lists.
I haven’t been as badly affected – most of the stuff I did online for OPM UK were feature lists and are more or less redundant now anyways – but it seems when you click the original link to the interview, you’re taken to a slideshow of ‘How to survive Saw’.
I was very proud of that interview especially considering the topics mentioned in the chat, particularly violence in games and what could be done to address it – especially in God of War – in light of everything that happened a few months earlier in Newtown. And I didn’t want that to be lost to some SEO nonsense (that said, with thanks to ElYammers on Twitter, there is a Internet Archive link for it on OPM’s website here).
So here’s the transcript of the interview in its entirety, as it was too on OPM’s old digs. The interview is with lead combat designer Jason McDonald and lead game designer Mark Simon, who I believe has left SSM since. As well as violence, we talked about the future of God of War, how the PS3 could be pushed and the possibilities of a recently-unveiled PS4 plus the addition of multiplayer to the series.
Again, this interview was first posted in March 2013.
Why have you decided now to tell the origin story of Kratos?
Mark Simon – It’s the story we wanted to tell. I think we could have told a million different stories and the one we wanted to tell takes place right after Kratos has a tragedy with his wife and kid and we wanted to find out where he was in terms of being a man, a human, not this kind of rage-filled demigod. What is it that caused him to snap by the time we started God of War 1 and what is it about breaking an oath to a god like Ares that does this to you. What is it about that adventure that he went through that caused that to happen.
There’s this winking and nodding with the ending of God of War III. For any future games, can you see it continuing from God of War III or could it even explore further on how he broke his agreement with Ares?
Mark Simon – I think there’s a lot of life in Kratos’ story and who he is. I think the Greek mythos allows us to explore a wide variety of different areas and creatures to fight against. I definitely think there’s a lot to tell.
How ramped up is the combat in Ascension over God of War III?
Jason McDonald – We changed quite a few things for this God of War. One of the things we were looking at was Kratos himself. This is an earlier part of his life and a place in his life where he might be interested in basic weapons like swords and shields and things like that. We added an ability for him to pick them up off the ground or to disarm enemies and use them against them. And that’s something you won’t see Kratos doing in other God of Wars. One thing we also did was we changed his blades around. We shortened his combo, weakened his ploons a little bit to show a slightly weaker version of him but every single fight, you can strengthen them up by filling up his rage. And if you do that, he’ll get more powerful attacks, become stronger and it kind of creates a minute-to-minute combat that’s different
from previous God of Wars because God of War of old had a God Mode that would fill up slowly. This meter would fill up every single fight and very frequently so you can always take advantage of it and always use it and it changes the flow of the fight.
In turn, how ramped up is the violence in this one because God of War is considered to be a very gory game by nature?
Mark Simon – The violence is the way it is. We have a manly based game set in Greek mythology where you’re fighting these horrific beasts with a couple of blades attached to the guy’s arms by chains.
Jason McDonald – And on fire.
Mark Simon – And on fire and maybe have ice or something. So by nature, we’re gonna be violent and that’s what feels right. If we wasn’t visceral, if there wasn’t any impact, it wouldn’t feel right. It would actually feel horrible. So we definitely continue that so it actually feels right for Kratos’ character, so it can feel brutal. But in the same breath, it’s not violence just for the sake of being violent. We’re looking at Kratos in a way that he fights creatures and stuff like that. Now the way he interacts with his adventure this time round is he’s not some rage-filled crazy that’s going out and killing everything that moves. There’ll be the instance where somebody steps in the way and he pushes them out of the way. He’s not gonna kill them, hopefully he’ll save them from an attack. So he’s a different character in this adventure than he was in previous adventures.
At last E3, there was a lot of games that were shown as very violent. The few examples that came from the top of my head were Ascension, Assassin’s Creed III, Dishonored and The Last of Us. And more recently, there was the discussion of violence in games that followed Newtown. How do you see violence in games now, do we need to dilute or do we continue to be in particular discussions with everyone about it?
Mark Simon – I think it’s good we talk about it. But I think if you’re going to make a melee game, you’re going to be making a game where people’s interactions with one another, or especially with creatures and beasts and stuff like that and when you’re in close combat with them and you’re using a sword or a club that nature of that kind of combat is going to be pre-visceral. If it did it, it would be comical. It might be funny, it might be cartoony or it might be gamey. When we try to make things more and more realistic, I think that’s when you get into the nature of, ‘Oh my God, that feels so real’.
Jason McDonald – I think it’s similar to other forms of media where you will have your violent media and your non-violent media. It just depends on the type of the story you’re trying to tell.
To kind of go back onto the game itself, is there a kind of ethically drawn line on where the violence stops like there’s areas where you won’t explore the series or games in particular with violence?
Mark Simon -We draw the line if it’s just grotesque for no reason. I think the violent nature of the game as we said before is in its heart. We’re playing a character who’s a demi of aggression. He means strength. So if he’s dealing with these crazy mythology creatures that are basically terrorising the populous, coming after him to try to squish him like a bug or crush him or rip him in half, he himself is at this extreme disadvantage and he uses whatever at his disposal to take them out.
God of War is coming off the back of what is two pretty great hack ‘n’ slash games in the form of DmC from Ninja Theory and Metal Gear Rising from Platinum. How do you see the state of the hack ‘n’ slash genre now from a first-party perspective?
Mark Simon – I think there’s a lot of things that we do in terms of our pillars of the game. We’re not just a combat game, we’re also a game that has navigation, we’re also a game that has puzzles and we’re also a game that uses these epic setpieces and wild moments that make you remember where you were and who you were facing off against. And we mixed those in so we could have a nice balanced gameplay rather than be just all fighting. And I think from the combat end, we continue to innovate there and we continue to make it accessible.
Jason McDonald – For God of War in particular, we’re always trying to make the combat feel very visceral, very powerful, it’s kind of one of the pillars of Kratos’ very spartan warrior. And that feeling you get from being Kratos is very different that you may feel from Bayonetta or from some other character that are also very good but different but they fight in their own way. Kratos has his own unique style. And this game also has multiplayer which is something that might add from the separation. But we welcome any developer who wants to make a game like this, we applaud them because it’s a tough game to make. We understand how hard it is and the more developers that make this type of game, the bigger the audience which is great for all of us.
You mentioned multiplayer there. God of War has been predominantly known as a single-player series so why is it being introduced now?
Jason McDonald – It just happened this way. Every God of War, we have ideas that we can sometimes do in the game and some of them we can not. At the end of God of War III, we did some tests with the PSN and multiplayer in general, players fighting with each other to see how fun it might be. And we found that it was pretty enjoyable, people were having a great time and were talking smack, just beating each other up. So we looked at that and we thought, ‘if people are having this much fun with something that we just put together really quickly, what if we put the whole God of War spin on it’ – put in the epic scale, put in the brutality, made it feel just as visceral and good as the single-player does. I haven’t seen any game that has the look of God of War multiplayer so it was unique and it was fun and it was the right time to do it.
There’ve been some very good multiplayer suites introduced onto series’ that started out as single-player only like Uncharted and Assassin’s Creed, but there’ve also been games that have had it tacked on like Dead Space and Bioshock 2. Do you think there’s a worry that players might see multiplayer in Ascension tacked on?
Mark Simon – Well, if they play it, they definitely won’t feel that way.
Jason McDonald – And I feel like since we’ve shown multiplayer multiple times at E3, open beta, the feedback we’ve been seeing is definitely not one of people thinking it’s just tacked on. And I believe that when the game is released, they will know it’s not tacked on because because the content we showed in the open beta was a very small amount compared to the final game, eight maps and double the amount of weapons of what you saw in the beta.
I have a near-final copy of the game and it pretty much looks like a graphical beast and I say that with God of War III looking fantastic having played that. How much have you been able to push Ascension on the PS3 considering we now know the system is in an official tail end of its life-cycle?
Mark Simon – The engine itself has been worked on. The rendering engine has been updated, we’ve got a new lighting scheme, we’ve got a three lairs system so artists can paint lairs into the world. We’ve added animation blending so one animation is now five, six or ten or something like that and that the movement is a lot more fluid. And we added IK as well. So the engine itself, in terms of graphics and in terms of how the animations look, has been upgraded a tremendous amount. Plus, you give it a team that much time to do something new, they’ll bring you something that’s definitely impressive.
Jason McDonald – And I think the story of this game allowed us to travel various different areas with various different looks. One of the side-effects of God of War III was that Kratos was pretty much destroying the world, he took out the sun and everything got dark. Now this time, we can have sunshine and other things that you weren’t able to see in God of War III.
We’re still yet to see a couple of games on PS3, though, with Beyond and The Last of Us. Could there still be more to be pushed from PS3?
Jason McDonald – I think the PS3′s a beast. I mean every time we go back to it, we find more power to squeeze out of it. I’ve no doubt the games coming in the future will show that there’s still life in the PS3.
What are the possibilities, hypothetically, of PS4 and perhaps a future God of War game down the line? is it more social type stuff like they were focusing on at the Meeting or is it new unique gameplay experiences and more graphical horsepower?
Mark Simon – It is a powerful machine. I get excited thinking about the specs and the amount of memory it has, it’s incredible. It’s going to be a powerful machine that uses the processors that’ll we’ll be able to develop on right away. So there’s some really good things about that, but those are just specs. I think that the promise of that machine, in terms of what it can deliver being more engineered towards everyone being connected together, I think is extremely an important concept. We added multiplayer into God of War and what you find is now we’re interacting with our community. Now we’re talking with them a lot more while we’re developing the game that we were never doing before. We were talking to them, but we were talking to them after we completed the game. Now we do it while we’re making the game and just adding that level of connectivity between players is so important because the entire gaming community is what it is, a community. So the longer we can keep them together and talking to each other and playing with one another, the better off it will be.