Interview: God of War 3
If games were children, the original God of War would have been the nervous first child, new to the world, and unsure of itself and the world it had entered.
God of War 2 was the confident middle child, comfortable in its skin and proud with what it had achieved.
So what of Sony's just released God of War 3? It is definitely the most confident of the three: bolder and brasher than its younger siblings, with the brashness to push against its parents and decide the time is right to leave home for good - and Jonathan Hawkins, a level designer with Sony's Santa Monica studio in California, the studio that made God of War 3, is a little sad about that.
"I was thinking about it the other day and it is sad. My good little pale friend (Kratos), he's gone, and it is kinda saddening but it's also exciting at the same time to do something new.
"We were in the trenches and our minds were so focussed that when we finally got it done I came home and was staring at the wall.
"I literally didn't know what to do with myself: should I play games? Play the guitar? What am I supposed to do now? It's quite surreal," said Hawkins, who was visiting New Zealand for the first time with Bruno Velasquez, the lead in-game animator responsible for giving the game's chief protagonist, Kratos, life.
Hawkins has worked on all three God of War games but Velasquez joined Sony Santa Monica during God of War 2 after being asked to join the 140-strong team by that game's director, Cory Barlog who then surprised the team by suddenly resigning from the studio six months into the production of God of War 3. Barlog was the lead animator in GOW1 and establishing Kratos's movement and the way he fights, says Velazquez.
"When Cory became director he invited me to join the team, which I was more than happy to do, and I had the privileged of taking over animating Kratos in GOW2 and GOW3, and you do get attached to a character, especially when you're working on one so closely in the way he moves, the way he fights and the things he does - but we knew that we wanted to bring a close to the story and wanted to finish it in a nice way."
The first two God of War games have proven phenomenally popular with PlayStation gamers, but why do the developers think that is?
Hawkins, who describes a key part of his job as "making sure that people don't fail", believes part of the popularity is the subject matter.
"Everyone is taught Greek mythology in school and it has a certain fascination, especially history with the mythos of creatures and gods and it's the mixture of that and the brutality and animalistic nature that Kratos brings to the table.
"Ripping someone in half is visceral, almost caveman-ish, and Kratos brings that personna and alpha male to it, and it's a mixture of that rawness mixed with the mythology mixed with a great story mixed with great production values."
Velazquez also thinks that God of War 3's cinematic approach appeals to gamers. "I agree that why GOW stands out is because of the character of Kratos. He's such an unlikely main character, he's sort of someone you almost despise in a way - but it also makes him interesting at the same time because he's flawed."
Hawkins agrees that Kratos is a flawed character. "Kratos is like a tortured soul ... no-one's perfect, and despite him being a bad ass he does have a soft sentimental side at the longing for his family, but he was so consumed by his own power and greed that he kind of cast out all those things."
While God of War 3's core game play remains, fundamentally, unchanged from the first two games, the studio added what Velazquez likes to call "one-off moments", designed to illict "Woah" reactions from gamers.
One of those was the first person camera during one of the game's early "boss" battles - something that Velazquez admits he was a little unsure about when the game's director Stig Asmussen first suggested it.
"We did the first person view so that the player feels what it's like to be taken down by Kratos. That is our way of pushing that experience so the player can almost step into his shoes and see what it like to be that.
"Once in a while we wanted to sprinkle in one-of-a-kind events that were only used once but made an impact," says Velazquez.
Of all the God of War games, this third console outing is the most violent and gory, but Velazquez says the violence isn't there to shock for the sake of it. The developers always thought - what would Kratos do in this situation?, he says.
"It's all driven by the story and Greek mythology, which was pretty gruesome. The way Kratos does things is very direct and to the point. Ripping off Helios's head is a very direct approach. We didn't just include certain scenes to make the player sick, we always asked: what would Kratos do?"
Both Hawkins and Velazquez admit that there were times during the production period that creating the vision the studio was trying to achieve seemed insurmountable.
"Every day you s... your pants wondering whether you can get things done, and you often asked yourself 'Did we bite off more than we can chew?' Sometimes you had blinders on and it was just focus, focus, focus. Sometimes you forgot that you were working with other people," says Hawkins.
Says Velazquez: "It was a nerve wracking process until the first reviews come out, and the team puts pressure on itself to deliver the best game possible, to push the PS3 to the extreme, but the enthusiasm for the project was like an infection that spread. You might not be feeling well but you walk into the office and other people give you inspiration."
It's a little known fact, says Velazquez, that for a time, the developers of God of War 3 shared office space with the makers of the delightfully non-violent PlayStation Network game Flower. Hawkins said sometimes the team working on Flower would turn up and say "Let me play some God of War."
And did you know that Kevin Sorbo, the actor who played Hercules in the New Zealand filmed TV series of the same name, voiced Hercules, Kratos' brother, in God of War 3?
I ask the two men if, realistically, God of War 3 could have been made using the PlayStation 2. Could the ageing hardware have handled such a monumental task?
Certain aspects of God of War 3 could probably have been done on the PS2, says Velazquez, but not the spectacular stuff. "Not the titan levels, or the first person view point or the hi-resolution stuff. We wanted to step outside of the box and the PS3 helped with that."
As the interview ends I feel compelled to ask one more question of Velazquez. Is this really the last we'll see of Kratos, the ghost of Sparta?
"We'll see how the game goes and if fans want to see more Kratos, who knows? Right now, stay tuned."