What’s left for the man who’s killed it all?
God of War: Ascension marks Kratos’ fourth core console outing in Sony’s God of War franchise, and at a glance it appears like a reboot of a classic film with a weaker supporting cast. Zeus is dead after being liquefied at the end of God of War III, leaving fewer and fewer remaining justifications for vast fixed-camera panoramas and colossal boss battles with the literal gods and titans of mythology.
As a developer, how do you stay motivated when you’ve already dismantled that Pantheon?
The answer, it turns out, is to abandon any semblance of logic.
“We don’t care about ‘is it going to work?’” said John Palamarchuk at the recent God of War: Ascension preview at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. A Lead Environment Artist at Sony Santa Monica, Palamarchuk has been with the franchise since God of War II and believes the studio’s uninhibited approach has allowed the series to stay relevant more than a decade after inception.
“What’s the coolest idea we can think of? We take that and try to figure out how we can make that work. That’s how you top the past. You know what you did. What could be better?”
Take, for instance, a proposed boss encounter with the Hecatonchires, three giants with 150 heads noted for their overthrow of the Titans. The original design called for a rotating cube with shifting gravity even though the game’s engine isn’t built to accommodate randomly selected 83 and 15 and 41.2-degree playing surfaces.
“The gravity kept breaking,” lamented Palamarchuk, although it apparently shouldn’t have come as a surprise. “Our programming team kept saying, ‘You can’t do this.’ Design would go work on it for a few months and come back with something even crazier.
“It’s back and forth until we finally decide what we can pull off and what we can put our budget behind.”
The rotating cube idea didn’t make it through production and is one of many outlandish set pieces left on the cutting room floor. However, that creative liberation – and the dialogue that follows – helped the development team reinvest in the world of Ancient Greece. Nothing is ruled out until it absolutely, positively can’t be squeezed into the game, and while some practical concessions are inevitable, new material is nonetheless added throughout the final stages of development.
The trick is persuading audiences to provide the same level of enthusiasm in the absence of the more famous icons of mythology. The unstated subtext is that fans should care because the developers still care, which is no small endorsement coming from a studio with such a sterling reputation.
“There have only been two God of Wars on PS3. Other games come out every year. We get three years. That much time and care has been put into new mechanics,” Palamarchuk boasted.
Having played the game, those three years are reflected in the finished product. Ascension plays extremely well, delivering everything you’ve come to expect from a franchise that has always featured exemplary combat. The visuals are equally impressive, indicating that God of War is yet to suffer from any aesthetic malaise. Structuring Ascension as a prequel also preemptively evades the responsibility of determining what happens next.
Even so, the game remains mired in its own continuity. Kratos can’t fight Zeus in Ascension because he won’t do that until God of Wars II and III. He’s out as the big bad. So is Ares (GOW I), Cronos (GOW III), Gaia (GOW III), Hades (GOW III), Poseidon (GOW III), and damn near everyone else you can think of.
That leaves only characters you can’t think of, like the aforementioned Hechitonchires. They definitely sound like something Kratos should be slaying – it’s Shadow of the Colossus meets E. Honda – but we won’t know how (or if) they fit into Ascension until we play the game, and every fiction writer knows that obstacles are meaningless unless the main character is motivated to overcome them.
Then again, this is God of War. “Because it was there” is usually reason enough for murder, and that’s the visceral genius of the series. Kratos is perpetually pissed at everything. He doesn’t need Zeus, and maybe never did.
“We always put our spin on [Greek Mythology]. Considering that [God of War] is not hyper realistic – it’s a fantasy game – it doesn’t get old to us. We don’t have Greek columns everywhere. We can do different stuff,” Palamarchuk explained.
The mythology is therefore merely inspiration, an excuse to make madness rather than the source of the insanity. Any oblique reference to an unspeakable horror can (and does) get the supersize HD treatment, to the point that Palamarchuk estimates that approximately half of the design is made up without any specific archaeological touchstone. Whenever there’s a conflict between accuracy and fun, modern sensibilities tend to win out.
“Doing research, we discovered they didn’t have arches back in Kratos’ time. That means no circle architecture. Visually it’s more interesting [to have arches], so we made a decision to have them because they make stuff look better.”
That attitude explains other seemingly discordant design elements. When early gameplay footage showed Kratos locked in Mortal Kombat with a large elephantine foe, there was some unfounded speculation that Kratos might move on to other Pantheons. In actuality, the studio has simply been incorporating other geographical locations close to Sparta, including the Persian Empire.
“We looked at Persian architecture and carpets and things like that. Small towns, desert towns – we call those the Persian towns,” added Palamarchuk, discussing some of the international tropes borrowed for Ascension. He won’t comment on any future game settings, but if Persia now falls under the Greek umbrella Sony could easily annex Egypt, Carthage, and the rest of the Mediterranean. Clearly, there are plenty of ancient structures yet to be explored.
Gods, on the other hand, are in increasingly shorter supply.
“I don’t know,” confessed Palamarchuk when asked if Kratos could ever run out of deities. “We’ve hit a lot of the big ones, but there are some substantial characters in Greek mythology that you haven’t seen yet.”
But given Sony’s cavalier approach to history, you’d have to assume the developers would be able to dig up a few more names for Kratos’ hit list should it prove necessary, which means the studio still has ideas even after completing work on Ascension. That’s reason enough to be excited about the launch of yet another God of War. Sony Santa Monica has unearthed enough material to keep the franchise fresh, once again demonstrating that ridiculous spectacle — properly executed — can serve as its own creative justification.
So what if Kratos is running through the same basic story like a hamster stuck in a wheel? Fans aren’t likely to object as long as the spokes are stuffed with the bloody giblets of said hamster.