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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.