‘God of War Ragnarok’ director talks television and Kratos’s growth
God of War Director Eric Williams stands in front of individual illustrations of his team members at Santa Monica Studio in Santa Monica, Calif. (Lauren Justice for The Washington Post)Comment on this story
This article contains spoilers for “God of War Ragnarok.”
SANTA MONICA, Calif. — “God of War Ragnarok” cleaned up at the Game Awards, winning more awards than any other game this year. It won six awards, including best narrative, best music and best performance for voice actor Chris Judge playing Kratos, the game’s protagonist.
A day after the Awards, we sat down with director Eric Williams to talk about what it was like to make one of the games of the year and answer people’s most pressing questions.
Williams discussed plot beats the team considered — and others they rejected outright — and confirmed that “Ragnarok” closes a chapter of God of War’s story. The director also went in depth about what he thinks of game developers having to work long evenings and weekends to finish games, how video games compare to movies and television and what sorts of ideas he has about making games in the future.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
Was there ever a version of the game where you considered killing Kratos?
Oh no, we did not consider killing Kratos for many reasons. But the main one was that that’s not the story we’re trying to tell. The story that we wanted to tell was this idea of this parent-child unit coming together and then becoming strong enough that they know each other, and they know that they made each other better, and that if you were to break them apart, you’d still feel like they’d be okay. And death, that’s a different thing. That creates a different set of emotions, there’s a lot of grief and regret. Whereas, just watching your child go to college, that’s natural progression that doesn’t have such heavy weight at the end of it.
What was the inspiration behind the Draupnir Spear?
It most definitely started from the gameplay mechanics. In one of the PSP titles, a game called “God of War: Ghost of Sparta,” he goes to the Temple of Aries, who was the previous god of war. And there are Spartan soldiers, and they’re tearing down the Aries statue, much like the thing we always saw when they tore down the statue of Saddam in Baghdad. And he goes in, and he has his epiphany moment with a childlike version of himself. And then he comes out, but one of his guys brings him his spear and shield from Sparta that he had laid down and then you get that for the rest of the game. And we got to see him be the Spartan general again
And then he was a monster and became a myth. And then in 2018, we were trying to bring him back to the man he used to be. And then this for me, it was full circle, because that’s who he was. He was a general, he was a father. He was a husband. And now he’s doing it again. And so I wanted to see that core come out of him. And so then, because we knew we wanted the spear for the gameplay side, we started working on story. How’s it gonna get made? What can we say when it’s getting made? Can we make it his and only his? Because the blades were bestowed upon him as a curse, the axe was gifted to him by his wife, like what would be him in that pure kind of way, so that if you saw him standing with that spear and shield, he may become the protector of the realms, not the destroyer anymore.
Should video games be more or less like movies?
The Game Awards last night prove the point of video games. No game was like the other. You have a game about a cat who’s wandering around, and you actually embody the idea of being a cat. And then you have a dark, mysterious world where all the storytelling is based on how you interpret it, in “Elden Ring.” Every game is different. Just like with film, it shouldn’t be like, okay, you can only have Tarantino-esque movies, or you can only have Star Wars, or we should not like Marvel. I don’t understand this.
There’s something for everyone for a reason. Choose what you like. And then maybe don’t hate on things that you don’t like — that would be a better way of approaching all this. But we know that world isn’t the internet; it’s going to do what it does. But actually trying to push things away, or saying you shouldn’t have The Last of Us because it’s too much like a movie, or you shouldn’t have FromSoftware games because they’re too difficult and not everyone can play — that’s just ridiculous to me. I don’t understand that. Because we wouldn’t have so many good books in the world, or so much good music, or so many amazing films, if we didn’t have variety. It’s short-sighted.
Do you aspire to make video games more like movies?
I think of it as an experience. The current experience that we have is this one shot camera that’s this lived-in feeling that you never leave the protagonist’s side, you’re with them. And we spent a lot of time cultivating that. And some people think it’s just a trick or it’s a gimmick.
A lot of the things that resonate with me come from film or even TV. I love “Atlanta,” because it’s so absolutely real, and then surreal simultaneously, and you don’t know which way it’s going. They perfected that formula. Donald Glover, his brother, Hiro Murai and everyone that makes that show are just absolutely incredible. There was a trend of that happening. “Fleabag.” Shows driven by comedic leads, but dark. “Barry.” It was a whole bunch of them. “After Life,” starring Ricky Gervais. This is what I love.
How do these influences bleed into your work?
It depends on what we’re trying to achieve. I’m a research monster. Like, once I decide, alright, this is what we’re gonna do, I’ll just go research to the ends of the earth. There’s a place you probably haven’t gotten in the game yet. So — unfortunately — spoilers. Well, there’s a large area in Vanaheim called The Crater. And it’s this huge, truly open world space inside the middle of our game that you can miss. It’s totally optional. And there’s three to four hours of content in there, depending on how you play it. And it tells a bunch of backstory for different characters and whatnot.
It was all based on when my wife and I went to Tanzania and Kenya on safari. We went to this place called the Ngorongoro Crater, which is this volcano that collapsed inward upon itself. And then all these animals live inside of it, and they take you down there, and you just see the circle of life, right before your eyes. And I saw it, and I came back to the team like, “you have to check this out.” And we started looking at it, and they were just like, oh, this is perfect. The way we can cut up the landscape. The fact that the dragons are this invasive species that were bought from Asgard, and they’re killing all the wildlife. You can go in there and cleanse it.
When you’re adding extra things like that to the game, how do you manage your time when you also have to manage your team’s burnout and their work hours?
That is always very difficult. We aspire to do big things and that requires a lot of time. And the work from home environment, the pandemic in general weighed on people, for many reasons. Some people lost people, we lost people on the team, which was heartbreaking. That was something no one could prepare anybody for. How do you deal with that?
I’m very blunt. And I have a very demanding bar of quality. I had to learn how to maneuver that. I was like, ‘Okay with some people I can be that way with, then we can move quickly.’ But with other people, it’s like, ‘Okay, I need to slow down. I need to find out what your real problem is and then work from there.’ It takes time. In the back of your head, you’re like, ‘I need to go do something else.’ But it’s like, no, this is the most important thing right now. People are everything to the project; every problem is a people person problem. So if you can’t solve the people, you cannot solve the problem, because you require the people to solve the problem. And I think people don’t break it down like that. They think these problems are just these things that exist on their own, it’s like, no, so we get to the root of it. So moving through that was very difficult.
Some people were able to handle it better than others, and you lean on them maybe a little bit more. I try to do right by people, that’s something I always try to keep close to my heart. Sometimes you get it wrong. And when you make a mistake, it’s what you do next that counts the most. Don’t let that lie; go fix it, go mend it, swallow your pride. But with a team of 300 plus people, and then external partners, you have to learn how to manage your time.
Sometimes it just meant spending more time, which I know is not something a lot of people like to hear. But if you’re going to make something great, there’s a price and usually it’s time. It’s funny that video games get picked on a lot for it, but it’s like the fashion industry. I watched literally a documentary with Marc Jacobs where they’re sewing the last dress while the model is nude, last in the line waiting, and there’s no shade at them. That’s how that industry was working and you think, a writer by themselves, it’s not like, they were like, ‘I’m done writing today,’ some days, you’re gonna write for 16 hours, some days, you’re never gonna write. And so it’s just that aggregate of all the time, is it worth it in the end for what you’ve created? And I think that’s good. But that’s almost like a personal choice everyone has to make.
I asked a lot of developers if they think that conscious, necessary crunch adds to the project. Some said it might benefit you if you do it for a little bit at the end of the project. But if you do it for too long, you’ll face burnout. Would you agree with that?
100%. Think about it like this: If you don’t know exactly what you’re doing in the beginning, it’s almost impossible that people are going to work at 100%. A hypothetical here: If you had a three year project, you’re going to work at 80% for the first year, 100% for the second year and 120% for the third year, right? Because now you can actually put that effort in. Putting effort in when you don’t know what you’re doing is wasteful. Why would you ever ask anyone to do that?
Hey, let’s build a car, and I want you to work 12 hours a day, but we have no chassis. What am I going to do all day? It’s just wasteful. But it’s different for everyone. And there are a lot of theories about this and unions and all that, that I don’t really want to get into right now.
So do you just leave crunching to the individual person’s choice? It could be someone’s passion project to add that crater or some extra features in?
It should never be expected. It’s like, if you want to do a little bit more, great. If you don’t and you can get it done, that’s great, too. Because every department is different as well; a concept artist and a tools programmer are not doing the same work. And so to say that you can have it equal is difficult. And then also, to that point, a concept artist in the beginning, they have a lot of work to do. In the end, they don’t. So their schedule’s almost inverted. They’re [120%] here and then chilling at the end. To expect everybody doing the same hours all the time, again, that’s just foolishness.
Like you don’t do that on a sports team. You don’t have everybody on the court 48 minutes every single night. There’s a reason. It’s rest. Everybody has to rest. Sony to their credit added forced wellness breaks, in the last two years, just to help people realize [they should] take some time off. We know you have to ship and all these things. But even just that was a reminder from corporate saying: We get it. Because there’s a stigma: If I take this off, then it’s gonna impact my performance, blah, blah, blah. But once you have corporate saying “okay,” then it makes everything cool. One of the good things about Sony is they do understand that.
What was it like to take over this series from God of War director Cory Barlog?
We were extremely worried about [public opinion]. Because Cory is a big personality on the internet. And I’m not, and I wasn’t going to be. So we held that back about me taking over until the trailer was out. We didn’t want the team to pay the penalty of me in that switch. So everybody’s like, oh the trailer’s great, and oh, by the way, it wasn’t Cory. But then some people still were like, well, boo now, just because it’s a hard opinion to win over. And I’m not mad at it. But there was a strategic reason for rolling it out that way.
What did you think of Kratos voice actor Chris Judge’s speech?
I went up and hung out in his hotel room afterwards last night until like two in the morning. And we just talked about all the good memories and everything. He’s like a friend for life.
Is there a person in your life that’s like Heimdall, that inspired him?
No. He’s an amalgamation of everything people don’t like about people. But there’s a reason behind it. He can read people’s intentions. Imagine what that would do to you. You could actually read why they don’t like you. And you would just be disgusted by it. He’s just a jerk; we gave him the most punchable face you’ve ever seen.
All of our gods have this kind of flaw. Their ability is also their flaw. Baldur can’t feel things; that drove him nuts. Heimdall being able to see everyone’s intentions, it’s just like, how can you be around people when they always want something, or there’s an ulterior motive? How many people are really genuine, that you can just be like, ‘Bob’s okay. He just wants to go hang out and have a burger.’ There are very few people like that in the world.
At the Game Awards, the “Elden Ring” developers said they want to one up themselves and make something more interesting than “Elden Ring” next time. Do you have a thought of what you want to make next?
I think every developer thinks that. No disrespect. Anybody that sets out isn’t like, ‘You know what I’m gonna do today? Middle it.’
You want to progress the medium forward. Sometimes that’s a leap, and sometimes it’s a step. It doesn’t mean that the leap is better than the step. Sometimes the step is just so refined that you can’t ignore it. And sometimes the leap is so big that it’ll change everything. So it’s just where you’re at, and what you need to do with the team and time and money that you have. That’s the trick of it. A lot of games fail because they try to take the leap when they should take the step. And then that can implode a studio and then you lose developers and they get scattered to the wind.
I wonder if you’re excited to tackle a new concept or something that’s not a sequel.
Sure. Those are always interesting ideas. They’re risky. That’s why they’re not attempted very often. I don’t know if I’ve got a really good idea or if Cory does. We’ll have to see, maybe we’ll talk about it in the new year. But I still don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking something that exists and making a really good version of it. It’d be like saying we shouldn’t make any more Spider Man. It’s been done. But that’s not true. There’s always a new take on it. That’s what’s amazing about it.
It’s funny that we lost the concept of the muse. Because you could blame it on them before when it wasn’t good. And you also couldn’t take credit for all of it, because there was a muse. And now it’s like, no, it’s all on you. So you either win, or you’re crushed and depressed. And even when you win, it’s not satisfying to people like that. They’re already depressed because they’re just like, I did all that, now it’s gone. I have start all over again, and do it again. It’s just difficult mentally. So you need mental health. That’s a weird place to be. You gotta really have a strong mental fortitude to go again, even when you miss.
What’s it like for the team to be led by someone with a math and engineering background, rather than a more creative background?
I’m a designer by trade. The designers actually got it worse, probably, than anybody. Because I was like, I could call BS on anything. Whereas other ones I’m like, I don’t know. Is that exactly true? What you’re telling me? It’s gonna take 10 weeks? All right.
I also had to learn how to back off, because you’re not doing it every day. And things change. And they have different ways of doing it. And so it’s a blessing and a curse. Cory was the same way. I remember when he took over, the animators were like yeah! And then they were like, boo, because he was just so strict about the animation. So sometimes having your person is not actually the best idea.
“God of War” won the Innovation in Accessibility Game Award. Do you feel like you put a special amount of effort into the accessibility features? And do you think that should be the standard across the industry?
Yes, I do think it should be a standard, it’s something that the platforms need to take on. I don’t think it should be for every developer to constantly have to come up with it and devote all the time to it. It should be done at a platform level, and then we can access it for what will work best for the games.
Do you feel like the game was exploring masculinity? It’s a very manly game.
It’s always been that. It’s adjusted as we’ve gotten older. We were all in our 20s and stupid when we made the first games, and it was a different time in the world as well. A good friend told me one time is if you’re not embarrassed of who you were five years ago, you’re not growing as a human.
And I think as we’ve grown, Kratos has grown at the same time, but he’s still that guy. At the end of the day, people keep coming to his house, and at some point, you got to defend your house. And that was a big part of the story. It was, everybody comes to his house. And in the end, he goes to their house, and you don’t want him coming to your house.
But even then he gives everybody an opportunity, like, come on, you don’t have to be like this. And it’s very different than it used to be. And I think it’s very in line with the way that masculinity can be [expressed] now. You don’t have to hold everything. You can open up and talk about things but you can also still be strong and you’re the bear that’s gonna defend the fort and the clubs, and that’s okay. Because that needs to still be there, because other people will take advantage of you. There are snakes in the grass at all times. But you don’t have to be ridiculously over the top and gross about it.