Spoiler alert: Talking God of War III with Stig Asmussen

No secret, I liked God of War III, and looking at Metacritic, it seems I wasn’t alone. The PlayStation 3 exclusive that’s said to wrap up the long-running trilogy is kind of a big deal.

So when I had a chance to speak with the game’s director, Stig Asmussen, at GDC last month, all I wanted to talk about is what happened from the moment I pressed start to the moment the credits rolled. The resulting chat was filled with spoiler talk, including what did and didn’t make the final cut (and why), and where Sony Santa Monica could go with the series next.

I wanted to give you a guys a few weeks to see the game to completion before posting this interview, and there’s a good reason. If the words “spoiler talk” and “spoiler alert” in the headline didn’t do it for you, here’s your third warning: Everything after the jump, including images and video, could and should be considered a spoiler. You have been warned… three times.

Did you realize the game was going to be as good and well-received as it ended up being?

Stig Asmussen, Game Director, God of War III:

I knew, awhile ago like … in the course of production, it’s kind of like a tornado, and it’s kind of hard to catch your breath and look around and understand where it’s at.

But I think around Alpha I knew that we just had this incredible kind of collection of moments, and so many good ideas that we were able to cram into the game. And the question then was “can we make it elegant?” “Can we make it look really good, play really good, and feel really good?” We had all of those moments, and it was really clunky.

So it was a bear getting it from the Alpha stage to the final, and so I had a lot of questions like “Well, is the game going to be up to the quality?” But I knew that the moments, the design, and the pacing and everything, I knew it was really, really good. It was just “can we execute?”

Were there any points where you like “fuck, we can’t do this?”

I never really felt that way. I knew that we could do it. I mean, there was things that we had … obviously we had to reflect on the game. It was around Alpha, and it was bigger. It was too big, and it wasn’t as tight as it could possibly be. And we had to cut some things out, just to make sure that we got the quality across the board. And also, those cuts, I think made the product better, because it just streamlined it a little bit more. Made it more focused.

You said at some point the game was bigger. That seems almost impossible. Do you mean in terms of length or scope?

In terms of footsteps. You know, how long it takes to get from beginning to the end. It was bigger, there were extra areas you had to go to. We had some extra enemies that had to get cut. We had a big Titan scene at the end, which we had to remove, which was a really tough thing to do. We had this actual whole kind of gameplay on Gaia while you’re fighting Zeus, [and you’re] on top of Gaia. Gaia’s involved in the battle and everything. We had it all working, it was just getting it to the final stage was gonna be impossible, and we ended up having to remove it so we could make the other Titan scenes really good.

I do kind of feel that at the end of the game, I kind of expected that Gaia moment to happen. And it just wasn’t there. It was definitely noticeable that something was scaled back.

Well we removed that, and we added the part where you go into Kratos’ head. And I think that, for me anyways, it gave much more of an emotional impact at the end. If I had to choose between the two, I think the head thing was kind of more clever, and had kind of an impact to how the game ended and the story, and kind of what it feels like. I think it got better since we removed that.

What other kind of content was removed from the game? Can you talk about that?

We had a creature named Argus who had a hundred eyes, and he was a creature that was designed to have use the Helios head to defeat him. You would blind him, and his eyes started to shut — he’s kind of this nocturnal kind of troll — and you had to make him close his eyes, and he’d get blinded. You couldn’t defeat him unless he’s blind, and then he’d go into this kind of blind rage, and you had to fight him. He was fun. It was fun.

We had him [and] we had a massive cyclops. I don’t know if you remember the door where you enter Hades’ Palace; you burn the bramble that’s in front of it, and you open the door there. We had a couple of cerberus there guarding the door. The original plan was, the first time you ran through Hades to get to that entrance, that’s when the cerberus come down. The second time you come through, you just burn the bramble, and you would start to lift up the door, and [the cyclops’] hand was going to come underneath it and just whip it up. From the other side was going to be this huge cyclops, like twice as big as any cyclops you’ve ever seen before. We had a branching mini-game on him and everything. It was really cool, but him and Argus, to get them to completion would have meant that other things would have suffered, and they still had a ways to go.

They both had really neat moments as well, as to how they got introduced. The whole Argus one was going to be another surprise thing. You know how we had kind of secrets where you could use the Helios head to find them? We were going to have those secrets paced out so you find four or five of those, and you’d get a chest in each one. Then in one, we were going to have basically a reveal where you’d expect to see a chest there — setting up expectations and then breaking it — and out of the darkness this Argus would leap out, and you’d have to fight him.

Yeah, I think like you said, you removed the use of the Helios head to blind the beast. I kind of felt like some of the weapons in the game — for example, the Cestus, felt like it had a lot of uses in combat, where I had to use it to break shields — whereas the Blades of Hades and the electric whip, I didn’t feel like I needed to use those weapons to advance in combat. I used them because I liked to use them, not because I had to.

Well, actually you did have to use the whip to charge the bridges… and we had a combat puzzle where we had kind of those Tesla Coils, and this got scrapped as well. But the idea was you had to charge up these Tesla Coils that were a branch of Daedelus’ archive, there was this balcony that went off. And in order to like proceed in the puzzle, you basically had to charge up these coils. But as you were charging up the coils, you were being attacked by enemies. The idea was that you had to electrify enemies and throw them to charge up the coil.

And we had ideas as far as the Hades hooks go; I mean the plan with that was always this was a kick-ass magic weapon, it’s like it doesn’t really have any kind of environmental use, but it’s really, really good for magic. And I think we delivered on that, because you can choose between these different types of creatures. And it’s a little, what’s the name of that game… Folklore? It’s like a light version of that.

Yeah, we wanted the weapons to be very accessible, we wanted them to be unique, and we wanted people to use them. Because a lot of time in the past people didn’t, that’s why we incorporated special surfaces for the Cestus and the bramble for the fire bow, and the [hidden] Helios head [paths]. But I think it got to the point where if every single weapon has a certain purpose, like progression purposes for it, it might get a little bit too complicated. So I think we had a pretty good balance of it.

Some of the stuff that happens in the game is pretty violent. I think the most famous instance is when Kratos pulls Helios’ head off. And then later, there’s a scene where you pull off Chronos’ finger nail. There are so many of these moments in the game where I’m thinking “What the hell? Who comes up with this stuff?” Where and what inspired you guys in some of these scenes.

I think as a team we’re all just really geeks about that kind of stuff. Like trying to come up with as many ways to make people’s jaws drop as possible, but that’s cool, though. And pacing it so that it doesn’t feel like we’re doing it as kind of exploiting it or anything like that. We’re just genuinely really having fun with it. I personally love horror movies, and I like the feeling, that kind of cringe feeling, that guilty pleasure feeling you get when you’re watching them. And we just wanted to inject some of that into the game.

For sure, there are a lot of moments where I”m like “God, Jesus…” But at the same time, I’m like “Oh hell yeah.”

Yeah, that’s what we wanted.

Was there anything that you were looking to put in the game that was just like too far, just too much? I mean there’s a lot of stuff in there that’s almost too much. But it never really crosses the line.

The one that got as far as I think that we go that we shipped with was the Hercules kill, which was inspired by the movie Irreversible. I don’t know if you’ve seen that.

Yeah, yeah, yeah…

So you know the fire [extinguisher] scene, and we really just were like,”Let’s make this just like Irreversible.” It took a long time to actually get that into the game. Like we had to do all of these head swappings. We had to come up with this technique to kind of swap the heads, and when I finally saw it in the game, I was just like “Fuck yeah, that’s exactly what I wanted. I don’t want to tone it down anymore, and I don’t want to make it any worse. We’re done.”

But I think that thing took it to an extreme that, I mean … one of the things that we do that’s kind of cool is that you have full control when you’re punching, and you can just sit there and stop. And just sit there and watch his head, and his eyeballs rolling around, and his jaw’s all broken and everything. And you can just sit there, and you can do one punch at a time, and just watch that sequence. That took it about as far as we wanted to go.

There was one scene that we cut … we had it at one point where, you know how in cinematic you kill Hera? You basically grabbed her and choked her — snapped her neck, and threw her down. It’s really quick and [Kratos] kind of brushes her aside. We had it at one point where you had control over it, and you had her head and you were sitting there and choking her. And we wanted to have SIXAXIS where you could like shake it and everything. It just got to the point where it was like “Man, this is a woman.” I didn’t want to really go there, it was kind of sick.

Well wouldn’t that be in Kratos’ character?

It would, but she was so helpless. It’s not like she was a boss. Kratos knew she wasn’t a threat. She knew she was no threat to Kratos, and she was just a bitch. She’s gonna try to cut him down as much as she can verbally. But like, to take it to the point where it’s like this helpless person you’re kind of … because he doesn’t really do that to anybody. I guess you could choose to do that to civilians, but that’s a little bit different.

Your bosses at Sony, did they ever step in and say “that’s a little bit too much.” Did you get free reign on that and then it was just a matter of the ESRB …

It’s the ESRB. The only criteria that Sony gave us is that it’s got be an M-rated game or below. You know, we’re not going to make an AO game, and I didn’t want to make an AO game. If it didn’t pass the ESRB, and I think in general they’re really important to the industry, and they’re a good litmus test. If it didn’t pass through them, then we were probably doing stuff that we shouldn’t be doing. That was always the thing.

And we worked closely with them, we were sending them updates. “This is stuff that we’re doing. This is what we’re trying to sell.” They were professional about it and everything, and gave us the feedback we needed, and that helped us kind of design things later on. Like very early on we gave them the Helios head rip and they got that, and we got a lot of feedback from them. “Well this is why this passes,” and we used that kind of as a way of crafting the next ones.

So Sony just revealed Move. Is this something you could apply to a God of War style game?

No, I don’t think so. I think … God of War … [hesitates]

Well, who knows. Not as it is. You can’t take God of War III and use the Move stuff. They showed SOCOM 4 that uses the Move stuff, and that makes sense. I totally get that. But for this game it wouldn’t work. Now if we were to make another game that’s a God of War style game or something like that with that in mind, yeah, maybe something could be done with it. It’s an interesting device. I think that you need to design with it in mind though, from the beginning, for most games. There are applications like we saw yesterday that just out of the box will work. But I don’t think that would improve this experience at this point.

No Blades of Olympus swinging?

Well, do you want to do that?

No … I really don’t. [laughs]

I mean, that’s what I’ll also throw back. That doesn’t sound fun to me. Well, why? Why do it? And also, I mean, do you want to sit down and play a game for ten hours and do that for ten hours? I mean, I don’t want to do that for more than 15 minutes. So you gotta consider that … it’s an easy question with a hard answer. An easy question becomes a hard problem. It’s hard to solve how you could incorporate it.

Yeah, you could do that! I mean, you could. There’s just moves and stuff that you’d never be able to do in your life that I just don’t know how going like this [waves arms around] is any better than just pressing a button.

That makes me feel better, because I don’t want to do that. So this God of War trilogy is supposedly done, and the game wrapped up pretty nicely. But there were hints at things that we could see in the future, I think. And if I’m not mistaken at the end of the game, when the sunrise comes up and the camera comes back, is Kratos body not there?

It’s missing, yeah.

End of the trilogy … really?

Something happened to him … I don’t know.

Oh yeah, “I don’t know!”

Something happened. He got dragged away or he crawled away … or … I mean, the Blade of Olympus is lying there, too.

Will we find out?

Maybe … I don’t know.

“Maybe”? You’re gonna leave me like that?

That’s where I am with it right now. Seriously. I have an idea for a longer kind of, if you want to call it an epilogue, I have an idea for a longer epilogue that would give it a little bit more … there would be a little bit more story behind that. But we couldn’t get that done on time.

But in terms of where does it lead? As to what we want to do with that? I don’t have a clue. I didn’t feel like I could just completely end it, and then the end just have it so it’s like “Are we going to be prequels or anything like that.” I think he’s such a rich character that we had to keep some kind of hook there.

I think it wrapped up nicely, but …

As far as I’m concerned, he’s dead.

Okay, so “he’s dead.” But there are so many unanswered things. For example, his brother. Apparently Kratos has a twin brother.

Well, Hercules is his brother, too, though.

But there are these other characters that we know about, but we’ve never really explored. Do you think there are opportunities there?

Yeah, yeah. Definitely is.

You have to get this wrapped up, there’s stuff going on here. There’s the military with the Titans [from the bonus unlockable scene in God of War II]. What going on with that, Stig? What do you know? Tell me!

That’s one of my favorite ones. You have to talk to [God of War I director] Dave [Jaffe] about that. Those were his ideas.

Did those ideas leave with him?

No, they didn’t leave with him. I really like the military one, I mean maybe that’s… maybe his body is gone, and somebody buried him, and then somebody later on the military unearths that body or something. Maybe that’s what it is. I don’t know. That’s one way we could do it.

Okay, okay …

That’s why it’s kind of cool that you don’t see him there dead. We’re not suggesting that he’s alive or anything like that. He’s just gone.

With the DLC situation, is there anything you can see beyond the skins and stuff?

Probably not. Well maybe we could do the epilogue that I’m talking about. The full epilogue, just something fun to do. There’s skins and there’s challenges, we could do those things. The problem with this game is that it’s so tight, it’s zipped up so tight, and it’s designed to work one way. We couldn’t just put in new AI characters or something like that without breaking the whole thing.

So you’re not working on anything right now in terms of DLC?

I’m not working on anything.

So you’re just hanging out?

Just hanging out.

So when do we see the next Santa Monica game?

That’s a really good question. I don’t know. It’s literally, and I’m not feeding you any bullshit here, we got killed so bad at the end of this game that we couldn’t kind of look forward. The goal and the focus was just “let’s make this one as good as we can, finish it, finish hard, finish strong. And then we’re gonna catch our breath, and then kind of figure out what’s next.”

Topping this is going to be tough. You think you’re up for it?

We keep on doing it! It’s always the goal. I think the time when we came out of the game and it’s not better than the last one, then it’s too bad for our studio. And it’s always our goal to top it. Let’s keep on doing it.

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