God Of War Ragnarök’s Director Discovered He Had Aphantasia During Development
Eric Williams has been working on God of War since the first game, and his credits extend beyond Kratos' journey to titles like Darksiders and Insomniac's Spider-Man, but he will always consider Sony Santa Monica home. For God of War Ragnarök, Williams put a pause on his video game consulting business to take on the director role for the highly anticipated sequel. We spoke with Williams about why God of War 2018's director, Cory Barlog, had to convince him to take on the role, why nearly every God of War game has a new director, how he discovered he is not able to generate visuals in his mind's eye, how the surprising casting of Richard Schiff as Odin came about, and plenty more. You can check out the full interview below, which is free of God of War Ragnarök spoilers, so feel free to read even if you are only starting the game today.
Game Informer: Cory Barlog, talking about the 2018 God of War, was open about his personal inspirations that are reflected in the game. Do you have comparable personal elements you were able to inject into Ragnarök?
Eric Williams: I am not as open, heart on my sleeve, into the game as he is. It’s just a different style of going about this. But a lot of our team, specifically the writing staff and whatnot. There were times where I was like, “Okay, I had this happen in my life,” and you wonder if there's a way to inject that into this character because it seems like that's what's missing. That we don't have any heart in this, so it’s just feeling a little flat. So we had a lot of discussions around those types of things, but I kind of look at it like this. I'm not a father myself, right? So to try to pretend to know exactly how all these feelings would go. It was more like I’ve got to trust the people that are parents for those type of things.
I looked at it from the opposite. I was like, I'm going to dig deep into me being a kid, and I'm going to look at it from Atreus’ point of view because everybody that is currently a parent? That's hard to let that go because that's your day every day. You can’t just take a break from being a parent. So I was like, maybe this will work out because I'm in the unique position in that way. So I kind of really push from the Atreus side like, “Okay, like, how is it going to be?”
They're starting to question things and formulate a world opinion and not always just taking direction from the parents and doing exactly what you're told. That was the most me part of it. I was always trying to always fight for the Atreus P.O.V. And not just push for Kratos to be talking down to him again all the time. I wanted them to kind of feel like equals.
I was looking over your credits and on the God of War games in the past – and please correct me if I'm wrong about this because I'm looking at Moby Games – but it seemed like you were mostly focused on combat. Was Ragnarök a huge change for you being in the director role? Or have things been slowly building up to this over time?
It's been a slow build for sure because even back on God of War II when Cory took over – Cory and I have worked together for twenty years – I've always kind of been like that right there with him. They used to joke and call me AD on the side because they're like, “He's just the assistant director,” and things like that because we just had a great partnership.
And then we both left around 2008, and I went to be a design consultant. I was working with a lot of teams, and he was writing and doing other stuff and bounced around a couple of places. But every time he'd land somewhere, he would call me and be like, “Hey, you should come over and help me out.”
And so, you know, I would fly to Sweden, or fly to Australia or wherever the heck he was, or over to the bay when he was working with Lucas. You pick up a lot of stuff because you're bouncing around all these different places. I worked with like probably 24 different studios in the ten years that I was a consultant, so you see how things are done. You meet people that have done this a lot. You get to pick a lot of brains. So, I was building up this huge library of knowledge. It was funny because when I quit, I said I was going on vacation because consulting was like a vacation for me because I got to kind of do what I wanted to do, even though I was still working in games. But frankly, I crammed like 30 years of development into that because I was working anywhere from two to four projects simultaneously.
A good example: when we were finishing God of War 2018, I was also working on Spider-Man with the team at Insomniac, I was working with Ready at Dawn on their IP, and I was working with a team in Poland all at the same time with.
I would come to Santa Monica in the morning from like 8 AM to 12 PM, drive to Burbank to work on Spider-Man until like 7 PM, and then drove back to Santa Monica and work on that, and then the next day might be at Ready at Dawn all day. I was just doing this all over the place.
So I was picking up stuff, working with Ready at Dawn, learning how they do stuff, working with Cory, working with Brian [Horton, co-director of Spider-Man] over at Insomniac, so I saw all these different people and was picking up stuff. And then I got to have a master class with [Mad Max: Fury Road director] George Miller when we were in Australia,
I was curious if, during all your time working with Cory, if you got to work with George Miller at all.
Yeah, I did. That was incredible. We could do the whole interview just on that alone. How much I learned in just the ten days I was over there. Cory spent months there, almost a year. I was jealous of that because he was just getting an influx of all this amazing stuff.
I am sort of meandering a bit, but basically, I had all this packed away from different points of view, and then I was still learning a lot of things on my own on the side. So, when Cory finally was like, “Hey, man, I'm tired after 2018. You should do this. I think you're ready for it,” I said, no. I was resistant for a long time. It took him six months to convince me to do it because I was thinking I would just help. I wasn't sure if I wanted to go out there and be the leader. And I didn't know if I could be the leader. So it was a new challenge. It was time to take on something new. And we went for it and it worked out.
I'm not going to lie. I messed up a lot in the beginning. There were a lot of growing pains, dealing with different personalities and learning that not everybody can move at the same speed. It’s just a lot of that stuff, and you have to kind of just make mistakes. But I do say that when you do make a mistake, it's what you do next that counts the most.
You just have to try to right those wrongs immediately and get back on the horse and moving in the right direction. I think we got there in the end, but we’ll see. It’s the people that matter. I can't wait for the fans to play tomorrow because that's really the true test, right? It’s different when players put their money down and say, “I want to be entertained.” When you hear that review? That's a strong review.
So you had to make a choice that this would be your full-time job when you finally made that decision?
Yeah, my little consulting business is on hold. I still pay the little LLC fee every year to keep it alive, but I'm here full-time on this game. But it was good to come home. Santa Monica's what made me, you know? Like I was at a small studio with Cory way back in the day, and we made a lot of games that weren’t very good.
He came here in 2003 and then I came in 2004, and they really believed in us. They gave us every opportunity to succeed. If I was going to come home, this was the home I needed to come home to, to do this game. I made a lot of friends at Insomniac and Ready at Dawn and other places, but this is always like the real home to come back to.
This may be a question you don't have the answer to yet, but is this going to be your home for the foreseeable future?
Well, up until you guys put the reviews out, I didn't know. I was like, “Man, if this doesn't score well, they're going to show me the door real quick.”
Is that really something you were worried about, though? After seeing the completed game?
One hundred percent. You just don't know. And I think it's also good to live in that place because you want to stay hungry. It's easy to get complacent. But that's not what video games need or our fans need. They want stuff that's going to be good. You’ve got to kind of get yourself in an uncomfortable place where you're like, “Okay, I really put it in every day,” and do the best you possibly can and get the team to do that, as well, to progress things forward. Plus, you don't want to mess up the studio. There is a huge responsibility., There are 400 people that you're in charge of their livelihood. You want to make sure the game is good, is reviewed good, and doesn't run into anything terrible. We’ve all heard the horror stories. It’s not like it couldn’t happen again. But, obviously, Sony is much better about those things. But you know – there is a lot of money on the line. You’ve got to put it and do it right.
Cory is the only person who has directed multiple God of War games. It seems like that's an important directive internally that there always be a different person in the place of leadership for each God of War game. Why is that? Do you feel like that's the right call?
This is my answer. I don't know if this is true or false or otherwise in other people's opinions or brains. I think it's to get a new P.O.V. and also show faith in the growing of talent at the studio. If you just have one person directing the whole time, a lot of good people end up leaving because they're like, “Well, I want my shot,” and then they’ll go somewhere else, and you're losing really good people.
So I think, having that rotation … usually – I shouldn't say usually. The director is always the best person for the job because they're the ones everybody already believes in. We all believed in Cory, and when David [Jaffe, director of the original God of War] tapped him, we were like, “Yeah!”
I'll never forget it. It was raining, and we were at Penn Station, the old studio. We had phones on our desk back in the day, and my phone call and my phone rang, and I picked it up and Cory was like, “Hey, come downstairs!” And then my buddy Derek Daniels right next to me, who is my partner in crime, always for design stuff. He's like the absolute best. His phone rang, and I was like, “Something's up.” And we went downstairs and met outside, and he's like, “Dude, they’re going to let me direct the next game. Are you two idiots in?” and we were like, “Oh yeah, we’ve got your back.” He was like, “I need my animation team.” And they were still working at the old studio. And he's like, You know, that's weird if I call, so I called them up and said, “Hey, you guys all need to come over here.” He built this amazing animation team at the old studio, and I'm not even joking – four people came in for job interviews on the exact same day. We took the whole animation team, and they're still here to this day because they were the guys that grew up our narrative animator to become our animation director. He was one of Cory’s prodigies and is incredible.
They're still here, and they still have his back. And they've all been growing. They started out as a normal animator, and then he animated Kratos on God of War II. Now he's the studio animation director. So again, to get back to your main question, then there was Stig [Asmussen, director of God of War III] was the next best person. Everybody rallied behind Stig. He knew what he was doing had a strong voice and a strong vision.
You keep the new POV in there, you grow people and show people that there's an opportunity and you're not just going to be stuck. It also gives the other people time to let their batteries recharge because these games are hard to do when you're a leader. There is no shutting it off. You go home, but you don't go home from work. You're stuck in your head. You just can't turn it off. You’ll be at the grocery store, and it's like, “Oh, yeah. We do this level a little differently.” It doesn't stop.
This is a short question with a potentially big answer – but how do you even write a game like Ragnarök? What is the first step?
Wow, that's a crazy question to answer. So, I don't write a lot. I'll be honest. I do more of the structural stuff behind the scenes, like where we're at, the beats, and how we're going to do it. And then I work with the writers to get there, and I might add a little thing where I say, “I think they should say this.” I trust the writing team to do their thing, but they don't get into that until we've already got the structure in place.
So, you go to a board, usually, and we use colored cards, and it's like period B, boss B, etc., and you start to build this thing on the board, and it's color-coded, and you look at it and think, “Okay, that looks pretty good. That would get us to here, and that thing would get us there, but, hmm, that kind of paints us into a corner…” It's a puzzle. You keep working it out until you feel pretty strong about it. And then once you get that going, then you break those down into scenes, then they start doing scene writing, and then they start to develop the characters and all this kind of stuff.
The game is really big. Much bigger than I expected. Not even with the scale of the environments, but the length. I think it earns its length because the pace really stays consistent in an impressive way. Does that huge scale begin with the colored cards on the board? Was it always planned to be that huge?
It was. The funny thing that's really different about me and Cory is he's very creative. He's a writer, an actor, performer – he's that guy, right? I'm none of those things. I come from an astronomy, math, and computer science background. I'm more of an engineer than I am a creative. But somewhere, I can ride the line in the middle.
So, I build it all out structurally in Excel. I have all these documents that are like broken down by the beats of the little things you would see in a level. I write it out like, they come out of the gate, walk forward a little bit, talk about some stuff, Atreus finds the boat, Atreus undoes the boat, the little guys come out, you beat them up, you get on the boat, sail out a little bit, Atreus starts talking, Kratos says focus on the water, you pick up the loot…
I have a spreadsheet that breaks down each one of those moments, how they stream together, how much time you're going to spend in them. And we have that across the entire game. And then you add up all the time and there's another page that has an overview of all of it, and you see like, “Okay, this is going to be this long, and cinematics are piping in, and then you get the time of the game and it's I would say it's within 10%. The original prediction is within 10% of the final product. It's kind of crazy.
If you saw it, you would be like, “Oh, now I see what you're saying!” It's really hard to picture what I'm saying, but if I could show it to you, you would be like, “Oh, wow, that's nuts.” Not a lot of people do it that way. We hadn't done it that way before. This was me. Like, the only way I could wrap my head around it was to do it this way. I'll tell you, the real messed up thing that I learned on this project that blew my mind in the team as well. Do you know what Aphantasia is?
No, I don’t.
It’s where you don't see things in your mind's eye. So, I close my eyes. I can't see anything. Like you tell me, “Think of a green apple.” I can't see it. I can't picture anything in my head. So I compensate for this with a crazy ton of reference – images for everything. I pulled tons like an artist. One of our artists was like, “Dude, you really don't need to do all this.” And I was like, “I do, because I need to know that we’re looking at the same thing.” I didn't even know this was a thing. I thought that was always just a figure of speech. “I can see it in my mind's eye.” And then I read about it in the Pixar book, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, and [former Pixar chief] Ed Catmull has this and I was like, “Whoa, this is a real thing?”
I went and started reading about it and all this, and then I started explaining it to people, and they were like, “Oh, no wonder why you do that!” Because I have like animated gif directory for like all the animators, for all the combat stuff. It's like 6000 gifs or something like that because I would just pull all this reference.
They love it, but they were also like, “You don't need to do all this. We know what a roundhouse kick looks like.” And I'm like, “Yeah, but not this one.” So that was the weird thing. And then they just started to be like, “He's just obsessive about all that stuff.” So I just stuck with it. At that point. I was like, “Well, I'm already compensating, so I'll just keep doing it more and more and more.” Some people get upset because they're like, “Dude, you're taking all the creative fun out of this because you're just like, ‘make it like that’,” But then I figured out a different technique where I would pull stuff that didn't seem like it went together and I would give them like a description and they'd figure out how to put it all together.
That's really interesting. I can also understand why the artists would see it as too much reference, but… that's just how you work, I guess, right?
Yeah. They had to acclimate to me because it's completely different than Cory. I had to think of that, too. Like, why are they being so difficult? And I realized we did not approach problems the same way. It was just like one of those epiphany moments of like, I'm f****** this up because I'm not paying attention.
You said you're not as involved in the moment-to-moment dialog writing, but one thing that really surprised me is that Ragnarök is easily the funniest God of War game.
I found myself laughing a lot. Was that an early decision? Early on, did you say, “I want this one to be funny”?
Yeah, because I was bringing a lot of really heavy stuff into it, and they were like, “okay, if we're going to do this, we have to cut it somehow.” I wanted it to be like Empire [Strikes Back]. Remember, Empire is kind of a downer by the end. But I don't want it to be that much of a downer because it is going to be the end.
I wanted the middle of the game to be kind of a downer, and then swing back around. So they were like, “Okay, cool. Can we start to open it up then?” And I was like, “Yeah,” and we started playing around with it and then we really leaned into the whole Kratos is like literally the most powerful straight man in comedy you've ever seen, to the point where he does things that are so him that you just laugh at him.
The one that always stood out to me is like when he first shows up, it's in the house, and Sindri goes, “Do you need a snack?” And he just says, “I do not need a snack.” That's going to be a meme on the Internet; one-hundred percent like that's going to happen.
That exact scene is in our video review here at Game Informer. That's the line we highlighted to showcase the comedy. I want to talk about Richard Schiff a little bit.
I saw Richard last night.
Schiff as Odin feels totally left field to me, and the result is one of my favorite performances in the game. I think he's fantastic. How did that even come about? Why did you think of him? He’s not the first actor that comes to mind for sure.
It's funny because for a lot of the early concepts, one of our guys puts famous people like into the concept sometimes. Or I'll be like, “I kind of want him to be like this person.” He got really good at it. So we have a lot of different Odins from some wild different takes. And then, it was like one of those magic moments where everybody was like, “Man… what are we going to do with Odin?” And we had already written some lines for him, and we didn't have anybody in mind yet. And we were just like… what if we could get West Wing himself?
We didn’t think he would even take the call. He doesn't care about video games. Eventually, we were like, screw it, let's just find out. Have him tell us no. So Richard is in the car with his son, who's a big God of War fan, and he asked his son, “Do you know what this God of War thing is?” And his son was like, “Just say yes. It doesn't matter what it is, just say yes.” And then that night his son went home and wrote two pages for Richard. He broke down the 2018 game for him so he would understand what he was getting into when he would came to meet us the next day. We walked him around, we talked to him, and all that kind of stuff.
And he was like, “Yeah, let's do it.” It was just this wild moment where we're sitting there, literally walking and talking to him through the game, like he's like Toby Ziegler, like trying to pitch him on his game. It was surreal, you know? And then first day on set, people were like, “Holy…”
The crew didn't know. They were like, “That guy's going to play Odin!? You're sh****** me!” And some people were like, “I don't know about this,” And then he opened his mouth and everybody was like, “Dude, this is going to be amazing.”
Shout out to Richard's son.
Yeah, exactly. Gus! He just brought it home for us.
A lot of these performances, Thor included, are not who you would typically consider for these characters that have been in established other mediums. I think you guys really nailed it.
Thank you so much. We just wanted it to feel like a true ensemble cast, but with big man Chris [Judge as Kratos] leading the way. Just with a slight wrinkle in his lip, he can make Kratos make you feel so many things through it. He just embodies that character.
To read Game Informer's God of War Ragnarök review, follow the link.