As a game designer, David Jaffe has been known primarily for blowing up cars. He worked on the original Twisted Metal series (1 and 2), which combined outlandish cars with major artillery to create games that celebrated the unfettered joy of vehicular destruction. But after he directed Twisted Metal: Black for PlayStation 2 in 2001, Jaffe decided to jump into his favorite game genre: action-adventure. Yet rather than utilize the usual fantasy elements of E-rated games, he opted for decidedly M-rated adult themes and brutal action. The result is God of War, a third-person adventure set in Greek mythology that combines hack-n-slash fighting a la Devil May Cry with exploration and storytelling like Ico. In this interview, the God of War game director and lead designer tells us how he came up with his concepts for the much-anticipated title, and why it’s sometimes a good thing to not introduce innovative gameplay features.
What’s God of War all about?
You play a Spartan warrior named Kratos who, as the game opens, is in the process of committing suicide. He’s climbed to the top of the highest mountain in ancient Greece, he’s thrown himself off, and as he’s falling he has this flashback an instant before he hits the ground and dies. And the whole game that you play is actually a flashback, which is those three weeks before he decided to kill himself. So the idea is, as you play through the game, you begin to understand what it was that caused him to decide to take his own life. And within that flashback, there’s this plot of him basically trying to kill Ares, who’s the god of war; he’s also going after Pandora’s Box, which in our game is the only weapon that can be used to kill a god. So you’ve got this very high-action plot about going after Pandora’s Box while at the same time you’ve got this more emotional character story of this guy who’s kind of going insane and ultimately killing himself. The goal was to sort of make an adult Legend of Zelda—it’s epic adventure and action, but at the same time it also deals with subject matter that would speak to adults instead of the little-kid fantasies that most of these games tend to deal with.
How deeply did you research Greek mythology for the game?
Pretty deep. I’ve always really enjoyed Greek mythology since I was a kid, and I've seen Clash of the Titans and all of Ray Harryhausen’s films. What happened was, I went to Japan, and you take these long, long train rides there. On one of them, I had this book called Mythology by Edith Hamilton—she was sort of the guru for chronicling all these great stories and putting them in one place. I went through the whole book and just started marking it whenever I saw something really cool that would apply to a game or a mechanic or a monster or a set. By the end of the trip, the book was just filled with marks—it was almost like that was my game design. I had to design a little bit, but 80 percent of it was already designed once I read that book.
So we did a lot of research, but then after we did the research, the game itself isn’t a history lesson—it’s really us taking the greatest hits of Greek mythology and telling our own story using those, because really the main goal is to make it entertaining, and the secondary goal is to deal with that subject matter. So if you’re going into the game looking for an accurate portrayal of the Greek myths, you’ll probably be a little disappointed. But if you’re into the subject matter and you want a really good, entertaining time, it’s probably up your alley.
How did you pitch Sony on a game about Greek mythology?
Sony is really good about letting a lot of their first-party developers kind of do what they want to do, as long as it isn’t just insane. They said, “What do you want to do?” And I was like, “Well, I’ve always wanted to do an action-adventure game.” That’s my favorite genre. I had just come off Twisted Metal: Black, which had been relatively successful, and I think they were like, “All right, let’s give Jaffe a shot and try what he wants to do.” I got lucky in that it worked out.
The real pitch process was more to convince the team. Sony corporate was “Yeah, make what you want. We trust you.” But when you have a team of 50 or 60 people and they’re all very talented and all very opinionated, you want to make sure you’re picking a title that not only you really love, but that they can get behind as well and throw in their talents and skills and passions. So we had about four titles—we had this one, we had one about a cop who died and came back to life with psychic powers and stuff, we had a ninja game—but this one seemed to generate the most interest. It was really my favorite so I knew I could live with it for three years and really be passionate about it, and ultimately the team wanted to make it as well.
Are there any new gameplay elements that may surprise gamers?
When I pitched the game to the head of production, he said to me, “There’s nothing innovative about this at all.” And I said to him, “I don’t care about innovation. I care about fun. I think we can execute this better than anybody.” And ultimately, that’s what it’s really all about. If you look at our combat, it’s reminiscent of Onimusha or Devil May Cry; if you look at our puzzles, they’re reminiscent of Zelda or Ico. It’s almost like our passion for a lot of games in the genre is clearly on display in God of War. I think what makes us special has more to do with the fact that our game isn’t just like Devil May Cry in that it focuses on combat, or it isn’t just like Ico in that it focuses on puzzle-solving. It really takes all of those elements and really tries to deliver on the promise of making this an epic adventure. It doesn’t just feel like a fighting game or a puzzle game; it feels like you’re going on this epic journey.
I think that’s the thing players are going to notice mainly, versus a specific, unique mechanic—and we do have those things. You can rip Medusa’s head off and carry it around and turn enemies to stone, or you can hurl the lightning bolts of Zeus, and we have all these amazing set-pieces. But I think the main thing people are going to notice is just that it really does feel like an immersive adventure that they’re the star of. That was really our goal, and based on early reviews and people playing it, I think we came close to getting that, so that’s pretty cool.
What are your personal favorite parts of the game?
Oh, man. There are two things. One is the brutality of Kratos, the main character. This may sound like marketing-spin bulls**t, but I really feel this way: I love the fact that in this game, you pick it up and you really can unleash your dark side. He’s violent, he’s brutal, he’s nasty. And that was something we pushed from the very first day, and it took us forever to find the animation team that could really understand how to actually make the player feel that way. So I think the unashamed brutality is really appealing to me. Then on top of that, I think just the whole adventure aspect—the puzzles, the story, the whole game streaming off the disc so there’s no load screens—really does feel like one epic experience. That’s probably my favorite part of it.