Rapturous reviews have made it clear that Kratos’s son, Atreus, is at the heart of the new “God of War’s” successful reinvention of the franchise. He functions as the game’s emotional center, and he regularly fills in the gaps in Kratos’s knowledge with his own – so perhaps it should come as no surprise that Sunny Suljic, the actor who portrays him, was doing the same for his in-game dad on set.
“One of the days I really remember was him teaching me to dab. Sometimes during setups, music would play, and so, he was dabbing,” Chris Judge, the voice of Kratos, tells Variety, laying out a scene we can only hope was motion captured. “He had his own little take on it, so I was like, ‘What’d you just do, dog?’ So, we spent like 20 minutes of him just teaching me his own little variation on dabbing.” It was a great bonding moment that also spoke to Suljic’s approach and influence throughout development. “He always kept it there. It was always fun; it never got too big for him.”
Jeremy Davies, who plays the mysterious antagonist known at first as The Stranger, agrees. “He hadn’t lost that pocket of childhood that gets taught out of us,” he says. Sunny had a willingness to take risks and be open, even when it meant “setting yourself up to fall flat on your face.”
As Judge puts it, “Knowing there’s not gonna be ridicule, you’re not gonna be mocked — that allows you to fly, to maybe investigate places you never thought you’d be able to go.”
If creative director Cory Barlog had heeded others’ warnings, the atmosphere might have been very different. As he revealed during Friday’s “God of War” panel at the Tribeca Film Festival, he was advised by many to cast an adult who could play a child for the sake of simplicity. But while casting a then-9-year-old actor for a five-year project posed unique challenges – Barlog jokes that he “spent a lot of time in fear of puberty” – he knew within a single conversation that the part had to be Suljic’s. At the time, they were still struggling to pin down what Atreus would look like (one ill-fated line of inquiry was “What would Kratos look like at nine or ten years old?”, to which the answer was “really scary”). Immediately after meeting Suljic, Barlog went to the design team with a new, unshakable vision: “We need to get this likeness, because he is Atreus.”
“Our bond was so immediate and so honest,” Judge says, praising Suljic’s intelligence and maturity as well as that still-childlike spontaneity. Their family ties in-game also forced him to reflect on his real-world experiences and possible shortcomings as a father. Judge describes “a great deal of guilt” around decisions he made when his own sons were that age, with work keeping him away from home — something he’d never addressed with them or within himself. “Some of these lessons that were supposedly coming from Kratos to Atreus, a lot of that was me and Sunny, but also things I wished I’d had the chance to say to my children,” he says. “I had never apologized to them. I had never taken the opportunity to say how much I missed not being there for that part of their lives — but I have since. And it was through doing this game to say if I had to do it again I probably wouldn’t have made a lot of the choices that I made.”
Later in the discussion, he goes further, describing his experiences on set as reflective of what’s happening in the world right now: “The old s— isn’t working anymore. A lot of the stuff that I got to say to Sunny was also me. The way I lived doesn’t work anymore. Being or thinking or pretending that you’re tougher than everyone — that nothing bothers or affects you or moves you — doesn’t work anymore. The way that I taught my kids to be tough doesn’t work anymore. And for things to get better, we as men have to be better. We have to teach ourselves better.”
It’s an undeniably emotional moment that draws a thunderous round of applause from the crowd – and it’s not the only one. As Barlog points out after the panel, the tears shed on stage were hardly what you’d expect from a “God of War” event. The reception of the game itself and the admiration he so clearly inspires (Davies, who worked with Steven Spielberg on “Saving Private Ryan,” says that “Cory would be the Steven Spielberg of the gaming industry”) are a testament to his care for his craft and his collaborators, and particularly his efforts to create such a non-judgmental space. This latest installment grapples with Kratos’s legacy of violence in a new and powerful way; given Barlog’s involvement in the franchise as a whole from its inception, it’s something of a reckoning with his own legacy as well.
He’s mindful of that history, but he doesn’t regret it, thinking of past installments as equivalent to his “college years.” The birth of his son was a “catalytic event” that forced him to examine his choices and how he did things as never before. “Returning to this, there was one aspect that I really found important: violence is a part of the past of this series,” he tells Variety. But what was lacking was the examination of and context for that violence. “We were telling that kind of classic revenge story initially, and then as we proceeded on, as a director, perhaps I was so focused on topping the thing before that I’d lost sight of the ‘why.’” Without that, even a “fantastically big world” and “cool mechanics” aren’t enough to sustain the game – a connection to the characters is essential.
“[David] Jaffe and I feel like fathers of this character,” he says. “And I continued on with this franchise a lot longer and feel this responsibility to show that as human beings, we grow, and we change.” Reframing your perspective on a character like Kratos even slightly can give you “the opportunity to speak to the audience in words other than shouts.”
Another significant change is the game’s attitude toward women. “I think that’s something we all need to work on,” Barlog says of the need for more female characters and a more critical evaluation of games’ relationships to them. “It’s a constant process of work for us, and creatively, for me, looking at each character as the individual and understanding how that individual is growing – and Danielle [Bisutti] brought so much to this that helped inspire what Freya became.”
“One of the first things I heard was that all the female gamers were just so excited about Freya, this warrior goddess, this mother – even beyond the magic,” says Bisutti, the voice actor behind the character. She notes that there was nothing sexualized about Freya, praising the understanding that grows between her and Kratos as the “intimacy of being a parent, of just being a human and wanting to get through this.”
She’s also gratified by the goddess’s place at the “focal point” of the Norse mythos. “I feel like there’s gonna be more for her – she’s not just gonna be relegated to Midgard forever,” Bisutti hints. “I feel so fortunate and honored to be a female character in this new era that represents that, and I’m excited to see where it goes.”
Kratos’s wife, Faye, may also have more in store. Barlog considered exploring “how Kratos meets Faye, and Kratos’s descent into rock bottom prior to that” in the new game, but ultimately decided that the power of the character comes from knowing this “second chapter.” Now that players will have that context, he says, “It’s a story I absolutely wanna tell.”