Cool video game concept art is fun to look at, but it can also be more than a pretty picture. It can provide insight into a game’s development, hinting at a studio’s ambitions and experiments at the time of its creation. Plus, concept art can also portray the last glimpse of plans that never came to fruition – pictures of what might have been.

All of this is certainly true for the new God of War’s concept art – but you wouldn’t know the details just by glancing at it. That’s why we talked to creative director Cory Barlog about a selection of pieces from various stages of the game’s development. He explains what the art depicts, as well as what it means for the game as a whole.

Click on the pictures to enlarge. All commentary below is from God of War's creative director, Cory Barlog.

This was done by the artist Jose Cabrera. We connected with him very early on; he had been doing illustrations for the Game of Thrones historical book. He did paintings that are rooted in military history and other facets of history, and his work is so amazing. We’d given him just a little bit – I talked to him over Skype and sent over a single-page document. Literally the first two illustrations he gave us – this and one other one – were the guiding principles for the whole game. He was just able to nail it almost immediately to give the feeling of what this world was, what this character was.

This is the other piece Jose [Cabrera] did in the early stages, always continuing this concept of Kratos standing in between danger and the kid. That’s when I was like, “Oh, we should try white hair.” I was all over the map with what the kid would look like. It was casting Sunny [Suljic] and that made me say, “He should look exactly like this kid.” So we ended up scanning his face completely and using his model.

These were early iterations of draugr, talking about what the moods of these worlds would be. This feeling of always being in blizzard-level snow, which we then wanted to balance to make sure it wasn’t always “the snow game.” But I think even at this phase, we were playing around with the concept of bear skin and wolf skin – each of them having this reference point. Their base armor would contain this, so that we’d start building almost this children’s story of “a bear and a wolf wander the lands.”

This was a paint-over/concept art for E3 2016. There’s so much we did in that playthrough that was custom just for that; we were going to redo it for the actual game, but didn’t want to give away certain things. This was actually very close to E3; we had to get this shot working because it was still needing a lot of work, and it just a couple weeks to E3. This was quite a panicked moment when we realized, “We need to change this. It’s not going to be right in the game.” It ended up not looking like that, actually.

This is an area that has undergone a lot of iterations. This was in early discussions where we were talking about the fusion of architecture to the natural landscape. So instead of having freestanding architecture, people were carving into these places and creating massive chambers in mountains. And trying to find a level of detail and color along with blending it with the landscape. It took a long time.

This is still early, so it felt very monochromatic, but it was about finding the architecture and the key touchstones for what the game’s shape language would be. I never realized how involved it was, that you’d have to dig into this. But also, concept artists just love to nerd out on actual architecture and little accents for everything. And we apparently love chains. Chains are everywhere.

This is a space in the early portion of the game. This was the idea of being able to tell the story through the world and feel like it’s the layers of the world eroding and deteriorating – getting a sense of the history and how it’s been abandoned for so long. A big thing about this world is that there aren’t a lot of people around. The area that they’re in right now, people have kind of backed out of that space. The gods have been fighting for control of Midgard for quite a while, so it’s become abandoned and war-torn. That was important, because I really wanted the story to be about Kratos and Atreus. The fewer people that they meet, the better. So they are forced to deal with each other.

These are early, early, early sketches just trying to understand scale, and again, how we can merge the natural with the architectural. And how much color we could involve. Just getting that blue in there was a big deal, because I think everybody was like, “We should stay more gray.” What we learned is: Don’t stay more gray. We had a lot of gray and brown everywhere, and we had a moment where we woke up and went, “Oh my gosh. The game is all gray and brown! We need color!”

This is another E3 2016 inspiration image. There was an idea in E3 2016 that ended up not fully making it into the game, and that was having parts of the forest – or different forests – around Midgard actually illuminate in response to the characters. The idea was to make you wonder, “Is that responding to them? Are they making it happen? Is it simply just random?” It was a way to look at the world and make it feel both magical and alive. So we had a little section in E3 2016 that does this as they walk through, and it was very subtle, but I think in the end it was an idea that didn’t fully work out.

The other piece that was about the erosion of the world – this is close to that same area. This was a battleground for me. There was a point where the artists didn’t want snow. I don’t know if they didn’t want snow because our snow shader was still not so great, so everybody seemed to be hedging away from it. And I was like, “More snow! It’s Scandanavia! It’s supposed to be cold and snowy!” But then they said, “But then it’s all white snow, and we don’t get any color,” so even then the color discussions were being had. This was a piece where I said, “Okay, there’s not that much snow,” so then they added that snow in the foreground. And I was like, “That’s what you’re going to add?!” I think we still have the struggles of, “More snow, but not too much snow.”

This was a concept piece from our first playable. This was kind of a mood piece to set the tone. Our first playable, inside of it, had a little bit of what’s in E3 2016. It was actually a more prolonged experience of Kratos and Atreus going out hunting. They actually succeed the same way they do in the E3 2016 demo, and then we fast-forward time a little bit to show them having cooked deer, eating and talking and then continuing on their journey. It was the first time you would have seen Kratos eat. I think he drinks in the previous games, but doesn’t eat. We actually had him finishing off a piece of food, but now it will never be.

This is another area that is close to the areas we talked about from early on in the game. It’s blending the sense of large creatures being part of the historical landscape as well. It’s not just architecture, but it really is just large creatures that have lived and fallen and died there. Which I thought is awesome. Reminds me of the Farscape episode with the Budong, which is the huge creature in space. And an entire city was built around there – mining inside of this large creature. It’s fantastic.

Early on, we needed figure out how to keep people busy when we hadn’t actually written the script or figured out the levels of the game. So we had this idea to figure out how to do fun – “dungeons” was the only word I could attach to it – but areas that you could organically find, and figure out if there was a way to build these things where we could find sort of modules, but you never feel like what you’re seeing is modules. So the challenge to the artists was to create a modular interior space but that most people would never be able to tell that it was modular. So it contained things that were fairly non-uniform.

That was a very interesting experiment, because I knew so little about it that I stormed ignorantly forward. I had a lot of learning to do, and I realized, “Oh, they actually know more about this than I do – I’m going to let them go.” The way I was pushing them was just the first steps, and I think they steered it and went, “That’s good, but we’re going to do this, and that’s going to get you kind of what you’re looking for, but a lot better.”

This specific piece was an inspiration piece that gave rise to a bunch of pieces that ended up getting used in lots of different contexts around the world. It’s neat – nothing ever turns out the way you think it will.

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