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The Making of God of War’s Incredible Environments: An Interview With Senior Concept Artist Abe Taraky

God of War is a masterpiece.

It keeps the intense fighting style that has made the franchise famous, while also adding a deep personality to Kratos by showing his bond with Atreus. But, the latest addition to the series also moved away from Greek mythology to instead focus on Norse folklore.

In an exclusive interview with GameSpew, Abe Taraky, Senior Concept Artist for Santa Monica Studios, reveals what that change was like and how they built the breathtaking environments of God of War.

Could you describe your journey to working on God of War?

I made my start in the gaming industry working as an indie developer in Hamilton, Canada. After the release of several titles, I shifted my focus towards larger budget titles with dedicated art departments. Shortly after, I was offered a position at Gameloft Toronto as a Lead Concept Artist, where I was able to hone much of my managerial and interpersonal skills under a mentor of mine, Alexander Cote. As a result of working with the fantastic team at Gameloft, many doors opened for me allowing me to migrate towards larger development studios such as  Beenox and WB Montreal.

My experiences there led me to work on on titles like Spider-Man, Skylanders, Call of Duty and several DC properties. It was here where I wanted to adopt a higher level of realism in my work so I began working for various visual effects companies on live action films. The work was extremely challenging and demanding, however I was able to stick to it and pursue work in the film industry in Los Angeles. It was here where I contributed in the development of some of my favourite Marvel films.

My time working in these different studios allowed me to dabble in a wide range of artistic styles and get a fairly flexible set of skills, which came in handy when I touched base with some friends at Sony who were kind enough to grant me the opportunity to work on what became God of War.

The God of War series is obviously hugely popular; what did it feel like to be part of that franchise?

I grew up playing the God of War series, so now that I have been able to develop an entry in one of my favourite franchises – it is still unbelievable to me. I recall watching E3 videos regarding the announcement of the very first title in the series, and shortly after, I called one of my classmates and tried describing what I had seen to him. I remember trying incredibly hard to tell to my friend that the main character had blades chained to his forearms and I had a real hard time getting the idea of such a character through to him. I eventually drew and scanned a drawing of Kratos, just to show him.

Fast forward to today, not only do I get to have a visual  input in the game, but I get to work with some of the most talented and professional artists in my field. The final result was extremely gratifying for me as a a game developer working on a title of that caliber, but also as a long time fan of the series.

“I grew up playing the God of War series, so now that I have been able to develop an entry in one of my favourite franchises – it is still unbelievable to me.”

The series was famous for its Greek mythology and art. What was the change to Norse mythology like?

The shift to Norse mythology was an interesting challenge for the God of War art team. In the past games, the art department had an abundance of Greek history, folklore, visual reference and artifacts to draw from. However, Norse mythology is not as thoroughly documented. There are not as many visual references to draw from. To compensate for this, the team had to utilise the limited reference we had, and use some creative pushing to translate the Norse aesthetic into the world and characters of God of War. With this disadvantage, we had to pay attention to the nuances that made the Norse mythology feel real and then layer that final coating of God of War fantasy over top of all of that.

What aspects of Norse mythology did you most want to capture?

Capturing the scale that the God of War series is known for in much more simpler assets, while maintaining a detail level possible with the PS4, was challenging. In my research, I had observed that any recorded art from the Viking era is crude and limited by the tools they had at hand. I respected this aesthetic in design, and found that it was a great contrast to the detailed tapestry or carvings found in the previous titles. At times, the simplicity in the forms helped us capture an even heightened amount of detail, since detail and craftsmanship was a scarcity. This is especially true in Midgard, the realm that the player starts in the game.

What impact did you want the environment to have on the player’s experience of the game?

Unlike the previous titles in the series, God of War 4 pushed the envelope in terms of mood and world building by integrating the player into the environment. A number of things contributed to this, the new camera being one of them. Also, this was the first time that we had a continued growth and depth in Kratos’ character. Because Atreus is discovering the world at the same time the player does, I wanted the environment to reflect the deepening seriousness as the story develops. The sense of realism in the world, with hints of a bigger more mysterious underbelly, urges the player to forge forward.

Were there any other games which inspired God of War‘s location or environment?

I play a lot of games, however, the challenges I faced on God of War paired with the no-cut camera, the unique Norse setting, and the updated combat system meant that I was treading in new waters. This made it really challenging but also pitted me in a corner where a lot of the ideas that I came  up with was retaining a familiarity to the games I love, but not necessarily directly referencing them.

Because Atreus is discovering the world at the same time the player does, I wanted the environment to reflect the deepening seriousness as the story develops.

Did you have to consider changing any ideas for the locations because of the inclusion of Atreus?

While there were many minor things to keep in mind, such as keeping the ground shifting in height only a few inches to avoid unnecessary clipping, Atreus called for more unique areas to be added in to add greater depth in the exploration. For instance, throughout the game we have moments where Kratos launches Atreus up to a higher platform, and then directs him to drop traversable elements for Kratos to use. A more complex example is in Tyr’s temple where the duo are forced to solve a puzzle, while Kratos is bound in a submerging platform. This was added for both narrative and gameplay reasons. These are some examples of elements that were added to the game to incorporate more variety and character/environment interaction.

Did you create the environments with the over-the-shoulder camera angle in mind? How did this impact your design?

We definitely kept the over-the-shoulder camera angle in mind when designing environments. For instance, God of War is a title that is known for extreme contrasts of scale, however this potentially created issues with details in the environment, since now we have a camera that is significantly closer to Kratos. It created situations where assets are viewed in more detail. To help mitigate this, we focused on certain environments from the over-the-shoulder camera angle, in order to accurately depict the detail level through an approximate in-game style view point.

A good example of this is looking at the Realm Travel Room. A lot of the detail is positioned in such a way where the player can always see key designed elements, without looking too far up or below them.

Did you have a favourite area or location to work on?

Personally, I really enjoyed working on the exploration areas. While I loved working on the Tyr Temple and having the opportunity to design such a colossal element for the entire temple, in addition to the entire Lake of Nine area, there was something so fun about designing these never before seen realms.

What other projects are you involved in, and how have they impacted your professional career?

I like to keep my horizons broad and keep the work interesting. Aside from my current position as a Lead or Senior Concept Artist for the gaming industry, I do illustrations for companies such as Blizzard and Blur. A major part of my artistic upbringing took place in gallery shows where I saw my father’s paintings hanging on walls. As a result, I have also contributed to a number of gallery shows all over Canada and the United States, including Gallery Nucleus here in Los Angeles. My first solo exhibition, titled Vegabond, held at the IART gallery in Hamilton, featured a large portion of my professional work. I’m a big believer in diversifying  artistic endeavours and branching away from one’s pursuits, since in my experience, this practice has allowed me to partner up with leaders in completely different industries than my own.

Certainly Abe Taraky, and all involved with God of War, achieved something very special. God of War is an incredible experience, and so much of that is down to the art direction. We’d like to thank Abe Taraky for his time, and if you’d like to see some of his work from God of War and the other games he’s worked on, go visit his personal portfolio.

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Gaming has been a life-long love for Stan. To him, there's nothing better than getting lost in a single player adventure. He calls Hyrule home, but occasionally also ventures to a galaxy far far away... Fancy a game of Gwent?