One of the most lauded mechanics in Sony Santa Monica’s 2018 reimagining of God of War is the Leviathan Axe, and more specifically the Leviathan Axe throw and recall, but apparently, if it wasn’t for the game’s director, it may not have made it into the game.
In a special spoilercast episode of Kinda Funny’s The Gamecast with Cory Barlog the discussion eventually turns to the Leviathan Axe throw mechanic. Greg Miller, Tim Gettys and Andy Cortez break down what they love about it: the feel of throwing the axe, the sound design and the fact that there is a specific button to recall it (sentiments I 100% agree with). This leads Cory to reveal something quite interesting about how the mechanic came about and how it ended up in the final shipped game.
Cory says that he “actually went back and forth with them (assuming he means the rest of the development team) a lot on this” and that surprisingly the “first instinct was the button recall”. Apparently even though Cory loved it, it was met with some resistance from part of the development team, who according to Cory had said / implied that “nobody wants to hit a button for recall”, thinking that it would be better if the axe would automatically return to Kratos because “people really like the whole automatic boomerang thing”. This apparently went on for some time before Cory had to step in with the veto powers of the Game Director and say that it was not going to be changed. Thank Odin he did.
Although an automatic recall may have been a viable option for the game, the decision to stick with a dedicated recall button was ultimately a smart one by Cory. It’s firstly a deeply satisfying mechanic and is probably the closest in-game depiction of what it must be like to wield Thor’s hammer, not only that, it also really opens up more creative puzzle options for the designers. Cory alludes to this later when he says that after he had stepped in people came round to the idea and actually realised that they could “do even more” with the mechanic this way. So it doesn’t sound like he was met with much resistance on this later in the project.
It is also important to clarify that this was obviously not said by Cory in criticism of his team (which is quite evident from the video), but it does give us an insight into the development process and how sometimes you have to trust your gut feelings. Cory does give a reason why he thinks he was met with some resistance about the axe recall; he believes that it was because it was their first idea. Saying that many of the team who came up with the original prototype are “perfectionists” (in a good way) who are smart enough to normally challenge their initial ideas, so they felt that their first idea couldn’t possibly be their best idea. Which in most cases would probably be true.
This small tale of one specific element in the game’s development displays why the Game Director is an incredibly important role. In a similar fashion to movie directors they are in control of the project’s vision, and although there may be hundreds of talented people working in various departments, ultimately it is down to the Game Director to sign off on everything and make those all-important tough calls. Decisions which at the time may be unpopular can be all so important much later down the line. The video Cory uploaded to his YouTube channel of him reacting to the review scores coming in (see below) attracted a lot of attention from the community because of his genuine emotional reaction. This was a rare peek behind the curtain of the singular moment where he and so many other game directors before him get the vindication of (in this case) 5 years worth of tough decisions just like this one. The moment all the sleepless nights, arguments, and relationship strains all becomes worth it. We as the audience are fortunate enough to get to play the final finished project, without having to even think about the many years of development prior, and are often very quick to criticise, but development stories like this one coupled with videos like the one Cory uploaded give us a glimpse at the real people and real decisions that make up the games we love.