A Happy Ending Filled with Nazis – Talking Wolfenstein II with Game Director Jens Matthies
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 03:17pm 17/10/17 | Comments
We chat with one of the founding members of Wolfenstein developer Machine Games and talk about all things first-person and Nazi.
As one of the founders and creative director of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus development studio Machine Games, Jens Matthies has a long history developing first-person shooters. Albeit ones that tend to focus on immersive single-player narrative experiences, with titles like The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (2004) and The Darkness (2007) making up a small part of his impressive resume. After the positive response to Wolfenstein: The New Order (2014), it was only a matter of time before word dropped that a sequel was on its way. Due for release later this month, we had the chance to speak at length with Jens about his history and thoughts on the genre that has been the focal point of his impressive career. Also, we talked about the process behind creating a sequel to a beloved title, how playing the original Wolfenstein 3D was a formative experience, and more Nazi talk than you’d expect for a discussion about gaming.
AusGamers: I'd like to start with Nazis, specifically about them representing this overwhelming evil. What do you think it is about Nazis that lends themselves so well to being villains?
Jens Matthies: My personal theory is that it has to do with these kinds of ideologies, multi-fascism, this kind of stuff that, on some level, everyone is susceptible to. And that Nazi Germany was not just some kind of party or some group within society, it was the whole society that signed up for that. I think that says something about humanity, and that it's something that we all have to constantly guard against. Everyone is susceptible to getting wrapped up in something like that. To me, that's what's so fascinating about it.
AusGamers: And in terms of gaming, how do you think that plays into making the act of killing them so much fun? Because, it is fun to shoot Nazis.
Jens Matthies: There's something special about shooting Nazis, that is true.
AusGamers: Jumping back a bit, you've got a long history working on story-driven titles, especially those in the first-person shooter space. How do you think the genre or games have evolved since your time in the industry, in telling a story and keeping plays immersed in digital worlds?
Jens Matthies: Well, I think, for sure, technically, our ability now is so much greater than before. We have the machinery to do this stuff extremely well now, but I also enjoy that it's fantastically hard to do. Regardless of the maturity of the tools and technology, it's still creatively, incredibly hard. I think that's what I enjoy about it. It's the creative problem of how to make storytelling and gameplay into a cohesive hole where nothing is stepping on anything.
AusGamers: An interesting thing about your credits is that you seem to be predominantly create shooters, but cinematic and story driven ones. What was it about the genre that drew you to it in the first place?
Jens Matthies: When I was a kid, of course, I always dreamed about being a game developer. What attracted me to it was that you could invent something out of your imagination, and make it tangible in a way. You can make it real, and you can go there. That, to me, was always the core fascination with video games. I thought that the best way of doing that would be from the first-person perspective. You could go there and see the world as if you were there, and from your own perspective.
This was before any of that was possible, and no one had done it. So, I went on thinking about it, like, "How would that work? How would you look around?" Even things like mouse look wasn't invented before the genre was invented. So, just thinking through it as a child how that would work practically, I just gave up after a while and I thought, "That's just impossible. That's never going to happen." Then, one day, I see Wolfenstein 3D, and my jaw drops. It's like, "What!"
They solved the problem. Since the day I saw that, I never wanted to do any other kind of game, because I just feel that is the most immersive way of being transported into a game world, the first-person perspective.
AusGamers: As a founder of Machine Games in 2009, and that's according to the Wikipedia page, it was quite a while until the release of Wolfenstein: The New Order in 2014. In creating a new studio, what was the original plan? And, how did Wolfenstein come into the picture, or when did it come into the picture?
Jens Matthies: Of course, I was at Starbreeze Studios before that for around 11 years. Over that time, we had the opportunity to accomplish a lot and have many successes, but more importantly, a lot of failures. Failures in terms of how the team was structured, or the office space. There's so many dimensions of what makes a successful development studio. So, when we started Machine Games, that's the first thing we did, figuring out, "How do we build the ultimate studio? What are things that are actually most important in that?" All the way from how the floor plan is laid out, where the office is located, to the creative structure of it, through the publishing entity, all this stuff.
We had a wish list of what we wanted to accomplish. What we ended up achieving was exactly that. The publisher we wanted to work with, Bethesda, was at the top of that list because they have such a tremendous respect for creative freedom with their development studios.
AusGamers: In terms of Wolfenstein as a franchise, it has changed quite, I wouldn't say drastically, but there have been big changes since its first appearance in the early ‘90s. What were some of your original thoughts on the series, and how did that evolve to shaping the new direction?
Jens Matthies: That's not a trivial problem when you start approaching it. When we started talking to Bethesda, they had recently acquired id Software. We are, of course, huge fanboys of them at Machine Games. We were like, "Oh, is anyone working on Wolfenstein?" We found out that no one was, and it's how we started elbowing our way into working on it. But of course, the series has been through a number of different hands, and many different studios over the years. It's not so easy to just say exactly what Wolfenstein is. So for us, we decided we wanted to go back to its roots. For us, that is Wolfenstein 3D by id Software in 1992.
We made a deep dive of that game, and tried to analyse what the core principles are, which is deceptively tricky. It's not such a big game by today's standards, and doesn't have so much functionality either. The more we started looking at it, the more we approached this core ethos on that game, which is this totally unrestricted creative freedom that id Software had back then.
Of course, for them, this was before any kind of publisher entered the picture, any kind of marketing department, anything like that. They were inventing a genre, basically. They just put whatever the fuck they wanted into that game. It's like a WWII game, but the protagonist is this ultimate Nazi killer who's clearly inspired by the action heroes of the ‘80s and ‘90s. It's all kinds of weird stuff like Mecha Hitler, it's fucking crazy.
That core ethos, more than anything, is what we decided we were going to celebrate with these games, and to really honour the legacy of that. And interestingly, even though you could argue that B.J. Blazkowicz is very two-dimensional, which is not an unfair assessment, there is storytelling in there. Every time you migrate from one scenario to the next, there is a story explaining what's going on, conveyed through text. It's not very fancy looking at it today.
AusGamers: Ah, the days of text. Yeah, that was totally fine back then.
Jens Matthies: In a sense, I don't feel like story is something that we've added. Or that we've added this storytelling layer to Wolfenstein. It was always there, we are just able to express it in a way now that was impossible back then.
AusGamers: On a side note, has there ever been any inkling or urge to actually put a mechanised Hitler in the new Wolfenstein? Would that even be possible today?
Jens Matthies: Well we, like I said, our job is not to restrict ourselves creatively. But to go as far as those kids back in '92 when they made Wolfenstein 3D would have wanted us to go. That's what we're going for. We always envisioned doing a trilogy. We, of course, didn't know when we were making the first one, if we would actually get to do a sequel. We worked under the assumption that we would, so we seeded a lot of ideas in that. We introduced Frau Engel in the first game in the hopes that we got to do the second game, and she would be the main antagonist in this one.
Once you start bringing Hitler into the picture, there's no way to go from there, if that makes sense.
AusGamers: Oh, definitely. So, hint, hint, nudge, nudge. Wolfenstein III will end with a massive Hitler battle.
Jens Matthies: I'm not commenting on that.
AusGamers: So, you're saying that, with Wolfenstein, you've planned it as a trilogy, or had ideas that it would carry on to successive titles. With that in mind, then, how do you approach the development of a sequel? What's the process going into it? What did you have already sketched out?
Jens Matthies: Yeah, it's been amazing because this is the first proper sequel that we've ever done, which is interesting because we've been at this now for almost 20 years. It's always been a case of looking forward to the day where we get to make a sequel, and now we actually get to do one. It was wonderful, because we got to build a game based on our own foundation. Like I said, Frau Engel, for example, and all of these wonderful characters that we love from the first game, we get to bring back. That's been really amazing. We had a very clear idea what we wanted to do with a game, like going to America, and all of the key beats.
Of course, it wasn't like we had a script written or anything. It wasn't hammered out to that level of detail. Broadly, we had a very clear idea about what we wanted to do.
AusGamers: With the sections of Wolfenstein that I got to check out, there is a feeling that it's more ambitious, or more confident this time around. Do you feel that, with each new game you get to work on, especially now with a sequel, that you're still learning or improving, based on what has come before?
Jens Matthies: Oh yeah, for sure. All of the time. It's been quite remarkable in that sense, whereas with the first game people didn't really know what to expect. That was both internally, I mean, within the publishing organisation, but also externally. The number one question I got asked was, "What's the tone of this game?" It is kind of hard to explain.
AusGamers: Yeah, I've got that listed here as a question too. To me, tonally, Wolfenstein hits the impressive intersection of serious and comic. You've got outlandish, almost absurd violence. You've got jokes. But, you've also got characters, dramatic tension, and a story that people want to follow and are invested in. So, that's a weird juggling act that I would have no idea how hard that is to put together.
Jens Matthies: It is extremely challenging, but that's also what's fun about it. I love that juxtaposition of something where you can feel like you're part of the story, you're invested in real intimate relationships, but it's happening on this grandiose scale where crazy stuff happens. To me, that's just very rewarding creative territory. I love stuff that happens in that space.
You being able to explain that to me now, is because you played the first game, and you get what that tone is. But, before people had played that first game, they just didn't know. It's one thing to describe the components of that, but it's another thing to actually experience it, and know what that feeling is.
When you talk about the confidence, for us as developers that really hasn't changed. We were extremely confident with the first game, too. We feel like we have a very clear idea about what we're trying to say, and what we're trying to accomplish. Because that first game is out there, and people get it now in a way that was more of a question mark earlier on, I think that makes all the difference.
AusGamers: Definitely. Switching up a bit. With Wolfenstein II moving the action to America, I'm assuming that that was an initial thought with planning out this as a trilogy, or even thinking of it as a trilogy?
Jens Matthies: Yeah, and that came about while we were talking about setting it in the ‘60s, with all of the interesting cultural things that happened in America at that time. There was a lot of change and cultural upheaval, and we thought that would be fascinating to see how the Nazis would subvert all that, and if they moved in and tried to take over the country.
AusGamers: With the 1960s how did you guys approach, then, research. What historical touch stones did you guys look at to see how the Nazis would screw things up?
Jens Matthies: I mean, it's not like they didn't, in the real world, have a history of propaganda. You can look at what they actually did, and get inspired by that. That goes not just for propaganda stuff, but for everything like merging the Nazis aesthetic, which is quite unusual. Most totalitarian dictatorships do not really have a strong visual identity the way the Nazis had. But, just smashing that together with 1960s Americana, is visually quite an interesting expression.
All the dimensions that you need to represent within the game, there is a lot of stuff there that you can research. But, most of it, of course, you have to create your own reasoning around. Especially with a country like the U.S., which is founded and has so deeply ingrained, this idea of freedom. That is what the country is about. Here comes this totalitarian state, and they're going to take it over. How are they going to win over the hearts and minds of the people in doing that?
AusGamers: Create sitcoms.
Jens Matthies: Yeah, exactly. Take the stuff that's already working, and then smuggle in your propaganda through that. It's something that, once we realised that's something we could explore, in the very early days, in 2010, we've been looking forward to realising this part of the Wolfenstein universe.
AusGamers: You get the sense, too. Not that you would need to comment too deeply on this, but there's been, obviously with recent politicising of certain things - including Wolfenstein. During the development, were you conscious of the rise of extreme right-wing parties across a bunch of western countries? Was there a feeling that, perhaps people would look at Wolfenstein and then relate that to current events?
Jens Matthies: Well, there's a lot of dimensions to that question. One is, of course, that if you're doing a game about Nazis, and you take that game seriously, then on a very significant level that game is going to be political. There's just no way around that. That's something that we were aware of, and that's something that we embraced from the early days.
The other side, of course, it's not like we're doing a game that's a social commentary on current events. What our goal has always been is to make sure the timeless piece of art. Basically, that's what we're going for. So, we don't really let the outside world affect what the game is about, or what it's going to be, if that makes sense.
Then, of course, what happens in the real world is also a spectrum. There's arguably a difference between, let's take an example like Brexit or whatever, which on some level, might be considered a nationalist movement. But, that is very fucking different from Nazis marching in the street.
AusGamers: Oh, definitely. Yeah.
Jens Matthies: I guess the conclusion from our point of view is that it's quite disheartening to see real life Nazis marching in the streets in 2017. If catharsis is what you want, then Wolfenstein is the place.
AusGamers: Awesome. An easy question, or maybe not so easy. I'm assuming that development has pretty much wrapped up on The New Colossus. What would you say is the most surprising thing from the development process in creating the game?
Jens Matthies: Well, when you're making games, you're constantly surprised by how hard it is. You have a very clear idea of what you want to accomplish in your mind, but actually realising that is incredibly challenging. It's a war of attrition, game development. To get to where you want to go, you need an insane amount of patience, and just a very high tolerance for things going wrong.
That stuff is always surprising. But, on the positive side, what I think has been incredibly cool, we felt extremely good about where we ended up with The New Colossus. As you start a new project, you always want to reach higher, and you want to end up with a result that's greater than anything you've ever done before. It's been amazing to start that journey, not knowing how it's going to end, and then coming to the end and realising, "Yeah, this really is the best thing that we've ever done." I honestly don't think people are prepared for what they will experience when they play this.
AusGamers: Looking forward to it.
Jens Matthies: Great.
AusGamers: Okay so, final question as we’re getting the wrap it up signal. You’ve talked about Wolfenstein 3D being a milestone release for you, how has working with id Software been in terms of collaboration?
Jens Matthies: Oh, it's amazing. We have a super good relationship with id. When we started The New Order, they helped us out with a bunch of stuff. Obviously, we're working off an engine that originates from id. Then, when Doom came around, we helped them out and built a level, and so forth. This time around, for New Colossus, they've helped tremendously. They helped build some areas, and the code support is just a very, very big part of shipping this game. Yeah, it's a tight-knit collaboration, which is, of course, incredibly gratifying for someone like me who grew up idolising id, and how now they are our friends and collaborators. We get to take care of their game IP. That's just a dream come true.
AusGamers: A happy ending filled with Nazis.
Jens Matthies: You've got your headline right there.
Thanks to Bethesda, Machine Games, and Jens Matthies for their time. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is out October 27 for PC, PS4, and Xbox One.