In May of last year, Warren Spector shared his thoughts on Facebook about the reveal of Machine Games', Wolfenstein The New Order, disparaging the reveal of the latest episode in the classic shooter franchise. Spector called the game out specifically, saying the world didn’t need another “kill-the-Nazi-giant-robot game”, imploring developers to “stop using Jimi Hendrix to promote your adolescent male power fantasies.”
Had Wolfenstein gone in a different direction, Spector could have been right about it. it could easily have been another generic World War II inspired shooter power fantasy. Instead Machine Games delivered a powerful piece of alternate history in the form of an action game that is profoundly humanist, intelligent, and rife with social commentary. Thank goodness Spector was wrong about it, because Wolfenstein: The New Order is a great game.
I had a chance to sit down recently with Jens Matthies, the game's Creative Director to talk about its development over Skype—it was 10 in the morning in California, but 7 pm in Sweden, where Machine Games is located. When I asked if Spector’s comments had affected development, Matthies said that they hadn't, adding that they got to meet with him, and that he was speaking more about the general watering down of the industry:
Jens Matthies: Of course a lot of us agree with him, there’s a lot of movement in the same direction, and following the leader. When money is involved there’s a tendency to go where the money is. But that’s not our philosophy and it’s not Bethesda’s philosophy. And we made the game we wanted to make.
(One of the game’s most striking features in The New Order is a choice you make in the first chapter of the game, set in an alternate history 1946, where World War II is still being fought. The choice creates two different timelines, with different characters, events, and styles of character interactions. When asked about the challenges of creating the branching timeline, Matthies said the initial choice between whether you selected Fergus or Wyatt to live was done to create a driving antipathy towards the game’s villain General Deathshead.)
Matthies: Once we felt we had that, the natural conclusion—we felt that was very strong in the drive it would give you as a player—the natural consequence was that it gave you these branching timelines, and we liked that even though it meant making it harder on production. The separate characters, Tekla and J, were easier in terms of recording and putting it together because it’s completely different scenes, but with Fergus and Wyatt they’re often in the same scene interacting with other actors, and that was tricky to deal with in recording. A lot of times we would record it—for example with Wyatt, the actor called A.J. Trauth would record first, and then Gideon Emery would come in and the other actors would be miming their parts while we played the audio from the tape we had selected with Wyatt—to Gideon—and then he would act his part separately, sort of.
GameRevolution: You guys had an incredible amount of freedom in this game. I was at GaymerX and a panelist called out how they couldn’t imagine another triple-A having a scene where the main character would drop acid with Jimi Hendrix.
Matthies: It’s the absolute freest reign we’ve ever had in any game we’ve created. With any other publisher it would have been impossible to get that into the game. But that’s never a concern with Bethesda. Whenever they have a problem with something it’s quality related, it’s never content related. It’s such an amazing sense of freedom to have an idea like that, and put it in the game.
GR: That extends to the social issues too, how J tells B.J. that for his family, that pre-civil rights America might as well have been a Nazi state for minorities, especially black Americans.
Matthies: That specific example came from me doing the research. The things that the Nazis did, it was gradual. It didn’t start with the Holocaust it started with Segregation. And it was based on the US model of segregation, and completely forgotten, I had no idea about that before looking into it. And when we can, with an idea like that, we go for it.
The other thing that makes this world so interesting is that the Nazi ideology, there’s a dimension of it that’s so inhuman but so violent, but there’s also this psychological component that you have to conform to. Anyone who falls outside of that is outside of that society. And of course everyone who’s interesting in the world, falls outside of that, outside of that spectrum. From that you have this amazing pool of amazing character traits, and the characters that you meet and fight with on your side.
On one side a Wolfenstein game is like, it’s the game where, a fundamental aspect is jumping the shark. It’s that kind of world. That’s also why early on the game you do this midair jump from one airplane to the other. It’s totally over the top and crazy, and it’s fun! It’s that kind of world, yah know?
So there’s this kind of world in a Wolfenstein game, but there’s also this real world of events that we pulled from that’s much darker. Even though we have these larger than life characters, it’s all rooted in something that comes out of actual Nazi ideology, or actual things that they did.
GR: The setting is so amazingly striking, especially the alternate history angle. You guys extrapolated on this world where the Nazi's won the war, and then pushed it forward into the 60's. Was that the original concept?
Matthies: Well, a lot of things start with a gut reaction, and then all of the rationalizations come afterwards. It actually started before we became a part of Bethesda. We started as this tiny tiny studio that had hopes of making this. In order to put a deal together you need to center that around a game.
So we asked for Wolfenstein, and they said, “okay, what would you do with it?” And we went in and occupied one of their conference rooms for three weeks, and we were sitting there and brainstorming ideas, and whenever we felt like we had something we would bring in the guys and pitch it to them and see what they thought. And for the setting we had five different ideas that were all set in the forties but had a different ideas about how you could make that game.
But we had this one idea that was, “what if the Nazis won the war, and they’ve won because of some crazy technological advance, and it’s now X years later and they’ve conquered the world. They’ve really been able to deploy this technology. And we just loved this idea. Because first it’s just a gut feeling, like “fuck that’s cool! A cool take on it, you know?”
Then you start to register the implication of that, and you realize you can introduce any sci-fi gadget that you want. You can have Nazi robots. And as soon as someone in the room says “Nazi robots” we all said, “Yeah that’s cool.” You haven’t seen it in a Wolfenstein game, but it feels like Wolfenstein. Anything we could come up with works in a setting like that. So it’s incredibly good from a creative point of view, with things you couldn’t do in a World War II setting.
Then we started thinking about it in terms of, “what are the implications to the game world.” Okay well the Nazis had lots of plans. They had their own chief architect, Albert Spier was this guy who designed all these buildings they were gonna build after they won the war. Of course none of those were ever realized, but the drawings are still persevered.
The most intriguing aspect of it is cultural. We all have these ideas of what the 1960's meant as a cultural revolution, how society really changed based on ideas. All of a sudden that is taken away from you, and all that is left is this neutered, Nazi perversion of that. So it all just starts with that gut feeling and ripples out into this vast territory of possibility. If you pitched that to a regular publisher they’d say, “yeah, no. Stick with World War II.” Here, though, we’re pitching this to Id, and they’re going, “That sounds cool!”
GR: There's a lot of interesting details in the game. There's a place in the game where you can find this bland, lifeless recording of "The House of the Rising Sun"-
Matthies: I think out of… that’s the one I like the most! You can just tell that this passed through the Nazi culture ministry.
GR: About the choice, early in the game, I chose Wyatt on my first playthough, and started a second with Fergus-
Matthies: It’s interesting that you chose Wyatt, because—obviously that’s also how they’re constructed. I structured it so that people who had a more humanist worldview would pick Wyatt to live. And that leads into J. People who are just looking for more brute fun would pick Fergus. So Fergus and Tekla—the follow on character there—is more made for that type of player.
GR: About Tekla, she has a real fatalist, deterministic viewpoint. Can you talk about that a bit?
Matthies: I have to backtrack a little bit to answer that question: Wyatt and Fergus are also constructed so that Wyatt is more like a surrogate son, and Fergus is more of a father figure. Wyatt does only positive reinforcement and Fergus only negative, essentially. It’s very hard to get them on equal footing in terms of character interaction, because Fergus is the senior one, so he has a lot more lines, and you start off with him; so it’s hard to get parity that way. If I was going to choose in real life, from a humanistic standpoint I would have to choose Wyatt, just because he’s younger. You’re maximizing life that way, essentially.
With J and his pacifism, some people asked when I passed the script around some people asked “what does he do? What does J do in the resistance?” Everybody else has a pretty clear purpose and in some way assist the resistance. I always viewed J as the person they are fighting for. He is representing what the Nazis are killing. I felt that that would be important to represent too in some way.
With Tekla—it’s not true just for Tekla—they are some dimensions of my own personality or interest. It was really interesting, we record these in really lengthy complicated performance capture sessions. We take several days to rehearse and bond, and look at it, before we capture.
(In a quick side conversation, Mattihes revealed that the devs at Machine Games had been using full performance capture since core members had worked on The Darkness in 2005 as key members of Starbreeze Studios.)
Matthies: Nobody knew what they were doing. Now we’re pretty good at it. A director that we work with, Tom Keegan who’s extremely talented, sort of my mentor, he does this thing where he calls all the actors into a circle. I was sitting nearby, and everyone goes to sit down, and I ended up in the circle.
He said, “We’re going to embark on this journey and it’s going to be complicated and weird.”
You’re on a set that’s totally sterile, and everyone’s wearing these Tron suits that have a camera rig on it. Very divorced from any real world context and you’re asking people to perform at top level. You need to build a lot of security around that, and a method he uses is to tell a really personal story—and he’ll REALLY expose himself. Then he asks each of the actors to tell their own; to expose something about themselves that’s sensitive in some way. So it starts, and I’m in the circle, so I can’t just walk out and leave! I had to do it too, you know? How I ended that story was telling each of the actors that, "each of the characters I wrote for you is a part of myself."
When it comes to Tekla’s determinism that’s a big thing that I’ve been wondering about. It feels like we’re not in a deterministic universe, but just observing reality, it very much feels like we’re in a deterministic universe. I’ve read a lot of arguments for and against it.
You have no choice but to assume you have free will and live that way, but it doesn’t necessarily make it true. That’s the thing with me, I get very obsessed with ideas, and I research them. But I don’t have a very wide spectrum; I couldn’t care about football, for instance. There’s a lot of knowledge that I have, but a huge ocean that I don’t have, I’m very much a specialist in that regard.
GR: There's a ton of foreshadowing in the game. For instance, when you see the giant stamper robot at the beginning of the game and then fight it at the end. How much of that was planned in advance, and how much of it happened as you built the game?
Matthies: Well, it’s hard to say, more than on a case by case basis. A lot of it is already in the script phase, you write a scene and you have this idea. That whole scene in that incinerator where you make the choice, there’s a whole section omitted from the first instance. That gets brought back towards the end of the game and you get to see those lost moments, and it’s written in a way to build up your hatred of Deathshead in your final encounter with him.
Something like, when BJ is in the 14 year flash-forward, it’s “Sometimes birthday, sometimes Christmas” and that’s brought back in the scene in the train: all that is in the script. You write a scene, and this makes sense if I bring this back here. And that’s very enjoyable; it’s the kind of problem solving I like. And that’s lots of stuff. It’s like how the game bookends; it starts with BJ’s face filling the view, and ends with his face filling the view. There’s all of these ideas connecting together, and lots of that is just from the script.
Then once you get into production, as you start iterating, you see lots more of those connections. Well, we have Deathshead here at the beginning but we don’t have Deathshead for a while. So these PA announcements, they could be Deathshead speaking. They don’t have to be just a random German, they could be him. And what he’s speaking about could be something that, ya know, connects to this thing that’s going to happen over here.
Once you have a solid foundation it can keep feeding itself. Yeah, it’s a little bit of both. A lot of it is in the script phase, and a lot that builds on top of that.
GR: Can you talk about your film influences? Wolfenstein: The New Order has some really nuanced cinematics. I haven't seen montages that effective in most games.
Matthies: It's tricky to answer, it’s never just one thing. I’m really passionate about filmmaking, and all aspects of filmmaking, so I have, in my life, seen so many movies! And I’ve studied so many directors, and so much about the craft, basically. Just consuming all of that media, some of it just gets ingrained by osmosis, and some of it just becomes a part of how you express yourself visually. There’s never this one source, it becomes this backlog of ideas that you can build upon and add your own.
I’m glad you noticed that, because I’m very happy about the cinematography, in the cinematics. Some of them are pretty ambitious ideas with a game. When you’re doing time lapse in reality (starts laughing) it’s a lot easier than when you’re doing it in a game. Because of things like how shadows move, and subtle movements of the camera. All that happens organically when you do it for real, but you have to create it when you do it artificially.
There’s so many cinematics in the game. Adding up the timelines, it’s a full length movie, 90 minutes. That’s lots of shots to make, and light, and put the effects on; do the motion editing. It’s a lot of work and there were several times where we were like, "we probably cannot complete this work," but somehow we did it. So we feel very happy about it.
GR: How about the design, the 1960's of these alternate timelines is really nuanced, with this intricate machinery that really fits, but expands on what we think of as Germany of the World War II era.
Matthies: It’s very iconic: 60’s styling very iconic, Nazi styling very iconic. It’s weird with the Nazis, because they were very image conscious, but they were also fucking crazy! Like they would go for things that, you know, your average dictatorship would not. They were building stealth bombers, they were building all kinds of weird ass shit, way back in the day.
And of course, a large amount of that stuff that never got completed. But there are still designs. But you can look at those and you can make these kinds of fusions and build something you’ve never really seen before out of that. There’s no magic trick to it. It’s just observing, testing, iterating, and building a look that feels both of their era, and infused with the Nazi style.
It’s an excellent world to build because there’s such a rich ground to stand on.
GR: You mentioned some early concepts for the game that were set in the 40's, do you remember what any of them were?
Matthies: This was four years ago. The only one that sticks in my mind was, that you could do it Riddick style. Like you could be confined to Castle Wolfenstein and you would have to make your way out. That’s the one I remember. That’s a way of still being in the 40’s, but you have a different kind of game.
GR: Did the stealth element come from your history of developing for Riddick games?
Matthies: I think so some, but it comes from a deeper place than that. We love the game world to feel like a real place, and so we try—we don’t do sandbox games where you can do everything, but we like to give the player the opportunity to do everything that feels relevant.
So it’s not like you can jump into any car and you can drive anywhere, but when you really fucking need a car, you have a car. It’s more along those lines. Stealth sort of comes from that place. We don’t like the player to be restricted in their approach to overcoming a combat scenario. We like the player to have choices in assembling their own strategy. We supported stealth through a very large degree through Riddick, but it doesn’t come from an arbitrary place where we have to have stealth, but it’s more about giving the player options and freedom.
GR: Can you tell me a little about what Machine Games has planned for the future?
Matthies: We always look to the future: we love working. We have a great job! We’re not sitting idle, but obviously I can’t talk about what we’re working on.
GR: This might be a leading question following that one, but can I ask about the ambiguity of the ending? BJ has called in a nuclear airstrike, but we hear a helicopter approach just as it ends. Is there a specific intent to that?
Matthies: The whole game is so—essentially the game is very meticulous, we have a lot of people involved in the game [development] but we all communicated. So things in terms of production are very decentralized, and we all work on our things, but we all come together with each other, and make sure that things all fit together in the broader whole. So that means that there’s nothing in the game that isn’t there for a reason. Not a line of dialogue, nothing is by chance. It’s there because it serves a purpose of some kind. The same goes for the ending.
And of course we would love to do a sequel. We have a lot of ideas on what we could do. Only time will tell.
GR: Thank you for answering our questions!
For more, read our review of Wolfenstein: The New Order.