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Godzilla, Wolfenstein, and Our Obsession With the Same Stories

We want everything to be new, but video games are often endlessly pulling from the past. For some stories, there's a good reason why.

On a recent episode of the morning show, people jumped on me about a comment related to MachineGames' Wolfenstein: The New Order. I remarked that yet another Wolfenstein game in 2014, a series that has been kicking around in various forms of quality since the early 1990s, was a bit depressing.

The comment was spurred by a tweet making the rounds:

Some context. I said this after an hour with Wolfenstein, and I've since finished the game. It's terrific, comes highly recommended, and Alex's review nailed it. The New Order is a game comfortable dancing between schlock and tenderness, perhaps the most surprising comment ever about a game in which you fight Nazis with a space base. That Wolfenstein is more than merely a quality new first-person-shooter with the Wolfenstein name on the box should come as little suprise, given this team's pedigree. Many of the developers at MachineGames came from Starbreeze, the studio responsible for The Chronicles of Riddick and The Darkness. (Starbreeze still exists, making great games like Brothers.)

Clearly, these folks have a knack for wonderfully creative work within the confines of an already defined universe. In the case of all three, though, they were mucking around in playgrounds with serious freedoms. None were, say, strict film adaptations.

In an interview with Polygon, creative director Jen Matthies explained how MachineGames actually landed the Wolfenstein gig:

"The first thing we did was just brainstorm many different game concepts," says Matthies. "And then we went around pitching those to various publishers. That was basically the first year and a half."

Those game pitches were all strikeouts. The same year, ZeniMax Media announced it had acquired id Software--and all of its IP, including Doom, Quake and, of course, Wolfenstein.

Machine had pitched Bethesda on a game concept, but that game deal never came together. Bethesda suggested instead that maybe instead Machine might want to work on an IP from id's closet.

'Is anyone working on Wolfenstein?'" Matthies remembers asking. "They said, 'No, nobody's doing that.' We asked politely if we could have it."

I have no reason to believe this isn't true, and MachineGames was absolutely excited to work on a new Wolfenstein. On some level, it still irks me. I'd love to know what else MachineGames pitched. I know what bums me out--the perpetuation of old franchises due to market viability--but I'm less clear on the why, especially when MachineGames and Starbreeze have proven, over and over, that it's possible to do great things within existing ideas. It's an anomaly, but still: it exists.

And Wolfenstein is unique. It doesn't have the trappings of other long-running franchises, series that cannot easily deviate without inviting scorn from fans. It's the contradiction of creation: people say they want something new, but they'll keep buying repackaged old stuff. If we boil Wolfenstein down to its essence, it's about fighting Nazis as B.J. Blazkowicz. That's it. Everything else is wide open. So while, on its face, the idea of yet another Wolfenstein would seem to induce snores, that's actually a rather broad mandate.

What got me thinking about Wolfenstein was a reader pointing out a rhetorical contradiction of mine, thanks to the release of Gareth Edwards' Godzilla. I've been anticipating Godzilla since Edwards was assigned the project, even though Godzilla has been through the movie machine over and over again. There have been dozens of Godzilla movies since the kaiju's debut in 1954, and only a handful could be considered legitimately good. That sounds in line with how most longtime game franchises seem to go.

Here's what a reader asked:

Insofar as Godzilla movies go, there’s some nuance. Starting with the second Godzilla movie, the mostly abysmal Godzilla Raids Again, the pursuit of money transformed the concept of Godzilla. (Did you know the Americanized version of Godzilla Raids Again was called Gigantis, the Fire Monster, and they tried to pretend Godzilla (aka Gigantis) was a new creature?!) When considering Godzilla, most people remember the cheesy clashes the creature's had with other monsters. But the original film, called Gojira in Japan, is a mediated response to the devastation Japan experienced as a result of the atom bomb in World War II. Godzilla’s crumbled exterior was modeled after the skin of radiation victims. In Gojira, this creature is a walking nuke, a walking and fire breathing reminder of how crippled Japan was after the bombings.

With a few exceptions (i.e. Godzilla vs. Mothra, Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster), the series never seriously tried to reflect on society and culture again. The recent Godzilla tries to channel the terror of Gojira, though I don’t think “messing with nature” prompted quite the same level of emotional dread. But due to aging effects, it’s hard to recall the ol' rubber suit Godzilla was seen as a horror movie when it was first released.

Part of what makes Godzilla and Wolfenstein so attractive is how mired in genre they are. You might not expect social commentary from them, and that's exactly why they're such excellent vehicles for it. People tend to be more receptive to ideas when they're embedded within something that feels comfortable. In Wolfenstein, you have a game about stomping around in robots embedded with human brains that just might feature the most diverse casts of characters--race, gender, ableness--in a big budget video game. Hell, it even gets video game sex right--it's not just an achievement to be unlocked because you talked to someone enough. Blazkowicz might be grumbling busted one liners about kicking Nazi ass half the time, but the other half he's surprisingly eloquent about the human condition.

There's tonal commonality between the two franchises: the concept of a seemingly unstoppable, malevolent force we can barely comprehend. We return to stories like Wolfenstein and Godzilla because their cores remain attractive, even in 2014. Good vs. evil. Man vs. nature. We'll always want to kill Nazis and save the world, we'll always be frightened by a gigantic creature we cannot stop. It strikes at a core fear: the destruction of normality. It's what creators do with these stories that matters. Truth be told, I'll probably remain cynical when yet another franchise is brought out of the dust bin yet again. Not every developer is MachineGames. But more should learn from them.

Patrick Klepek on Google+
90 Comments
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Posted by HammondofTexas

Surprise article! I like the way you make words Patrick!

Posted by James_Hayward

Nice read. Weird to think that a fun Wolfenstein game is also inviting any kind of cerebral analysis... but it deserves it. Machine games really did an excellent job with The New Order.

Posted by ChrisTaran

You know what? I don't want everything to be new. There, I said something controversial. Someone had to do it!

Posted by EpicSteve

Godzilla 1985 had a cool Cold War moment. I just think it's amazing how that movie and Godzilla: King of the Monsters were Americanized. King of the Monsters and Gojira are mostly different movies.

Posted by BasketSnake

I'M TIRED OF SUPER MARIO! WHEN WILL IT END?

Posted by EuanDewar

perhaps the most surprising comment ever about a game in which you fight Nazis with a space base

The wording on this sentence is a tad strange. I know you're referring to the bit in the Nazi Moon Facility but the way you phrase it makes it sound like you're literally fighting them while wielding a moon base.

That's incredibly nitpicky though, top work as always Paddy.

Posted by Oni

Now I actually want to play Wolfenstein. Sounds interesting!

Also the new Godzilla is pretty bad. Avoid.

Edited by MarkWahlberg

With Godzilla, I think part of the appeal was that enough time had passed that it seemed viable for being re-examined as a concept. I don't mean updated - just that there was enough room to see if there was something new in there.

Revisiting older, known works is done best when casting them in a new light - in comics, reboots are never anywhere near as interesting as 'Elseworld' reimaginings, taking the familiar and making it new. Using known quantities to say new things is often a better way of communicating than using something unfamiliar. No one - no one - expected Pirates of the Caribbean to be any good (it was based on a theme park ride!), but while pirate movies are by no means new, there was enough conceptual room for them to re-examine the idea.

That being said, I do feel somewhat obligated to post this:

Posted by jiggajoe14

@euandewar: duder.....I so fucking want to fight nazis with an actual fucking moon base in the next wolfenstein game.

Edited by SgtSphynx

Good read, Patrick

Edited by thevigilanteoflove

I think it's even worse in movies, and it's always refreshing when they do take an old idea and make it work. Something like 21 Jump Street, where after the name and basic story premise, the movie went off and did its own thing that separated itself from the original. It's a hard line to balance on, as you don't want to piss diehards off, but you want to make your own original thing. I think remakes for the most part are a pretty tired thing, but taking inspiration and running with it can have good results. But like you said, not everyone is as strong of a developer, filmmaker, etc.

Posted by PurpleSpandex
Posted by Barrabas

I'm not sure I would consider being excited for a new Godzilla but not a new Wolfenstein a rhetorical contradiction. People get super excited for new installments of franchises they do like, and bummed out when a game studio, director, or actor are working on a franchise they don't like. You feel like they are spending time on something you don't want instead of something you potentially would like more. It's a pretty common feeling. I'm sure most people could come up with examples of their own for both cases.

Posted by Morningstar

A good read.

Edited by Corvak

Both the publishers investing the capital and the majority of those putting down full price for a game are risk averse, as Patrick says...this is where sequel-itis comes from, and why things get milked into oblivion - Publishers, and more importantly, their shareholders, prefer known quantities.

An old IP doesn't necessarily have to be the same tired premise, as MachineGames has shown with New Order. Playing "what if" can breathe new life into a well mined property, as long as the developer is given enough creative freedom. With New Order being critically well received, perhaps it will lead ZeniMax to offer MachineGames even more creative freedom or choice when it comes to using their IP. The fact that articles like this are being written about it could mean not having to include all the one liners as a safety net to fall back on in case the riskier narrative elements aren't well received.

Edited by EuanDewar

@euandewar: duder.....I so fucking want to fight nazis with an actual fucking moon base in the next wolfenstein game.

I know right!

On Mars!

Posted by CaptCommando4

I understand however why one would be more skeptical of a reimagined game compared to a film being given similar treatment. While presumably the vehicle for telling a story in film isn't expected to change significantly, the same cannot be said for the game. So while a movie like Godzilla can retread the same ground successfully by just establishing an interesting take on the narrative, a game is forced to consider both gameplay and story. A failing in one could be disastrous in the effectiveness of the other. Wolfenstein changes just enough mechanically to allow Machinegames to insert a unique viewpoint effectively.

Always a thought provoking read Patrick and commenters before me.

Edited by spraynardtatum

Fantastic article! I think so many people want everything to be new, new, new, that they can be blinded to what makes something new actually good.

Something isn't good because it's new, it's good because it's different. There's no use in lamenting something being based on something old when it's still very unique and interesting.

Wolfenstein is a great game and it feels different even though it's based on one of the longest running fps franchises in gaming.

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Posted by Einherjan

The reason I played Wolfenstein and every other World War II game is because of family members who fought in that war. Gives me some idea of what they went through. Wolfenstein is not the best example, but I feel it's a good representation of the Nazis. So I do not really care if they keep making Wolfenstein or World War 2 games because I will probably play them.

Edited by Humanity

Small supplement to the article - Starbreeze is making quality games like Syndicate

Posted by Tennmuerti

Patrick taking certain bits of reader feedback seriously and being introspective of his own opinions in turn, is to me something to be respected. Not everyone has the willingness to do that. And it's especially rare to see in the games press circles (- the critique of critics).

Posted by cikame

A lot of people, especially critics, want to see growth and evolution in this industry, the easiest way to compare old games with new ones are the changes made to the formula, is Doom 3 better than Doom?
Sure, sure it is, it has shadows, it has jump scares, atmosphere, story and characters, but the action remains the same, you shoot monsters with guns.

I like martial arts movies, i love martial arts movies, as such my requirement for side activities like story is fairly low, the quality of fights in these movies has gotten better over time but they're all the same right?
To someone who isn't interested all martial arts fights are the same, kicking and punching, someone wins, the end... but to me they're all different and unique, similarly i can enjoy a whole lot of first person shooting because i like it.

People keep making martial arts movies because my group of people love them, is it so wrong for linear first person shooters to be made for the same reason?

Posted by nickhead

I must keep hearing about this game for a reason. I wrote it off as a shooter, of which I'm tired, but I'll definitely play this someday.

Edited by Alorithin

I hate the "narrative reboot" formula. Churning schlock and then peppering Mick Gordon or Bryan Cranston or a burger-king-kids-club diversity for a modern incarnation isn't enough.

Take Doom. Doom to Doom 3 didn't work because Id focused on creating an environment akin to System Shock with PDA logs, audio logs, and in-game interfaces. Doom maze design was terrible but they went too far into the corridor shooter design philosophy with a strict focus on survival horror lighting, ammo, and narrative.

Doom to Brutal Doom does work. Mouselook alone changes doom into a new game. It doesn't need a new narrative or social commentary.

We don't need a Raymond Burr to remind us of hubris each time. Cloverfield is a better godzilla movie than any traditional godzilla movie.The modern reinvention of screaming crowds being found footage and viral marketing is twice as potent as following scientists/bomb diffusers being off base. The need to cycle back to old content with new framing devices is necessary but the social commentary can be right the first time.

Wolfenstien works because it divorces its narrative from its gameplay. Regaling Wolfenstien as a success because it can be used as a vehicle for social commentary ignores what makes video games great.

Games like Gone Home and Spec Ops are better for having a purpose to their play rather than filling out quality and quantity lists for reviewers.

Posted by danlongman
Edited by SL33TBL1ND

@patrickklepek This is *super* nitpicky, but assume you meant to italicise the "what", not the "bums" here:

"I know what bums me out--the perpetuation of old franchises due to market viability--but I'm less clear on the why,"

Oh, and excellent piece by the way.

Edited by heatDrive88

I think what it boils down to me is that I don't necessarily want everything to be "new", but I want things to be "fresh" - I'd like to think there's a fairly big distinction between the two terms, even if they are related and can carry a wide grey area in between.

It's also important to recognize that just because something is either "new" or "fresh" that it doesn't directly mean something is an enjoyable experience either. It can sometimes contribute to it, but it's definitely not a 1:1 ratio - and the same can be said for something that feels "familiar".

Posted by LikeaSsur

Someone spoil it for me: Does Wolfenstein do social commentary, or did Patrick pull a Patrick and stretch out a meaning where none was intended?

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Posted by HellknightLeon

Odd, I don't think the meetings for the game or the movie went like that. Good read.

Posted by Chobbit

Machinegames next game - Wolfenstein: Godzilla Returns. B.J. Blazkowicz fights a nazi giant lizard. Preordered!

Posted by Sammo21

So apparently the guy didn't watch Godzilla but the story is original and they did create two new monsters for the film.

Also, all stories are made from the same elements. There is nothing new under the sun. Nothing is ever truly original anymore but an interesting amalgamation of existing ideas, concepts, and character traits.

Edited by GrantHeaslip

It's the contradiction of creation: people say they want something new, but they'll keep buying repackaged old stuff.

The key thing here is that the people talking about wanting something new are (to be a bit reductive) video game enthusiasts you follow on Twitter. There's no contradiction here unless you assume the people demanding novelty are representative of the market as whole, and given how successful "repackaged" franchises like Call of Duty, Assassin's Creed, Mario, Wii *, Pokemon, and Grand Theft Auto continue to be, that's clearly not the case.

That Wolfenstein is called "Wolfenstein" seems to me to represent a shrewd business decision and not much more. A non-franchise second-tier FPS game wouldn't get much attention without an Activision-sized marketing budget. Bethesda's been there and it didn't work out very well for them.

There's enough variety in games that I'm not bummed out that publishers sometimes tack new ideas onto marketable franchises. I don't get the sense these same kinds of discussions happen as much in movies and television -- are people bummed out that comic book movies keep getting made, or do they just enjoy what they like and ignore the rest?

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Edited by joshwent

Could it be?! A writer who is finally embracing the value of remaining neutral and reserving judgement of things until he can experience them first hand in their own context, and who sees the damaging effects of snap criticisms where one is only upset with the idea of a thing and not at all the thing itself?!! Could this be some positive change?!!!

"Truth be told, I'll probably remain cynical when yet another franchise is brought out of the dust bin yet again."

Oh. Yeah. Nevermind. :\

Posted by tbk

@nickhead:

Probably a problematic and lame statement but: "For a shooter called "Wolfenstein" it is kinda smart at times"

Edited by Hailinel

@alorithin: We don't need Raymond Burr at all. Original movie edits or bust.

Posted by Video_Game_King
Posted by Objectivity

I think it's a simple answer - comfort food.

Most people experiment with different types of game, if they have the time, but sometimes they want to play something they know they'll enjoy.

It's the same thing with movies. I love watching the critically acclaimed movies, but sometimes I want something I've seen before or something in a genre I know I should like.

The flaw in Patrick's argument is that he has to exclude dozens of new IPs in order to make the claim that companies are making the same old games.

The Swapper, The Stanley Parable, Brothers, Gone Home, The Last of Us and Papers Please were all new games last year with new stories. Currently there's a good mix between old and new. The difference is that the repeat performers tend to have larger marketing and production budgets.

Posted by mrfluke

Truth be told, I'll probably remain cynical when yet another franchise is brought out of the dust bin yet again

i love that you of all people said this patrick.

snark aside, great read, and yea more studios could learn from Machinegames, the darkness is one of the most underrated games of the last generation in terms of story. it was one of the first games that did mature storytelling before others.

Posted by paulunga

Wolfenstein is kind of a weird franchise to jump on regarding this. There were 4 games in over 20 years, skipping entire hardware generations, developed by different teams. I'm not sure why you'd even make the argument using this particular game series instead of CoD or GTA or what have you.

Posted by Immortal_Guy

One thing that was brought up in the comment Patrick responded to but wasn't mentioned by Patrick was that using an old IP might be helpful for the creativity of the developers. People often think "I like X's work, but they were dealing with so many constraints - imagine how great it would be if they were free to just do what they want!". But they forget that often the reason that things work is because the creators were working within constraints - limitations often seem to bring out creativity as much as they stifle it. A good team saying "We have to make a new Wolfenstein game - now what do we do with it?" might end up with a more interesting result than just saying "Let's make a game - now, can anyone think of a good idea?"

Edited by Alorithin

@hailinel: That's true. Just a personal preference for English dubs on my part.

Posted by baka_shinji17

@paulunga: Exactly. If anything, I wish more franchises were like that.

Posted by porjos

Great fuggin article Patrick

Posted by BasketSnake
Posted by Shoeblazer

Excellent read, Patrick.

I think it really comes down to wanting a new entry in a franchise, or from a specific creator (regardless of medium) that has new ideas or makes meaningful changes. It doesn't have to be totally reimagined or even changed drastically, necessarily.

I think Call of Duty is incredibly played out at this point, but I can't say I wouldn't play another one (my last being Black Ops) if they made enough changes that seemed positive.

The issue is that a lot of particular franchises have a very specific audience. There's no room for that sort of freedom in Call of Duty's development cycle.

It's got to be pretty difficult to balance expectations vs. possibilities in creating something new with an established IP. Seems to me like there is a point where a property is just the right distance from the popular consciousness to allow for an injection of fresh ideas.

It's also possible to avoid this if the property in itself is malleable enough. Another commenter was bored with Super Mario games but I think Nintendo is the ultimate example of this type of creativity.

Not every Mario (or Zelda) game is well-received, but most are. The New Super Mario Bros. series is pretty boring and lost all novelty after the first title, in my opinion, but Nintendo is doing wonderful things with games like the almost universally acclaimed Super Mario 3D Land.

Not every property (and their demographics) will allow for this sort of thing. With enough time and money, anything is possible, I suppose, but in reality it comes down to the likelihood that it would sell.

Oh, and kickstarter for the lucky projects.

Posted by HS_Alpha_Wolf

I find it interesting that so many people, myself included admittedly, immediately went to eye-rolling and moaning at the announcement of a new Wolfenstein. Thinking back on it now, I realize that I have enjoyed all of the games in this franchise. For someone in my age bracket (I am 33) Wolfenstein 3d was a watershed moment in video games, and was at least the high-level inspiration for most of my favorite games of all time.

@patrickklepek Great article as usual, and it was a great midday surprise to take up some time here at work.

Posted by zeekthegeek

All media pulls from the past. Or have you not seen the 50 million adaptations of shakespeare in every adaptation? The retellings of greek myth, etc.

Posted by Tortoise

Godzilla and Wolfenstein both have a lot of kitschy, retro appeal to them. Being excited to see one return but not the other probably just reflects your own personal affinity to each of them. Another differentiator is that there is a constant stream of FPS games coming out that'll scratch your 'point gun at bad guys and shoot them' itch, but not nearly so many giant monster movies for your 'watch cities get stepped on' itch. So, the genres they inhabit are more or less open for fresh new versions to appear.

Posted by Gyrfal

"We'll always want to kill Nazis and save the world"

Oh, I don't know. Not really.

Edited by Lurkero

Yes, people want something new and also want new IP. I don't think it is wrong to want both. There are some ideas that are done so well that creators can get multiple projects out of the same franchise because there is a lot to explore. Some creators have proven that they have the ability to bring something new to each entry in a series.

It's not wrong to ask Nintendo to create new Mario games and develop new franchises at the same time. It is often beneficial for creators to be able to use the name of established works to explore new ideas. Mario Galaxy could have been swapped out with a new character, but it wasn't necessary because the foundation was there in the name of Mario.

It is also important to recognize that franchises are revitalized when new generations of consumers are available. Ninja Turtles, Transformers, and Godzilla (all movies this Spring/Summer) are good examples of this. When I was growing up I had the Ninja Turtles movies and the movie Godzilla (1999). Now, over 15 years later, a new generation can experience new versions of those franchises and if I am interested I can enjoy them too.

To call the stories "the same" is misleading because there are often changes that adjust the stories to modern day. See any long running comic book franchise for examples of that.

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