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A Conversation With Wolfenstein: The New Order's Jens Matthies

The creative director for one of 2014's most surprising games talks about how MachineGames made Wolfenstein relevant in the modern age.

If there’s an early candidate for biggest surprise of 2014, it’s Wolfenstein: The New Order. Maybe I shouldn’t have been shocked the latest game from many of the same creatives behind Chronicles of Riddick and The Darkness was equally terrific, but The New Order caught me completely off-guard.

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It’s an awfully weird game, too, but in a good way. The New Order isn’t satisfied with simply being a great playing, over-the-top shooter. It breathes life into B.J. Blazkowicz. For the first time, Blazkowicz feels like a person. Sure, we’re not talking Mass Effect levels of character development, but The New Order makes you care about the events happening around you and the people driving those events.

Truth be told, I had no interest in a new Wolfenstein game. It’s easy to become cynical about the resurrection of an old game franchise. That cynicism is born from game companies trying (and failing) to capitalize on old successes over and over again. The New Order is both old and new, a game that channels nostalgia and tradition while forging something completely new, exciting, and subversive.

As soon as the credits were rolling on The New Order, I had to find out more about the game’s development. To that end, I spent an hour last week chatting with MachineGames creative director Jens Matthies. For the most part, you can read this interview without fear of spoilers, but we eventually talk a little bit about the game’s ending. I’ll drop a heads-up later in the interview, but you’ve been warned.

Giant Bomb: The game’s been out for a couple of weeks. How do you feel about the reception to it? It caught some people by surprise. It certainly caught me by surprise. When you release a new game, do you try and find out what people are thinking?

Jens Matthies: I feel extremely happy about the game that we made. It’s very much the game that we set up to do, which is extremely rare. It’s the first time I feel like the game we shipped was the game that we wanted to make. While there are a few people that didn’t really get that, in terms of the critical reception, there has been a lot of people that did get it. We’re very happy about that. And, of course, you always pay attention to what people think. Not just the media, but individuals in various places. And see what parts they gravitate to, as opposed to the parts that you gravitate to and so forth.

GB: What’s been surprising about what people have gravitated to?

Matthies: Hmm. [long pause] Hmm. That’s a good question. I haven’t really thought about that.

GB: I didn’t expect the game have as much of a story, as much downtime, especially when you’re in the safe house. It’s not what I expected from a brand-new Wolfenstein game with lots of shooting.

Matthies: For us, that was always the game we wanted to make. We talked about that. Whenever we were doing interviews, we would say “this is more of an action adventure, as opposed to a straight-up shooter.” But I don’t think people really understood it until they actually played the game, and they saw what we meant by that. For us, I wouldn’t say that the reaction to that was unexpected. That’s the game we wanted to do.

I will say, though, that the game is pretty adventurous in terms of its themes and in terms of the things you get to do in the game and the places you go to. In some cases, I’m surprised those things haven’t generated more controversy than they have. But I think that’s good! That speaks to the industry maturing and that you’re able to introduce really adult subject matter into a game and it seems like a natural part of this medium.

GB: I imagine you may be alluding to the fact that you go to a prison camp in the game. When you see a game going towards that, you start to get a little nervous. Games, in the past, have maybe not handled it as well as you might want.

Matthies: Yeah, but even more than that, I don’t think that’s something another game has done, really. I know for a fact that the creative liberties that we had with this game would only be possible with the publisher that we have. If we had a different publisher, those things would not be able to be in the game. That was very big for us, to be able to have that creative freedom and to take the game where we felt we need to go.

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GB: Did you have moments where you thought “well, we wanna go in this direction, but no way we’re going to pull that off, no way Zenimax is going to say that’s okay for the Wolfenstein franchise”?

Matthies: [laughs] I’ve been in the industry in for 16 years and worked with many different publishers. When you work with a new publisher…this was the first game that we’d done for Bethesda. You don’t really know how that’s going to be going in. We’ve always respected Bethesda because they tend to gravitate towards quality in their products. They have good methods of allowing quality to flourish, whereas other publishers are more marketing driven, and they have a different kind of focus. We certainly thought we were in a prosperous partnership creatively, but we didn’t know for sure until we actually started making the game. To our great happiness, it all worked out really well. They never constricted us in any way creatively, which felt really good.

GB: Whenever I finish an article, all I can do is look at what I published and cringe at the bits that I wish I could go back and change. Do you do the same thing when you’ve shipped a game?

Matthies: A game is never done. There’s no part of any game ever made that you couldn’t spend more time on refining even further. But I feel like this was the first time that we ever shipped a game that was intended. That’s not to say that when I play the game it’s like…if I see something that isn’t working the way it ideally should, it bothers me immensely, of course. But with this game, those issues are on a level that it doesn’t affect the experience. That’s as far as you cake it in terms of development, unless you’re spending 20 years making the game. That said, it’s not like I really can sit down and enjoy it for the experience that it is because I’ve played it in its various iterative phases over the last three years, seen it thousands of times. I can never get that fresh perspective on it. Maybe in 10 years but not now for sure.

GB: I have to admit the game didn’t quite click until I actually played it. Part of that is because it was a new Wolfenstein game. Sometimes there’s franchise fatigue. Sometimes people wonder, cynically, why a new series is coming back. Did you have that some of those attitudes in mind while making the game?

Matthies: [pause] Both yes and no. I would love to hear more about why the perspective you had on the game before you played it was one way, and once you played it, it was a different way. I think that’s something we could learn about when we reveal a game before it’s released. [laughs] Do you have any of that information?

"A game is never done. There’s no part of any game ever made that you couldn’t spend more time on refining even further. But I feel like this was the first time that we ever shipped a game that was intended."

GB: I’ve been covering games for a very long time. When you see a franchise that’s been dormant for a long time come out again there's a feeling of “oh, they’re just bringing this back because this is the one that can make money,” as opposed to making a brand-new universe and seeing what’s possible there. Second, the trailers in the last month or two before the game came out were story-focused in a way that I didn’t get when, for example, I played it at E3 last year. I was just playing a shooting sequence.

Matthies: We always struggle with that. We have such a holistic approach to development, and we look at the game as a full journey from start to finish. We always, then, have a problem showing people something that’s representative of that. The experience, for us, is very interwoven with the narrative. Those who have played the game will see that it’s a really, really epic journey. We go to some pretty extreme places in this game. It’s at a pretty rapid pace often. It’s hard to sum that up into a bite-sized [demo]. We struggled with how we reveal that early on. It’s a longer experience than a 10-minute thing to get the sense of it.

But I would say, for us, we never really thought Wolfenstein would have to justify its own existence. It’s, possibly arguably but definitely for us, it’s the origin of the first-person-shooter. If any first-person-shooter has the right to exist, it’s this one. [laughs] I was always puzzled when people were saying “with so many shooters out there, why is it worth it to bring back Wolfenstein?” Well, all of the other ones are copies of Wolfenstein! [laughs] It would be like somebody asking The Beatles, “with so many rock ’n roll groups out there, why would The Beatles make a new record?” It doesn’t make sense to me. So that wasn’t in our thought process.

But what we wanted to do and what we wanted to make sure that we did…we, of course, would like to take things where they haven’t been before. We had this really strong idea. What if the Nazis won the war? What if B.J. Blazkowicz has been fighting these guys forever, and, all of a sudden, his cause his lost? He’s in this situation now where he’s never been before. He doesn’t have an army behind him. All these things are really interesting to explore and play in. It’s a pretty extreme step for the franchise to do something like that. Obviously, none of the earlier Wolfenstein games have ever done anything like that. It was very important to us that, whatever we did, it still felt like Wolfenstein. Even though we have lots more story, even though we have this extremely different setting, we still wanted the experience, through and through, to feel like you where in the Wolfenstein universe. We worked a lot with that, and I’d say that’s where….I’m not exactly sure how you phrased the question, but that’s the answer to it. [laughs] I’m sorry. [laughs]

GB: I was surprised the game has narrative ties to previous Wolfenstein games. It doesn’t just ignore the last two or three games. There are characters that are brought back. Not all of those games are necessarily the most fondly remembered in the Wolfenstein franchise.

Matthies: For several reasons. The main one is, of course, and it harkens back to what I said before, but we’re not in the business of alienating our fans. We love incorporating the legacy of the franchise that for people who are really passionate about Wolfenstein will see things that they recognize from earlier entries. Like I said before, it’s extremely important to us that it feels like Wolfenstein. It’s not that we’ve slapped a brand on a completely different shooter. It needs to be in that same universe. Also, of course, it’s creatively interesting to take the game into a really drastically adventurous direction, but still maintaing that continuity with the earlier games. So it’s both a reimagining and a sequel at the same time. As a creative, that’s just a very interesting problem to solve.

It didn't change the world, but for my money, Raven's take on Wolfenstein was pretty good.
It didn't change the world, but for my money, Raven's take on Wolfenstein was pretty good.

GB: So you actually liked the idea of trying to resolve the potential contradictions in the story you wanted to tell with the legacy of the storytelling in Wolfenstein?

Matthies: Yeah, of course. We want this to be part of a greater saga. That said, of course, this game stands completely on its own. It’s not a requirement that you play anything of the previous games. You can be completely new to Wolfenstein and have a complete experience. But we also want to build upon things that have been established on their own.

GB: If you look at the Wolfenstein games as a whole, the biggest change this game makes is trying to treat B.J. Blazkowicz as a character and not just a vehicle for the player to shoot Nazis. How did you approach that? Did you feel the importance of the mark you were making on this franchise?

Matthies: We love storytelling, and we love integrating strong narrative with strong gameplay. This is one of the hardest challenges in making these kinds of games. To have this seamless experience, where you don’t feel like the story’s bolted onto the gameplay or vice versa. We work a lot with that, and we love that kind of work. If you take the story seriously, which we obviously do, you have to take your time. There are many, many different ways that you can approach B.J. Blazkowicz, but we chose to approach him as though the original Wolfenstein 3D that id Software made in the early 90s--it’s that guy. It’s that little face that you have down on the screen. A lot of that is just for nostalgic reasons. We felt that is the truest representation of what the roots of Wolfenstein are. We wanted to extrapolate from that. “Okay, you have this musclebound 80s action hero. How do we turn him into a relatable, interesting human being?” [laughs] That type of decision is so much more interesting than if we had just turned him into another Nathan Drake clone.

GB: Having made The New Order, what defines a Wolfenstein game?

Matthies: I, of course, should have a little nugget-sized soundbite for you, but I’m afraid I don’t have that. [laughs] It’s multifaceted. At its core, it’s kicking Nazi ass. In the most pure sense, that has to be in a Wolfenstein game. If it has that, you can call it a Wolfenstein game. If it doesn’t, you can’t. Then, it has to be larger-than-life. It has to be dealing with characters and scenarios that are grossly exaggerated from reality. That’s also very key to the experience. Over the years, we’ve seen different takes on this. Some of them have been in the supernatural side. We chose to go back to the original technological slant. In Wolfenstein 3D, you would have Mecha Hitler and those kind of things. So we focused more on the technology, as opposed to the occult, which has historically also been a part of Wolfenstein. That over-the-topness is crucial.

So, kicking Nazi ass and over-the-topness. [laughs] Those are the key elements. If you have that, then you’re in a Wolfenstein world.

GB: The game goes to some serious places. It seems like part of what you did with The New Order was say “okay, a Wolfenstein game has to have you kicking Nazi ass, it’s gotta be over-the-top, but how do you make people care about that where, in 2014, every single piece of media is over-the-top”?

Matthies: I think, to a degree, you answered your own question there. That’s exactly it. Just because it has those things doesn’t mean it has to be emotionally alienating. Some people have a problem with this, and they see it as an odd mix, in terms of the tone of the game. For us, that was never the case. It’s weird to me that you can’t have rambunctious attitude in a video game. This is the medium for those kinds of expressions.

But I also use movies like Inglourious Basterds, which has this amazing balancing act between really intense drama, personal drama, and over-the-top mayhem shooting stuff. I think that’s an excellent reference. Another reference of the same sort of style that we used when we talked about it internally and just to get everybody on the same page as to what kind of experience it was…we also used District 9, which is a very good example of that blend, in terms of tone. Also, the original RoboCop, Paul Verhoeven’s original RoboCop from 1989. It’s an incredibly well-made piece of fiction, not just in terms of its plot, which is amazing, but the story is great, the characters are great. It straddles this line between completely over-the-top craziness--the guy is called RoboCop for crying out loud--but it’s also this really intense personal drama about him losing his family, losing his memory. It has a feeling about corporate psychopathy, which is really powerful. We looked at those kinds of things and that’s the wheelhouse that we feel is appropriate for a Wolfenstein game.

MachineGames looked at films like Inglorious Bastards as a reference point for The New Order.
MachineGames looked at films like Inglorious Bastards as a reference point for The New Order.

GB: I can’t name any video games that have been able to do that. I think video games have, to this point, proven pretty bad at switching between tones. It’s usually why most video games pick one or the other. You’re either bombastic or you’re trying to do something more grounded and serious.

Matthies: Maybe that’s true. Obviously, there are many, many different kinds of video games, but if you’re looking at a shooter, even those that strive for “realism,” there is quite a lot of over-the-top craziness in those games, too. [laughs] I think that’s a part of really over-the-top video games. So we chose to play with those aspects.

GB: When you’re trying to straddle that line over the course made in three years, it’s gotta be hard to have perspective on the game when you’ve played it a million different times. Were there moments over the course of those three years where you’d put it in other people’s hands and realize “oh, man, we went a little too far in that direction”?

Matthies: This is a great question, and I have many different kinds of answers. So I’m just going to start talking, and we’ll see what happens. [laughs]

There’s one aspect of it that has to do with following through on the original plan. This is incredibly hard in video games because you start out with a plan, and for various reasons outside of your control, things go sideways. You have to make changes or cuts that fucks up that original plan. This was the first time where that didn’t happen. We stayed on track, so we could follow through on everything that we needed to do. What that means, then, is that when you write the script—and this is always the case—good ideas feel really good when you have then and when you first talk about them and when you write them down. And, then, as development progresses and you go through all of the necessary steps are needed in order to realize those ideas, that original good feeling tends to dissipate over time. You’re just thinking about it over and over and over. That original warm feeling that you had in your belly goes away. [laughs] It’s really important, then, to remember that it once was there because that’s how it’s going to feel for the person who experiences it for the first time.

So as you write the script, just writing scenes or whatever it was, I had this thought that if I’m not looking forward to shooting a scene or seeing it realized or whatever, it’s not a good scene. That’s fairly obvious, of course, but it’s a very good attitude to have towards the work. Whatever scene doesn’t feel right, if it feels boring, if you just have to do it to try to tie plot points together, you should find a different way. A lot of this stuff you can do already on the paper stage, and we went through that pretty rigorously. As we had a finalized script, everything that was in it felt really strong. As we handed that off for people to read it and give feedback on it, often times the feedback that would come back was things that wasn’t necessarily problems with the ideas but just that people would misunderstand certain things or whatever it was. Different people have different approaches to the fiction.

Often times, you can take that information and change it in a way that doesn’t mess with your original idea, but removes that problem that somebody had with it. We go through a process like that just to get some outside perspective, and once we have that, we have something that feels extremely strong, everybody’s committed to it. As we work through the process, then, we know, as long as we get all these pieces, all of these ingredients, into the final pie, it’s all going to hang together and it’s all going to feel right.

That’s not to say there isn’t a rough edge here or there once we are deeper into production, but compared to previous games, the source material that we developed in pre-production is what it is in the game today to an extremely high degree. That’s both rare and it’s very rewarding creatively to go through a journey like that.

"It’s far too convenient to put a swastika on somebody and say 'shoot them!' For us, it was incredibly important to show what Nazi ideology was about, and that the player gets to experience what it’s like to be on the receiving end of that."

GB: One of the conversations I had with developers E3 this year appears to be something you avoided with this specific project. It happens when you’re in that grind, maybe right in the middle. You can’t quite see the light at the end of the tunnel yet, and you suddenly have this moment of “we’ve done it all wrong, this is terrible, but I’ve already spent a year on this, I have to finish it.”

Matthies: You can never avoid having moments of doubt, but I would say our moments of doubt had much more to do with production doubts. The game is fucking huge! [laughs] It was never about us questioning that we were doing the right thing. It was more about questioning “okay, we’ve committed to something so grand in scope that we don’t know if we can actually finish it.” It was those kind of doubts. But, fortunately, we have a publisher that really understands what we wanted to do, and they supported us through all of that.

But you can never get away from doubt. [laughs] That’s exactly what it is. You have this honeymoon phase in pre-production, you’re coming up with all the cool idea, and, then, you enter the grind. [laughs] It feels like you will never finish it. Then, all of a sudden, it’s done. It’s a very peculiar experience.

GB: Especially as games are getting bigger and you have to scope for two or three years of development, you come up with an idea--it’s not like you see it up-and-running and it feels good a week later.

Matthies: Exactly.

GB: When I talk to developers that make these really big games, it’s having this confidence in your ideas from day one, and knowing that it’s not going to make sense until maybe two years later.

Matthies: It takes a lot of confidence from everybody involved. People really have to buy into it, and go for very long periods of time without the satisfaction of seeing it on-screen.

GB: A requirement for Wolfenstein is kicking Nazi ass, so obviously you’re kicking Nazi ass. But these days, nazis are the go-to popular villain if you want to have bad guys. Did you keep that in mind while shaping the characters?

Matthies: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That was something [important]. From day one, we didn’t want to cartoonify Nazi ideology. We have these over-the-top, larger-than-life antagonists. Our main antagonist is called Deathshead! Obviously, we’re not talking about real people here. [laughs] But within that boundary, within that universe, we wanted to make sure that conveyed what Nazi ideology is about. We’re painting the game on a much, much larger-than-life canvas, but we’re painting with things that make sense and that you, as a player, can feel and appreciate in terms of it being meaningful. That was super important to us. It’s far too convenient to put a swastika on somebody and say “shoot them!” For us, it was incredibly important to show what Nazi ideology was about, and that the player gets to experience what it’s like to be on the receiving end of that.


GB: Correct me if I’m wrong, but the game never comes out and explicitly says Hitler is still alive or not.

Matthies: We don’t want to introduce ingredients that doesn’t make the soup stronger if that makes sense. We don’t want to dilute the storyline. You’ll see references to the fuhrer and so forth if you explore the newspaper clippings and stuff, but we wanted to focus on the villains of this game. We didn’t want to introduce a lot of story or plotlines beyond that. We wanted to stay focused on what the game is about.

GB: The moment that you introduce Hitler, the game becomes all about Hitler.

Matthies: Exactly. Exactly. That’s a very succinct way of putting it.

GB: The way the game ends, you don’t save the world. It’s not as though B.J. and his crew have suddenly ended rid Earth of the Nazi threat. You’ve taken out Deathshead, you’ve taken out this one important location, and given the revolution some real momentum, but most games tend to end with the player being able to say “hooray, the world is saved.” Between alluding to killing off BJ and not necessarily ending the Nazi threat, you deliberately end on a melancholy note.

Matthies: That’s how it should be. It can’t be around these themes and be a happy-go-lucky ending. It has to be harder than that.

GB: Maybe you can’t say one way or the other, but it seems like BJ dies at the end. Then, we hear a helicopter in the end credits. Does that mean anything?

Matthies: I’m glad you picked that up! [pause] [laughs]

GB: I didn’t expect you to say anything more than that.

Matthies: [laughs] There is nothing in this game that isn’t there for a reason. It’s all very meticulous.


GB: After I finished the game, I went to check out the multiplayer. It’s a first-person-shooter, and it doesn’t have a big multiplayer mode. How did you manage to convince a publisher to let you do that?

Matthies: [laughs]

GB: The trend of the last 10 years is that you have to have a multiplayer mode.

Matthies: Right, right. In your question, you also know the reason why. Most publishers have a certain set of components that they feel like “this is what a game has to include.” But that’s what makes Bethesda unique. All they want is a quality product. If the game is good, they can sell the game, and that’s all they really care about. When we told them that the best game we could make is a single-player only game because we can keep the whole team focused on the core experience, they were perfectly fine with that. You hope that it’s going to work out well when you enter into a partnership with a new publisher, but you never know until you’re doing it. That was one of those moments where we felt like we really ended up with the right people.

If MachineGames has its way, the studio will move onto producing a Wolfenstein sequel very soon.
If MachineGames has its way, the studio will move onto producing a Wolfenstein sequel very soon.

GB: Having made this game, now watching the reception, I imagine you are thinking about what you’re going to be doing next. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve taken away from The New Order?

Matthies: We would love to do a sequel. We have a very, very clear idea of what we accomplished with this game, and what we want to accomplish with a sequel.

It’s not like it’s one lesson. You learn things constantly, and there’s no switch that you don’t want to keep trying to dial a little higher. I wouldn’t say there was…I wish there was one big lesson. It’s more like 500 smaller ones. [laughs]

This is kind of an abstract, but because these projects are so long in terms of development—this was three-and-a-half years for this game—and given how long it takes to make a game these days, this kind of game, and whenever you design in terms of preproduction, what becomes the plan for all of those years, has to be a flawlessly polished diamond. If it isn’t, you end up paying for that further down the line. You have to react to it, change, and do stuff. I think we were able to polish that diamond a lot more than we have ever been able to in the past, but we still have new ideas for how we can polish it even further. If there is one grand lesson, it’s probably that: to take pre-production even one step further. After the next game, it’ll be the same thing again and again. [laughs]

GB: Jens, I really appreciate you taking the time. Really enjoyed it. I hope that you guys get to make that sequel, too.

Matthies: Oh, yeah. That would be wonderful.

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