ust how much does Jens Matthies, creative director of Machinegames, like Robocop? It is hard, after all, not to see the teachings of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 movie – the perfect plotting, the sci-fi verisimilitude, the giddy R-rated-ness of it all – in violent, subversive fare like The Chronicles Of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay, The Darkness, and now Wolfenstein: The New Order. Well…
“Oh ho ho, I fucking love Robocop so much!” he erupts. “It’s just a phenomenal piece of fiction. It’s incredibly well-written, incredibly well thought out, and it perfectly straddles that balance of being over-the-top and crazy, but also saying something meaningful.” And with that, he’s off.
“My absolute favourite bit is that second ED-209 fight, which isn’t really a fight, when Robocop shows up outside OCP headquarters and blows up the top of ED-209 so the legs just fall down, and there’s this little twitch on one of its toes. It goes, ‘DRRRRT!’ That level of personality is what we strive for in everything. It’s one thing to design something cool, to make it sound cool, but giving it a personality is the key. Personality can survive a lot of execution errors. If you don’t have personality then you have to have flawless execution.”
Before you start listing flawlessly executed soulless shooters to yourself, “what’s so interesting about Robocop is that it’s a tour-de-force. Just how Robocop is revealed: that whole firstperson sequence when Murphy dies, basically, and things go black, then it’s all firstperson until he is Robocop. How the world is revealed to him. At one point he gets activated while they’re having some sort of office party, and it’s just amazing. The full reveal, when you see him in thirdperson: there’s some bullshit argument within the police station and you hear these thuds from his feet, ‘cause he’s so heavy, and then he’s revealed behind these glass things so you can’t really see him clearly, just this shape.
“It’s so incredibly well made – but it’s more than that. The plot is super tight and has these really strong characters; and it’s thematically interesting, it’s a movie about corporate psycopathy, and that’s relevant to everybody. It’s not some violent fantasy that can’t resonate.”
olfenstein: The New Order is familiar, then, not just because it’s a re-reboot of a series that’s been around since 1992. A killing machine with heart and brain, it’s gaming’s own Robocop, a hulking piece of corporate tech – its footprint: a thudding 45gb – guided by developers with their own prime directives. It’s what’s special about the series overall: Quake, Doom and Rage may have heralded the last three versions of id Tech respectively, but only Wolfenstein can claim to have explored them all, deciphering the enigmatic code.
For its part, The New Order asks, ‘What if Hitler won the war?’, joining a category of fiction that’s given us the likes of Len Deighton’s SS-GB, Philip K Dick’s The Man In The High Castle, and esteemed Star Trek episode The City On The Edge Of Forever. Figuring that an Axis capable of Mecha-Hitler would enjoy pretty improved odds in WWII, it drops an old and injured BJ Blazkowicz into a hideously altered 1960. America has been humbled, New York destroyed, by a Nazi-made atom bomb; British resistance has been crushed by a War Of The Worlds-type tyrant, The London Monitor; The Beatles are now Die Käfer, touring to promote new album ‘Das Blaue U-Boot’.
“We started out talking about normal WWII settings, and then this idea just came up: what if we scroll the timeline forwards and the Nazis have won the war, and they won using some insanely powerful technology?” recalls Matthies. “That’s interesting in just the fiction of it, what it means to be in a world like that; but it’s also interesting artistically, and for a number of reasons. You can introduce sci-fi things that weren’t available in reality, and, for some reason, the Nazis seem to be very image-conscious. They had definitive designs for a whole bunch of things, like their uniforms and of course the architecture envisioned by Albert Speer. Not much of that was realised but a lot of it exists as models or blueprints. It was just very rich soil to mine ideas out of and extrapolate.”
Sure enough, there are scenes in The New Order that bring to mind the architectural musings of Robert Harris’ Fatherland, with its detailing of a Speer-designed Berlin of almost impossible volume – a hubristic ‘capital of capitals’. Stolen glances at The New Order’s dominating skyboxes reveal hypothetical ‘wonders’ such as a bridge across the Gibraltar Strait, but Speer’s own Volkshalle stands proudest and most vulgar, its dome a vast blister of Nazi ‘Super Concrete’.
“Our philosophy when we build the narrative is always to reveal whatever needs to be revealed to the protagonist and the player at the same time. It sounds like a simple approach but almost nobody does this in games, which is strange,” notes Matthies. “In a game like this, where you have a named protagonist who has a personality and so forth, it’s very important to align those two experiences. So, as we come into the 1960s in the game, we start on these back roads and places that aren’t overtly weird, and then we have this grand reveal of the capital which is of course dominated by the Volkshalle. It was very carefully constructed that way, it’s not random.”
Comparisons with Half-Life 2 are automatic – the timeline of Nazi victory is literally written on the walls in the form of newspaper clippings and flyers; the new architecture is incongruous and parasitic – but there is no neat analogue to City 17. “Berlin as we have it is a place of occupation – it’s the source of the threat,” says Matthies. “I’d say that a place like our version of London is more similar thematically. But then we also have this problem of: this isn’t an open-world-type game where you can roam the streets and get an ambient experience of the world. We have a much more directed experience that’s a lot more about action; we have a lot less time. That’s pretty challenging, to layer as much of this world lore into the rollercoaster ride.”
nother thing: The New Order is alt-historical, not post-historical. Its significance involves time rather than place. Through a red, white and black lens it wreaks cultural havoc on the 20th century. “A lot of ideas that are pervasive today, that permeate through all our societies, really broke out during the 1960s,” says Matthies. “And that has everything to do with human rights and values that are totally opposite to Nazi ideology. Clearly, juxtaposing these two things is very interesting. What would the 1960s look like if they’d been perverted and skewed through this filter?”
But didn’t a lot of that stuff happen towards the end of the ‘60s? “1969 would be a more appropriate date,” agrees Matthies. “But the problem there would be simply maintaining the timeline of BJ Blazkowicz. In 1960 he’s 49 years old, and we felt like it was problematic to make him older than that and still maintain him as this one-man Nazi-killing machine. Nine years further and he’d have been pushing 60. 1960 is where both of our goals sort of met.”
Fans of Machinegames’ earlier work know it’s not the type to treat story as a kind of grout to be smeared on when a game is almost finished. Its holistic approach – animation, editing, continuity, transitions, lenses, dialogue, effects, the works: all meticulously coordinated – evokes the rigorous ‘event planning’ behind games like Vagrant Story and the best Final Fantasies. As Matthies likes to repeat, “every moment in the game, everything that happens, is there for a reason.
“Sometimes those reasons are more intellectual: you need to establish certain things for the player, either emotionally or in their understanding of the scenario in front of them. Sometimes it just feels like a powerful idea when you come up with it, so you want to realise it. Different things have differing degrees of challenge.
“A very challenging moment is when you first enter the Kreisau Circle headquarters. There’s an establishing cinematic where we introduce all of the major characters in like a minute-and-a-half or something. All characters, all personalities, and their spaces in the fiction – what kinds of characters they are. You have to write it to accommodate those goals. Same for the asylum scene: we’re setting up a number of plot lines that’ll pay off later; we’re also connecting it to [main villain] Deathshead to keep that storyline alive; we’re introducing Anya and her place as an ally in that world. All of those things have to coalesce in a meaningful way, and that was the scene I figured triggered all that emotional content.”
Let’s talk about the Kreisau Circle HQ a bit more. It’s a special place, quite unbelievable and yet willed into credibility by the sheer work – and panache – that’s gone into it. What appeared as just a barebones NPC depot in Wolfenstein 2009 is a gorgeously embroidered film set in The New Order, home to an allied cast of physically and mentally damaged fugitives. It is a dark, damp, desperate place warmed by its people and insulated by all the contraband – paintings, records, icons, photographs – that seem to glue the place together. Lit hot and cold by candles and a groaning wall of televisions, it owes much to movies like 12 Monkeys and Brazil.
“id Tech 5 is incredibly good at some things while other things are just a challenge,” says Matthies. “Obviously the main strength is that it’s incredibly fucking fast; you can make a 60fps game like this and have a huge amount of geometry still in there. And of course there’s the whole megatexture aspect, which is both a blessing and a curse because you can make every pixel in the environment unique. The Kreisau Circle HQ is a good example of that because it’s so rich – it’s detail upon detail upon detail; there’s no limit to how much you can layer it. You could go on forever and make it more and more awesome. The limit is how much time you can spend on each surface. You always have this sense that no matter how much you’ve done, you want to do more. Always more.”
atthies continues: “The main challenge is dynamic light, which it’s not really well-equipped to do. But on the other hand the static light rendering is really awesome, so you have full radiosity and can do really spectacular-looking things using that. So, what you end up doing is adding a lot of effects and atmospherics to bring the environments to life, whereas with a different engine you might have used more dynamic lights.
“Also, Kreisau HQ feeds into things which occur much later on in the game. So, for example, the last time you arrive there after the Nazis have attacked the place and everything’s on fire, you go upstairs and into a ventilation shaft, and that shaft leads to either Tekla or J’s room depending on the timeline. And of course that passage has to be there, it’s just a function of the space, so it’s there when you play the earlier sections of that map, too. There are tonnes of these things.
“Scripted things, too, like progression-logging quests you can solve in different ways. When you get the Project Whisper folder out of Max’s room, you can do that just by finding it and getting the crowbar; you can get it after talking to Klaus but before going down to Caroline’s room; after Caroline’s room; or you can find the back door through Caroline’s room and get it that way. This is just one example out of about 20 in that location. You have to account for how things change depending on what you do as a player. If you go directly to get the crowbar, is Max then in his room even though you haven’t talked to Klaus? If you go down to Caroline will she remind you to talk to Klaus even though you already have the crowbar?
“Purely logistically, in how the spaces are mapped out, it’s always difficult. And all of these things that you do are of course performance-captured, and so the performance capture has to fit into those spaces. Just maintaining continuity between the cinematics and in-game stuff in there. Where are the chairs placed compared to where they’re placed in the cinematic? It gets incredibly complex very quickly.”
That this three-storey chimney full of oddballs and cultural clutter can feel plausible, even homely, despite being mere feet from sewers, a full-blown helicopter hangar, and a thousand Nazi jackboots, is a terrific accomplishment. Only personalities with complete authority over a game from inception through to release – for lack of a better word, auteurs – could, you feel, have threaded it all together.
“It’s interesting because all of the characters in this game, especially the allied characters, have some dimension of my personality,” explains Matthies. “They’re an expression of something that is part of me that I think is interesting to explore.”
Take Max Hass, for example, the gibbering manchild with half a head who has you searching, smitten by the sheer innocence of actor Alex Solowitz’s body language, for his lost nursery toys. (It’s been pointed out to me that Max is a rare example of an intentionally blank expression on a game character.) “Thinking back to the genesis of that character – most of them were invented in my bath tub – Max and Klaus [Kreutz, his saviour and adoptive ‘father’] were born together, they were never separate entities.
“Max was the most challenging character to cast, which seems counter-intuitive because he’s a pretty simple guy on paper, but it took a tremendous actor to pull that off and a long time to find him. And then, of course, after the game came out he was compared to Hodor from Game Of Thrones a lot, because he’s a big guy who only says one thing. But the character was invented before the TV show, and I never read the books; so he’s not inspired by that but by Garp from John Irving’s The World According To Garp, which I read when I was a kid and really loved. I thought that was just a very interesting person – to have one word with which to express everything.”
lso notably mashed up in The New Order are our expectations of gender, which in this game is a refreshing, depoliticised cocktail that exists purely to enhance the story. Within Caroline’s Kreisau matriarchy, heroes BJ and Anya nurse, command and fuck each other, but never for the benefit of a leering gamer. (If anything, the camera seems ashamed to catch them ‘at it’.) Tekla (female) is a geek and a bully; Klaus is openly vulnerable as he dotes on his manchild; the cast soon swells with nary a hint of a token role. As for Frau Engel, the deliciously problematic Bond villainess with sex and death fetishes, a toy boy, and, um, a concentration camp to run… Well, as usual, “none of this is by chance.”
Matthies’ stance is that “as human beings, regardless of what we feel or what we’re born into – we have cultural obligations to perform in the world – inside we all feel the fucking same; we’re all insecure and want approval and love. Exploring all of those sides is always interesting – more so with characters who are overtly playing on stereotype, like BJ. A big problem is that people and publishers in general have this sense that your protagonist has to be super alpha male the whole time, whereas I always saw BJ as a grunt. He’s comfortable taking orders; he’s a samurai, not a feudal lord. The big scheme of things is not his deal. He has a very specific skill set which is killing Nazis. I love that about him, that he doesn’t have to pretend to be more than he is.
“It all depends on what kind of writer you are and what perspective you have on the world. You remember, back in the 90s, the movie Dances With Wolves. There’s this interesting thing where before that movie, for a long time, you had the ‘cowboys and indians’ culture where Native Americans, in all kinds of Hollywood movies, were portrayed in pretty fucking horrible ways. It was very unfair, it was racist. Regardless of your thoughts as to the merits of Dances With Wolves as a movie, it broke that very severely.
“There’s a scene where Kevin Costner discovers [Mary McDonnell] slitting her wrists because her husband has died or whatever. Time passes, they fall in love, but in order to get married she has to get permission from her father. And it’s built up like this great Native American ritual. But the father can’t maintain this patriarchal facade. He’s like, ‘Right, you’re no longer mourning, that’s that.’ It’s this extremely humanising moment where it just drops this mythological culture and says: this is a person like anybody else. That has to be the approach with whatever character you write. There’s no trick to writing a male or female character, it’s just humans. You are a human. You have this vast knowledge of what that means, and if you want to solidify a character you just have to bring it out. Anything else is just posturing.”
Matthies moves on to describe the process of making the combat levels, and how iterating on the layouts means “tightening the screws until everything makes more sense.” The London Nautica, for instance, cosmetically a shrine to a Nazi moon landing but also home to the Laserkraftwerk cutting tool, functionally exists to deliver the Project Whisper stealth helicopters “that allow access to vastly different places in the world without some complex mechanism of transport to get there.” But it’s “not a chicken-and-egg thing,” he insists, as levels rather coalesce around several heavily storyboarded beats in the campaign. He explains: “You have to apportion both knowledge and gameplay in a way that’s consumable for the player. There’s a vast document which maps out every weapon and enemy in the game – how they’re revealed and when they’re revealed – to ensure we give the game good pacing. These particular scenarios are then constructed around the facts of what you find.”
here is no shortage of discoveries in The New Order; again, the game is practically wallpapered in narrative that draws a more complete fantasy of Nazi-occupied Earth than you could ever hope to model and texture. But there’s a price to be paid for that detail when, under threat of actual imprisonment, you have to remove every last reference to Nazism before the game can be released. Germany, a market where games are considered toys and thus ineligible for the cultural protection afforded to, say, Inglourious Basterds, makes the embedding of narrative uniquely treacherous.
“As with all game development, whatever you design on paper and think is going to work goes out the window at some point,” says Matthies. “We knew this had to be done and had systems in place for it, but as those systems got battle-tested by having people actually go through the game looking for stuff, we found tonnes of problems. That was a very intense process of manually going in and vetting every single texture of the game, every line of dialogue, every subtitle.
“It’s interesting, too, because you learn a lot about how these things work. Fundamentally, the problem in Germany is that videogames are not considered an artform, which of course is crazy; any German gamer will attest to that. Games are so obviously the culmination of all artforms put together. But anyway, that’s the dimension that has to do with ‘non-constitutional content’. Then there’s the USK [Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle, a self-regulation body for games] which deals primarily with violence. That’s a rating issue.
“But the thing is that while the USK is a pre-release thing, the constitutional symbols thing is post-release. So, essentially you can release a game that’s full of swastikas, but that’ll then result in some sort of lawsuit and trial leading to possible imprisonment. It’s up to the developer to figure out what kind of symbolism can possibly lead to legal action, and there’s no clear rulebook for this. You have to make judgement calls on everything. Is the number 88 okay if it’s on a wall somewhere? If it’s ‘door number 88’? It’s not nearly just swastikas and overt Nazi symbolism, it’s things that can be interpreted. It’s a very tricky and time-consuming process.”
All told, it is kind of amazing how much the ostensibly ‘dumb’ Wolfenstein can involve. Deciding how and when to honour the “oscillating and unrefined lineage” of the franchise; proving that good storytelling can apply wherever you make the effort, not just to genres considered highbrow; navigating the minefield of German law; and just hunkering down and making possibly the most frame-by-frame filmic game ever… The complexities seem terrifying. But then that’s what persistence affords.
2004, remember, was the year that gave us Half-Life 2, Doom 3, and The Chronicles Of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay. There’s a great satisfaction in how The New Order seems to carry on their work through osmosis, technical coincidence, and straightforward inheritance. No other developer right now seems so loyal to that old FPS roadmap, and so undeterred. To wit, Matthies declares: “we have a philosophy where we want you as a player to be richly able to engage with the world. Everything meaningful to the experience should be open. If we think you should drive a car, just for that one moment, then we do it. That’s why we like to have stealth in there – because if you can fully support stealth and guns-out super mayhem, you’ve got the whole spectrum.”