Shooting Nazis in America: An Interview with Wolfenstein’s Jens Matthies

Shooting Nazis in America: An Interview with Wolfenstein's Jens Matthies

Wolfenstein is a franchise that dates way back to the very beginnings of the first-person shooter and the roots of modern video games as a whole. In Wolfenstein 3D players eagerly jumped into the boots of B.J. Blascowicz and guided him through floor after floor of Nazi bullet-fodder. Wolfenstein: The New Order, developed by Machinegames and published by Bethesda, brought the series to the forefront once again and received both critical and player acclaim for being a fantastic re-imagining that stayed true to the themes and gameplay of the originals. This October sees the release of a sequel in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, and Machinegames has promised more over the top Nazi blasting action and a whacky but serious cast of characters engaged in a plot to ignite the revolution and fight back against the now Global Nazi war machine. CGMagazine was lucky enough to grab a chat with the game’s director, Jens Matthies, at QuakeCon this year. We picked his brain about what it means to resurrect an old IP and keep it fresh, and how the strangely topical theme of Nazis in America relates to the current political situation in our real world.

Shooting Nazis in America: An Interview with Wolfenstein's Jens Matthies
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus – gameplay image via Machinegames and Bethesda Softworks

CGMagazine: Did you guys think about the current political situation in the states when you put things together—KKK stuff etc?

Jens Matthies: It is a game about Nazis and Nazi ideology, and if you take that seriously, which we do, then, of course, there has to be a political dimension to the game. We’re not trying to make a social commentary on current events. We feel like the game is a much more…we always want to make a timeless piece of art as pretentious as that might sound. That’s what we’re trying to do but [Charlottesville etc.] it’s not something that we expected.

CGMagazine: How do you guys maintain a consistent story with all the shifting of studios and employees?

Jens Matthies: When we took it over, we looked at all of the iterations of Wolfenstein over the years and we chose to go back to the roots which for us is Wolfenstein 3D. We looked at what we thought made that game special. Obviously, it’s been around for quite a while. But that was our main source of information. We think that game is the reference from which we should build and that’s what we build our games on.

Shooting Nazis in America: An Interview with Wolfenstein's Jens Matthies 3
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus – gameplay image via Machinegames and Bethesda Softworks

CGMagazine: The character Grace, a lot of Pam Grier influence going on?

Jens Matthies: Not really. For us, we had some clear ideas about what the character was as we wrote it but of course, as we cast it we found this amazing actor, Deborah Wilson, and she really pushed it over the top. I think a lot of what Grace is, comes down to Wilson’s performance and I don’t really know what her influences are.

CGMagazine: There are some really fun and goofy moments in the game but it also gets really serious out of nowhere. How do you tread that line?

Jens Matthies: That’s a challenge right, but that’s the kind of challenge that we really love. We love that kind of…a big source of inspiration for me growing up was the original Robocop, which is also doing that tightrope walk of something that is very serious in many ways but also totally over the top and crazy and I love that kind of fiction, that marriage of those two things. It’s something we’ve been trying and it’s very, very appropriate for Wolfenstein, it has these very serious themes but it’s also totally crazy and over the top and very creatively unrestricted, especially the original. We think that’s the way to go, that’s the kind of tone a Wolfenstein game should have. Executing that is incredibly tricky but that’s also the kind of creative challenge we like tackling.

Shooting Nazis in America: An Interview with Wolfenstein's Jens Matthies 1
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus – gameplay image via Machinegames and Bethesda Softworks

CGMagazine: As far as settings go, were you guys just going crazy with ideas?

Jens Matthies: Yes, but of course the game is centred around the US. The majority of the game is on US soil and some of those are landmark places but some of them, like Roswell, are just trying to get that mainstream Americana late 50s early 60s kind of thing. There are some more unorthodox locations as well but still very US-centric.

CGMagazine: I love alternate history fiction. What kind of material did you guys use for research?

Jens Matthies: It’s hard to answer that because I don’t think it’s anything specific. We’ve been doing games for so long now and of course, a person like me for example, a tremendous movie buff. I’m at the point now where I’ve essentially seen every movie I want to see so I’m just waiting and every year there’s like seven new movies coming out that I really want to see and 20 more that I’m interested in and I’m just waiting for those to be released. So what that means is that you internalize a lot of stuff over the years and then you have this work where your job is to create things on a daily basis and over time that just becomes second nature to how you function. Then it gets hard to pinpoint with any accuracy “I was inspired by this in this case, or I wasn’t inspired by this,” so I couldn’t really say. But we are inspired by a lot of things generally.

CGMagazine: What do you want people to take away from the game after they play it? Do you want it to be political or simply fun?

Jens Matthies: It’s not a commentary on current events, but it has to be political if you’re dealing with Nazis—at least if you’re doing it responsibly—which is our goal. I think that when we started out we always have a theme for our story, and the theme for this game is “catharsis,” so I think this game is a good way to vent.

Shooting Nazis in America: An Interview with Wolfenstein's Jens Matthies 4
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus – gameplay image via Machinegames and Bethesda Softworks

CGMagazine: Plans for the future? Clearly, you guys have taken an older IP and made it successful and relevant again. Do you plan to keep going with this?

Jens Matthies: That’s the dream of course. We always envisioned it as a trilogy, even when we were making the first game. So we built in a lot of things in the first game that we can kind of cash in for this one, and so while making the first one we had this meta-arc of three games basically. Assuming this one does well we hope we get the chance to do a third entry, and if that happens we have a pretty clear idea of where that’s going.

CGMagazine: Thanks a lot for talking with us Jens.

Jens Matthies: Thank you.

Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out more of Brendan Quinn’s work such as his look at the relationship between comics and Hip-Hop, why the Witcher 3 was not as great as everyone thinks, and or which historical stories he thinks should be made into videogames!

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Portrayals of War: Wolfenstein: The New Order and Valiant Hearts: The Great War

Portrayals of War: Wolfenstein: The New Order and Valiant Hearts: The Great War

It’s hard to think of two videogames that handle the subject of war more differently than MachineGames’ Wolfenstein: The New Order and Ubisoft Montpellier’s Valiant Hearts: The Great War. While both are concerned with portraying the brutality and horror of the conflicts they’re based on—World War II and World War I respectively—the tack taken by their developers is worlds apart.

The New Order, a sequel/quasi-reboot of the long-running Wolfenstein series, is a fast-paced first-person shooter, full of blood, guts, and sci-fi Nazis. While the game’s story is given far more emphasis than players might have expected (given the series’ reputation for placing action over drama) it still doesn’t take itself too seriously. There is a surprising amount of pathos in its tale of William “B.J.” Blazkowicz’s resistance to an unstoppably imperialist Nazi Germany. (Casting the iconic Blazkowicz as a soldier grown tired of his never-ending personal war is an inspired choice.) But, The New Order is also a profoundly silly game, full of robotic dog troops, magical armoured suits, and over-the-top villains. Valiant Hearts, on the other hand, is a thoughtfully-paced adventure game primarily concerned with historical accuracy and conveying a sense of respect for the tremendous losses suffered during the First World War. It has a cartoony visual style, sure, and a handful of endearing jokes throughout its otherwise serious campaign. Mostly, though, Valiant Hearts is dreary and melancholy. By the time it has reached its conclusion the player has been through the emotional wringer, emptied out by scenes of unthinkable war-time horror and confounded by the complete waste of human life that characterizes World War I.

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While playing these games I was unsure of how I felt about their varying depictions of global warfare. Both The New Order and Valiant Hearts acknowledge the tragedy inherent to the two World Wars—they just go about it in very different ways. Valiant Hearts is straightforward—the kind of respectful war story we’re used to. Its cast endures gas attacks, watches soldiers die in droves during World War I’s nightmarish battles. The game wants us to feel humbled by the enormity of the war it portrays. The New Order is a more personal story, showing the tragedies of conflict in its character’s emotions rather than throughout every one of its levels. Aside from Blazkowicz, seemingly resigned to living forever in a world filled with combat and death, the cast has also  endured unthinkable persecution at the hands of the Nazis. Rather than depict the actual terror inflicted by the World War II of history, though, The New Order enters into the realm of satire by placing its story within an alternate history where Germany has conquered most of the world. In keeping with the fantastic nature of its premise, the game renders the Nazis as veritable techno-wizards equipped with laser guns, electric grenades, and semi-robotic body armour. The game provides players with moments of dramatic reflection on the evils Second World War Germany’s fascist/imperialist ambitions just as often as it delights in the surreal version of a Third Reich dominated world it has imagined. Basically, it’s just as funny as it is grim.

Which of these takes on war is more effective? Is it better to take The New Order’s  approach and ask players to consider just how awful WWII was through sheer entertainment, or to focus on educating through the relatively straight-faced World War I lessons given by Valiant Hearts? As much as I enjoyed the latter game, I also have to wonder if I would’ve liked it just as much if I wasn’t already interested in the history of the Great War. Valiant Hearts is a very good game, but it is also up front about what it wants players to think about and how it wants them to feel. Someone who has no interest in learning this history (or playing through an extremely sombre, slow-paced game) may still enjoy The New Order while receiving the same basic message: the global wars of the 20


century were profoundly awful events that shouldn’t be forgotten.

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It would be difficult to call either game better than the other because of the vastly different purposes they’ve been created for. What one person gets from The New Order, another may rather experience through Valiant Hearts. All we can say for sure is that it’s a good thing that both can exist—and find receptive audiences—alongside one another.