Wolfenstein and a Nazi Noir World: MachineGames’ Jens Matthies
To work on one of PC gaming’s most storied and important franchises sounds like a dream come true, but for Jens Matthies, now the creative director at MachineGames, his work on Wolfenstein: The New Order is so much more than that.
Jens honed his craft over at Starbreeze Studios on current-gen titles such as The Darkness and The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, before striking out on his own and co-founding MachineGames. The studio’s first title is the continuation of one of gaming’s most important franchises, and Jens’ work on the project is bringing his career in game development full-circle.
We spoke with Jens at QuakeCon 2013 about his work on Wolfenstein and about the new direction MachineGames has envisioned for the franchise.
Devin: Let’s start with BJ Blazkowicz. You guys are taking a very different approach to him compared to previous Wolfenstein games. He’s gone from being a silent loner to talking more. How do you approach his character for this game?
Jens: That’s a big challenge for us, because there have been different takes on him throughout the years. But we very much wanted to go back to the roots. Like in Wolfenstein 3D, where he’s inspired by the action movies of the early ’90s, and he’s sort of this sort of musclebound grunt. And we wanted to look at how we can embrace that but still make him human and layer in depth and character on top of that. So we wanted to stay true to what the core idea of the character was, but still tweak it into somebody that you could really care about.
Devin: Can you talk about some of his dialogue? One line that I really liked while playing through this demo shows him as a sort of warrior poet, where he says, “Your death is such paltry restitution.” And obviously in the ’90s he didn’t talk at all, just kind of the [technological] limitations of the time. But even in newer games, he really doesn’t have that much dialogue. So regarding his script, did you pull from any movies — have you pulled from any more recent movies?
Jens: Not really, no. But I’m very happy you picked up on that because that’s very much the tone that I was going for. Because on one hand, we try to honor the fact that he is a samurai, not a feudal lord. He’s not necessarily the one that comes up with the master plan and calls the shots, but he’s really good in the field. On that level, he is a grunt. But the warrior poet thing … he’s been in the trenches for such a long time, and he’s, over the years, developed a relationship with the enemy. And that’s very much what we’re playing with, is trying to sort of introduce a level of familiarity between him and the opposition and just ground him and make it real, but also interesting, of course.
As for inspiration, we looked at — and it’s very hard because it’s essentially only Inglorious Basterds that has this mix of tones, where it’s on the one end really over-the-top crazy and humorous and on the other hand, it’s really dramatic and authentic. And that’s very much the blend that we’re going for.
Devin: So Inglorious Basterds — you liked the blend that Quentin (Tarantino) used, so that it was the inspiration for the game.
Jens: Fundamentally, when you’re dealing with a video game you have these very unrealistic concepts in there. Like, you’re one guy, but you’re shooting thousands of Nazis. The body count is just so severe. So in that sense, it has a foundation of fantasy. And so we want to embrace that, and we want to embrace Wolfenstein 3D and how the character was back then, and from the visuals — how it looks is very much rooted in Wolfenstein 3D. But we’re also then trying to tell a story that has meaning and that engages the player. We’re looking at these two things that are usually opposites and we’re looking at what’s successfully blended them before. I think that Inglorious Basterds is a very good example of that blend. So we looked at it for the tone, but in terms of the content itself, it’s obviously very different.
“…we want to embrace Wolfenstein 3D and how [BJ Blazkowicz] was back then…”
Devin: Switching gears to the Nazis. How much research did you guys do when you were coming up with Nazi technology? They didn’t have half-human, half-robot supersoldiers, obviously. But did you guys dive into history and experiments, all the special weapons projects?
Jens: So it’s a blend there, too, whereas the supersoldiers are so established in Wolfenstein for a long long time, as recurring characters from previous games. There’s a lot of lore there to explore and develop in a way that makes it cool and interesting. But that’s the thing about the Nazis, they had these grandiose schemes and even though much of it wasn’t realized, the plans are there and the vision is there.
Devin: Does it get bigger and more fantastic as the game goes on?
Jens: Oh yes. Yeah, the [demo] you’re playing now is very much in the beginning of the game. And then it just builds from there.
Devin: And even in the beginning you’re exposed to so much weirdness. Let’s talk about General Deathshead too. He is just immediately scary. How did you guys approach his character? The way he talks, just the way he looks, and there’s always kind of that crazy look in his eyes….
Jens: Often times, when you’re trying to do something it’s good to look at the opposites. So my idea for Deathshead was that he was really, really happy because, in the previous Wolfenstein game, he survived the zeppelin crash, which also gave us something to explore in terms of his look. Like, he could have this very burnt look to his face. And I’m thinking, what if I survived a zeppelin crash? It can go several ways, but one way it can go is to make you feel really blessed that you’re alive and really just start enjoying life on a whole new level. So that’s very much that we infused to his character, is this joy of living. And it sounds counter-intuitive to such a horrible person, but it works really well and I just really love voices, especially voices that distinguish people. And Deathshead is played by this magnificent actor named Dwight Schultz. Overall, we had some excellent, excellent performers for this game.
Devin: Was Peter Mullan one of the voice actors? Does he voice Fergus?
Jens: His name is Gideon Emery.
Devin: He sounds like one of the characters from Children of Men, Syd.
Jens: Gideon Emery is an astonishingly good actor. And because we do so much performance capture, it’s not just voice, it’s everything. We capture that now.
Devin: So he’s in a motion capture suit.
Jens: Yeah. And he has face [dots] on.
Devin: And you did that for all the cinematics?
Jens: So when you’re encountering a supersoldier in that room, and they’re talking, and somebody’s at the door, that kind of thing, all of that is performance capture. So we’ve done an obscene amount of this stuff, but it also help in developing characters that feel present and you’re engaged with. So Deathshead, when he has his speech there and he’s walking around the room and touching these people and doing all his creepy shit, all of that is one scene that we recorded. Where the player is … where I’m sitting … as we’re recording it to make sure it works.
Devin: With the supersoldiers, did you have standard actors in motion capture suits, or did you guys have to build out these motion capture suits to make them bigger — kind of in the style of The Incredible Hulk?
Jens: Supersoldiers are kind of a special case because they’re so large, so oftentimes you can’t record them in the same set because when they take one step, they’re already by the door. So it’s this scale problem. So we ended up doing a lot of that after we had every other component of the scene. It’s actually me doing the movement for them, and the voice too.