Wolfenstein and a Nazi Noir World: MachineGames’ Jens Matthies
The American Dream, Unrealized
Devin: So some time passes in this game between the prologue and the next chapter. You touch on it in some of the commercials and previews. How do you approach the kind of a classic 1950s American Dream era? The world in The New Order is a very different place. Is it a start-from-scratch kind of thing or do you guys pay attention to these details but rework it for the Nazi regime?
Jens: So what we’re doing is — the ’60s is such an iconic era because of its cultural revolution, and so many things happened in Western society during that period of time. And in this world that we’re creating, none of that happened. So we’re taking these iconic moments and twisting them from the Nazi perspective, and that’s how we’re approaching it. It becomes a really intimidating world.
Devin: Without spoiling anything, can you elaborate a little bit on any key pieces of iconography that have been transformed after the Nazi takeover?
Jens: It’s not just architecture, it’s things like music and the whole Civil Rights Movement. All of those things didn’t occur. Instead, the world went on a much darker path.
Devin: You hear the word “subhuman” in the game. That plays a big factor later on. Because this war has progressed and way beyond the scope of our imagination — are Jews at this point being used in Deathshead’s experiments? I think you see part of that when he’s in the hospital when they take people away. Are they just using mental patients or is it a targeted, Jewish thing?
Jens: So in researching the Nazis, they performed a number of atrocities. There were a lot of things that weren’t specifically about the ethnicity and the religion — and, of course, it was that, too, and that was the bulk of it — but any person who didn’t fit into the dogma of what was a genetically pure sample, anything that was out of the norm, got called away. And so in this world, they’ve extrapolated on that and it’s just gone longer and longer. And that’s also thematically important for the story because that’s a problem with all dogma is that it’s never-ending. So if your goal is to have blonde hair and blue eyes — how blonde and how blue can you go? And where do you draw the line? And when you get into those dogmatic cultures, there’s no end to it. It just keeps building and building. Things that were okay yesterday might not be okay anymore. It’s just this very weird vicious cycle, so that’s something we’re also exploring.
Devin: Let’s go back to the cinematics for a second. There’s a short open cinematic in-between the castle and the hospital scene. And it has a noir-ish ’70s or grindhouse feel. Not the content, but the music and the camera quality.
“So if your goal is to have blonde hair and blue eyes — how blonde and how blue can you go? And where do you draw the line?”
Jens: Yeah, the term we use internally is “Nazi Noir.” We work a lot with our storytelling and we think that there’s a lot of room to elevate how storytelling … So just cinematography, for example, which I think is very underutilized in video games, is something we worked really hard with to elevate what we can do there. And it’s something that is technologically becoming more and more possible. So every time we have a camera cut we do it with a versatile camera, which, you know, wasn’t a reality five years ago, at least not for games.
Devin: Is that a big design pillar for you guys in making your games as cinematic as possible?
Jens: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.
Devin: In this demo, even in the opening scene, it’s still a little rough with the audio cues. Fergus talking on the beach, but it’s very much a movie moment.
Jens: Obviously, there are games that don’t utilize storytelling, that don’t need it, like Tetris or Minecraft or whatever, that are f–king phenomenal games. Really, really awesome. And there’s another type of game where you put the player into a context and into a world where there are other people, and as soon as you do that you have some form of storytelling. So then it just becomes a question of how good can you make it and how committed are you to merging the storytelling with the gameplay so it doesn’t feel like it’s an intrusion, but feels like it’s a natural flow.
Devin: Do you feel like a lot of studios dial up gameplay but don’t appropriately dial up cinematic quality nowadays?
Jens: Well, I think that it’s different. I think that some studios are really amazing at it, like Naughty Dog are really, really good at it — at creating that blend. So I think there are studios that do it extremely well, and there are other studios that don’t really care about it to the extent that they want to explore it. And what we want to do is to create a seamless merge, where it feels like you are this character and you’re in this world and you’re engaged with it in terms of the storytelling, but you’re equally engaged with it in terms of the gameplay. So one aspect doesn’t step on the other, which can happen very easily. If you have someone who is very committed to story, then sometimes the gameplay will take a back seat. We don’t hurt one aspect to embellish the other. It all has to fit together.
Devin: What engine is this being built on?
Jens: It’s id Tech 5, but obviously new features are arriving.
Devin: Can you talk about some of the new features? What’s new in the pipeline for you guys?
Jens: There’s gameplay code that we need specifically for our game, because we have so many different beats. For example, climbing the wall in the beginning — it’s only in that space of the game. It doesn’t happen anywhere else. So it needs custom stuff to make that work. And then, there’s a lot of driving in RAGE, and we’re also utilizing the driving component, but we do it in first person, so the game has to be custom tweaked for that.
On the gameplay side, there’s a lot of things, and because we have this idea that we want to create fresh experiences for the player throughout. We don’t just want to reuse cutscene-combat, cutscene-combat, we put you in different contexts and have you do different things.
And on the render side, a lot of work has been done on skin shaders and just how characters look. Specularity stuff. Like I said, we do a lot of performance capture, so there’s a lot of custom facial animation, and so we now also have blend shapes for extreme poses. So it’s a lot of stuff.
Devin: When you first started working on The New Order, had id included any new tech in id Tech 5 before you had a to-do list of what you needed to add?
Jens: Not really. They were still working on RAGE back then.
Devin: So it started as basically the same version or versions they were using to work on RAGE then. Staying with id for a second, Wolfenstein started with them, and it’s traveled a bit with Activision and Raven, and Splash Damage worked on it during the turn of the millennium. How has it been working on the franchise? Have you guys talked with id at all, on the franchise, not even game code stuff, but creatively?
Jens: Yes. So the whole process started out with us being on site at id where we developed a concept and brought those guys into the room. It was this weird thing because we’re so used to pitching to publishers, and here we were pitching to a developer and they were so incredibly supportive and they understood what we were going for. With developers, it’s easier to communicate from developer to developer. They signed off on it. They asked a lot of questions, like “How would this work?” And we said “We don’t know, we just got here,” and started thinking about it. And then when we got that figured out we brought it back to them and said, “We want to do it this way,” and so on.
The time that we spent there … we had a really, really solid foundation for the whole game and that’s the game we’ve been building ever since. It feels really good to have their blessing and support. And because we were huge fanboys … id Software is the reason many of us, including me, got into the industry. With Quake, you could customize the game yourself, and I started making custom textures and levels. That was sort of my stepping stone into the video game industry. So it’s really great for us to work on something like this.