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The accidental relevance of Wolfenstein: The New Colossus

MachineGames creative director Jens Matthies on when he realized his Nazi-killing game was going to be politically topical, and dealing honestly with Nazi ideology

When MachineGames creative director Jens Matthies first started working on Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, he had no idea the first-person shooter set in an alternate history 1961 where Nazis won World War II would be such a topical game upon its 2017 launch.

Speaking with at last month's Game Developers Conference, Matthies said the game was about two years into development when he realized it would actually be quite timely to world events.

"Obviously after the US elections, I would say it became obvious then," Matthies said.

Despite that, the developer said there were no changes or tweaks made to capitalize on the project's sudden relevance to real-world events.

"The way we work is we commit really early on to what we're doing then we follow the plan," Matthies said. "And we make sure we follow the plan. And lots of things fall apart along the way and we come up with counter-measures to put the train back on track. But if we don't follow the plan, then things derail for real. So in terms of development, the game we shipped is the game we set out to make. There's no difference there, really. On the marketing side, there was more discussion, I think."

"A game like ours would be way too controversial to be made at any other publisher"

The marketing for The New Colossus was handled by fellow ZeniMax subsidiary Bethesda, and they quite clearly leaned in to the game's accidental timeliness, parodying President Donald Trump's campaign slogan amid a rise of Nazi and white supremacist rallies around the country.

"Within Bethesda, we have a lot of communication happening back and forth. And we express our opinions to each other. Do you have the expression 'high ceilings' in English? Maybe it's a Swedish expression. When you have a high ceiling, it means you don't have to guard your speech. I can tell anyone within the organization how I feel about something, and they can tell me whatever they feel. So we're very open and it's direct access to the people who make the decisions. So that's incredible, and very, very valuable and I think unique to Bethesda in terms of big publishers.

"However, we also respect each other's domains. So I don't pretend to be in control of what the marketing department decides, and they don't pretend to be in control of what we decide about the game. Even though we sometimes have strong disagreements about stuff, ultimately we know who makes the final call."

The idea of Nazis in the streets of America seemed more far-fetched when The New Colossus was conceived

There's another consideration at ZeniMax, that being the presence of President Trump's brother, Robert Trump, on the company's board of directors. When asked if he had any concerns about stepping on toes with the game or its marketing, Matthies laughed.

"Like I said before, there are no secrets within the organization. We meet with the president every month and we go through everything we're doing," he said. "I would say everyone on the board and the chairman have been incredibly supportive of what we're doing. They're big fans of the game, and as a developer, that's amazing. I think that's also pretty unique for Bethesda. A game like ours would be way too controversial to be made at any other publisher."

While The New Colossus is far from the only game with something to say about the world, it is one of the few that people seemed to reflexively examine for meaning. Matthies said his previous efforts like The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay weren't focused on in the same way.

"The difference is, with Wolfenstein you're dealing with Nazis," Matthies said. "That's a real ideology. It's an ideology responsible for one of the greatest mass murders in human history. If you look at games we've done in the past, Riddick for example, it's all fantasy. So there's no real world correlation in the same way."

Matthies admits it's "incredibly satisfying" when players analyze his work and discover the meaning and thought he put into it, but he isn't terribly concerned when those efforts go unrecognized.

"I don't think it's a requirement for people to engage intellectually with a game," Matthies said. "I think it's important they have fun, that they feel like it was time well spent. That's all I'm hoping for in terms of the game I'm making. But as a creator, of course I love seeing how you can play with expectations and construct things in ways that are unexpected and pleasurable in some way. And what I think our challenge is--which is an amazing and fun creative challenge--is that our game is about stabbing a guy in the head with the guns blazing. That's right there, up front, what our game is about. But it's also all of these other things."

Still, he believes The New Colossus' use of Nazis does encourage a closer reading of the subject matter.

"We've done a lot of research over the years. I'm sure we're on some sort of governmental watch list from all the Googling about Nazis that we do"

"We could have also made our Nazis much more cartoony. There are ways of doing Nazis that are 'harmless' in fiction," he said, drawing particular attention to the air quotes around 'harmless.' "You can look at Hydra in the Marvel movies as a way to do that. They're making maneuvers not to court controversy. But we decided early on not to do that. Even though our game is over-the-top and incredibly fictional and crazy, we still wanted Nazis to feel like Nazis, and in some honest way, deal with their ideology."

Of course, doing that requires knowing their ideology, and that requires research. Between The New Colossus, and its predecessor, Wolfenstein: The New Order, Matthies has been heads-down on Wolfenstein since about 2010, immersed in as vile and sad a chapter of human history as it gets. It may not be staring into the abyss, but he conceded to "surfing the edge" of it. So has nearly a decade being professionally steeped in that darkness affected him on a personal level?

"I think so," Matthies conceded. "I don't think there's any way it couldn't. Game developers, as with any other creative breed, we really care about what we're doing. And we spend a lot of time developing these things. So for sure, whatever you're working on, on some level, becomes a part of you.

"We've done a lot of research over the years. I'm sure we're on some sort of governmental watch list from all the Googling about Nazis that we do. And there are some incredibly hard facts to read about, and that can affect you psychologically. You can read something and you're depressed for a week after that."

That said, none of the development team has left to get away from the grim subject matter, and Matthies said the fact that the team is making an explicitly anti-Nazi game is "a good engine to keep going."

"We love making Wolfenstein games," Matthies said. "We have other ideas too, tons of ideas we could work on. But within the spectrum of opportunities, I'm happy to work on any of those things. I wouldn't mind making Wolfenstein games for the rest of my life. There are not so many projects that can offer you a real clarity of purpose. And I think Wolfenstein--the way we make Wolfenstein games--does that."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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