Interview: Wolfenstein: The New Colossus Creative Director Jens Matthies

After successfully rebooting the classic franchise with 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order, Machine Games are now taking the over-the-top alternate history shooter to the land of the free with Wolfenstein: The New Colossus.

We spoke to the game’s creative director and co-founder of Machine Games, Jens Matthies. With a track-record at Starbreeze working on critically-acclaimed titles like The Darkness and The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, Matthies had plenty to share on the influences behind the new game and more still to say on how it raises the stakes.

Credit: Bethesda

There's been a lot of sort of chatter online about the political relevance of the setting for the game. As the creative director, can you weigh in on whether or not BJ would feel okay punching a Nazi?

JM: *laughs* I think he would feel that that is a very soft approach. I think he would like it to be a bit more drastic.

How early after The New Order and The Old Blood did you sort of begin talking about and going into the development process for this game?

JM: "It started immediately after New Order."

Credit: Bethesda

Was the plan always to do a sequel?

JM: "It was always our plan. When we started on the first one, we wanted to make a trilogy."

"As we mapped out what we were doing for the first game, we knew where we would take a sequel and a third game. And so we have this kind of broadly sketched narrative for the whole thing. But then of course you never know until a game ships if it makes financial sense to do the sequel."

Was there any key feedback from The New Order and The Old Blood that sort of drastically re-shaped your intent or scope for the sequel?

JM: "No. I mean, we constantly sort of solicit and listen to feedback, but we're not the kind of studio that are driven by that. [It is] more about our ideas being received the way we intend them to be received. And that's what we think feedback is useful for - because sometimes you may want to create a feeling or say something specific, but it's not landing that way, and so you need to validate that. Is it working the way it's intended? If it's not, then you have some work to do to figure out why that's the case."

Credit: Bethesda

With FPS games, weapons are sort of a big part of the experience. When building the arsenal for this game, did you worry that maybe players have seen it all?

JM: "Not really, because I don't think that's what it's about. I think there was a time when it was like, "Oh my god. The gravity gun," and that defines the whole experience, right? But I don't think that's the case anymore, and I definitely don't think that's the case for the kind of games that we make, because we have an extremely holistic approach. Sort-of the story, and the gameplay, and the world, and all of these sort-of mutually collaborate to build a unit of cohesive awesomeness. That's what always what we're trying to do."

"There was a time in the industry when everybody was obsessed with the USP - the unique selling point - like how is the marketing department going to position this game, and everybody was like, "Our big hurrah? We need bullet time." Or whatever it was. But we're not in that stage anymore. I'm very happy about that, because we can just focus on an experience that feels rich and feels tight and awesome, the way it's supposed to be."

Credit: Bethesda

Likewise, you literally went to the moon in the first game. How do you top that? Do you think that you've managed to top that in this new one?

JM: "I honestly think that people are not ready for what's coming."

There's also been a trend in FPS design over the last few years towards sort of finding interesting ways of giving the player tools to move around environments. Why'd you go with stilts?

JM: "That's only one of three things actually and the way the progression in the game works, you can kind-of decide. The way we always conceptualize it was that we want to support these three types of gameplay."

"Either the stealthy approach - and our stealth is a very violent stealth, it's not like avoid conflicts kind of stealth. That is a game style that we want to support, and the other one is that more sort of tactical, you're moving from cover to cover, and you're tactically advancing on the enemy. The third one is what we call the mayhem approach, where you're just dual-wielding and you're kind of just in the environment moving really quickly, strafing, and being highly, super aggressive. All of those three play styles work, and you can sort of migrate from one to the other if you want during a combat encounter."

"So, we wanted to introduce some gameplay, or some sort of movement mechanics that would support those three play styles. One of them is what we call the battle walker, which is this thing that allows you to ... yeah, it's sort of mechanical stilts. You can find high ground. You can approach vertical covers, or traverse other areas, and we feel that's appropriately matched with the sort of tactile play style. You're a little bit more careful of how you, and a little bit more cerebral on how you approach the combat encounter."

Credit: Bethesda

"Then we have something called the constrictor harness, which kind of compresses your torso so you can fit into smaller openings. This is kind of complimentary to the stealth play style, so you can crawl under a box, or under a piece of furniture, or through a narrow pipe, and those kinds of things."

"Then we have the ramshackles, which is this other thing that locks your torso so you can ram into stuff. You can ram into walls. You can break boxes, and you can also ram enemies, which is very cool, especially because we have these upgraded super soldiers with this kind-of thruster pack kind-of thing. Yeah, so they will sort of charge you, basically, in this thing, and if you ram them at same time, they die, so that's very cool. So that's very complimentary with this mayhem play style. And during your playthrough, you get one of these for free. You get to pick which one, and then you can, by doing side missions, you can get the other ones, too."

That sounds very interesting. You worked on the Chronicles of Riddick games before this. Would you say there's a lot of shared DNA between the two series?

JM: "Absolutely. Yeah, I think so, and I think there's a lot of shared DNA between everything that we do just because of the kind of ideas that we gravitate towards. This wasn't readily obvious to me earlier, but I think over time when we have amassed a greater body of work, there's a lot of sort of thematic similarities and stuff, just because that's the stuff we like, I guess."

Credit: Bethesda

"It's kind of fun to see it that way, because I was always such a huge movie nerd, and I remember the first time I saw a movie, and I said, "this must be the same director as that other movie I saw." And then I looked it up and it was. Then I started understanding, okay, they have a style and a sensibility and stuff. It's pretty gratifying to see that that is kind-of emerging on the stuff that we do as well over time."

Based on the trailer for the game, it looks like you’re getting a little stranger with the humor in this game through the LSD sequences. Where did the idea for that come from?

JM: “That's interesting. That actually came from the actor.”

“When we wrapped the shoots for the performance capture shoots in the first game, 'because everything in our game, all the storytelling stuff is full performance capture. There are some exceptions, but anything [to do with] main story stuff [was motion captured]. And that's incredibly complicated and time consuming to do, and we have these amazing actors, and we have very long shoots.”

“For this game we had 40 shoot days I think. And on top of that it's the rehearsals and the planning and everything. But anyways - so A.J. Trauth (who plays Wyatt) - I went around when we had the wrap party for the first game, and I said, "so do you have any requests for the sequel for your character?" He said, "I want to have a drug problem." So we worked that into the plot and that just came out great. That was really cool."

Credit: Bethesda

Last year's DOOM was a huge success for ZeniMax. Was there any pressure from them or from yourselves to sort of make the combat or the style of The New Colossus more DOOM like?

JM: “Not really. I mean, we were really happy with how the combat felt in the first game. It felt very Wolfenstein to us. It has the right amount of old school sensibilities, but it's still incredibly approachable, and it's very liberating to ... like, you have a lot of options in our gameplay.”

“I mean, obviously there's always sort of mutual admiration and inspiration with our sister studios throughout [the] Bethesda's sphere. But we feel like we had a lot of ideas about where we wanted to take the combat.”

“In the first game you had this sort of classic disembodied first person model. It's basically a couple of floating arms, and if you look down you don't see any feet there. But in this game we, because we always did that in both Riddick and The Darkness, we always [modelled and rendered] the full body. We really wanted to get back to that, so we had this dedicated first person team, and all they do is the ‘first person experience’: how the weapon feels, how the movement feels, and all that stuff. They rebuilt everything from ground up in the new engine.”

"But yeah, so I think mainly [we] just keep doing our thing and just try to push that to the next level. I honestly feel like where we ended up is, to me, feels like the best first person experience ever made. I think the difference when you play it, if you play a couple of hours of New Colossus, and then you play another first person game, it's a very significant difference in how that sort of experience is."

ZeniMax has a pretty big IP catalog at its disposal. Are there any other settings that you'd like to explore or try? What would a QUAKE game made by you look like?

JM: "Oh my god. Yeah, yeah. I mean, we are huge id fanboys. We're huge Bethesda Game Studio fanboys. We're huge Arkane fans. That's what's so amazing, too, when we're on our press tour now, and we see The Evil Within you get so inspired by that stuff."

Credit: Bethesda

Also, I spent a lot of time Matt Firor and Elder Scrolls Online on the press tours and stuff, and it's just ... 'cause their game is so drastically different from ours, and their game is so incredibly complicated, so I'm almost like picking his brain, like, "How do you do it?"

'Cause that's miraculous to me. I don't know how you would even attempt such a project. You're constantly surrounded by these insane, talented, super humans, and you're just trying to step up and feel like you can hang in that company, you know."

The New Colossus is also coming out on the Switch. What's the development for that been like? Are there any major differences, I guess, apart from the graphics side of it?

JM: "I think the differences you can expect are kind of similar to the difference between DOOM [and its Switch port], because it's the same engine."

You've added so much character to your take on BJ. What did you really want to accomplish with his character in this game versus the last one?

JM: "Yeah, I think this game is a lot more personal to him, because he's becoming a father. Anya's pregnant, so it's that whole situation, and of course he's also greatly injured from the first game. He's in this sort of weakened state physically, but he's mentally more motivated than he's ever been to sort of create a world where the kids don't have to grow up in a Nazi ruled environment. Then of course we also go to his homeland. I mean, he's been fighting overseas for so many years, and trying to do something, and then everything went to hell. And now he goes back and see what's happened to his homeland.

"It's very, very personal for BJ this game."

Credit: Bethesda

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus releases on the 27th of October, 2017 on PS4, Xbox One and PC. The Nintendo Switch version of the game will be released in 2018.