Whenever I think of my favorite weapons I've wielded across video games, I remember first how they feel. Their weight. Their accuracy and inaccuracy. What they look like. The foes I faced with these particular tools at my side. How a particular weapon feels, most of all, is what can make a game stick out.
And it's hard to forget the feeling of flinging knives in Wolfenstein: The New Order. While they could have been a neglibible side-weapon, they weren't. They were essential, despite their small size and light weight. They proved to be fodder for setting up little challenges for myself alone, like throwing knives at Nazis below from awkward angles or collecting back every knife I tossed away as to not lose a single utensil of my makeshift cutlery set. Knives were a stealth-focused player's best friend.
Even if throwing knives was a virtual activity and not a literal one, it was nonetheless tangibly satisfying. The closest thing I'd compare it to is throwing a crumpled up ball of paper into a nearby recycling bin. Just like a basketball: you shoot, you score. But when Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus releases on October 27th, it will be missing these knives. Ushered in is something new in its place: axes.
In fiction, the act of throwing knives is often used as an act of intimidation, outside of being a literal sport akin to darts. We've seen this in movies like Gangs of New York, where a disgruntled Daniel Day-Lewis throws knives within centimeters of Cameron Diaz's neck to piss off Leonardo DiCaprio, hanging out in the crowd in front of the stage. We see it again in the Japanese film Battle Royale, an adaptation of the novel of the same name, when the teacher Kitano strikes fear into students by throwing a knife directly into a student's forehead without warning. She drops dead. Everyone realizes shit just got real.
In MachineGames' Wolfenstein: The New Order, knives intimidate too. But they're not used to intimidate the heroes of its story. It's to intimidate its villains. The most evil of evil, a familiar villainy: Nazis.
As a large part of Wolfenstein: The New Order's dance with reinventing the decades-old franchise about killing Nazis, The New Order introduced stealth. Stealth geared by knives, and more specifically, knife throwing. The act was weirdly pleasant, peaking out from around corners to throw a knife squarely into a Nazi's neck. Perhaps that foe would be found deceased, inciting fear into other nearby Nazis. Knives were quietly empowering for players in this way, despite being so puny. Knife throwing was only a small part of what made the whole experience of The New Order sing, but it was a gratifying part regardless.
"[We've always gone] for how [knife throwing] would look in a movie," said Jakob Ericsson, Senior Gameplay Programmer at MachineGames. Movies, Ericsson doesn't specify which, that are a bit "over the top." Observing how knives twirl or not in reality as they hit a target board is meaningless, as perfection in attaining a sense of realism was never what Wolfenstein was going for. Wolfenstein, as a series, has always been one for its overtly gore-y, pulpy antics. It's hard to expect anything less from a game that literally sends players to a Nazi colony on the fucking moon.
Ericsson leads the first-person gameplay team. Essentially, everything that goes down in the boots of hero B.J. Blazkowicz is up to Ericsson's discretion first. But to create the pitch perfect arc of knife throwing (and beyond) in the reimagined Wolfenstein series, Ericsson noted that deciding what worked best was a collaborative effort. From stunt people helping coordinate actions to other programmers pitching in ideas for takedowns and other actions, everyone tossed in their two cents. When it came down to making a big change to the familiar formula, it was a group effort. But first, it was Ericsson's idea.
Just as the DLC for the first game The Old Blood swapped knives for lead pipes, Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus is ridding of knives too. "We [first] thought that we would go back to knives, but at that time it was very popular in forums and other games, as well in the tactical community, to have axes," said Ericsson. "In the [United] States, we thought it would be a cool thing to use a tomahawk, because that's the country that it originates from." Designing the game's specific tomahawk was a different chore all together, in the quest to not make things too modern, while also being practical within the era of the game. The team opted for a sort of compromise: something that looks tactical, but adheres closer to a traditional fire axe.
The idea itself spawned not from research though, but from Ericsson's desire to own one. Himself a collector, Ericsson found out about the specific axe on miscellaneous forums for gear. "I do competitive shooting myself, so you see these things pop up and you think they're really cool," said Ericsson. "So I was thinking about getting one."
Throwing tomahawks, like knives, also has its own field of sport in real-life. They're a specially created axe. They're not as wide and broad as most axes, with a shorter sharp end and a long handle for wielding. They're smaller than normal axes too; for Wolfenstein 2's purposes, that makes them more portable like knives. (Even if they're still not quite pocketable.)
Tomahawks specifically originated in North America long before Europeans colonized the Americas though. The axe's origins are rooted in the indigenous communities of the Algonquian people in the northeast of North America, primarily around the Great Lakes and where modern day Canada is. Much later, tomahawks were used frequently among trading with Europeans, eventually becoming an integral weapon in the Revolutionary War. The usage of tomahawks in warfare fell drastically as guns began to flourish. What qualifies as a tomahawk in today's society seems to cross with a hatchet often, but the form of axe remains around even today.
If the Shoe Fits
Period accuracy was an important focal point in designing everything around Wolfenstein 2's alternate reality. The game would be taking place in the Nazi-occupied United States, Blazkowicz's home country. It would be the 1960s, a time of inherent revolution in its parallel universes—the game's alternate universe and our own. Yet in making the switch from the lightness of knives to the denser feeling of axes, mechanically, nailing the feeling proved to be a challenge.
"When you throw a knife, you can throw it like 50 meters or whatever," said Ericsson. "But an axe feels much more heavy and so in the beginning of the project, [we had it so] you aim very high to get it to hit, but that turned out to be not so fun to play. It became a trade off [where] it should be fairly easy to hit with it. When it comes to our melee combat and takedowns, it was surprisingly refreshing to use an axe because we've [already] done the knife."
The overall feeling between the two, Ericsson noted, doesn't feel all too different from throwing knives, as to not alienate the player's core experience in any fashion. While in the original the knife was a "good fit," Wolfenstein 2 needed something new, something deadlier, something arguably more North American (because of its indigenous and not colonial origins). Something more fit for killing Nazis on America's doorstep. For Wolfenstein 2, the axe just fit.
In the meantime, ahead of Wolfenstein 2's release later this week for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One (and Nintendo Switch in early 2018), Ericsson insists the game will be taking the frenetic action the original's praised for even further. Axes, dual wielding, and all—Wolfenstein 2 wants players to feel wholly immersed in its troubled envisioning of the United States. Being the accidentally salient game that it is, perhaps it will even be a look that hits too close to home sometimes. "We're taking a huge leap when it comes to being in the world," said Ericsson. "Your whole body feels more in the world than previously, because we use a full-body player compared to previous game where we only really had a couple of arms."
I haven't gotten my hands on Wolfenstein 2 at all yet, even though my colleagues have. I don't know yet if watching an oversized axe swirl in mid-air towards a Nazi's head will be just as satisfying as watching an itty bitty knife do the same. I don't know how practical the action or carry of an axe will feel, or if I'll have to suspend some disbelief—I mean, this is a video game after all. In the end, I'm going in blind. But hopefully I'm left with some unforgettable memories again. Laden with axes, knives, what have you. It doesn't really matter which, at the end of the day. They're all the same in Wolfenstein.