Wolfenstein: The New Order is an anomaly for most first-person shooters, turning a game about killing nazis into a philosophical meditation on good and evil. It was so different from anything I expected that coming into Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus, I only had the vaguest ideas of what I might encounter. Turns out, nothing in my wildest dreams could prepare me for what I found in Wolfenstein 2, which kept much of the philosophical navelgazing I loved from its predecessor, but also channeled the sci-fi pulp of the 1970s and gonzo insanity of 1990s cinema.
Spoiler Warning: Spoilers for the end of Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus and other moments from the game are ahead.
At the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco last week, I sat down with MachineGames' Jens Matthies, creative director of Wolfenstein 2, to talk about my two favorite scenes in the sequel that highlighted the strengths of MachineGames' take on the Wolfenstein franchise. Those scenes are none other than B.J.'s execution scene, and the moment players meet Hitler on Venus.
Both moments stood out to me for different reasons. B.J.'s beheading functions as the turning point for the sequel, and also encapsulates the complicated narrative juggling MachineGames demonstrated throughout the sequel. While the Hitler on Venus scene exemplifies MachineGames' far-fetched take on the Wolfenstein mythos.
During our chat, I pick Matthies' brain about these two scenes, and he cautions that I shouldn't think of these as moments of weirdness for weirdness' sake. Instead, Matthies reveals how B.J.'s beheading was almost ruined under the weight of its own strangeness, while getting Hitler right in the sequel was a result of MachineGames' creative relationship with its own actors.
"That's not really how we think about it," says Matthies when I ask why MachineGames felt confident to go weirder for the Wolfenstein sequel. "For sure we're trying to accomplish things creatively, [things] that are grander than what we've done before or that are more creatively ambitious," says Matthies. "Of course that's a natural impetus. You always want to do something that's better than the thing before. But we don't think about it in terms of, you know, 'let's do something weird.' It's more about... we explore, we establish a theme, we start playing around with characters and situations and character arcs for each of our characters in the game. And out of that conversation comes ideas."
"The protagonist getting beheaded was actually an [earlier] idea I had," Matthies tells me. "I was an early tester for the first Dishonored [...], and that was one of the ideas I pitched to Arkane like, 'It would be really cool if this thing happened.' And they said, 'Nah, I don't think that's gonna work for us, for this.' And I said, 'Okay that's fine I'll put it in the next Wolfenstein game.'"
Matthies notes that this scene established B.J. as a character in the sequel. "I had this idea because I think just fundamentally that's a real testament to how tough B.J. Blazkowicz is," Matthies elaborates. "I mean, he can survive his own beheading [laughs]."
It's not quite accurate to say that the beheading scene is its own, standalone moment. It's in fact more that the beheading is a culmination of a roller coaster that begins when B.J. meets his father at his childhood home. The chain of events begins as if it were a dream, but twists and turns as the scene travels through his capture, his trial at the hands of the Nazis, an actual dream where he meets his mother, and finally reaches his execution. It's an absolutely loaded series of setpieces that juggles reality and dreams, and moments of seriousness and hilarity. The scene could have easily turned out tonally confusing in the wrong hands. Matthies was even worried that this cool beheading scene he first envisioned for Dishonored would even fit in Wolfenstein 2.
"As we started building the game, we felt that we had this downward spiral that you're going through as a player harmonized with B.J.'s experience." "But his body is failing and he's basically running on willpower, and things get darker and darker. And we felt like we needed this turning point with hope. Some sort of hope. So how can we make that moment as powerful emotionally as possible?" Matthies describes this as being a "symphony of emotion."
"But there was something there about the speed of how all of that functions that gave a few people whiplash."
The solution was the the weird science moment of rescuing and reviving just BJ's head. The narrative juggling required to kick off BJ's resurrection was something Matthies and the team spent a considerable time orchestrating, and it nearly didn't come together in the end.
"There was a component that kind of derailed that process, which was that people didn't really get a sense of where the rescuing of the head took place," Matthies says. "Like how did the Resistance get in there [to rescue B.J.]?"
Originally the scene was much shorter and less detailed. "[The scene] used to be [the resistance] saved [B.J.'s] head, it's alive, Max says 'Max Haus' and Bombate says, 'Max is right, we should get out of here,' and then we cut to the submarine," Matthies recalls. "But there was something there about the speed of how all of that functions that gave a few people whiplash."
To fix the scene Matthies and the team did something that's normally not advised when writing a video game story. MachineGames added more exposition. "We added this sequence where they escape. [...] You can tell that, 'Okay, they came in through the sewage or utility shaft or whatever, and they found this position and shot some Nazi on the way in and then they're going into the sewers.' So what we ended up doing was making the scene longer, which is rarely a good idea in a game, but it worked," Matthies reveals with a laugh. "People needed that kind of moment to settle into the situation and get more clarity on the facts of the situation."
Hitler in Fur
Here's the thing about the Hitler and Venus scene: it's a retread of classic Wolfenstein and MachineGames' own Wolfenstein: The New Order. Hitler is B.J.'s eternal enemy, obviously, with a mech variation of the Nazi leader being one of the most famous video game villains in history. Meanwhile, with Venus? Well, B.J. already went to the moon in The New Order. So, been there, done that.
Yet the fact that the Hitler on Venus scene feels both completely original, and so very true to what MachineGames has done with their Wolfenstein run is part of the careful consideration the creative team puts into the tiny character moments throughout the game. Part of that meant taking B.J.'s most famous enemy and giving him the MachineGames treatment, but another detail comes from the other creative talents MachineGames works with-the actors who bring Wolfenstein to life
"We didn't want to make [Hitler] the main antagonist," explains Matthies. "We wanted to introduce him but not upfront. We wanted it to be a surprise." Matthies adds that because of YouTube and the like, surprises are harder to create in games. But Matthies and the team decided it would just be cool to face off against Hitler on Venus.
At the time Matthies was grappling with the problem of how to get B.J. to Venus in the first place, and why Hitler would even be there in the first place. So Matthies and the team looked back on history to solve their Hitler problem. "We started brainstorming and we had this idea about-because the Nazis were so into propaganda of different kinds-we had this idea like, 'Of course they're making some kind of spectacle out of B.J. Blazkowicz.' So that's how this audition scene came to be."
"For Hitler, we thought it would be cool if he was the opposite of spiritual [unlike B.J.]. He's very physical in everything. A lot of the things he's doing is coming out of that. He's kind of sick. He vomits. He takes a piss in the corner-he doesn't care. And at some point, he's like, 'I'm tired, you take over,' and he lies down on the floor. I love that sense of someone who is so powerful that they lose all sense of social boundaries. So that turned into a fun scene."
The actor who portrayed Hitler in Wolfenstein 2, veteran actor Norbert Weisser, even started a meme in the MachineGames studio as a result of his performance. "There are things that [Weisser] does, [...] like when B.J.'s doing a really bad reading of the lines [during the audition scene where players must recite the proper script lines] and Hitler is so [frustrated creatively] that," at this moment, Matthies demonstrates what happened quite literally: letting out a huge scream that shakes our interview room. "As soon as [Weisser] did that I was like, 'That's a miracle.'
Matthies tells me that "the Weisser scream" became a regular occurrence in the MachineGames office. "That became like a meme in the studio. so when we became creatively frustrated we would just..." Matthies screams again, but thankfully for my ears not as loud as the first time.
"The people you picked are already attuned to the vibe of the character, and as you start rehearsing they will bring in ideas and you get to explore spaces that you didn't even get to think about while you were writing it."
Organic moments like that wouldn't be possible without having a stellar cast. Brian Bloom (voice of B.J.) and Nina Franoszek (voice of Frau Engel) gave interviews about how they tried tackling their unique roles. In an interview with PCGamesN, Franoszek revealed how she struggled to find the voice of Frau Engel, and that research into concentration camp guards didn't help her much. Instead, Franoszek said that she found Engel's voice through rehearsal. "I just threw myself into one brutal action and experienced an unbelievable 'high'-a power rush that gave me a god-like feeling, which was the turning point," says Franoszek.
That's no accident according to Matthies. "We do a tremendous amount of careful consideration as we cast," says the creative director. "We do several [auditions]. If we don't find someone that we're 100 percent happy with, we'll do another pass and try to bring in more people and look in different places."
"Once you get to that place where you're happy with the script and you're happy with the actor it becomes incredibly pleasurable to explore these scenes," explains Matthies. "The people you picked are already attuned to the vibe of the character, and as you start rehearsing they will bring in ideas and you get to explore spaces that you didn't even get to think about while you were writing it."
And with the pieces all in place, moments like Weisser's scream or Franoszek's "high" emerge during the creative process. "Our entire cast," begins Matthies, "There is not a line, there is not a performance in the game I would change. It is the way it is supposed to be."