Jens Matthies: The Reich Stuff

October 16, 2017
FilmInk chats with MachineGames creative director, Jens Matthies, about what is best in life: gaming, storytelling and killing Nazis in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

In 1992 Wolfenstein 3D was released on an unsuspecting world and it changed the face of gaming forever. The title was developed by id Software and featured a then-revolutionary first person perspective, fast-paced action and unmatched graphics. Wolfenstein 3D in a very real way created the First Person Shooter (FPS) genre, which continues to thrive and dominate today, albeit to varying degrees of quality.

The Wolfenstein franchise has had various new entries over the years but none captured the imagination of the public at large like 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order. Not only did the game showcase some of the most vibrant, violent gunplay around, it also featured a clever story set in an alternate timeline where the Nazis won WWII, and contained characters with genuine depth and emotion.

On October 27, 2017 Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus will be released so FilmInk took the opportunity to chat with MachineGames’ creative director Jens Matthies about the long-lived series and its cultural impact.

For the benefit of our more cinematically inclined audience, what does a “creative director” do in the realm of video games?

It means different things for different studios, but it terms of MachineGames it means I’m in charge of anything that’s on the artistic side of things. So there are other people who are working with gameplay and on the fun factor, whereas I work with anything audio visual or involving storytelling. Anything on the narrative side of things is definitely in my purview.

What drew you to the original Wolfenstein: The New Order?

 Well we’re all just very big id Software fanboys at MachineGames! Growing up as a video gamer and seeing Wolfenstein 3D was one of the biggest mindblowing moments of my life. Then there was Doom, of course, and then Quake. I spent so much time playing Quake, and in fact that’s the game I started making content for in a focused and more serious way. When the opportunity presented itself to work on a classic id Software franchise game, it was like a dream come true! It was crazy.

Both New Order and New Colossus have these layered, deep, emotional stories, which is really unusual for modern shooters – what’s the motivation for that?

 I think it’s just part of our DNA and sensibilities. There are games you play that don’t have a story, like Tetris, right? No story. It’s just a context for you to play, but if you have a world with people in it you have a story and I think it’s sort of the duty of the developer to tell it as well as you can. I mean, honestly we love doing it, we’re all movie buffs and we felt like we should tell the best possible story we can.

How do you create such strong characters in the context of a shooter?

Me and my co-writer, Tommy Tordsson Björk, write the stories for these games and we just love cool, interesting characters. I mean, who doesn’t? So we pitch back and forth and build upon that and new ideas start to come into it. Once we feel like we have a strong character who has a purpose and is clearly defined we can really start constructing their interactions with the other characters and their arcs throughout the story.

It’s different to a movie because in a movie the protagonist will carry the story regardless of what you do. In a game you’re doing the legwork, you need to get from the beginning to the end and that requires a different motivation. We have to motivate you, the player, so you and the protagonist are aligned. We are constantly refining that process, and making it better.

Nazis went from being an almost quaint video game baddie to marching in the streets of America in 2017, was that a horrifying moment for you?

It’s always quite disturbing and horrifying when real life Nazis show up and start marching in the street, it’s not something I would have ever expected to see. That said, we don’t make these games to be a social commentary on current events. The game is our art and it’s what we spend our lives doing – so for us it’s about making the best possible game and story, whatever the world does outside of that is just what happens.

However we decided early on we wouldn’t cartoonify Nazi ideology. We didn’t want to shy away from the horror of it – the way they’re represented in the game is in keeping with that ideology. So because it’s dealing with nazis it’s inherently political, but it’s not social commentary.

So online, actual Nazis have been complaining about how they’re portrayed, and KKK members are objecting to their treatment in the game. How do you react to that?

If you start caring about what Nazis and white nationalists think, you shouldn’t be involved in making a Wolfenstein game. It’s about shooting nazis! [laughs]

How do you make emotions feel true in a game that also includes giant robot dogs?

 One of the formative experiences of my life was seeing the original RoboCop (1987) which beautifully straddles the line of sharp satire and over the top crazy shit. It has really strong pathos and means something beyond the surface material. That kind of fiction, I think, is very powerful. That’s why I like this kind of world. It can be incredibly hard to pull off, you take these fantastical concepts but turn them into something that feels personal and authentic, even though it’s not realistic. I don’t know if there’s a recipe for achieving that, but I try to make each component feel truthful in the context of the world.

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus launches on PC, XBOXONE and PS4 on October 27.

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