Wolfenstein II is arriving at a strange time to say the least. When there are literal nazis marching in the streets of the US, a game that has you attempting to rid that country of nazis can't help but feel like some kind of political statement. Of course, given that Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus has been in development for several years, it's clear MachineGames wasn't building it with events like those in Charlottesville in mind.
As Bethesda PR boss Pete Hines told Rolling Stone this week: "no one from MachineGames or Bethesda could have predicted Nazis marching down American streets in 2017. Even talking about it now seems ludicrous."
Even so, there are nods in-game to the more unsavoury elements within the current political climate. "Every once in a while, you can't resist slipping a joke or two about the state of the world," Wolfenstein director Jens Matthies told The Verge in July.
One example is the following banter between two nazis, which clearly references the punching of Richard Spencer. "I have no sympathy for terrorists," one complains. "How can they promote violence toward us, just because we hold a different point of view?" The other responds, "You're right, Karl. Acts of violence are never okay. Never." And then Karl, again: "What kind of society would this be if I were to kill anyone who does not subscribe to my viewpoint?"
Wolfenstein II wasn't designed to provide ironic commentary on society, but Bethesda is smartly capitalising upon current events for the game's marketing. "From a marketing standpoint, we certainly saw an opportunity to take a stand against these events while also talking about the game we’re making, which is about killing Nazis and overthrowing their rule in the US," Hines said. "We weren’t going to hide from the fact our game is about killing Nazis and freeing the US from their rule, and if we can reference current events as part of talking about the game, so be it. Nazis are evil. We aren’t afraid to remind people of that."
Earlier this month, Hines told Games Industry, "[In the game] freeing America is the first step to freeing the world, so the idea of #NoMoreNazis in America is, in fact, what the entire game (and franchise) is about. Our campaign leans into that sentiment, and it unfortunately happens to highlight current events in the real world."
What the events of Charlottesville do remind us is that while nazis are often portrayed as pure evil incarnate in much of pop culture, the reality is more uncomfortable. "To show them as caricatures is abhorrent – exactly as they did to the Jews," author Daniel Griliopoulos told PCGamesN last month. "They weren't monsters – they had particular belief structures that made sense to them in the context of their time, and were grounded in philosophies that go all the way back to Plato…
"If we treat Nazism as only manifested in soldiers who can be killed without qualms and evil leaders, we fail to confront the fact of how Nazism took root and could again among ‘normal’ people… Games that want to be taken seriously need to deal with the Nazi regime as it was, in the context of an era that believed in eugenics and racial superiority - as did many in the West - and a group of amoral politicians that capitalised on the desperate… 'Boo, Nazis' doesn't teach us anything."
In our chat, MachineGames co-founder, creative director, and Wolfenstein director Jens Matthies says that even in a game like Wolfenstein, a lot of thought is put into how nazis are shown. "Yeah, there are many ways to do it that are cop-outs," he says. "You could cartoon-ify them and not really dig into their motivations and ideologies so much, but that's not what we think is creatively interesting. If you are doing a game about Nazis, you have to – in our opinion – acknowledge the fact that that it is intrinsically a political game.
"Even though this game is painted on a larger-than-life canvas with bombastic combat and gigantic robot dogs and has a lot of those non-realistic elements to it, we still wanted to portray nazi ideology in a way that is credible and truthful. Of course that is challenging, but that's the challenge that we have accepted. All we do is spend a lot of creative energy doing that; constructing the game in the most respectful but awesome way we can."
Also tricky is presenting the horrific things nazis did in a way that doesn't leave a player feeling completely depressed. After all, first and foremost, Wolfenstein is supposed to entertain. Even so, MachineGames isn't shy abut referencing the Holocaust and its related atrocities: The New Order showed concentration camps via a forced labour camp level, and The New Colossus features an American version of the Warsaw ghetto.
"For it to feel meaningful or really read with the player, it has to be personal – it has to be made personal," says Matthies. "It has to mean you on a personal level are confronted with the consequences of this ideology. That's where we spend most of our storytelling resources – on that front. Really put you in that mix and raise the stakes for you personally. It's always incredibly difficult to make games. But on some level, I also think this is one of the more important games you can make, even though that might sound pretentious. I'd much prefer something that has a greater value in real life."
Once MachineGames realised it wanted to move the timeline forward and have the game take place in the 1960s, it knew it wanted to do something that tied into The Cultural Revolution and The Civil Rights Movement. To do so, it asked how these events would have looked from a nazi perspective if they had taken over the world and were subverting the culture.
"A lot of it is thinking about what kind of social engineering the nazis would do to try and win the hearts and minds of the US population," Matthies says. "Which of course is incredibly interesting, because the US is a country very much founded on the idea of freedom. So, having this totalitarian state coming in there and trying to take over – I think they would have to do things in different ways. That was very interesting to explore creatively."
The studio's shift from using ID Tech 5 to ID Tech 6 allowed it to do much more across the board. Naturally, this meant the game had to be rebuilt from the ground up, and that in turn meant tons of iteration. "The technology is way, way, way more advanced," says Matties. "The feeling of combat has come up... It's visceral... there's a very noticeable difference… Our goal coming into this was to create the best first-person combat experience in video game history, and I am tempted to say that we got there. It feels incredibly tight, and you feel like you are in complete control… I don't think it's something you can find anywhere else."
With the sequel comes an expanded arsenal for protagonist BJ Blazkowicz, who can now upgrade weapons with new attachments, dual-wield two different weapons, stomp around in a pair of high-tech stilts known as a Battle Walker, or even shoulder charge and obliterate enemies using something called Ram Shackles. More traditional players can rely on the game's hatchet as a melee weapon, and The New Order's laserkraftwerk laser cutter has been upgraded, and is joined by a remote mine launcher called the dieselkraftwerk. "Like with everything we're just trying to make the best game possible," Matties says. "There is some pretty intense opposition in there."
One thing that helps the resurrected Wolfenstein feel like much more than a mindless shooter is the characterisation of Blazkowicz. He has a character arc, and the events he battles through change him. "We always want the protagonist of a story and the player to be in tune with each other," Matties explains. "We work really hard to accomplish that: whatever BJ is doing in the game, that you as a player are on board with that. It's not that the main character is doing something that doesn't reflect you as a player." Giving him motivation this outing are the facts that Anya is pregnant, and his homeland has been taken over by his mortal enemies. "He is a man who has a lot to fight for, and as long as that is the case, he fight," says Matties.
From the outset, MachineGames always conceptualised its take on Wolfenstein as a trilogy, and so there was a rough meta-arc trilogy established very early on. Of course, whether we see it fulfilled depends on how well The New Colossus performs. But it does all make one wonder when BJ will get a break – he starts the new game confined to a wheelchair, after all. "I guess when he wins!" Matties says with a laugh. "He can't rest until then. I think that's one of the biggest things that I love about BJ – he is just an unbreakable sense of persevering. Because he will find a way to kill nazis regardless – it doesn't matter what they do to him."
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus releases on October 27, 2017, on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC, with the Nintendo Switch version to release in 2018.