A little bit strange and new: building Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is the eagerly awaited follow-up to 2014’s critically acclaimed reboot of the famous series, The New Order.

That game gave the long-running series a big shot in the arm, portraying a gritty alternative timeline where the Nazis won World War II, while maintaining the fast-paced gameplay and over-the-top science fiction trappings that have been a staple of the series since Wolfenstein 3D launched back in 1992.

While Wolfenstein: The New Order was mainly set in Nazi-occupied Europe in the 1960s, the sequel takes place in America, which is also under Nazi rule. With the latest game winging its way to games consoles and hard drives, we chatted to Andreas Öjerfors, Senior Game Designer at MachineGames, about how the new setting changes the dynamic of the game, as well as what it takes to create such a compelling, and at times resonant, game.

Our first question for Öjerfors was what the job of a senior game designer entails. “Well, I guess it’s different in every studio, right?” he says. “We’re a small group of designers, just three different people. We worked together on a lot of the different systems and creating new enemies and directing on all of that throughout the development of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus.”

Öjerfors is very familiar with the world of Wolfenstein, having worked on the previous game. “MachineGames is a pretty young studio, it started in 2010. I joined in 2011, so I was there for most of the development of The New Order.”

Getting the keys to a franchise

Since Wolfenstein 3D, most of the games in the series were developed by iconic studio id Software, yet in 2014, Bethesda (the sister company of id Software since it was bought by parent company ZeniMax in 2009) handed the reins over to MachineGames, a brand-new and untested studio.

Giving control of such an important franchise to a new studio was a huge leap of faith, and the people at MachineGames knew how important this was. “It was our first game as a studio,“ said Öjerfors. “We were basically building the studio at the same time as we were building the game.”

Wolfenstein 3D is often lauded as one of the most influential computer games ever made, and the responsibility to do right by the franchise, to honor its past while charting its future, was clear to MachineGames. “Wolfenstein 3D was the first shooter I ever played,” said Öjerfors. Of course, with this responsibility came a fantastic opportunity for MachineGames to make its mark on the gaming world. But how did this come about?

"We were basically building the studio at the same time as we were building the game.”

“Very early on in MachineGame’s history, it was just a handful of people. They got in contact with Bethesda, who then went to id Software and talked to them and pitched this idea for an alternate history and a new path for Wolfenstein, basically. And people just loved it.  And that’s how it started. It started from just that idea.”

It goes to show that a strong idea, and a belief in that idea, can go a long way. While reinventing Wolfenstein for a new audience, MachineGames made sure to add nods to the series' history, such as hidden levels of the original game, as well as Easter Eggs from other Bethesda games.

“We’re a family at Bethesda and we like to have iconic stuff from the other studios in our games as well, so you can find the Skyrim helmet and stuff like that,” adds Öjerfors. ”It’s fun for us, and we think it’s fun for gamers.”

Speaking of the Bethesda family, does that mean the development teams get to spend time with each other? “Yes we try to share knowledge, both technical and in design as well,” says Öjerfors. ”When we bring our games as a vertical slice to those studios, the heads of other studios gets to play that, they give us feedback. It’s very useful to get feedback on a vertical slice, where you can still change stuff.”

"Wolfenstein wasn’t that exciting any more as a series. I think we made it fresh again, a little bit strange and new."

Getting this expert advice and opinion from teams that aren’t working on the game is essential, Öjerfors states, as when you work so closely on a game for so long, you may lose sight of what your doing right – and wrong. “When you work on a game it is so close to you that you can get blind to certain aspects of it. For example, I am now really happy that people seem to really like what we’re showing them when it comes to our game, because I have been working on it for over three years now, and I am starting to get blind to it, so it’s great to see people react to it.”

The critical and commercial success of Wolfenstein The New Order proved that Bethesda’s belief in MachineGames paid off. Öjerfors, and the rest of the team, are deservedly proud. “I think The New Order surprised people, you know? Wolfenstein wasn’t that exciting any more as a series, for people. I think we made it fresh again, a little bit strange and new.”

Creating characters

Despite being such a new studio, and The New Order being its first game, MachineGames produced an impressive debut that was critically acclaimed for its gameplay, story and acting. 

From what we’ve seen so far, it looks like that high quality is set to continue.  Öjerfors explained to us how essential the voice cast was to bringing the characters, and the world they inhabited, to life. “The creative director, Jens Matthies, is also, kind of, the boss of story at Machine Games, who spends lots of time finding the perfect actor for each role. They test a lot of actors for every role, to get the perfect one. I think finding the right actor is half of the job, really, when you want a good performance.”

One of the stand-out characters of The New Order was Frau Engel, a senior Nazi who develops a murderous obsession with the player’s character, B.J Blazkowicz. Engel is a terrifying character, but also complex and intriguing, and a lot of that is down to her portrayal by Nina Franoszek.

Öjerfors agrees, saying “she’s just a great, great actor, who plays her.” Finding the perfect actor for a role in story-driven games isn’t just about luck – there’s a lot of hard work involved as well.

“It’s a long process for the creative director when he casts the different actors, because he tests out a lot of actors. It’s such an important part of getting a great portrayal: finding the perfect actor to do the job. So for most of the cast, we spent months and months just trying to find the perfect people for it.”

"We tried to keep it somewhat grounded, and tried to keep that human element in there."

That time and effort certainly paid off, with some excellent performances of memorable characters. We, like many of the fans of the first game, were pleased to see Frau Engel appear in several trailers for the New Colossus in a prominent role, and according to Öjerfors, her expanded role has been planned for a long time. “We planned for her to be the antagonist when we wrote the New Order. We thought ‘okay, we’re going to introduce Frau Engle here, then use her for the next game’. We just loved that character”.

While previous games in the Wolfenstein series weren’t quite as story-driven, or dramatically satisfying, The New Order really stood out. “Wolfenstein is always a bit over the top, or it should be, but we tried to keep it somewhat grounded, and tried to keep that human element in there. As a balance. We wanted to tell an over the top story, but keep it ground. We want to make it something players can care about. We want you to care about the characters. That’s the continuous balance we have to walk.”

Building a world

While creating memorable characters that feel alive is one part of the creative process, it would all be for naught if there wasn’t an equally believable fictional world for them to live in. 

Thankfully, MachineGames built a frighteningly believable world where the Nazis won World War II for The New Order and its sequel. While this alternate version of Earth was certainly grim, however, it also maintained its over-the-top science fiction sensibilities, which the Wolfenstein series is known for. After all, this is a game with giant robot dogs chasing after you.

“The fictional world we are trying to build… it’s over the top but we try to make it plausible. We want to tell a full story of what happened, and how it would work out. In the New Order we spent a lot of time trying to portray what it would be like to live in a world where the Nazis won, and this time we have gone a little bit further with the setting, as it takes place in America.”

Moving the setting from war-torn Europe to the seemingly more peaceful USA has given The New Colossus a new feeling, and from the footage we’ve seen, with Nazis walking down the main street of a typical American town, the juxtaposition of fascism and Americana is a powerful image. 

One thing that struck us was how the Nazi occupation of the US seemed to be accepted by its population. Öjerfors tells us that’s a deliberate creative decision. “In the story so much time has gone by now with America being occupied by the Nazis, that the oppression has started to become the new normal. That’s chilling in itself: when people start accepting and being a part of their own oppression. Because that’s what can happen to societies that have been occupied.”

"You have all the pop culture that happened in the 1960s, the civil rights movement – what if that had never happened? What would society look like then?"

But was it always the plan to set Wolfenstein II in the USA? “Yes, that was always the idea. It was something we wanted to do. In the New Order the setting is mostly in Europe, but when you think of the 1960s, even an alternate history of the 1960s, America is such a rich thing to play with, because you have all the pop culture that happened in the 1960s, the civil rights movement – what if that had never happened? What would society look like then? So, yeah, absolutely. America was somewhere we always wanted to do.”

Times have changed in the Wolfenstein universe, but they also have in the real world. Far-right political movements have been increasingly successful across the globe, while the US has witnessed an increase in support for neo-Nazi and white supremacy groups. 

This is still all a far cry from the world depicted in Wolfenstein II, but there are some unsettling parallels. We asked Öjerfors how MachineGames feels about it. “It’s been pretty bizarre,” he admits. “We started writing the fundamentals of the story over three years ago. So, it’s been a surprise to us, what’s been happening in the world. But we’ve stayed true to our story.”

In the run up to the launch a gameplay trainer was released showing a chilling depiction of an American town where Ku Klux Klan members were wandering around and chatting to Nazi occupiers. 

"The game is obviously anti-fascist and anti-Nazi, and that really shouldn’t be controversial."

In the current political climate, where the trailer was released not long after violent clashes in Charlottesville, the video was met with some controversy. “Again, all that stuff was written a few years ago, two years ago maybe. But, we’re making a game about Nazis, and about fascism. So those are the themes we’re toying with. The game is obviously anti-fascist and anti-Nazi, and that really shouldn’t be controversial!”

Öjerfors struck on a depressing fact: being anti-Nazi really shouldn’t be controversial. Games, movies and other forms of media have been using Nazis as the bad guys for half a century. The reasoning is simple: they were the bad guys. Their ideology was, and still is, repulsive. Yet MachineGames found themselves accused by some of the louder and uglier parts of the internet as being ‘anti-white’.

This, again, must have been baffling for MachineGames. “I think we largely ignore it. We know the story we want to tell, and we try to tell it as well as possible. It’s then just up to the audience to take it to heart or not. We don’t change anything or reconsider anything because we get threats. We just try to stay true to our story.”

A single player focus

Wolfenstein II, like its predecessor, has no multiplayer aspect; it remains a resolutely single player experience. Again, this shouldn’t come as much of a controversy, but these days it is an increasingly rare occurrence for a game to have no multiplayer mode. 

Sometimes these multiplayer modes feel under-cooked and rushed at the behest of publishers who think multiplayer modes can prolong play time and reduce second hand sales.

“We had the same process as we did with the New Order: that if we focused all our energy as a single studio on that single player campaign, every last bit of energy is spent on creating the best gameplay experience we can for that campaign. And it’s paid off, as we get a great game. Hopefully people will like that, and buy the game.”

"Every studio that Bethesda works with are left to do what they are best at. And then we get the best possible game."

A laser-focus on single player storytelling is great news to fans of The New Order, and it’s good to hear that Bethesda didn’t feel the need to meddle with a winning formula. “Bethesda fully agrees with this. Every studio that Bethesda works with are left to do what they are best at. And then we get the best possible game. That’s their approach, so that gives us a lot of creative freedom as well.”

With Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus now available to buy, and positive reviews already rolling in, it seems MachineGames has another hit on its hands. While available for PC, PS4 and Xbox One, Öjerfors also confirmed that a version is in the works for the Nintendo Switch, which could result in one of the most violent and adult games ever appear on a Nintendo platform. Öjerfors agrees. “I don’t know how many sex scenes there usually are in Nintendo games, actually!”

But, even after three long years and a successful launch, Öjerfors isn’t done with Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus just yet. “You’re never finished working on a game. Whatever game we worked on, we could probably just keep working on it for the rest of our lives! There’s always things that you could do slightly, slightly better, and improve a little bit here. So at some point creative work is never finished.”