BJ is back today in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, as just one of a handful of a huge games releasing all that the same time. While Aran is punching all the Nazis in the face ahead of a review some time next week, we got the opportunity to talk to the quite excellently named Arcade Berg, Senior Game Designer at MachineGames, about how this takes a step forward compared to The New Order, and the environment in which the game has been developed.
But first, just to address the elephant in the room…
TSA: I’m sure you’re getting asked this a lot, but we’re sure that Nazis are the bad guys here, right?
Arcade Berg: I think we can agree on that statement!
TSA: It’s a strange one to even consider asking, and I know that Bethesda have said that there’s no political statement being made, but I’m actually wondering if you wish that you could be making a statement here? 2017 is a very strange year in that regard…
Arcade: I mean, obviously a lot of things in the world are shit right now, but we have to remember that Wolfenstein, one of the longest running game franchises in the world has always been about fighting the Nazis, there not exception to that. This game is the same.
When we made The New Order that was released back in 2014, we were already hoping to make a trilogy, so this has been in the works for a long time from a lot of people. This is what the game was always meant to be and the timing is what it is, but that said, yeah, the Nazis are the bad guys in our fictitious world and in the real world. If you can find catharsis from playing our game, that’s amazing, and we’re not going to shy away from our opinion about Nazis.
TSA: You’ve had a lot of fun with that in the marketing campaign, that’s certain.
Arcade: Exactly. It’s worth remembering that the actual things that are happening in the game are still a fictitious “What if?” world and story, but I can see the references drawn to real life…
TSA: One of the things I felt with The New Order and which has carried on here, was that you really brought a craziness and a hyper-saturation, I think I’ve described it as, to the characters, with BJ almost as the straight man in the comedy routine. Can you talk about the process of creating these characters and making them so distinctive?
Arcade: I actually think that BJ is quite a funny character as well, with his monologues. He’s not stupid, but he’s fairly simpleminded often and pure in what he wants and wants to achieve. I do think you’re right, though.
I should point out that I work with the gameplay and mechanics, and we have fantastic story designers that work with the narrative, but I’ll do my best to answer! I definitely think you’re right, and a lot of the other characters bring a lot of fun, like Set and my favourite Max Hass, who’s just adorable. I think it’s because they are almost caricatures, because they’re pretty defined in who they are.
They all have their own individual motivations for why they’re part of the resistance, but we’ve always had what I like to describe as a comedic undertone. It’s not a comedy game, it’s not meant to be that, but the world and the setting is really grim and really dark, and with that we need to make sure that the experience doesn’t get too dramatic or too dark for you the player. So when it gets too dark, we can always pull on that string, so you feel that it’s a bit lighter, that it’s entertainment and the violence is so over the top that it’s funny. We’re using the comedy to balance out the horribleness in the game.
TSA: That’s something I was going to bring up, with the balance between violence and humour. One way you have that is with the very, very beautifully rendered cutscenes in the game, but I’m wondering how you balance the amount of time spent in cutscenes with the gameplay? I believe that this games is actually meant to have more cutscenes than the first game, and I’m wondering if you’re wary of straying into Hideo Kojima territory?
Arcade: I don’t think we’re running a risk of that, and I’d say the balance is roughly the same as we had in The New Order, and we got good feedback from there. Obviously both the game and the cutscenes look better this time around, with new tech, better hardware, but the cutscenes are just ridiculous! We have a fairly large team dedicated to this work and the facial scans and everything is absolutely amazing.
What we have worked on, and which will actually help with this potential problem, is that we have the cutscenes and we want them to be a sit down and enjoy the show kind of thing, but then on the other end of the spectrum we have the pure go nuts gameplay, but you have the area in between where narrative happens when you’re playing. Be that with dialogue or being in more of a story driven part of the game, we worked a lot on that grey area to make it gel even better.
TSA: That’s an interesting area to really have to be aware of, when the genre’s always tended towards silent protagonists and having people talking to you, the screen. I feel it’s something first person shooters have always struggled with.
Arcade: Exactly, yeah. I mean, we’ve never tried to make BJ an empty shell that you put your personality into, we want you to be BJ the character, because we’re presenting you a story. When playing the game with the action and the shooting, you are BJ, and we’ve got the full body animation as well, so you look down and see your chest and legs, it’s all real. […]
We’ve also made sure that we never actually take away control from the player. So there’s small, small things like when you pull a lever, you can actually move your body as far as the arm allows. Just those things, so when you’re playing the game, you really are playing the game.
TSA: How have you pushed on the gunplay in The New Colossus? Not long after the start of the game, BJ’s now in the da’at yichud power armour, so what does that offer to explore that you didn’t have before?
Arcade: Well, I mean, you start off the game in a wheelchair!
I generally believe that the shooting and gunplay was really good in The New Order and The Old Blood, but it’s a sequel and getting more time to develop we need to improve every aspect of it. The full body stuff really helps with that as far as the fidelity goes.
In the previous games we allowed for stealth, but we’ve taken that further now. We have what we call the three play styles, you have the stealth player who is about killing unnoticed, we have the typical player who’s probably wielding one weapon, headshotting, making it to vantage points, using cover and being smart and surgical in their approach, and then we have the mayhem player, who’s dual wielding shotguns and doing the dance of death!
We really want to make sure that all three play styles are valid options at all times, so with every combat scenario, every feature, every weapon, we’ve tried to ask questions about what a stealth player, a tactical player and a mayhem player will do. This goes even further with the extra abilities that you have, like the Battle Walker legs that make you more than twice BJ’s height, so you can shoot over cover and reach other vantage points. There’s a lot more quirky things you can do that help a play style and furthermore help the combat.
With the dual wielding, which was very well liked in the previous games, we’ve taken that even further now to let you freely dual wield any weapons, so you don’t have to do two SMGs or two shotguns. You can mix and have a shotgun in one hand and a silenced pistol in the other, so you can be stealthy until you’re discovered and just start blowing away with the fully automated shotgun! That will just increase the spectrum of choice for how you want to play and how you want to approach a situation.
Another example I like is the grenade launcher, which is a really good weapon in special circumstances, but it’s not really a weapon that’s wise to carry alone because those circumstances don’t present themselves all the time. It’s really useful to have in your off hand with an all round weapon in the other hand, so you’re ready when the situation presents itself.
TSA: After the last couple of weeks, it feels like single player games are going out of favour in some places, and EA in particular, but they’re alive and well at Bethesda. I’m curious about the philosophy behind that, especially given the costs that are involved in supporting and developing these single player games?
Arcade: It comes down to MachineGames and our studio DNA. When MachineGames was started, it was by senior developers who’d made a bunch of games before, knew where our strengths lie and we could play to our strengths. We make really good directed action games, and those are the games we wanted to make, even before we had the Wolfenstein IP.
Bethesda wants people to make the best games they can, right? And if you make a good game, hopefully people will buy it! With getting Wolfenstein as well, we were really lucky that we could make a game that truly is a single player campaign and focus solely on that. Also, if we’re going to make the best game possible, we need to focus our full attention on that game, and no matter how you try to solve it, whether you hire more people or whatever your solution, it will always divide your attention.
We said we want to make the best single player game we can, and we were allowed to, it worked out well, people loved it – I think it surprised a lot of people when The New Order came out as strong as it did – and thanks to that, we got the opportunity to do The Old Blood and The New Colossus as well. Basically, it’s the kind of game we’re really good at making and Bethesda respects that.
TSA: Finally, when I was quickly hopping to Wikipedia to check a few points about the game, I actually stumbled onto the source for the game’s name, which is The New Colossus poem by Emma Lazarus in the Statue of Liberty. Has that influenced the game? Was it always intended?
I feel it’s going to sail over a lot of people’s heads, especially outside of the US, unless they’re also making mistakes while trying to look up the game!
Arcade: [laughs] Well, everybody likes to Google!
That was actually the intended name from the first day when the story was introduced to the team. Like you say, it’s from the Statue of Liberty and because the game is set in America, it just felt like a well fitting name. Of course, it also plays on The New Order, The Old Blood and now The New Colossus, so we have a theme going there. I can’t take credit for it unfortunately, but I think it’s a really clever name!
There’s also the fact that it really sounds badass by itself.
TSA: It does, though now that I know it’s about the Statue of Liberty, I’m kind of thinking Ghostbusters II for the game’s end?
Arcade: [laughs] Fair enough!
Thanks to Arcade for taking the time to chat with us. Be sure to come back and check out our full review next week.