This article first appeared in PC Gamer magazine (opens in new tab) issue 355 in April 2021, as part of our 'DNA Tracing' series, where every month we delve into the lineages behind iconic games and studios.
Jens Matthies is laughing somewhat incredulously. Although his clothes are casual, his body language is guarded. It's QuakeCon 2017, and I've just told the creative director of MachineGames that some people are saying single-player games are dead. "People," he retorts. "What people?"
"People in the industry," I suggest, unconvincingly. And so Matthies continues to laugh. I'm not sure what kind of response I expected: he and his team have bet their careers on the argument that single-player games are very much alive. That no matter how many times publishers chop the head off story-led adventures, developers will succeed in reanimating them.
It's a conviction that set in years before MachineGames was founded, back when its core team worked at Starbreeze, bonding over the difficult development of The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. Then, as now, Starbreeze was wracked by financial problems, and shedding staff at a demoralising rate. In order to insulate themselves, the Riddick team moved to a different floor, shutting out the miserable drama that had consumed the rest of the company. It was a unit forged in hardship that would prove to last decades.
The world beyond Starbreeze's doors expected little from Butcher Bay, wary of ropey licensed games made on shoestring budgets. But the Riddick team made smart use of its 18 months, eschewing multiplayer to focus completely on a campaign inspired by Half-Life and Splinter Cell. Setting the game exclusively within the confines of a labyrinthine prison was a shrewd economic choice, too. While Starbreeze couldn't have competed with the lush outdoor environments of Far Cry, it could pour detail into Butcher Bay's cell blocks, which were dark, dramatically lit, and densely textured.
Butcher Bay's one great risk was its first-person perspective, which left its most valuable asset, Vin Diesel, offscreen for most of the game. But Riddick's background presence befitted a character who was best mates with the shadows, lending mystery and malevolence where exposition would merely have bored. Diesel cut back the dialogue himself, rightfully recognising that players would lean in to listen if his baritone was used sparingly. What's more, Starbreeze succeeded in making first-person fist-fighting a highlight—a feat that was practically unheard of in 2004 (and even today).
What stands out about Butcher Bay today isn't its shooting but its breathing room. The game's centrepiece is a non-linear negotiation of 'double-max' society, during which Riddick trades cash for smokes and favours for shivs. The quiet and the conversations have a grounding effect, situating you in a world that might otherwise seem like a series of corridors. It's a trick that has since become MachineGames' signature. That, and the studio's ability to instil licensed property with flair. To make spin-offs and retreads feel, paradoxically, original.
The latter was never the plan. When MachineGames' founders left Starbreeze during the development of Syndicate, they spent a year and a half pitching new ideas to publishers. All were rejected, and the studio's directors considered selling their homes to keep the company afloat—anything to lash together the raft that carried Riddick's survivors. In the end, a deal between two entirely unrelated companies was the saving of MachineGames: Bethesda acquired id Software, and with it the licence for Wolfenstein.
It's testament to MachineGames' success that Wolfenstein is now considered bankable, spawning a board game, VR tie-in, and prequel comic series. Back in 2010, it was another story. Among id's licences, Doom and Quake were top of the pile—Wolfenstein was the difficult sibling, with a history so ancient that it required significant reinvention with every attempted reboot. Developers had failed before: Raven's 2009 iteration was a commercial disaster, condemning its team to layoffs. It's perhaps unsurprising that when asked if anybody was working on a new entry, Bethesda said MachineGames was free to try.
If Riddick thrived in the shadows, MachineGames did so on low expectations. The established lore of Wolfenstein was a pulpy mess—a mixture of POW escape fiction, zombie horror, and Mecha-Hitler boss fights. Absolutely nobody was asking for it to be treated with reverence, but Matthies and a team of majority-Starbreeze alumni told Wolfenstein: The New Order's story with a straight face—even as they kept the villain called Deathshead, and the protagonist named BJ.
In a master stroke, the studio shifted the action from WWII to an alt-1960, in which the Nazis were the dominant force on the world stage—a concept that proved immediately gripping in the fashion of the best 'what if?' tales. And it cast Brian Bloom (himself an accomplished co-writer of Call of Duty's best stories) as Blazkowicz, lending the Polish-American Jew a genuine gravity that belied his daft name.
That juxtaposition, of the tender and the absurd, has become Wolfenstein's distinguishing quality during MachineGames' tenure. By The New Colossus in 2017, it felt as if the studio was deliberately pushing the formula as far as it could go. In one pivotal scene, BJ is beheaded in a televised execution—only for his fellow resistance fighters to catch and transplant his noggin onto a new body in an experimental procedure. The twist is played not for laughs, but to show the lengths that a ragtag family will go to keep the unit together. It's the miraculous story of MachineGames, related in the most audacious way imaginable, by an outfit at the top of its game.
In mid-January, Bethesda tweeted a teaser clip. As the camera panned across a desk covered in tomes and hand-drawn maps, it took in a typewriter bearing the legend "MACHINEGAMES", plus a fedora and a bullwhip. The message was clear: Matthies' team will be taking on an Indiana Jones adaption next. In some respects, it's familiar territory—a cause for further Nazi-bashing, and an excuse to return to the fist-fighting mechanics that helped Starbreeze stand out. But in one other key aspect, it's terrifyingly different. For the first time, the Riddick team is facing high expectations with its new endeavour. And for that, they only have themselves to blame. Who else taught us that licensed games could be great?