Wolfenstein 2 'is political' but 'isn't a commentary on current topics,' says dev

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus’ downtown Roswell is a ticky-tack, Kennedy-era township replete with strawberry-frosted milkshakes, sun-faded storefront facades, and charcoal-armored S.S. stormtroopers on every street corner. Supersonic warplanes blaze overhead, leaving red-and-white jetstreams in their path. A propaganda film, "America: The New Order," flickers away in a movie theater. Two housewives happily chat about the slaves they’re putting out to market.

Nazi America has been a fixture of speculative sci-fi since the demise of the Third Reich, and out of context, Wolfenstein II’s dystopian story of resistance is informed more by pulpy splash panels than socio-political treatises. But right now, the billowing Nazi banners and casually hooded Klansmen absolutely evoke the carnage of Charlottesville. Over the past few months we’ve all been reminded that white supremacy, as a political value, is alive and emboldened across the country—and The New Colossus isn’t afraid to touch on that reality. 

"No Wolfenstein game has ever taken place in the U.S."

In my brief time with the game at QuakeCon I found patriots and freedom-fighters, but I also found Americans who’ve found personal deliverance in Nazism and racial hegemony. Afterwards I caught up with Jens Matthies, creative director on The New Order, and asked him about what it’s like to be designing a game that’s fixed in the middle of a fresh national wound.

PC Gamer: How long have you known that you wanted to go to America with the second game? Was that a decision you’ve had in mind for a while?

Jens Matthies, creative director: Oh yeah, I think that was the summer of 2010 in Mesquite, Texas. We were in the offices and thinking we wanted to do something with Wolfenstein, and we came up with this idea of “well, what if the Nazis won the war because they access to this amazing technology?”

We always envisioned it as a trilogy, and when we were making the first game we had an idea of where we’d take the sequels. So it’s very gratifying to do a sequel because we seeded so much stuff in the first game that we can build upon now.

Obviously you were not expecting to be releasing a game about Nazism in America in the midst of our current political climate.

[laughs] It was a bit of a surprise.

So, over the past few months, what was the reaction to the team to all that, given that you’re handling a surprisingly relevant topic right now?

I don’t know, it’s an unexpected development for sure. It’s not something that has any real bearing on the game, because the game isn’t a commentary on current topics. But we always wanted to make… we are making a game about Nazis and Nazi ideology, so on some foundational level it is a political game. Or at least it is if you want to deal with those topics in some serious manner.

You are addressing aspects of Nazi ideology in this game that gets left out in a lot of other adaptations. You have people casually walking around in Klan robes. Was it important to you guys to address the true realities of Nazism?

For sure, I think that whole level [the Roswell level, which is being demoed at QuakeCon] was our… it was really important for us to show what mainstreet America looked like after the Nazis had taken over. It’s something we spent a lot of time thinking about. It might have been the first level we knew we were going to put into the game.

You have Americans walking around in that scene who are pretty sympathetic and on-board with Nazi ideology. The Klan robes, like I said, or the woman talking about the slaves she’s putting up for sale. Was it important for you guys to show a version of America with some of the white supremacist attitudes that already exist in the country empowered by the Nazis? 

Yes, but that was true for Nazi Germany as well. There was always a segment of the population who were “winners” in an oppressive regime, and they were willing to look past what the ramifications were to the other parts of the population. I think that’s what’s interesting universally, because I don’t think that’s uniquely German. Anyone is susceptible to that.

You just mentioned that handling Nazis in Germany is easier than handling Nazis in America, I’m curious to know more about the differences you had in mind from presenting a post-war Nazi United States vs. a post-war Nazi Germany.

Yeah, America has freedom as a foundational goal. This country is founded on freedom in many ways. And it’s the ‘60s, and historically there was a tremendous cultural revolution with civil liberties movements and all these things happening. But on a more personal level, it’s B.J’s homeland, and no Wolfenstein game has ever taken place in the U.S. So all those threads together I think would make a really interesting, and personal narrative.

As you said, this game will be thrust into political dialogue that you weren’t necessarily expecting. Is the team preparing itself for that scrutiny?

In a way, I guess, but I don’t think you can really obsess over that. Our goal is always to make the best possible game we can make, and what the outside world does with that, that’s up to them. If you worry too much about that, it’ll just mess up the process.

There are a lot of indie games that aren’t afraid to deal with some pretty hot-button topics. Wolfenstein is a Bethesda game, and obviously has a lot of triple-A backing. Do you think it’s important for more games on this side of the industry to take on these topics?

I don’t know if I look at it that way, but I think everyone benefits from more creative freedom in games. I think that’s amazing about Bethesda, they have such amazing respect for the creatives within the organization. That’s also why we love working for them, and making Bethesda games.

Luke Winkie
Contributing Writer

Luke Winkie is a freelance journalist and contributor to many publications, including PC Gamer, The New York Times, Gawker, Slate, and Mel Magazine. In between bouts of writing about Hearthstone, World of Warcraft and Twitch culture here on PC Gamer, Luke also publishes the newsletter On Posting. As a self-described "chronic poster," Luke has "spent hours deep-scrolling through surreptitious Likes tabs to uncover the root of intra-publication beef and broken down quote-tweet animosity like it’s Super Bowl tape." When he graduated from journalism school, he had no idea how bad it was going to get.