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Being B.J. Blazkowicz: Storytelling in Wolfenstein: The New Order Exclusive
Being B.J. Blazkowicz: Storytelling in  Wolfenstein: The New Order
June 5, 2014 | By Kris Graft

June 5, 2014 | By Kris Graft
More: Console/PC, Design, Exclusive

"Is somebody working on Wolfenstein?"
"No, nobody is working on it."
"...Can we have it?"
"Maybe? What would you do with it?"

Sweden's Machine Games was on the ropes when it approached Bethesda Softworks -- sibling company of Wolfenstein 3D creator id Software -- about the possibility of making a new game in the long-running Wolfenstein series. The studio needed a project, or else it'd be lights out before Machine Games ever released a game.

Jens Matthies, creative director at Machine Games, was just weeks away from losing his apartment when he and his team sealed a deal with publisher Bethesda to make a new Wolfenstein. In 2010, Bethesda parent Zenimax acquired the company, made of former Starbreeze Studios developers, sometime after the tentative conversation that Matthies recalls above.

Matthies headed up story direction on Wolfenstein: The New Order, tasking himself with making players feel personally invested in the story of protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz. One of the challenges was layering a compelling story on top of a game that is largely about killing Nazis in various ways.

Aligning motives of the player and the protagonist

"It's interesting," Matthies reflects, when asked about his thoughts on storytelling in video games. "Developers are so isolated. Everybody's reinventing their own wheels. I think that leads to a lot of theory being developed in separate houses."

Matthies' experience in developing triple-A video games includes 11 years at Starbreeze, where he was an original member of the studio. His theories and methodologies were already being put into practice and tested in commercial products, years before he spun off with Machine Games and Wolfenstein. Starbreeze is the developer behind games including The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and The Darkness -- two strong examples of storytelling within the confines of the triple-A, story-driven first-person shooter genre.

"In order to do a really good story in a first-person shooter, it's important that you make the player feel like your protagonist feels. It's not enough to just tell it."
"The most important thing is to align the motives of the protagonist with the motives of the player," he says of games that put the player "in" the game world. "This is where I think a lot of games [fall short]. If you want to tell a good story in a first-person shooter, you have to integrate it into the gameplay. For many studios, they treat the story as a separate thing from the game, like non-overlapping magisteria or something.

"But in order to do a really good story in a first-person shooter, it's important that you make the player feel like your protagonist feels," he adds. "It's not enough to just tell it, like you would in a movie."

He says in movies, he sees protagonists as emotional proxies of the viewer -- the character on-screen has a history, and the character's actions exist in the world created by the moviemaker. The viewer empathizes and relates to that protagonist, but, of course, the viewer is not propelling the action as they might in a game.

"In a game, we are asking you to pick up the controller and go on this journey, and finish this journey," says Matthies. "So it's very important when we give the protagonist something to do, that those motivations are mirrored by the player."

Story and gameplay pulling in the same direction

So, storytelling and game mechanics need to complement one another, according to Matthies. But how much of a story can one tell when the large bulk of the mechanics involve lining up sights and pulling a trigger?

"I don't agree with that premise," Matthies argues. "Of course there is a fundamental game mechanic there...but I don't necessarily think that's what matters in terms of storytelling."

He explains, "I'm not saying that the gameplay has to necessarily drive the story or that the story has to drive the gameplay. I'm saying those two things have to pull in the same direction at the same time."

Matthies notes that in Wolfenstein in particular, although the game hinges mainly on shooting, there were certain decisions in the game's pacing that lead him to categorize it as an action-adventure game as opposed to a pure shooter. In any case, whether shooting through a horde of Nazis or sitting down with one, Matthies and his team strived to make sure Blazkowicz's motivation aligned with the player's.

Matthies8"The dream is to make you feel like Blazkowicz, even though he speaks in your place," says Matthies. "But you don't want him to say shit that you don't agree with. I hate that so much in games, when the protagonist is somebody who's acting on your behalf, but is not representing you."

He admits that's where the challenge is: not many people are like B.J. Blazkowicz -- a buff dude who's perfectly at home when shooting a Nazi in the head. There will always be a disconnect in that way. But for Matthies, the key is finding a balance between creating a character that has a personality and a history, and one who is relatable enough to invite the player into the game's world.

"The goal is not to have a protagonist that's so neutral that you can project yourself into them; the goal is to have a protagonist that is so relatable that you become them," says Matthies. "Of course, there are degrees to which that is successful, but that's what we work toward."

And creating that relatable protagonist isn't just about the protagonist, but also non-player characters in the game. One of Matthies' goals was to encourage the player, in the boots of Blazkowicz, to invest emotionally in other characters. In the case of Wolfenstein, there are instances where one can see this put into practice, including a choice early on in which you choose one person to live over another.

That choice determines part of the overall vibe of the rest of the game. Creating the emotional investment Matthies speaks of often involves having the player spend a decent amount of time with that NPC, making the player reliant on that character in both gameplay and story. Once a player is invested in that relationship, the game designer has a narrative tool, as changing that relationship in an interesting way -- such as killing off the NPC -- can have a meaningful impact on the player.

Moments like that can bring player and protagonist motivations into alignment. "We make sure that the motivation for the player and for the protagonist are pulling in the same direction," says Matthies. "And when the Nazi antagonist does something to [Blazkowicz], they also do it to you, as a player. So you care about it, and that gives you an emotional impetus to carry on the fight."

He admits, "People are different. Someone will feel completely like the protagonist, others will only feel a little like the protagonist."

Triple-A challenge

Of course, Wolfenstein's method of storytelling is only one approach, and doesn't fit all types of games and genres. Matthies' methods come from over a decade of working with "triple-A" developers whose games focus on shooting and storytelling.

"Half the time, you're just overwhelmed by how intense it is, in terms of production."
Following that pitch to Bethesda, Matthies and Machine Games spent three weeks holed up in a meeting room at the publisher, learning more about the id tech 5 engine, and laying out the narrative backbone of the game. Matthies said Wolfenstein was the first game he worked on that stuck so close to the original vision. There were common game development problems, some related to overscoping (the game ended up long for a single-player next-gen FPS at around 20 hours), but Matthies likes the challenge presented by "triple-A" game development in particular.

"It's just a space where we feel really comfortable making a game," he says. "Half the time, you're just overwhelmed by how intense it is, in terms of production, and how hard it is to reach where you want to go. And the other half of the time, you're really thriving in that [environment]. There are very few groups of people who can do it right."

"If it's not as hard as it can be, it's not worth it," he says.

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Michael Joseph
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"The dream is to make you feel like Blazkowicz..."

Why? Is he worth knowing that well?

B.J. Blazkowicz went from a nobody to somebody they very much want you to know. It kind of hurts the simulation/role playing element that the original Wolfenstein enjoyed.

"The goal is not to have a protagonist that's so neutral that you can project yourself into them; the goal is to have a protagonist that is so relatable that you become them"

Why? Sounds a bit more film school than game school...

Is it just to serve the games tight narrative (mostly on-rails gameplay) or are we talking future movies and transmedia and the need to establish a Master Chief of their own? It's hard not to interpret what they're saying as "we're manipulating you (the audience) for franchise purposes that don't have much to do with the integrity of the current work."

The original Wolfenstein made the player feel like they had a duty to survive against/escape from these filthy Nazis. That was a pretty big achievement especially when we're talking about interactive art.

All that is lost now. The game is now more interactive Tarantino-esque melodrama.

Steve Peters
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Like they said, this isn't the only way to write characters in games, they're just saying that out of the many ways, this best fits their design methodology, and intended final product. I also have no problem "role playing" with a predetermined character, as I've recently been playing The Last of Us, in which I quite easily managed to step into the shoes of Joel, adopt his personality for the purposes of said "role playing" and had internal mental reactions to various events in the game which matched both his personality and back story, as well as my own feelings.

I however, wouldn't consider this role playing (hence the quotes), as I feel that role playing must have some cause and effect within the virtual world, whether it be a major or minor impact. I'd prefer to call this something like "self insert characterization". But I digress, as our disagreement in terminology is simply a matter of semantics.

I don't think there is a single way to write a character, npc, or story for that matter. Nor do I believe there is one specific way to experience the game, whilst meeting various npcs, through the main character's eyes. In the end, I guess I mean to say that I don't think the devs are trying to manipulate the audience, nor are they sacrificing their ideals to achieve undeserved fame. I really think that they just wanted a flashy, wild cinematic game that brings the design fundamentals of today and yesteryear together. And no, linear and cinematic don't automatically make a game worse, anything and everything can be done poorly.

Dave Hoskins
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I'm playing this at the moment. To sum it up:
A decent shooter, a love letter to Half Life in many ways. Interspersed with a B-movie that takes over the controls from the player.
I wish this long trend of games wanting to be movies would end, at the very least tell the story while I'm playing it.

Jennis Kartens
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I personally miss cutscenes lately. I mean cutscenes that give an overview, connect the dots, not eat up 50% of the game time. Have not played the latest Wolfenstein yet, but what would I give for more artificial cameras to enjoy the scenerey or just dive into the world.

Stuff like that gives me actually more immersion as hardcore first/3rd person storytelling that always is more artifical as a classical cameras we're used to through films.

Dave Hoskins
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I would prefer it if 'first person' would remain as such and not take me out of the game into some kind of badly acted TV movie. They are not cameras, they are my eyes.

Jennis Kartens
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They're not eyes, they're cameras that are set on eye-level.

The static nature of FPS especially is almost an insult to the human eye and brain.
It lacks of everything. The motion possibilities, the focus possibilites and of course all the effects that are compensated by the body and brain yet are artificially added into games. Motion blur, depth of field, lens flares... effects that you do not activiely recognize with the eye because the brain makes up for it so proper information is delivered. Even in film, if not for specific artistic effects, those things are tried to be *avoided* while in games they are actively *added* to create... well, a film/photo feel.

The eye and all that comes with the visual perception of the environment is such a complex apparatus, games as we know them right now seen on a flat device with very very limited input methods are not even near to eye perception which is why I don't really like the entire approach for said "immersive" reasons. To me, it ends in the exact opposite. You see a picture through your eyes and you can't even help it to be different, because your actual eyes have to percieve it that way due to the technical nature of consuming video games.

That may change a little with devices such as VR, but as mentioned that is just one of many parts here. Limited input is another relevance that won't be solved as easy.

Guillermo Aguilera
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are eyes.

Dave Hoskins
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Don't get me started on camera effects in first person shooters!! If the player is wearing a mask or goggles then OK, but otherwise please hold back on the film camera effects, they are just cheap fluff that take me out of the feeling of being there.
*sigh* but the publishers want the fluff, so they can advertise the game like a blockbuster movie. Which it never is of course.
It's just my personal view, I have no idea how many other people care about this.

And yes, VR might help rein in this movie maker desire of game designers because yanking the view out of player control will result in some really dizzy moments. More dizzy than usual, anyway, as it is I had to shut my eyes when they swing that camera around like crazy out of my control.

Steve Peters
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Bbb-but Jennis. Cutscenes are the bane of our existence, and because we're all pretentious auteurs, we must hold them in utmost contempt. The only real games are minimalist creations (that I prefer to call "interactive art") that substitute characters for abstract shapes (preferably 8 bit), as even the concept of narrative is in total opposition to what every game is supposed to be about. I have opinions.

Steve Peters
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This comment is probably a bit contrary to my last one, but what ever. Yes the first person perspective is abstracted (contradiction right there), but so is everything in a game. Melee action games, even ones that attempt to be realistic, like War of the Roses, Chivalry, or perhaps Darksouls (not including giant weapons and magic), completely ignore footing, which is perhaps just as vital and complex as the act of swing a sword, parrying and all the other combat options games can't give you. Racing sims don't give you the feel of momentum or the texture of the road beneath your seat. So yeah, all games will abstract reality to make it playable with a controller or keyboard and mouse, all whilst using 16:9 two dimensional viewing panels.

Jennis Kartens
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Now that I've finished it too I found it a good mixture of narration elements. You have everything in place. People talk to you while you can't answer, the character has an inner monologue, there are a lot of newspapers you can read, there are audiologs I didn't listen too (after South Park, I can't go back. Never) and cutscenes.

Plenty of stuff, more as most other games offer. Good mixture. Sadly the story itself drifts too often into pseudo-seriousness that just is ridiculous given the trashy theme and overall kill-all-nazis gameplay. Should've stayed on a more self-ironic level.

Dane MacMahon
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Way too much story in this game, especially way too much story that takes control away from you and makes you sit back and watch it like a movie.

Not to sound like an old grump but games trying to be movies has been the worst part of the last 10 years.

Fabian Fischer
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Couldn't agree more. Matthies also makes a really bad case for why it shouldn't be bad to combine linear, authored storytelling and game mechanics. He just says: "I don't necessarily think it matters". Sure, it doesn't matter. Forget about cinematography, pacing and foreshadowing, forget about all the basic tools an author has to have to tell his story in the most effective way possible. They just don't matter in terms of storytelling.

I guess John Carmack hit the nail on the head years ago: "Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie." Smart man.

Ujn Hunter
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I did like the fact that I felt connected to the characters, it made me want to destroy the nazi's after what they did to characters I liked. I didn't like being ripped out of the first person view seeing "myself" doing things and talking with other people though. I'm only, or I was only, at the end of the Asylum level before the game crashed on me and reset my progress to the beginning of the Asylum level though. Having a hard time getting back into the game because I don't feel like going through it all again so soon. :|

George Menhal III
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I like the new Wolfenstein a lot and I was playing it every day on PS4 until Mario Kart 8 came out. I need to go back and finish the game.

That moment on the train, where the woman asks you to select random images, definitely stood out to me. And some of the other smaller moments in the game I find interesting as well, but I think I have to agree with Dane and Michael. Every time B.J. speaks in his mumbled Batman voice I literally laugh out loud at the screen. It sounds so brazenly generic that I can't imagine it to be anything other than a joke.

I don't need to be aligned with B.J. to enjoy the game. Wolfenstein isn't Bioshock or Metroid Prime. I don't need to feel the way B.J. feels. I need the mechanics to be good and the situations around B.J. to be compelling enough for me to want to carry on destroying Nazi scum.

All in all though, I'm very happy with the game. Nice article.

Dale Craig
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I have played through Wolfenstein as a regular player (without pausing to analyze the design elements) and I am impressed with how the story elements were integrated with the gameplay mechanics. The designers didn't just include set-piece cut scenes but used voice-over elements during gameplay. During "slow" game sequences you hear the voice-over of BJ reflecting on killing ("I have done so much killing...") and his relationship with the other resistance fighters.

While not a story-driven game by any means, the careful inclusion of the overt and subtle story elements added a welcome texture that, while not slowing down the FPS speed, made it more interesting. Even if you don't like FPS you should play it and observe how the story elements are integrated into the game mechanic.

Larry Carney
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So what I have read is a list of reasons why the storytelling of the game is supposedly better or unique compared to other games, but no justification as to whether or not the story itself is actually any better, yet from the comments of others it appears it is not when compared to other games.

Literally putting the cart before the horse.