Of all Machine Games’ achievements with Wolfenstein: The New Order, perhaps the most remarkable was turning meathead cipher William ‘B.J.’ Blazkowicz into a relatable character. As a beefy conglomeration of pixels in Wolfenstein 3D, he was useful only as box art and somewhere to suspend weapons. But in The New Order, he gained depth, humour, and pathos. Oh, and more guns.
We went hands-on with the sequel's power suit and Nazi-popping laser gun, too. Read our impressions of Wolfenstein II here.
Our chiselled hero returns in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, along with an expanded cast of similarly charismatic characters. But while B.J. has certainly grown as a person, he still ticks every box on the stereotypical videogame protagonist checklist: white, male, muscular, and astonishingly violent. What, then, is B.J.’s central appeal?
“I don’t know… It’s B.J. Who doesn't like B.J. Blazkowicz?” creative director Jens Matthies laughs when we put the question to him. We press him for a deeper analysis.
“How we approach the character is that, on a fundamental level, he is emotionally fearless,” Matthies explains. “He isn’t a person who needs any sort of armour emotionally or psychologically. I mean, of course he needs it literally, because he’s getting shot at by Nazis [laughs]. But in that sense he is very emotionally mature. He's kind of this zen master of being in the circumstances that he's in, which are incredibly dark.”
That emotional openness leads naturally to an affinity between the player and B.J., according to Matthies. “When you hear his inner thoughts, and when you interact with him in whatever way you do, he doesn't need to put on a facade. You are very intimate with him, and he is able to be really intimate even though he's not the world's greatest philosopher. But whatever he has is there for you, and it's accessible. I guess honesty is what it boils down to. That's what I think his appeal is; it's [certainly] the appeal of writing him.”
Matthies and his team have invested a similar amount of thought and effort into developing every character in the game - even the strawberry-milkshake-drinking Nazi who plays a brief, ill-fated part in proceedings . From what we’ve seen of the main characters so far, that attention to detail has resulted in one of the most likeable (and easy-to-dislikeable) videogame casts in recent memory.
“We don’t want our characters to overlap; we want them to represent very specific things,” Matthies explains. “Like, we have rules for how we name them; we try to make sure not to have character names that start with the same letter or sound, and we try to keep names to two syllables because that's how people talk and give nicknames. There are some exceptions, but by sticking to those core principles of making characters that occupy a unique area in the, sort of, ‘mind map’ of characters, it makes them stand out [by default].
“And then, as we write the lines for the character, and their actions, you have to always put yourself on the side of that character - even if they're horrible people you want their actions to be in their best interest. So there's a lot of role playing, acting it out internally, when you’re writing, because you try and narrow down what their agenda is in that moment. And you want them to be as powerful as possible to try and reach that goal.”
Sustaining that momentum relies heavily on finding the right actor to bring these creations to life, of course. “We do a tremendous amount of casting because we have a clear view of what we want the characters to be,” Matthies says. “And when you see, like, hundreds and hundreds of auditions, it narrows your focus a lot. And then sometimes you find the person who not only has the right spirit, but pushes it beyond what you had in mind. And those the people that you really want.”
Matthies isn’t exaggerating when he talks about the casting process. At E3 this year, he told us that there’s somewhere around 100 actors in the game, and that the studio has created over three hours of cinematics to tell its story. It’s a colossally ambitious project, and one only made possible by the experience Machine Games gained making The New Order.
Given the high-profile struggles of some big-name single-player first-person games recently, it’s a relief to see yet another developer remain passionately committed to offline campaigns. But, after the shaky launches of Dishonored 2 and Prey, is Matthies feeling the pressure?
“It doesn't really worry me,” he says. “I think there will always be a market for the proposition of being transported into a journey in some strange world. But who knows? The thing is that the hunger is there for games. And regardless of how that morphs over time, we will always find a way to do the games that we want.”