Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is the latest in a twenty five year old franchise which has watched countless other FPS IPs rise and fall over the years. Jem Alexander talks to Arcade Berg, senior game designer at MachineGames to find out how shooter design is evolving
The history of the first-person shooter begins with Wolfenstein 3D, so the release of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus twenty five years later feels like a great opportunity to check in on the state of the genre. In a quarter of a century, shooters have evolved tremendously. When it comes to Wolfenstein, however, one thing stays constant; you’re going to be shooting a lot of Nazis in their stupid idiot faces.
MachineGames wowed critics in 2014 with Wolfenstein: The New Order, which refreshed the series by framing the Nazi bloodletting around interesting and relatable characters in an alternative history setting. The introduction of a strong narrative around one of history’s most basic ethical no-brainers (hurting Nazis is cool) transformed the series from just another shooting gallery into a compelling adventure. But it’s the mechanical additions to the The New Order and The New Colossus which truly demonstrate how far first-person shooters have come.
Stealth for us isn’t just avoiding combat, it’s about killing unnoticed. You’re always going to kill the enemy
Arcade Berg, MachineGames
“One thing that you’re seeing (which I’m a big fan of) over the last five years or so is that we’ve been starting to focus a lot more on player movement than before,” says Arcade Berg, senior designer at MachineGames.
“Previously to that it was a lot about the shooting and aiming, especially with sticks and gamepads. Mouse and keyboard we nailed pretty quickly. Then we started with the gamepads and we had to figure that out. Now we have so many systems for aiming with sticks that we mostly agree on what works and what doesn’t.”
Dual-stick movement on a gamepad is well established. One stick to move, one to look. This allows for all-important strafing and bunnyhopping and twelve year olds schooling ageing games journalists in titles they’re not even old enough to be playing. But there are also a lot of little tricks that FPS devs use to give those of us with deteriorating reflexes a helping hand.
“We have a bit of magnetism to the aim,” says Berg. “If you pull the stick cross an enemy, it will actually slow down. We have a bunch of systems like that under the hood in almost all shooters. That’s why it’s fairly easy to play with sticks, because there are so many underlying systems helping you out. Some games help you a lot, some games very little, but all games help you in some way.
“Usually games that involve more movement, like jumping and running around, they help you more because you’re always in motion. The slower ones tend to help you less because you’re already stationary, so you have more time to aim. I think we, as an industry, moved on and now we’re working a lot on player movement. You see double jumping and wall running and parkour-ish stuff and jetpacks and all these new things that aren’t walking, running and crouching.
“Most shooters have something, and it’s not a competition about having the most or having the coolest, but even in more traditional shooters you will notice that they have a lot of helpers.
“The New Colossus is a fairly grounded game, but we also have a bunch of stuff helping you. You can mantle over things – we allow you to do that with several different buttons so you can pick the one you feel comfortable with. We’ll align you to the obstacle during the animation so you get over the side in the right place. Sometimes we can’t put you straight over because you’d be inside the cover, so we go *yoink* and put you where you should be. There are all these tiny things that help you. In cover shooters you see a lot of games that allow you to press a button and slide into cover, so there’s a lot of stuff like that happening. And that’s where I think a lot of people are still experimenting.”
AGAIN, BUT BETTER
The design philosophy behind Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is basically to take everything that made the first game such a critical darling, and to do it better. “We took what we had and we went even further with it,” says Berg. “With the first game we had to figure out ‘What is Wolfenstein to us? What is Wolfenstein to the players? What can we do?’. We were building a studio, building a game and figuring out Wolfenstein all at the same time. People liked it and it sold well, so that was our affirmation of ‘yes, we got this’ and that was validation and confirmation that people want more.
“So we’re not messing with what worked, but we’re taking it further. For example we have the dual wielding. In The New Colossus we allow free dual wielding with different weapons. People loved wielding two automatic shotguns, but we thought it would be cool if you could have one shotgun and one scoped rifle or a silenced weapon.”
Silenced weapons were key to another aspect of The New Order that players enjoyed. Namely, killing Nazis without being seen. “People really liked that we had stealth in Wolfenstein,” says Berg.
“Stealth for us isn’t just avoiding combat, it’s about killing unnoticed. You’re always going to kill the enemy. So we’ve given you more tools to stealth with. Instead of just a silenced handgun, you can also have a silenced machine gun. We’ve given you more of what we call ‘verbs’. Things you can do as a player to be stealthy. We have these contraptions, one which allows you to shrink down into really tight spaces and crawl through pipes where normal people don’t fit, for example. We’ve tried to take everything and go even further with it.”
A lot of what Wolfenstein is doing nowadays is counter to what we’re seeing across the broader first-person shooter landscape. Halo introduced the ‘two-gun, regenerating health’ model that saw the end of protagonists wielding nine or ten weapons of increasing size and weight all at once. The industry took hold and, like a dog with a sticky grenade, was unable to let go. Wolfenstein nods, waves and blows a kiss to its old-school legacy by ignoring that and letting protagonist BJ rock as many heavy armaments as he fancies. The game’s younger sibling, Doom did likewise in its 2016 reboot.
There’s absolutely an interpretation and commentary on past history and humans. It’s people.
Arcade Berg, MachineGames
“Some games work really well with two guns and regenerative health,” says Berg. “It really depends what kind of pacing and flow you want to roll into combat. We have regenerating health, but only to certain ‘blocks’. Let’s say 100 is your default health, if you drop down to 18, you’ll regen to 20, not 100. This is because we want to give you some assist so that you don’t go down to two health and just expect death. In our game we want you to feel like you screwed up if you screw up, and you’re going to have to own it.
“You’re going to have to find health packs in the environment, because a big thing in Wolfenstein is exploration. Finding the loot. If you had regenerating health why would you bother? In our game it’s worth a lot to visit those extra rooms and check that alternative route, because you might find armour, which is a really important thing. Armour doesn’t regenerate at all.
“So it depends what you want. If you want a game that always moves forward, even if you mess up a bit, that’s more of a smooth ride – which is perfectly fine, and there are amazing games that do this – then maybe cooldown or regenerating health is the way to go.”
In the years since the original Wolfenstein games have explored many new frontiers. Higher resolutions, 3D graphics, realistic lighting and textures. Bigger, more bombastic foley and sweeping orchestral musical compositions. Plus the introduction of actual story and characters. Is the industry’s ability to incorporate better narratives becoming a more important part of game development?
“I don’t think it’s more important, actually,” says Berg. “I think we’re just starting to do it differently. People are starting to appreciate it. But I think it’s always been equally useful. You have games today which are perhaps a bit thinner on the narrative side that are still super popular and people love them, and you have really old games that people still talk about because they had amazing narratives. I don’t think that’s changed.
“With better technology, with the cutscenes and the models and so on, we can provide more expositional narrative in the games now. When we had 320x240 pixels on screen we didn’t have the capabilities to even do it. But back in the old days we still had MUDs and roleplaying, so I think now it’s just that we have the tools to actually do it.”
The storytelling in The New Order was one of the game’s highlights, and from what we’ve seen the same will be true of The New Colossus. Larger than life characters, amusing dialogue and expertly directed cutscenes litter the game, but that’s not where the studio has been making the biggest strides when it comes to improving narrative design.
“We got a lot of praise for the narrative in The New Order and we got a lot of praise for the shooting,” Berg explains. “We were also told that we had a good balance between the two, but there’s still this area where they meet and that’s where we’ve been working a lot. The shooting works. The cutscenes work. It’s the parts in between that we need to work harder on. If there’s a cutscene, it’s a cutscene. Sit down, relax and enjoy the show. If there’s a gunfight, play the game, do your thing, have fun.
But when they meet, which is narrative events in the game while you’re playing – whether that’s meeting characters or even simple stuff like pulling switches – we have a design philosophy that we will never take away player control.
“You will never control BJ and then your input doesn’t work anymore because he is now ‘in story’. While the game is running you are always in control of him. When people are talking you are free to move around. It sounds simple but it does so much. Even things like pulling a lever, if you’re still moving the movement stick, you will see him move. Simple things like that. Bridging the gap between the two. There’s definitely more room to explore, but we’re in a much better place.”
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is releasing at a time where we are bizarrely (and scarily) seeing a re-emergence of Nazism in certain areas of the world. Even though the game features plenty of political and social commentary of World War II, the scope and pre-planning of the project doesn’t allow for any contemporary commentary. Other than ‘Nazis equal bad’, of course. Then again, what more do you really need?
“Events in the US have not affected development of the game at all,” says Berg. “We’ve been working on this for many years. When we made the first game we were hoping for a trilogy, so the seeds were already planted. Even if we wanted to we couldn’t change the course of the project, because it’s such a huge moving ship. In ten years the game is still going to be around and it needs to be its own thing standing on its own legs, and hopefully people will still be talking about it.
“There’s absolutely an interpretation and commentary on past history and humans. It’s people. We’re blending ethnicities and that kind of thing on purpose. Nothing in the game is by accident. But we’re not trying to
make a daily commentary or trying to change what’s happening now.“
But is even that necessary? Do developers have a responsibility to educate players, as well as entertain?
“I don’t think we have responsibility, but I think that we should encourage developers to do so,” Berg says. “If you have the power to do it, do it. Let’s enlighten society, right?”