The New Colossus’ creative director Jen Matthies looks back on how his journey from Quake modder to making The Darkness and Chronicles of Riddick, and beyond.
Jens Matthies has made a name for himself by showing the gaming world his spin on IPs that may not be his own, but that have been forever changed as a result. Today, Matthies is the creative director at MachineGames, and is about to release Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. Before his work on Wolfenstein: The New Order and its sequel The New Colossus, Matthies worked at Starbreeze Studios.
In its infancy, Swedish studio Starbreeze cuts its teeth on original IPs The Outforce, Enclave, and Knights of the Temple: Infernal Crusade. For its fourth title, Matthies and the rest of Starbreeze worked on an unoriginal IP, which had some cult-classic street cred, at least for movie fans. Writer/director David Twohy’s sci-fi action-horror Pitch Black was about to have a cinematic sequel, and Starbreeze was in charge of creating a game prequel that would tie in to the universe – The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay.
Escape from Butcher Bay showed Starbreeze had something new to say in the first-person action space.
The Chronicles of Riddick movie flopped at the box office, but Escape from Butcher Bay was incredibly well received. Considering how ugly movie adaptations or tie-ins can be, Starbreeze deserves extra kudos for knocking it out of the park with Escape from Butcher Bay. More important to the studio’s future trajectory, Escape from Butcher Bay showed Starbreeze had something new to say in the first-person action space.
Starbreeze’s next project was to take the Top Cow Productions comic The Darkness – originally created by Marc Silvestri, David Wohl, and Garth Ennis (of Preacher and Punisher Max fame) – and turn it into a badass FPS of the same name.
For both adaptations, Matthies wasn’t as intimately familiar with the material as you might expect. “It’s different depending on the IP and depending on what our personal history is with the IP,” he says. “In the case of Wolfenstein, that’s obviously something we were very intimately familiar with as gamers. That was a totally different approach than, say, The Darkness, where I have never read those comics books. I didn’t know what that was about.
“In the case of Riddick, I’d seen Pitch Black, but that was the extent to which I was familiar with that universe. It’s kind of different depending on the project, but I also think it’s very important to figure out what you like about it, and what you don’t like about it. Because these projects are so long, whatever you’re doing, it has to be something you love deeply, and that’s always what we try to do.”
For fans of Butcher Bay (like me) who enjoyed the nod to its awesome prison level in a shorter but similar sequence in Wolfenstein: The New Order, you’ll be glad to know this mirroring by the creative team is something you should expect from The New Colossus, too. According to Matthies, it’s part of the stamp of the creative minds working on the project, the core ones of whom have been working together for close to 20 years.
“There are always similarities in the things we do, but I think that has more to do with the things that we gravitate towards and the things we think are cool,” explains Matthies. “If you see a David Fincher movie, you can see that it’s a David Fincher movie, or this is a James Cameron movie. Even though one movie can be completely different from another, there are still similarities there because of who’s making it.
“I think that’s true for us, too. If you were to put Butcher Bay side-by-side with The New Colossus, you would still see similarities, even though it’s 15 years and several tech generations later. But it’s not so much about looking at what we’ve done and trying to emulate that, it’s more about who we are as a creative group and the stuff that we gravitate towards.”
Matthies and his fellow ex-Starbreeze developers have shown they’re not afraid to embrace harrowing narrative moments. The one that still haunts me the most is a big ol’ spoiler for The Darkness, so you should definitely skip to the next paragraph if you’ve yet to play that FPS gem. Yes, this plot point is taken from the comics, but early in the game, protagonist Jackie Estacado’s girlfriend (and conscience) Jenny is murdered in front of him and he’s forced to watch, helpless to stop it.
Fans of those kicks to the heart will be glad to hear you can expect similar narrative revelations in The New Colossus. “We’re proceeding along the same trajectory [as that spoilerific moment in The Darkness],” teases Matthies. “At some point, I’m sure we’ll cross the line for real, but hopefully we’re not there yet. [For Wolfenstein II,] I don’t think people are ready for what’s coming, that’s for sure.” Guard your hearts, Wolfenstein fans. Like consuming Game of Thrones, in written or televised form, it might be best to not get too attached to any of your favourite characters in The New Colossus.
Another way those earlier Starbreeze titles are influencing Wolfenstein II is in the lessons learnt from mistakes made. One of those “mistakes” turned out to be semi-pioneering for the industry, as Starbreeze was at least one of the first studios to use performance capture for The Darkness, according to Matthies. As one of the first to use it, they also had to make the right mistakes to find the correct solutions.
“There’s tonnes of stuff you learn every time [you make a game],” explains Matthies. “One huge lesson from The Darkness was how to deal with dialogue. The Darkness was the first game, I think, ever that had performance capture in it. It’s possible that other people were developing it at the same time, but for that game it was very much something we dreamt up to handle simultaneous capture of the body animation, facial animation, and voice, and we had to invent the system for how that would work.
“Brevity is very important in a game. It’s something we’re really on top of these days.” – Jens Matthies.
“Other people invented either in parallel or afterwards, so it’s a different world now. But when we did that, we had this amazingly long shoot. The shoot was five weeks, every day, 16-hour days; it was just mayhem.” As gruelling as that sounds, the prospect of slashing the results of those long days sounds more harrowing than that spoiler mentioned above.
“We got some really great performances [for The Darkness], and once we started putting them into the game, we just felt like, this is not operating at proper first-person-shooter videogame speed,” recalls Matthies. “Some of the lines were overly lengthy, and we didn’t really pay attention to the performances in terms of the length of a certain line read or whatever. It was more about the quality of it, so there was a disconnect there and it forced us to skip to the point of the dialogue option. If you’re not deeply interested in what everyone is talking about all the time, you can skip to the point and move on. That was a huge lesson for me personally: that brevity is very important in a game. It’s something we’re really on top of these days.”
And it shows. Of the hours I’ve played of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, I’ve found the cutscenes and storytelling incredibly engaging. It’s not even so much that it feels super punchy and to the point. Hell, there are moments where a cutscene might otherwise run the risk of running too long. It’s more that the characters, the dialogue, and the situations are all engaging. They drift between serious stakes, teeth-clenching brutality, genuine tension, and oddball comedy. Throw that all in a blender, and the results shouldn’t work, but MachineGames makes that combination taste great.
Part of that is likely attributed to the fact that MachineGames walks the right side of reverence when it comes to existing properties, like the granddaddy of shooters: Wolfenstein 3D. For MachineGames, “reverence” doesn’t mean “playing it safe”; instead, it means understanding what made Wolfenstein 3D work so well, and splicing that with the better evolutions of the FPS genre. According to Matthies, part of what made Wolfenstein 3D work so well was the lack of systems that developers likely take for granted today.
“With Wolfenstein 3D, what’s so cool about it is that – and that has partly to do with the era that it was made – because at the time, there was no real video game industry,” says Matthies. “It was just people figuring it out and doing their own thing. You can easily see in what Wolfenstein 3D is: you can see the people who made it and what they cared about and what they did not care about.
“With Wolfenstein 3D, what’s so cool about it is that… you can see the people who made it and what they cared about and what they did not care about.” – Jens Matthies.
“There is nothing in that game that was focus tested or has been reviewed by a marketing department. It’s just the guys at id Software, who were barely out of their teens, and they’re just making this game about killing Nazis in the early ’90s, and it’s heavily influenced by the action heroes of the day. We really gravitated towards that sense of just totally unrestricted creative freedom. That’s the ethos we’ve been trying to work with while making this game [The New Colossus].”
Matthies hasn’t just been involved in the recreation of the granddaddy of the genre, either. Internet sleuthing suggests he was also involved in the recent Doom reboot, which MachineGames created a level for. Dig a little deeper online, and you’ll discover that MachineGames is also responsible for the 20th anniversary Quake DLC, Dimensions of the Past. As it turns out, this gift for Quake fans actually ties back into the roots of how Matthies got started in the industry.
“That’s a funny story, but that’s all Jerk [Gustafsson], who is my dear colleague and one of the co-founders of MachineGames,” says Matthies, when asked about his involvement in Dimensions of the Past. “Me and Jerk have a very, very long relationship in developing games; we’ve been doing it since we started professionally together, and we both come from the Quake modding community. That’s how we entered the industry.
“We were making Quake mods back in the ’90s, and he was a very successful Quake modder. He had done a number of very popular single-player expansions that you could download for free. It wasn’t something that was for sale or anything, but if you were in the Quake community, you could find these maps on FTP. So, when the 20-year anniversary was coming up, he decided to make a full level expansion for the original Quake, which is just the kind of thing that he does.”
And how about the next step in the series? “I have been involved a little bit with Quake Champions, because BJ Blazkowicz is a part of Quake Champions,” says Matthies, “so that has been a lot of fun, too. I was almost more excited about the reveal of BJ Blazkowicz in Quake Champions than I was about the reveal of The New Colossus at E3.”
Escape from Butcher Bay showed that movie tie-ins didn’t have to suck. The Darkness proved that the core Starbreeze team could recapture FPS lightning in a bottle. To this day, Wolfenstein: The New Order stands as my go-to example for shooters that splice the best of old-school with the better parts of the evolutions of the genre. With Matthies and a core group of Starbreeze alumni at the helm for Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, I’d wager it’s safe to expect similarly great things.
Nathan Lawrence is a freelance writer based in Sydney and shooter specialist. Track him down on Twitter.