We caught up with one of the world’s foremost gaming art directors, Jens Matthias of Machine Games to discuss his latest Nazi bashing title, Wolfenstein: The New Colossus. Recently, the game has made headlines with white supremacist snowflakes getting triggered over the amount of Nazi killing going on in the game, but we wanted to know more about the creative process behind producing a Triple-A title of such immense status. For the interview, Jens flew all the way out from Sweden, which was experiencing one of its worst summers in years, to Sydney on a press junket. Even though he'd already been through at least five interviews ahead of me, and judging by the list I snuck a peek at, about 20 to go after, he was insightful and hilarious and gave me a unique insight into the mysterious, shadowy world of game design.
Something that people find really fascinating is your ability to make the game feel so authentic – almost as though it has a movie-like quality – you’re watching it and you feel a part of it. In your years of game design, what have you learnt that helps to make a game feel so authentic?
Well, that’s a good question but I’m glad you feel that way because that’s definitely what we’re going for and I think it’s especially important when you’re dealing with so many ‘over the top’ things.
The only way that works on an emotional level is if there is some sort of authenticity or truth in it, even though it’s over the top and crazy shit happening all the time, but I think it works on many different levels; one of them is if you’re just talking about art, for example, it’s about creating environments that feel like they have a function. A lot of that is what distinguishes a mod from a proper game, at least to me, is that every environment feels like it has a purpose, and out of that purpose follows its form. So we work a lot with that kind of stuff in terms of the environment.
In terms of the story-telling, I think a lot of it is weird because there is an art form to writing dialogue to make it interesting and fun, but it’s also an art form to ground that dialogue and to make it feel relevant and plausible for the people who are speaking it. But most of that comes from the performances, so you need to cast right – you have to cast people who get what the part is and it’s close to them or they have that dimension of their personality that they can bring out and then on top of that it needs to be really good art direction.
If all those things come together you end up with an authentic-feeling world which is sort of the purpose for me. What has fascinated me about games is that you can imagine something and make it real and go there, which no other art form can really do. So, if you read a book, and in your own imagination you kind of have an idea of how things look and are, or you can see a movie and it can look really nice and authentic but you’re not in it – you’re just seeing it, right! But a game, you’re actually there and you can probe the world from various angles and I always love that, so since you are doing that you don’t want anything to break that illusion – you really want to be in that world when you go into it. So we work a lot trying to accomplish that.
It is incredible that you can actually enter the game and interact with it – something that has come from your imagination...
Yeah, I know, isn’t that totally insane? That’s the power of computers, right?
Give me an idea of scale. When you say you spend a lot of time working on the process that comes ahead of actually building the game, for example conceptualizing a story and finding actors, how long do you spend doing this?
An immense amount of time. But it’s not a matter of, ‘first we write it, then we record it, then we implement it’. It’s more like ‘first we sketch it,’ and then we focus on some areas that we bring to finalised levels so that we can record those. Then the planning for that area starts to happen while other areas are being fully fleshed out, and then we record those and once that’s done and that data is getting processed the next thing is getting broken down while other things are being written to a final state. It’s extremely regimented but it’s not clean in that sense. I think that’s the case with all game development, it’s that it is incredibly chaotic and dirty and you kind of had to learn how to navigate that chaos.
So it’s like controlled chaos?
Yeah, hopefully! If it goes well then it’s controlled; if it doesn’t it’s just chaos.
You guys do a really good job of balancing absurdity with humorous moments and extremely serious themes that have garnered a bit of attention recently from the Alt-Right in America. How do you decide on the tone and how do you manage to balance?
Thank you. We love these kinds of projects that are sort of the juxtaposition of things that are totally over the top and crazy but are also very intimate and personal and meaningful and dramatic. So that’s just fascinating on its own because that’s a hard balance to strike, but then I think Wolfenstein, in particular, it is especially suited for this kind of narrative. But anyway, we tried to sort of capture the ethos of just not giving a fuck. That’s what we were after, but then, of course, we want the game to feel like you’re there and so it has to be authentic, but you can’t pull back on the weird shit either, right, so striking that balance I think is an incredibly fun, creative problem.
So this is another level of problem-solving as with the entire process?
Exactly. I think it’s a lot easier to be a good game developer if you approach it that way. A big Triple-A title is an incredibly complicated proposition and you have to find ways of j being able to break it down into parts that you can manage and not get overwhelmed by, but that gets easier with experience for sure.
I guess through that learning you get more room to have a kind of freedom of expression and that’s something else I wanted to touch on because I think it’s very important for you.
How important is it to have total creative freedom of expression, especially with a Triple-A title such as this?
I think that’s the whole reason we’re doing it, you know, because we have this creative urge that just wants to come out. Then you have these ideas like, “wouldn’t that be cool?” and then as a collective, you and the team get incredibly enthusiastic about the cool shit that you’re going to do. So then there’s the question of how do you accomplish that? That’s where the experience comes in. Sometimes you have ideas that simply don’t work, so you also need the discipline to see when that’s happening and then decide if there’s some way to make it work or if we should just move on and discard the idea.
What is the most rewarding part of being Art Director?
I think that’s a tricky question to answer. I think it’s both a blessing and a curse to have somehow turned into a creative person where I can’t be happy unless I’m creating stuff. So that means I have to have these big projects that are sort of all-consuming because that just allows me to focus my mind on that. Whenever there’s a lull, like if I’m on an aeroplane or whatever, or I can’t be creating that thing, then I have seven other things that I’m thinking about. So I’m always kind of existing in that headspace of inventing something. It’s not so much that it’s rewarding in the sense that “oh, I have this idea”, “I realise this idea, now I get the dopamine”. It’s not about that – it’s about always trying to create creative problems and solve them; that’s like the default state of being, and if I’m able to be in that state then I’m happy.
You’re interesting in that you’re creative but you’re also a problem-solver.
Somehow I think that’s the same thing. It’s just that you have to realise that creativity is problem-solving. Creative problem solving, right! So the bigger question then is, “What is the problem to be solved?” and once you know that then you can more easily solve it.
If you’re some kind of free spirit that can wait for inspiration to strike then you don’t really need to structure it that way, but if like me, it’s your job and every day you have to go into work, and when you leave work you have to put down something new that no-one has ever seen before, or it’s something that makes people go “Oh, fuck that’s cool” or whatever it is. At least that’s what you’re attempting to do. I’m not saying that’s what happens every day, but if that’s your job then you need methods of conjuring that inspiration – you can’t wait for it – you need to sort of control it. That’s how I do it, I guess.
That is fascinating. Finally, do you have anything to say to the offended white supremacists?
[Laughing] Well I think those snowflakes will just have to suck it up. [Laughs]
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