Narrative & Nazi-America in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus was revealed at E3 this year and is the second major instalment in the rebooted franchise, and it stars BJ Blazkowicz once again attempting to overthrow the Nazi regime. We had a chat with lead narrative designer Tommy Tordsson Björk about his experience creating the Nazi-infested version of the United States, whether they considered adding multiplayer to the game, and more.

Wolfenstein is all about the high octane gunplay and the thrill of blowing up Nazi noggins, but Björk explains how they still manage to deliver such a cinematic and deeply emotive story. “I think it sort of boils down to our interests as game developers that we’re really interested in telling stories,” Björk explained via Skype. “We love these kind of visceral ‘through the gun’ experiences and telling a rich, emotional story shouldn’t be incompatible with having a fun time.”

Robotic and mech-like Nazis have become synonymous with the franchise, despite Nazis obviously not utilising them in real life. When designing them, he explained that the team wanted to look past the bog-standard war scenario. “When we got the chance to do a new take on the Wolfenstein IP, we wanted to move beyond the war setting, so this idea of having it set in an alternate 1960s, it carried on the sci-fi tradition of Wolfenstein and the craziness of it, but it created something new. I guess it stems from that.”

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

While The New Order was mainly set in Germany following the Nazi victory in the second world war, The New Colossus sees BJ and the gang attempting to overthrow the regime in North America. In the ’60s, the US and Canada were typically seen as the land of the free whereas Nazi Germany is considered to be one of the worst periods in recent history to have lived, especially if you weren’t of their idealistic racial background. Merging the two vastly different cultures was no doubt an interesting endeavour that sprung up some challenges.

“They don’t just take over the country and abolish everything, but try to ease people into it, make them feel comfortable living under tyranny. They don’t pull the rug under people immediately, they try to subvert different cultural areas, they try to ease them into the oppression.” The Man in the High Castle is a recent TV show that explores a similar concept, where the Nazis won the war and took over the USA along with the Japanese, but Björk explained that the team have purposefully avoided watching the show, along with anything else that may be considered similar to the series. “We try to get influences that are beyond the genre that we’re working in, hoping that will inject some new blood into it.”

It doesn’t look like The New Colossus will be the end for Blazkowicz and co. either. Björk explained that from the very beginning, before they developed The New Order, they envisioned their Wolfenstein endeavours as a trilogy. “We always had this vision of going to America, as that was sort of the birthplace for the ’60s counter-culture movements, the rise of the human rights activists, stuff like that. We were hoping we could go there and explore the subversion of these cultural elements. That was the plan, and it turned out that people loved it. So then we could really cash in on all of those story setups that we were implanting into The New Order, hoping that we could develop the characters and the story from there.”

Wolfenstein II: The New ColossusWolfenstein II: The New Colossus

If you’ve watched the Reunion gameplay, you’ll see that the epitome of evil, Frau Engel herself, has returned as one of the main antagonists for the sequel. Her ruthlessness and horrid treatment of her daughter in the final cutscene for the level shows that she’s a fascinating character, with an undoubtedly fascinating history.

“It started when we were writing one of the scripts for The New Order, in the train scene. We knew we wanted to have a section of the game that was between really heavy combat and make it something that could be really intense without any shooting. That’s when the encounter in the train developed. Then we had the idea that we could introduce a second villain there, we wanted to do something different from Deathshead’s character, so we thought it’d be nice to introduce a female villain. That’s her origin story in the development process.” Fans of Frau Engel will be pleased to hear that she’s the “big baddie” this time around, now Deathshead has been eliminated.

Björk went on to say that ZeniMax (the parent company of publisher Bethesda) has given the team complete freedom over the title, and there’s nothing really holding them back from creating the experience and telling the story that they want the public to have. “When we write the story, we try to write what feels true to the story, ZeniMax give us all the creative freedom in the world, they believe that we can do something really cool if they let us do our thing.”

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

One interesting concept this time around is the introduction of ‘Districts’; a way for players to revisit levels they’ve already completed, but have been altered. Aspects such as the time of day, the enemies you encounter, the actual environment itself can all change. It’s perfect for players to re-experience the game and pick up collectibles they may have missed, all while experiencing new things rather than the same encounters as the first playthrough.

At the start of the Roswell level, BJ is given the freedom to wander around the parade and eavesdrop on multiple conversations, such as the one between the KKK members and a Nazi officer who is trying, and ultimately failing, to teach them German, or the drunk rambler perched between two dumpsters. It was a well-paced break from the action and allowed time to take in all the details and the world around us. While it wasn’t exactly open world, apparently there will be plenty more opportunities like that, to take a breather from all the shooting.

“I think that we have, to varying degrees, times where you can just walk around in the world and listen to people’s conversations, areas that feel like you can experience more of the human aspects of the world.” He went on to explain that while most of the Nazis are portrayed as pretty evil, there are some characters like Sigrun Engel, daughter of the big bad lady, that have a human side. “It depends on what character it is, there’s always a human side to everything, and you want that contrast, even in your antagonist because it makes it scarier, it makes it something that could be closer to real or believable.”

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

The first game caused a stir when it focused on story and featured no multiplayer (it just wasn’t the done thing). Naturally this was a topic of conversation when we spoke to Björk. “As a studio, we have always been focused on telling single player stories. That’s our biggest strength, so multiplayer is something that has never been considered. We want to really focus on polishing and doing something really rich and emotionally devastating.”

BJ Blazkowicz and his crew have an enormous adventure ahead of them, and what we’ve played so far is looking very promising indeed. You can read our full preview when we visited Bethesda’s UK offices here, and check out the Zitadelle boss battle below.