Heading into GDC this year, a debate almost as old as videogames themselves was once again dragged into the spotlight: do videogames cause violence in real life? In the aftermath of the recent shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that claimed the lives of 17 students, fingers have been pointing wildly in all directions in search of a cause, reigniting the discussion around the potential social harm of consuming violent entertainment. What are our responsibilities as creators? If we choose to use violence as a narrative device, does it serve a purpose? Must it serve a purpose? How do we negotiate the reality of our impact? These are questions we must ask as society continues to deal with the implications of mass media. With this in mind, I approached the creative director of the Wolfenstein series Jens Matthies to talk about violence in videogames—including the recent appearance of Wolfenstein II on Not-My-President Trump’s shit list. Here’s what he had to say.
Paste: Recently I wrote that Wolfenstein is somewhat a contradiction in that it asks us to value human life enough to understand that Nazis are an acceptable target for violence, but also be desensitized enough to depictions of human suffering to enjoy committing acts of violence in the game. With that in mind, do you ever feel that the message of Wolfenstein is lost on your audience?
Jens Matthies: When it comes to our philosophy in making the game, we layer in a lot of depth that’s not obvious from just a cursory overview. At the surface level, the game is just this crazy action romp, over the top, and for me at least, that’s a really fun time in terms of a game. But then, inside of that is also a ton of stuff that is a lot more intimate and a lot more personal and at least to us feels very meaningful. But that doesn’t mean you have to engage at that level. You could just engage at the action role level, if you want. We’re not in the business of judging our players. You can engage to the level you feel that you’re interested in. I think there is such a juxtaposition, as you mentioned, that the game is anti-Nazi.
Paste: So even if you’re not judging the player, on some level you’ve somewhat stated a moral conviction in that, the Nazis are the bad guys and they are an acceptable target.
Matthies: Right, and that is the deeper problem of… I think that’s very core to the human experience. Because we live in this incredibly strange state that, [ourselves] and the people we care about are incredibly vulnerable in the world. For example my mother could walk into traffic tomorrow and actually die a really painful death. That’s in the possibility space for being human. But it doesn’t feel like it should be. It’s incredibly weird that that’s the case. And if you read about the atrocities that people have suffered historically and in present day, it’s mind boggling. It doesn’t feel like it’s something that belongs in the world. And still, if you are faced with this kind of threat and you’re actually in a state [with real government] oppression, like they’re murdering people, you need to sort of try and do something about that and you have to engage them in this sort of inhumaneness. And I saw this movie, on the plane, The Death of Stalin. Fantastic movie. It’s these kinds of atrocities that are like… so it’s some guy here, he has a death list from Stalin. Here are all the people you need to kill. He has a death squad, he says here’s the list, shoot the wife first but make sure the target sees it. So like, that actually happened. Maybe not exactly how it was like in the movie, but that kind of thing has happened and it happens all the time. To me, that’s a source of fascination. How can we be in this state where on the one hand we have this possibility space of being really civilized and engaged and having a really human experience together and at the same time we’re facing this endless brutality? And I think when push comes to shove and you’re really in that conflict then you have to navigate that space. And I think that’s a big part of what the game is about.
Paste: I think I can kinda see what you’re saying, that there’s a duality in our morality on an individual level and how that can coexist with the impact of the game. Do you feel that depictions of violence in entertainment or participatory violence in games can ever serve a practical or moral purpose?
Matthies: Yeah of course. For sure.
Paste: Do you feel for instance that that the violence towards Nazis in Wolfenstein and the depictions of the violence towards them really teaches anybody that the Nazis are bad guys? For example, in one of the opening sequences you see Frau Engle playing with a decapitated head and one of the guys in power armor stomps on it. That’s really extreme. Is it necessary to go that extreme to make your point? Do you know what I mean? If the point is that these Nazis are terrible people, that’s great, you can make that point, but when you show someone’s head getting stomped on, is that entirely necessary to illustrate your point that way or are you just kind of torturing your audience? You want them to care about these characters and you’re making them watch this terrible stuff to make your point but…is it necessary to making your point?
Matthies: There is nothing in the game that is necessary, in my opinion. That’s just my opinion. We don’t waste time doing stuff that doesn’t contribute to the whole. It’s incredibly time consuming to do anything. That scene is one of the hardest scenes to record and put together because it’s very long and there’s like eleven people in the room, and we do these amazing long takes so it’s like two takes for the whole thing. And the logistics and the rehearsals and the process of getting everything to the point where you can record it, is super time consuming and then afterwards we’ll find out that the file is too big to open because we’ve never recorded something that big before…so we don’t do stuff like, wouldn’t it be fun if…? ...Well, sometimes we do do that…but we can do something for the purpose of it being entertaining or engaging but we don’t do things randomly, it does have purpose. So in the case of the head stomp, there are two reasons: one of them is that later on in the game you need to recover the body, so it was problematic to have the head in that sense, but then there’s the other moment of bringing the body with them when they leave. I thought that would just be too…it wouldn’t feel right handling the head separately. Would he put it on top of her? ...Like, it would turn it into…like, you want this solemn moment of her just bringing the body back, and then dealing with this additional piece of gore that doesn’t feel right…that’s why the head was stomped, and there’s a reason for all of these things happening. In aggregate, yes, it’s very extreme, and I understand if people don’t play at that point. But it all serves a purpose. And the purpose is not necessarily the point.
Paste: I think what I’m kind of getting is that, you know, from my perspective, you guys are seeking to make a point, where you’re more saying, the elements of the narrative we put together are more like, we’re trying to get somewhere. It’s hard not to interpret intent at a time like this [in American politics], when we have to reiterate that Nazis are the bad guys. Does that ever get surreal for you, that we’re having this debate again, that we came back around to having to teach people that Nazis are bad? Because that’s kind of what we’re dealing with over here in the United States.
Matthies: It is surreal. It is definitely surreal.
Paste: Do you feel that you’re having to defend your work more as a result? I mean, our president directly targeted Wolfenstein, which was a really interesting game to pick considering the subject matter because the gun violence depicted [in Wolfenstein II] is sort of canceled out by the fact that you found an acceptable target. ...Maybe he didn’t find that an acceptable target?
Matthies: I was just surprised that they didn’t pick the worst scenes in their video…there’s a lot more gruesome stuff that they could have shown (laughs).
Paste: So it could have been worse, in other words.
Matthies: (laughs) Much worse.
No, I don’t know, I think what we’re talking are about are a few different things here but in terms of videogame violence, I think we had that conversation already.
Paste: Oh, so many times. The research is already there, it feels almost unnecessary at this point. Did you think it was fair for Wolfenstein to be looped in with all these other games that were showcased as an example of how extreme things can be?
Matthies: Yeah I mean, why not? We for sure are among the most brutal games ever made. And so I don’t think it’s ever a problem when someone sort of talks about our game even if they don’t agree with it. If they have a problem with the game, that’s perfectly fine for them to raise their concerns.
Paste: Right, we’re all entitled to our responses.
Matthies: Yeah. And so, I think you kind of have to accept that as a creative person, if you’re going to do something and actually put it out there in the world, you’re not going to find a 100% agreement because everyone is different and they see things differently. So, I’m fine with that. I am at the point where I know why things are the way they are in the game, and I think that’s all they have to be. If people disagree with that, that’s okay.
Paste: That sounds very well adjusted. As a writer myself, I have to teach myself that over and over again all the time.
Matthies: It is incredibly hard. My trick is I make sure I know everything about what I’m doing, which is not always, it hasn’t always, been the case. Like there have been times in my life where I’ve thought, oh that’s awesome let’s do that, and then someone asked, why is it this way, couldn’t it be this way? And I was like, “Uhhhh…”, now sort of making shit up to defend it. But I released that approach…and now everything I do, I make sure I know the reasons why I’m doing it. Because if you raise something there, like the head for example—there are a trillion things in the game that could be raised. And so I sit in meetings and these people ask me about this stuff, and need to know exactly why it is the way it is and so, I can defend it. And sometimes they might raise something that I hadn’t thought about, it’s incredibly rare but it happens, and then I might change something based on that. So I want the game to be like a flawless diamond, or thought through, with everything in its right place. And it might just be a diamond for me. But that has to be enough because I can’t please anyone else.
Paste: So in Germany, obviously Wolfenstein is censored due to some of the laws established post-WWII: removing the Nazi symbol, altering the appearance of Hitler. Do you feel that was censorship and if so, do you feel it diminishes the creative impact of your game?
Matthies: Well, that’s a very hard question, because there are a lot of Wolfenstein fans in Germany, and we really want them to be able to play the game. So, our approach is always to make it as close as possible to the international version of the game but complying with German law. Obviously we can’t release anything that’s unlawful. So the tricky part is—and this is only my understanding of it, I’m not 100% sure—my understanding is that, in Germany, a videogame is considered a toy, it is not considered art. So even though they can have a movie with swastikas because that is clearly an art form in the legal system, that’s not the case for a videogame. That’s something else, right? But it’s not like they have a ratings board where you submit and they say, take away this, this, this, this and this. Rather, you can release whatever you want, and then they can sort of report you to the authorities if they think something there is unconstitutional. And that’s a huge problem because that means you have to, as you process the game, you have to guess. The swastikas are obvious, of course. So you replace those. And in the case of Hitler’s mustache, that’s really more of a gray area. You don’t really know. Is that unconstitutional, or isn’t it? So you kind of have to err on the safe side, there.
Paste: One thing that was kind of funny about Donald Trump’s decision to turn his attention to videogames was that, one of the things he said was that we need to have some kind of ratings system or something, and we were all like, “Ok, we have that already.”
Matthies: (laughs) He doesn’t seem that well informed, really.
Paste: He really doesn’t, he has the attention span of a child so I’m sure we’ll all be past this topic by next week. But, that being said, are we doing enough to keep violent videogames out of the hands of kids? For instance, here in America, we have our ratings system; for a time there, they were even talking about fining Gamestop employees who illegally sold Mature-rated videogames to underage kids. Is it enough? Is there anything more we really could be doing, honestly?
Matthies: Several things: I don’t know. I don’t know how common it is for kids to get their hands on gaming rated for adults. But I think we should do a lot to prevent that. I don’t know what is currently being done to prevent that and how common the violations are. But I’m reasonably sure that there are safeguards in place with alcohol and cigarettes and that kind of stuff?
Paste: Yes, and it’s essentially the same thing. If you went into Gamestop and wanted to purchase an adult rated game, you would have to provide ID. So then that does become the question of, how much more can you really do? You can’t control parents, and whether or not they’re going to give games to their kids, or let [their kids] watch the game as they’re playing. Maybe the conclusion there is that we have done enough without going to the extent of invading people’s privacy?
Matthies: Like I said, I don’t know what’s currently being done. Maybe it’s like a cultural thing where it’s considered okay for these retailers to ignore it or if it’s enforced really well. I have no idea. But what I can say is, I think it’s a good idea for kids not to play violent games. The ratings system is there for a reason and I think it should be enforced.
Paste: The game is very over the top. Do you ever get exhausted trying to outdo yourself? The game was pretty nuts, let’s put that out there. I got to the part where BJ’s HEAD was going down a CHUTE…and I was like I dunno if I can do this, guys. And see, I didn’t play the first one, so by the time I got to Venus, I was almost in shock. Do you ever find this creatively exhausting? Or is it more exhausting to have to work within boundaries, whereas you personally have a lot of freedom to be as crazy as you want?
Matthies: It is very freeing, for sure. But I think what you’re getting at maybe is, how hard it is to outdo what you’ve done in the past. And I think this is a problem for probably any kind of creative person, you always want to feel as though you’re doing better and getting better than what you did before, I’m sure it’s the same for you, like, “I wrote this amazing piece” or “I wrote this funny Tweet and it got ten thousand Likes, and I want my next one to do even better” or whatever. So yeah, I think that’s a very natural response and it’s certainly the case for me that, the latest game I did, I want to be the best game. And I have a number of tricks to try and accomplish that. One of them is, I want everything in the game to be something I look forward to recording. When I didn’t enforce that policy, there was this inevitable amount of glue that was just there to provide exposition and keep the pieces together or whatever, and it’s like “Oh I better get through this so I can do the really fun scene this leads up to.” We don’t work that way anymore, we make sure they’re like, perfunctory parts. Like everything we make has to feel like, when I look at the schedule in the morning it’s like, “Yes! That’s gonna be fun.”
Paste: To your credit, there wasn’t a boring moment in the game, so I guess that’s working for you. Has there ever been an idea so over the top that you said, “No, shut this down, we’re not doing it”?
Matthies: No. There have been many ideas we have shot down but not for that reason. Core to our philosophy and what we think Wolfenstein to be, you know, completely crazy and fearless, and so we definitely don’t have that kind of restriction, but then there are things we don’t do because we don’t like them for other reasons, they don’t fit or whatever.
Paste: Any thoughts as to where you’re going with the next installment?
Matthies: We always wanted to do a trilogy, and I can’t comment on the future, but I can say that we knew we were going when we finished the first one. We have a three-game arc planned.
I’m not sure I made my point in the interview; it’s worth pointing out that while the gore and violence of Wolfenstein II, as Matthies pointed out, did somewhat serve a narrative purpose, I’m still not convinced that such particular extremes had to be taken in order to trigger certain plot points—for example, Frau Engle could have thrown Caroline’s head off the side of the ship instead of throwing it under a power armor boot, and the story would have been the same. I also don’t think the scene where B.J. carries Caroline’s body to their escaping ship is as delicate or reverent as it might have been, despite the lack of awkward-decapitated-head placement (though that may be due to the character animations, not the writing). But I give Matthies credit for being willing to speak on the record when so many other creators are resistant to the idea of questioning how and why we use violence in entertainment. We’ll see if this debate has any impact on how the subject is framed in Wolfenstein III.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.