Let me make one thing clear at the outset: I like Wolfenstein. I know, I know. I called for its head a few weeks back in my Game Reaper feature. But then I started playing the new game, and was surprised to discover one of the tightest, most satisfying single-player experiences I've had in a long while.
I tracked down the game's creative director, Eric Biessman, in Madison, Wis. -- Raven's headquarters -- to see what the game looks like now that it's in his team's rearview mirror. (By the way, he's heard all the Biessman/Beastman jokes before. So don't even think about it.)
For the record, "The Beast, or "Le Beast," as the French say, has worked on the Heretic and Hexen series, Quake 4, the Soldier of Fortune series and the classic Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast. Now that, folks, is an impressive resume. After enjoying a vacation post-Wolfenstein that was shorter than most rodeo riders last on bulls, the Beastinator is back at his desk trying to drag Raven's next project, Singularity, kicking and screaming into the world.
Scott Jones: How did you feel about how Wolfenstein was received critically? It seems like reviews were all over the map for this game.
Eric Biessman: [Quiet for a moment] You know, I was wondering why [Crispy Gamer] wanted to even talk to me. Your review was really rough.
Jones: That was Tom Chick's review. Tom is a strange man who lives in a strange, faraway place called L.A. I happen to disagree with him. I liked the game far more than I thought I would. Which is why we're talking.
Biessman: Thanks. I like the game too. You know, overall, it seems like the game really polarized critics. Either they loved it or they utterly hated it. Like the open-city hub concept. Some people really liked the open-city dynamic; other critics really despised it.
Jones: Were there things that you felt critics totally missed the boat on, and should have paid more attention to?
Biessman: Multiplayer. I think our multiplayer is great. I felt like people should have spent more time with it, and given the game higher marks for the multiplayer. It's really damn good.
Jones: Hypothetical: Do you think the game would have been more of a hit with critics if it hadn't had the word "Wolfenstein" on the box? In other words, do preconceived notions hurt games sometimes?
Biessman: Hmm. I don't know. There's this great heritage [with Wolfenstein]. But what happens with that great heritage is that people come to the game looking for something specific. Everyone has their own memories of the original game. It's hard to compete with those memories; it's hard to compete with nostalgia and preconceived notions like that sometimes.
We tried to focus on what Wolfenstein has always been about: high-action combat, explosive weapons and the occult. We said, early on in development, "Let's just boil this down to its essence and make a really great experience."
Then I read these reviews where people are beside themselves because Mecha-Hitler is not in the game. [Raises voice] "What was Raven thinking, not putting Mecha-Hitler in the game! Are they insane!" That's the kind of stuff we were up against. It's frustrating.
Jones: This sounds silly to say, but I was surprised by how much fun I had playing the game. I mean it. From start to finish, it's all very gratifying.
Biessman: Thank you.
Jones: I almost felt like you guys were constantly asking yourselves while developing the game, Is this fun? Is this fun? Is this fun?
Biessman: You know, funny you should say that. That's exactly what we do. We call it Rapid Prototyping. What we do is we throw something together, a mockup of a level or a situation, and we don't concern ourselves with details or how it looks. Then we play the crap out of it. If it doesn't really grab us right away, we throw it out.
Jones: That really comes through in the game. I also loved the opening cinema. I think it's one of the best opening cinemas of the year so far.
Biessman: We hired Blair Studio [to do the opening cinema]. They're a fantastic group of guys. The idea with the cinema was that we wanted to set B.J. up as someone you can relate to. In the original games, he was just a face. That's it. The face would get excited when it got a new weapon, but that was the extent of it. This time, we wanted to show more of him. We wanted to make him relatable, and human. We wanted to give him a voice and let him speak.
Jones: Did you guys consider giving the game some other name besides just straight up "Wolfenstein?"
Biessman: We went through a bunch of different names. But really, they all just sounded kind of silly and wrong. What are we going to call it? The Re-Return to Castle Wolfenstein 2? Silly. "Wolfenstein" is such a strong, evocative word. Any fooling around with it only seemed to diminish its impact.
Jones: Question: Do you think gamers will ever get tired of shooting at Nazi zombies?
Biessman: [Laughs] Man, I hope not. They really are the ultimate villains. But, you know, it's not just "shooting Nazi zombies." What makes a game fun is the situation that you put gamers in. As long as you're doing cool things and feeling powerful, it ultimately doesn't matter what you're shooting at.
Jones: OK, let's talk about exploding barrels for a minute.
Biessman: OK, let's do that.
Jones: This game very boldly features exploding barrels. Though the gaming press has made it explicitly clear that exploding barrels are clich?d and outdated, I personally still really love them.
Biessman: Me too! Nothing is more satisfying than shooting your gun at a barrel, setting off this huge, cathartic explosion, and making Nazi-zombie flesh chunks fly everywhere.
Jones: You even painted them bright red, which I appreciated. Until we come up with something that's more satisfying than that, I think that exploding barrels need to endure. So far, nothing even comes close.
Biessman: Again, the criteria is, Did I have a good time? Did I enjoy what I'm doing? Is it fun? If the answer is yes, then we did our job.
Jones: In fact, I'd love to see at game that was called Exploding Barrels, and it was nothing but exploding barrels. I'd play that.
Biessman: I'd play that, too.
Jones: What's your favorite moment from the game? What's the one thing you're personally most proud of?
Biessman: Well, it's not really an in-game moment. It's more of a developer moment. It's when we first got the particle cannon working in the game. We were all looking over each other's shoulders going, "Holy crap." [Editor's note: The particle cannon reduces enemies to blue skeletons that sort of crumble into dust. It is, in fact, one of the most awesome weapons ever seen in any videogame ever. Ever.]
I also love the visual effect of jumping in and out of the Veil. Suddenly, you see all of these eerie creatures flying around. It was really a milestone for us. And I also love when the Altered rips a guy in half and uses the corpse as a weapon. We were really proud of that. So, for me, it's a bunch of little things like that, moments when we'd rush over to someone's cubicle and see what they'd pulled off.
Jones: Talk about the process of making the game. Was it stressful? Exactly how many punches were thrown?
Biessman: [Laughs] It's always a mini-soap opera, you know. Some days you just get so frustrated, because you're not hitting what you need to hit. Other days you're plagued with crashes and bugs. You get angry. It happens. There's always the dark time of development, when everything seems to be working against you. Then you sort of sit there for a moment and go, "But wait. I'm making a videogame. My job is awesome. I'm so lucky."
For every tense moment, there's also an awesome moment. As for punches, only virtual punches were thrown. We have Mortal Kombat machines in the lobby. That's where we do our punching.
Jones: Alcohol helps too, I'm sure.
Biessman: Yes. We made the block-and-a-half walk to the local pub on more than one occasion while making the game.
We also did something else that sounds totally like cheesy team-building, but it was so much fun. We played a game called "Spoon." We gave each person a dossier on their target, then gave them a plastic spoon. You would "assassinate" the other person by touching them with your spoon. The rule was that you couldn't attack them in their workspace. It killed productivity for a couple weeks, but it was so a lot of fun. We also had Stupid Hat Day. People were walking around in gigantic cowboy hats and stuff. We do things like this so we don't lose our minds.
There was also the day when I walked into the conference room, and in front of the whole team, without thinking, I said, "All right, everybody, we've really got to focus on some hot B.J. action." And the place just erupted. It took me a minute to figure out why.
Jones: What got left on the cutting-room floor?
Biessman: Let's see. Well, we originally had this brawling mini-game in the hub city. You had to fight the guys in the Black Market, to prove your toughness to them, before they'd sell things to you. We took that out. It just felt like busywork for the player.
Jones: Were you satisfied with the boss battles in the game?
Biessman: You can only kill so many Nazis before you have to take a break. All of the boss fights were designed to throw some different challenges at the player, to give the game some variety. I think, from that standpoint, they're all successful, yes.
Jones: Were you able to take any time off after the game shipped, clear your head a little?
Biessman: Time off? Man, I'm still waiting for someone to come unlock my leg shackles. [Laughs] Actually, I took a little time off. My family was happy to see me. At least, I hope they were happy to see me.
Jones: Raven is based in Wisconsin. Any of the local flavor find its way into Wolfenstein?
Biessman: Hmm. Well, there is beer in the game. And we have beer here. But there are no cows in the game. And there's no cheese. And no snow. Wolfenstein is pure escapism. So nothing local made it into the game, probably, because this was our chance to escape from this place for a little while.
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