Despite his reputation as a silent protagonist, B.J. Blazkowicz proved surprisingly forthcoming in Machine Games' Wolfenstein: The New Order.
His Swedish stewards earned critical acclaim last year for their deft approach to first-person storytelling via cutscenes and interior monologues, acclaim that creative director Jens Matthies credited to the studio's philosophy of directly marrying a game's narrative to the player's experience in the world.
"The dream is to make you feel like Blazkowicz, even though he speaks in your place," Matthies told Gamasutra last year. "the goal is to have a protagonist that is so relatable that you become them."
But as I was playing through The Old Blood, Machine Games' recently-released standalone prequel to The New Order, I realized that I was actually hearing Blazkowicz speak through me for what felt like the first time.
Machine Games' Tommy Tordsson Björk says this is spot on; that Blazkowicz never actually spoke during the gameplay segments of The New Order, and only earned that voice in The Old Blood due to production constraints that kept the studio from using cutscenes as a storytelling tool.
He also shed some light on how Machine Games approaches the challenge of telling a compelling narrative from a first-person perspective, and why it chose to break from popular DLC design practices to produce a standalone prequel, in a recent conversation over email which I've reproduced (with some light edits for clarity) below.
One of the most striking things about The Old Blood is that it's a very substantial prequel with interesting combat encounters but little of the character development that earned The New Order critical appeal. Was that a conscious design decision?
Björk: Because it was important to us to get new content out to fans as soon as we could, we knew from the beginning that we would not be creating the same kind of cinematic cut-scenes that we had in the main game.
With this shorter development time in mind, we chose to put the emphasis on recreating the old-school atmosphere found in Return to Castle Wolfenstein and to tell our story entirely from a first person perspective. We wanted The Old Blood to feel like a palate-cleansing dessert; a nice finish packed full of flavor and personality, rather than the full-course meal that came before it with The New Order.
Did the team expect to receive such critical praise for the narrative techniques at play in The New Order? How did that influence your decision to make a standalone prequel instead of DLC?
We've always tried to do our best when it comes to storytelling in games because that is where our interests lie: in that fusion between good, meaningful interaction and storytelling that feels like something beyond pointing a gun and shooting at things.
The idea behind The Old Blood was to make it a love letter to one of our favorite installments in the franchise, Return to Castle Wolfenstein. That's part of why we made it a prequel and not a continuation of The New Order, so that it felt like it belonged more in the pre-TNO Wolfenstein world.
Part of a screenshot culled from the 2001 game Return to Castle Wolfenstein
It also made sense to make it as a prequel because we thought that people who hadn't played The New Order could easily pick this up. We wanted The Old Blood to be an introduction to The New Order, so they could just naturally progress into that story after they had finished the game.
Fair enough. What were some of the most challenging aspects of developing The Old Blood, and how did the team overcome them?
The project became much more challenging when we decided that we would release it as a standalone, because for us it meant we would not be satisfied just releasing reused content with minor additions and tweaks.
The good old expansion packs from the olden days became our standard, so we decided to remake almost everything completely from scratch with new art assets, new weapons, and new features.
From a narrative perspective, the fact that we decided not to use cinematic cutscenes meant that we had to find other ways to maintain the presence of the personality we established for B.J. in The New Order. We had the inner monologue narration, of course, as a story tool to work with, but the really interesting and dynamic story elements take place when B.J. interacts with other characters.
For The Old Blood, we wanted to have B.J. talk to other characters in first person, something which never happened in The New Order. So the narrative challenge here became how to create and write our first-person events in a way that felt natural and fluid, and at the same time didn't take away the sense of being in control of the game.