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Creative problem solving: An interview with Jens Matthies on creativity in video games

The place video gaming has in modern culture has grown exponentially since the turn of the century, but to many, they’re still something you ‘do’ rather than experience.

It’s impossible to pinpoint the moment video games shifted from being strictly games, more akin to bowling or air hockey, into fully immersive experiences with story and character. In fact, so little has been written about the creative process behind making a video game more than just pixels and high scores.

With that in mind, we simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to sit down with revered gaming creative director Jens Matthies of Swedish studio MachineGames during his recent visit to Australia.

Matthies is credited with early-2000s cult classics such as The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and The Darkness, but he’s recently made a real name for himself as the creative director of MachineGames’ take on the Wolfenstein series – starting with 2014’s The New Order and its upcoming sequel Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus.

But how exactly does someone become a creative director in the gaming industry? How did the need for such a role come about?

If video games didn’t have – or need – stories when you were growing up, how would you know that’s what you want to end up doing?

“I definitely wanted to be a video game developer growing up, ever since I first started playing games,” Matthies said.

“The foundation of [my career] was Quake because Quake was a game that was very open – you could modify it in many different ways – it was a way to make game content and build a portfolio without being a programmer – because I am not.

“I learned how to make textures for levels and characters, build levels and that kind of stuff … and I was also part of a few modding groups making graphics for various Quake mods and that was my stepping stone into the business.”

Matthies’ professional career started at Stockholm’s Starbreeze Studios, and he recalled how the job he has today didn’t exist at first, but was one he grew into naturally.

“When I started making games the teams were pretty small, we were seven people when I started or something like that.

“Because the teams were so small, there wasn’t a need for any kind of hierarchy within the teams and that happened as teams grew bigger and the projects more complicated, so I kind of grew into that role over time.”

Screenshot from Wolfenstein: New Order

A screenshot from Wolfenstein: The New Order (Image: Bethesda)

Where you may instinctively feel creativity in video games is somewhat lesser than it is in film or television, Matthies insights into his own creative process revealed not just the legitimacy of his own work as art, but also the unique challenges creativity faces in an ultimately computer-generated medium.

“I oversee the performance capture recording, the casting, the cinematics the in-game events so I’m incredibly involved in the narrative side of the game.

“If you’re a creative person it’s incredibly hard to turn off that part of yourself so that’s constantly going and it’s going in areas that are not related to games as well. But, for sure, tons of ideas arrive all the time and some ideas you have are ten years old but you’ve never had the project where they’d fit.

“You always have to be conscious of the burden, or production consequences, of your decisions. Often you’ll have an idea and it can be super complicated to execute it for a number of factors, not necessarily programming time it could be other things too like content involving extra characters, those needing to be modelled, rigged and recorded.

“You’re constantly trying to scope the game right, but of course, that goes for all aspects of the game – not just the narrative side. Scoping the game so it matches your schedule and your resources is incredibly important. It’s fundamental to having a successful development cycle.

“It’s more about finding solutions that get you the result you want but are optimising the workload.

“We always find a way to do that, most of the time it’s just sitting down, figuring out what’s important and how to get there.”

Like any creative – especially one in an industry renowned for its social volatility – Matthies had advice on how to deal with criticism too.

“If you’re going to survive emotionally, you have to know yourself what it is you’re putting out there and you have to believe in it.

“If you find yourself always responding to people’s criticisms or thoughts, that just makes you depressed all the time – you can’t walk around, it’s not a healthy way of living.

“So I try to make sure any sort of view of the material that a person can have is something I’ve already considered. I’ve thought about it, I think it has to be the way it is, I know why it has to be the way it is. People are fine to disagree with it – that’s fine, people are different – but it doesn’t really bother me.”

Wolfenstein 2 The New Colossus

Wolfenstein II is a mash up of the 1960’s and future tech. And explosions.
(Image: Bethesda)

MachineGames didn’t create the Wolfenstein series – it had been on PC as an over-the-top shooter for some time – so we asked Matthies about how tough it was to give an existing franchise a proper, deep story without bogging the gameplay down.

“It’s challenging, for sure, but it’s the challenge we like.

“Basically, it’s what it all boils down to when you’re making a game – it’s an exercise in creative problem solving.

“So for us, that was never a negative, it was just interesting to see there’s this untapped aspect of these games.

“I think storytelling is part of the Wolfenstein DNA, it was just a matter of us trying to explore aspects of the game nobody had explored before.”

With Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus out later this month, we asked Matthies if it was relieving to finally have his game out there in the open.

“Yeah, but you also have separation anxiety because you’ve been so deeply invested in the project for so long so all of a sudden it’s over and it’s a weird feeling

“But it’s probably for the best too, because if we didn’t have a ship date we’d obsess over the small stuff forever!”

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is out on PS4, Xbox One and PC on October 27. It will come to Nintendo Switch in early 2018.

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