The Wolfenstein franchise is as storied as any in video games: it essentially launched the first-person-shooter as a format, and straight-up Nazi fightin’ never really goes out of style. But for the latest iteration of the franchise, game studio Bethesda opted to not just create the next chapter in the World War II shooter, but to rewrite history. In the new Wolfenstein: The New Order, out May 20, you’re not an Allied soldier taking on German forces, you’re a resistance fighter who wakes up after two decades in a coma.
While Wolfenstein: The New Order’s protagonist was out, alas, the Nazis won World War II—suddenly, it’s the 1960s, and it’s time to try to reclaim a world that’s been utterly conquered by the Nazis.
In order to create this immersive experience—one in which both the player and the character are in a 1960s that is not what they might expect—Bethesda opted to recreate the element of '60s culture that’s perhaps most readily identifiable as a sign of those times: the music. It’s hard to say who the German Andy Warhol might have been, but by partnering with Copilot Music + Sound, Bethesda created a fictional record label, Neumond Recording Company, and a real, entire soundtrack of Nazi rock and roll hits that might have evolved in a world in which the Germans won the war.
All of which touches on an immediate paradox: How can you have rock and roll, if you don’t have the black American artists who invented it?
That’s a question that Copilot creative partners Jason Menkes and Ravi Krishnaswami put a lot of thought into, and their approach to that question informs the seriousness with which they—and Bethesda—approached building the world of Wolfenstein: The New Order. "The whole idea was, in this world, would the blues exist? Would rock and roll exist? And if so, how would it be different?" Menkes asks. "In our conversations with Bethesda, we agreed that the blues would have developed in the U.S., but the Nazis would have removed any of the more African-American elements to it to ‘purify’ it. So we made sure that the guitar didn’t bend any strings; we worked with a great blues organ player and we kind of moved his parts, to line up more awkwardly into the tempo of the piece, so they didn’t swing as well. That’s where it started, and then Bethesda came back to us to expand this whole idea to essentially create a government record label that would have existed in this alternate timeline, and not just do cover versions, but write original songs."
Of course, there are a handful of covers that also appear in this world, and the process of sanitizing them for what a Nazi record label might have found appropriate provided one of the more unique—and fascinating—challenges of the process. One of the key songs that they started with had plenty of swagger to remove: John Lee Hooker’s "Boom Boom." "It’s kind of a dark blues song, and we turned it as happy and square of a version as we could," Menkes says. "It’s almost like a Lawrence Welk style, just really bright and cheerful."
The conceptual idea of interpreting real and fictional rock and roll through a Nazi lens is fascinating for the first thirty seconds you think about it, but there’s also an element worth considering that occurred to both the guys from Copilot and the folks from Bethesda: Namely, if you’re making Nazi rock and roll, even in the context of a video game in which the protagonist is going to blow up Nazis with increasingly absurd weapons, you’re still making Nazi rock and roll. How do you reconcile the spirit of John Lee Hooker with that?
That’s something that the John Lee Hooker estate questioned, as well, which led to the trailer for the game that featured the new version of "Boom Boom" to be the version of Wolfenstein that ships in Germany—one without the swastikas or Nazi symbolism that’s illegal in that country. "We totally respect why John Lee Hooker wouldn’t want to be associated with that kind of imagery," explains Peter Hines, Vice President of PR and Marketing at Bethesda. We licensed the rights to re-record the song, but in our agreement, we also agreed that it would never be used in conjunction with any Nazi imagery. We used the safe version of the game that we have to ship in Germany for those things."
In fact, making versions of these songs that would be acceptable in Germany became something of a guiding light for the Copilot team as they created the songs that would serve as the game’s original tunes. "One of the first songs we wrote was for our lovebirds, who are called Karl and Karla," Menkes says. "And our first draft of the song was called ‘Blue Eyes Forever.’ Right away we realized that was kind of crossing a line—that was obvious in its promotion of Aryan ideals, and so we were careful not to go there. We changed the song, and now it’s called ‘Brave Little Liebling,’ and it’s just a song about a soldier who’s off to war and misses his sweetheart back home. Creatively, the challenge was in writing songs that are not actively promoting Nazis ideals, but kind of represent the society that might exist if the Nazis had taken over all of Europe and America—creatively, it was really just about writing happy songs that would fit in this kind of censored world, as opposed to being blatant abut the ideals."
For the most part, the '60s culture reinterpreted in Wolfenstein: The New Order through a Nazi lens is restricted to the music—which is both an easy thing to put into the background of a game, and also a place where it’s easy to display the repression and self-censorship that would arise as part of that culture. But Hines says that they also looked at some other elements of the culture. "There’s a lot of architectural stuff that we do, the clothing and the weapons. When you’re playing the game, you’ll hear the songs we created playing on a radio here or there, and that kind of further helps set the tone for the time period," he says. But the goal is to make the experience immersive for players, without getting too bogged down in the details. "You’ve got to remember that this is an alternate universe where the Nazis acquired super technology that allowed them to win the war, so the underpinning for all of this is that at the same time, there are robotic dogs patrolling the streets while giant mechs are patrolling London. You’re playing up this '60s element in terms of some of the basic aesthetic design things, along with this ridiculous Nazi love of the grandiose."
And while the music that Copilot created is authentic enough to catch your ear, the real joy of Wolfenstein, ultimately, will come from blowing the Nazis who listen to all of this all to hell with rockets and grenades. Call it a way of keeping the spirit of James Brown, Little Richard, and Howlin' Wolf alive.