There are a lot of reasons to look forward to Wolfenstein II. Like the last one, it promises to be an immaculately designed shooter with tight, intuitive level design and an endless opportunity to kill Nazis. But also notable is an early showcase of the developer’s attention to detail as seen in the game’s opening sequence. As I wrote during PAX West 2017, in it, the protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz, captive aboard a German Nazi naval vessel, is confined to a wheelchair after a serious injury. The following gameplay section sees Blazkowicz navigating the ship’s maze like machinations from the confines of the apparatus, encountering various obstacles and finding strategic solutions around them along the way.
Curious about the insight lent to this scene, I reached out to Bethesda to get some details on how it was written. MachineGames’ first person lead designer Jakob Ericsson responded, revealing a surprising source: skateboarding videos. As he told me via email, “Since BJ was supposed to be all banged up in Wolfenstein II the writers had him using Caroline’s motorized wheelchair in the first level. Prior, during the development of [2014’s Wolfenstein reboot prequel] The Old Blood, I had watched some videos of people using their wheelchairs in skateparks and got really impressed with what is possible to do with one. I then came up with a design for using a wheelchair in a first person shooter. I[t] later turned out that design would fit perfectly with Wolfenstein II.”
The aim of the segment was to make the wheelchair movement intuitive, while giving weight to the player as they fluidly move through the map. The result is surprisingly thoughtful, prompting me to ask if an actual disabled person lent their insight during the scene’s development. Says Ericsson, “We considered consulting a disable[d] person about how to control the wheelchair but as the segment is such a short part of the game we ended up using videos for reference instead. We also have a wheelchair at the office’s mo-cap room that I spent some time in for research. One of the things I learned from that is that it is very hard to aim a weapon while moving in a wheelchair.”
He adds, “We are of course not doing an extreme sports game, but the idea of not letting yourself be limited, even in a situation where you’re bound to a wheelchair, is the core of that design which we call wheelchair-combat.”
It’ll be interesting to see how other disabled persons respond to the game. For us, overcoming limitations isn’t a fascinating source of inspiration, it’s just another part of our daily life. My hope is that players who are more physically capable are able to gain some insight into the many workarounds that those with limited mobility have to use daily. Perhaps it will inspire some of them to rethink some of the mechanisms we build to navigate the world around us, and design them in a more considerate way.
Until then, hey, Bethesda, maybe give some thought to an extreme sports wheelchair combat game?
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer living in Seattle, WA. 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.