Brave Little Leiblings: The Alternate Reality of Music in 'Wolfenstein: The New Order'

Bethesda Softworks and COPILOT tiptoe across politically treacherous territory with Wolfenstein: The New Order

When Jason Menkes and Ravi Krishnaswami (pictured above) were charged with soundtracking an alternate universe ruled by the Nazis, their mantra became “make it upbeat.” That bubble gum-smacking pop sweetness is precisely what makes the soundtrack to Wolfenstein: The New Order so damn creepy. Taking place in the 1960s, after Hitler has won World War II and the Nazi party has successfully exterminated remnants of the Allies, the Wolfenstein reboot chronicles the struggles of the resistance party and the cultural landscape they find themselves in.

But even the most oppressive regime in history wouldn’t be able to stop pop music from breaking out, says Menkes and Krishnaswami, the partners behind COPILOT Strategic Music + Sound, the music content and strategy firm charged with creating Wolfenstein’s politically complex soundtrack. Working closely with publisher Bethesda Softworks and AKQA advertising firm, the COPILOT team not only recorded a complete soundtrack of 60s inspired tunes, all sung in German and encapsulating the ideals of the Nazi party, but they also created a fake record label for the songs, complete with fictional biographies of each musician, a retro late night commercial pushing the tunes, and a record release party with a live German cover band at the PAX East game conference in Boston this past April.

If you listen to the soundtrack, a lot of [the songs] are very happy and very light and real pop music,” says Menkes, adding that the eight original tracks under the Neumond Recording Company “label” run the gamut from surf rock to Beatles knockoff tunes to psychedelic experimentations. “I think that was part of the way we handled that, is to use this as an opportunity to show, not what the reality of the Nazi universe would be, but how the Nazis might want to portray their universe as a perfect setting.”

The result is deliciously unsettling. As players blast through the morally bankrupt Nazi brigade, they encounter various scenarios where radios have been left on and songs like the trippy, sitar-heavy “I Am Everywhere” [“Ich Bin Uberall”] or “Train to Hamburg” [“Zug Nach Hamburg”], a peppy Nazi-fied version of The Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville,” pump through pixelated speakers.

The darkness is not always in the song writing itself, but in sort of the context surrounding where these songs came from,” Ravi says, adding, “One of the basic premises that we started with was if the Nazis were in power in the 60s, that music would have gotten to this place. Regardless of it being a completely different universe, rock ‘n’ roll would have happened. … Then it was just a matter of thinking, well, how would it have happened in that universe specifically? What would [the Nazis] have wanted to say to the youth culture if they had their ear?”

The team wasn’t without precedent though. Hitler actually did have his own propaganda band, a prolific group called Charlie and His Orchestra, which lobbed thinly veiled messages about desertion cached in toe-tapping swing rhythms at British and American soldiers.

They would actually play these on short-wave radio in the U.K. to try to lower morale,” Ravi says. “We tried to use that as a guide to how our label might have worked in the 1960s. Trying to create fake artists to either raise morale for the German people or lower morale elsewhere, to reinforce their ideals through music.”

Creating a subtly pro-Nazi, German-language soundtrack under a fake throwback record label isn’t without its perils. All in-game music had to be original since licenses frequently prevent songs from being used in conjunction with violent imagery or Nazi ideals. The game marketing campaign was able to get away with using German language covers of “House of the Rising Sun,” which is currently available under public domain and doesn’t require licensing, as well as John Lee Hooker’s bluesy “Boom Boom” and “Nowhere to Run” by Martha and the Vandellas so long as neither song was used in conjunction with any Nazi imagery, says Pete Hines, vice president of public relations and marketing for Bethesda. Check out how the trailer below switches from cover song without Nazi symbols to original tunes with imagery here:

Bethesda also had to be extremely careful on the international marketing front, Hines adds.

All of the [in-game] lyrics had to be gone through and reviewed because in Germany, anything associated with the Nazi party or certain symbols or certain words and phrases are dealt with by the Constitution,” Hines explains. “We had to make sure that in the game in Germany there weren’t lyrics that were singing about the Fuhrer or something that would get us in trouble.”

The German version of Wolfenstein: The New Order is indeed bereft of swastikas, refers to the Nazis simply as the “Regime,” and includes a geo-locking system that prevents users in either Germany or Austria from accessing other versions of the game.

The team also had to be conscious of keeping the soundtrack’s tone nuanced enough that it couldn’t be interpreted incorrectly, taken out of context, or co-opted by neo-Nazi groups.

There are definitely some examples of songs that we would listen to the lyrics and be like ‘Wow, that’s probably actually going too far,’” says Ed Davis, account director for AKQA, the ad agency that headed up Bethesda’s marketing push for the game and created the logo design and visual imagery associated with the Neumond Recording Company label. “None of the songs are overtly menacing, but if you do read between the lines a little bit you can get some of the vibe of [the Regime’s] totalitarianism, but there’s def nothing overt that anyone would latch onto in the wrong way.”

One idea that hit the cutting room floor was a love song between the Sonny and Cher-esque duo Karl & Karla originally titled “Blue Eyes Forever.” Feeling that the duet represented supremacist ideals a bit too directly, the song was rewritten to focus on a soldier missing his amour and the title was changed to “Brave Little Liebling.”

We wanted to make sure that while we’re writing something that was going to be used as a propaganda tool, we weren’t writing explicit propaganda songs that could apply to present day,” Ravi says. “Going from “Blue Eyes Forever” to “Brave Little Liebling” was a great example of being careful not to cross any lines and to represent Nazi ideals without being explicit in their promotion.”

Hines says that the music also bypasses the uninvited audience problem to a certain extent simply by being embedded in both a game and larger franchise that’s ardently anti-Nazi.

Our game is about shooting and killing Nazis, so it’s not particularly sympathetic towards Nazis. I think if we were trying to cast them in a positive light or make them sympathetic, we’d have a lot of troubles,” he says. “We joke about this eternally and have for years, there’s really no more instantly recognizable and hatable enemy than Nazis. In most other games, you need some context for, well, why are these guys the bad guys? I don’t even know who they are. They’re from some made up place or they’re a mob or whatever, but Nazis, they’re Nazis. You don’t even have to think, you just shoot Nazis.”

The Wolfenstein music has taken on a bit of a life of its own. Menkes and Krishnaswami’s pieces on the Neumond Recording Soundcloud page have each racked up over 25,000 plays while the label’s official commercial has garnered nearly 35,000 YouTube views. The songs will soon be available for individual purchase on iTunes and an actual album is in the works, but the side income isn’t the real goal, says Hines.

It’s more important that [the music] support and extend the experience of the game rather than drive them to be some alternative revenue source,” he says. “If it was that easy, we’d get in the business of creating alternate history music soundtracks and selling them and not bother with all of the time of making a AAA game.”

But Hines also acknowledges how well an imaginative soundtrack can excite gamers, give an alternate universe some depth, and attract some sweet press. Two years ago when Bethesda released the heavily lauded assassin game Dishonored, the game’s spooky sea shanty marketing campaign song, penned by COPILOT of course, became so popular it was performed live at the Spike VGA Awards and spawned a remix competition among fans.

Even if Neumond Recording Company’s fare falls short of those benchmarks, it’s a treat for fans to have a soundtrack and marketing strategy that’s nearly as intriguing as the game itself. 

Wolfenstein: The New Order is currently available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and PC.

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