“Can you believe this?” asks Zofia “Soph” Blaskowicz of her twin sister, Jessie. “We’re shooting Nazis on a fucking zeppelin, dude.” Jess is prideful, incredulous in reply—”if only daddy could see us now!” Me? I’m less than enthusiastic. I’m a killjoy, a cynic, a bummer. I’ve been here so many times before, that is aboard a zeppelin, or at least some kind of large, aviated zeppelin-esque vehicle, shredding videogame enemies one after another with moral impunity, that if Soph and the game-makers who write her dialogue want to ask me whether I can believe it, then my answer is likely to spoil their fun: yes, yes I can believe it; after experiencing the climactic zeppelin level of 2013’s BioShock Infinite, the shootout which takes place aboard a zeppelin in 2015’s The Order: 1886, and then the zeppelin-based opening to Wolfenstein: Youngblood’s 2017 predecessor, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, I can believe it and believe it easily.
If Soph didn’t pose this question I probably wouldn’t notice how familiar Youngblood is and how indifferent I am towards it. Provided that you don’t particularly care about anything, or you’re able to stop caring about anything while you play it, it’s perfectly possible to enjoy the new Wolfenstein. But it sounds like Zofia and, again, the people responsible for creating her, are trying to convince themselves that all this, all this Nazi killing on a zeppelin, is exciting. Like if you see your doctor furrow her brow while she’s examining you, that hint of a doubt that creeps in when Soph seems to be coaching your enthusiasm, trying too hard to convince you what you’re doing is fun, is contagious, exponential. Suddenly I’m conscious of where I am and what I’m doing in this game, and blithe entertainment turns to mild disappointment then dull acceptance. Basically, when I began work as a critic, I believed (and advocated) that the most ludicrous videogame genre could be elevated by the appearance of social or political personalities; an industry and creative environment that encouraged videogames to opinionate on our world directly, and experiment with idiosyncratic, tendentious styles and stories, would mean that something as historically banal as the first-person shooter could become fascinating. Now, at the end of my critical career, I’m resigned to the belief, evident in a game like Wolfenstein: Youngblood, that mere apparentness of “social or political personality” is not enough to make any videogame worthwhile. The insipidness of the big-budget game, as it exists today, as it’s been cultivated into existence by the last 25 years of videogame culture, cannot, as I once thought, be redeemed by political, satirical, or didactical intent—a bland shooting game that parodies contemporary facism remains a bland shooting game, or put another way, it’s not just the stories and writing (or lack of) that make most videogames feel redundant to me, it’s the mechanics as well. I don’t belong on the zeppelin any more.
Probably not to the same existential depth, but the makers of Youngblood appear to be conscious of this as well, that their once successful mix of usual-for-videogames shooting mechanics with unusual-for-videogames political argument has lost its potency. When developing Wolfenstein: The New Order, prior to its release in 2014, Nazism of the world-ruling kind that the game portrayed, must have been to game designers an inspirational convenience, serious and literarily-impactful enough that its abstraction could lend a first-person shooter sophistication and artistic credibility, but also historically-distant enough that its real implications and genuine nature could be either abbreviated or avoided completely, in favour of spending both development and play time on familiar game mechanics. Today, however, when political events have transpired in the way that you all know that they have, it’s telling how Youngblood either bypasses, diminishes, or dissolves the Nazi question. By the in-universe time the game begins, Nazi-occupied America has been liberated, Hitler has been killed, and the Third Reich is in its final throes, struggling to hold onto Europe; implying that it might be possible to undo everything that has happened within the Wolfenstein world, BJ Blaskowicz, father to Zofia and Jessie, has discovered an alternate dimension—our own—where the Nazis lost the Second World War, and is trying to re-open its entrance; owing to another off-screen contrivance, it’s repeatedly implied that rather than the Nazis, the largest threat to the planet now is its mysteriously-erratic weather patterns and rising temperature, thereby introducing a replacement, unambiguously-frightful villain in the form of climate change.
In a similar sense that I have given up believing that a videogame made in the mechanical tradition of popular videogames can credibly sustain any intellectual worth, whether they realise it or not, Wolfenstein's makers, MachineGames and co-creator Arkane Studios, have given up believing they can use their work to satirise our contemporary world articulately: now that fascism and Nazism are more relevant, more divisive, more consequential, and more complex—now they’re actually happening, and affecting people in a way that means representing them through shooting mechanics would be diminutive and insulting—MachineGames and Arkane, in Youngblood, are trying to disguise or erase their Nazis along with any related discussion or analogy. The reaction seems almost directly correlative: the more that Nazis and their politics matter in and to reality, the less they seem to matter in and to this videogame.
Despite his protracted appearance in The New Colossus, which seemed to suggest an inevitable confrontation, here Adolf Hitler is abruptly, unceremoniously removed off-screen. The New Order and The New Colossus are separated by only two in-universe years, with the former insisting on the vice-grip the Nazis have on the world, the latter concluding with the first serious victory in what’s poised to be a huge, attritional armed rebellion to recapture the US; Youngblood leaps forward 17 years, and via a single intertitle and cutscene relegates the Nazi Regime to near-defeat; the existence of infinite, accessible Nazi-less dimensions essentially implies that none of what is happening in Youngblood, nor what has happened in the rest of the new Wolfenstein series, particularly matters, since it can all be abandoned and reset anyway, whereas the introduction of climate change serves as a distraction, a disturbance, from the fact that these games were ever about Nazis in the first place. The environment, a threat of which everyone is aware and which exists in all of our dark previsions of the future, but which also remains oddly intangible, in the sense it’s still easier to imagine its destruction than it is to see or feel directly affected by it, serves as perhaps a similar convenience to the idea of Nazism in 2013/2014—apparent enough that referencing it could lend a game the weight and gravitas of reality, conceptual and symbolic enough that attention to detail or consistency or purpose isn’t likely to be that important.
I used to think that games could be improved and made more beautiful if they only attempted to show and to address questions of reality, society, and humanity—all that was needed for me was the attempt, nothing more. I’m surprised to find that, of all games, it’s a spin-off from the Wolfenstein series that’s provoked, marked, and made me feel able to articulate a total shift in my critical expectations, but here it is: the problem as I see it now is not that large-budget games are unwilling to fight with what I might generally call real-world subjects, it’s that the modes of expression on which large-budget games currently rely are unsuitable for deducing or extrapolating real-world subjects in a way that helps me to better understand or feel them. If a game like The Last of Us wants to speak to me about grief and love, then absolutely, I’m invested. But I also reserve the right to feel numbed, and more than a little patronised—or maybe the opposite; maybe aloof, and like as a player, as a person, I’m capable of handling, and prepared to handle, something slower and more cerebral—if The Last of Us insists the best way to deliver me its meanings is via 15+ hours of shooting zombies. I don’t think it’s beyond-the-pale or pretentious or something to believe there is a more efficient, and equally mechanically-involving and enjoyable way for games like Red Dead Redemption 2 or The Witcher 3 to discharge their themes than through repetitious combat encounters and the accumulation of experience points. There are a lot of new narrative and literary ambitions among game-makers and I’m increasingly unsure how traditional videogame mechanics are useful in helping to express them. Wolfenstein: Youngblood, which although it shares mostly the same mechanics as its progenitor The New Order, in the context of a changed, more complicated reality feels increasingly redundant. It’s only the most recent example of this problem, the big-budget game, or more specifically big-budget shooter, becoming generically ill-suited for modern aspirations and tastes—the mechanics of games, so long as they remain unchanged and unchallenged, degenerating, becoming something game-makers must eventually resent having to work with.
Ed Smith contributes to Edge, Rolling Stone, Paste, GamesTM, and PCGamesN.,