header is screenshot from Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
Wolfenstein II's Fashionable Rebellion
Ed Smith

Its characters and its creators repetitiously attempt to justify Wolfenstein II with a plenary rallying cry: it’s good to kill Nazis. But morally, aesthetically, and narratively the game is messier than it appears. Its unifying theory of American virtue, i.e. the American people possess a unique, indelible sense of political justice, which is in their blood and superior to that of any other nation, presents an hypocrisy that the game either ignores or is too dumbed-down to contend with. The advertised and unalloyed pleasure of killing Nazis is rooted in the fact that Nazis are moral fascists, convinced of their own cultural and genetic superiority, and therefore murder-wise fair game. But Wolfenstein II never acknowledges that its hero, B.J. Blaskowicz, and his anti-Nazi compadres also consider American agency, the American right of dominion, self-evident. Put simply, the Nazis think German-Aryans are the natural master race; B.J. et al conclude Wolfenstein II with a speech to Americans everywhere, assuring them the “blood of revolutionaries” is “in their veins” and they were “born in the land of the free”, insinuating that by simply being American one has a naturally elevated comprehension of social and political freedoms, an anthropologically handed down cognizance of what goodness is; a genetic imperative to govern, or rule.

In the middle of Wolfenstein II, B.J. has his American head transplanted onto a Nazi body, thus preparing a veritable open goal of a metaphor for commonalities between American and Nazi exceptionalism. But Wolfenstein II doesn’t follow the metaphor up. The comparisons it draws between American nationalist and Nazi ideology are isolated to its first half and ignorable, generally less-than-plausible characters. B.J.’s father is a physically titanic arch quisling, whose bloody, Eli Roth-ian death is heavily implied to give closure to B.J. and any anxieties he may have about there possibly being some Nazi in him; vicariously, this is also the moment Wolfenstein II disestablishes its most intriguing theme and slackens into yet another shooter about rescuing America. The Ku Klux Klan members, who struggle to learn German, are generally played for laughs. Mocked even by the Nazis, like B.J.’s dad they appear as extreme, containable singularities, unthreatening because they’re so fringe. Wolfenstein II’s subtitle, The New Colossus, suggests an encompassing, ironic analogy between Nazi and American-jingoist identity: interpreted one way, the name of the poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty sounds intimidating, threatening or Draconian. But considering how little the game commits to that insinuated correlation, how soon it disposes of it and wholeheartedly, in its climax, reinscribes the popular American Myth, I find myself at odds with the critics who argue it’s an uplifting or iconoclastic game, specifically for the era of President Donald Trump.

Wolfenstein II is about preserving an ineffable, therefore ethereal, therefore not-subject-to-proof and extant-because-we-say-so American rightness. The fight for its preservation is predicated on a morally agreeable but—because the game is set in an alternate history—patently false moral rubric, which can only exist if uncomfortable facets of the American national character are ignored or insulated. It’s a game that wants you to feel good about belonging to a certain moral, political, or national group, and in order to engender that feeling describes cartoonish exaggerations and terrifying but fictional scenarios. By that measure, it’s a structure in-common with propaganda, not of an exclusively Trumpian kind, but a kind his campaign and administration has traditionally deployed. In short, Wolfenstein II resolves a depiction of America which is historically—in fact, presently—untrue. In combination with its barely-held-together facade, that of a politically-bold, disruptive, and unabashed game, it seems just as duplicitous as the political reality it’s been repeatedly credited with condemning.

The New Colossus is far less interested or involved in politics than it may boast. In Wolfenstein: The New Order we are sent to a concentration camp, and witness the game’s Nazi’s atrocities first-hand; we also watch, in a hospital near the game’s beginning, those Nazis shoot mentally ill people in their beds. Purposefully depicting why the Nazis are evil may not be necessary—it goes without saying, presumably, for the majority. But in The New Colossus, the Nazi’s efforts and ire seem directed exclusively at Blaskowicz and co. The murders of Caroline and Super Spesh, and Blaskowicz’s beheading, are the motivating factors for B.J.’s/the player’s revolutionary actions. It’s less a war than a revenge story, which compared to its predecessor isolates both its and the Second World War’s moral conflict to a showdown between two larger-than-life fictional characters, B.J. and Frau Engel. True, The New Order is also at risk of slipping into this dynamic: the thrust of its narrative is the ongoing, historic rivalry between B.J. and his arch-nemesis General Deathshead, and it’s as much a story about avenging Wyatt/Fergus/the idyllic American family that B.J. will never have as it is about the war, and the Allies continuing to fight the Nazis. However, when the game ends with B.J.’s implied death, and his implied passing of leadership of the Resistance to Anya, it implies also the battle is bigger than one protagonist and his personal enemy. The game’s opening, a large-scale joint operation between the British and American militaries, impresses this also, in contrast to The New Colossus’ which focuses exclusively on Blaskowicz and his personal struggle, embodied in his fighting Nazis from within a wheelchair.

The epitome of this: after B.J. is beheaded in The New Colossus, through various, thaumaturgical plot contrivances, he is revived, stronger and more capable of leading the Resistance than ever. This feels like the point at which Wolfenstein stops being about—or even maintaining a veneer of being about—anything except itself, and its motley crew of occasionally entertaining central characters. It’s critically redundant (and egotistical) to reprove a game for what it could have done but didn’t. However, Wolfenstein’s broad historical and dramatic contexts, its central proposition, that evil is fought by many, not few, by cooperation not division, are undermined, terminally, by the game’s attachment to B.J.; a sleeping Nazi next to an exploding barrel of an opportunity, to drive home that opposition to Nazism is multilateral, is passed over to preserve the face of the Wolfenstein franchise.

On which note, I find it difficult to believe that MachineGames/Bethesda are quite the seditionists, inspirations, outspoken rebel-rousers that other articles (and The New Colossus’ overall presentation) have claimed, i.e., when the Resistance’s climactic, ostensibly-evocative call to arms against the Nazis is intercut with both company’s logos—when Wyatt’s oratory is punctuated by on-screen appearances of corporate branding—The New Colossus starts to feel like an especially cynical cash-in, on liberal or at least anti-Nazi politics. It’s reminiscent of the latter Grand Theft Auto games, which didactically tell their audience not to believe in politicians, families, laws, technology, the media, etc., but never deign to criticise themselves, the implication being distrust everything except GTA, the implication being “buy more Grand Theft Auto”. The Resistance manifesto/company logo montage that concludes Wolfenstein II seems similarly to say “we own politics with which you will agree; you may buy them off of us.” If mainstream, full-priced videogames traditionally were more interested in liberalism, or even if Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus weren’t part of a franchise, a product, an IP, its ending may not seem quite so faux. But it belongs in a genre (big-budget shooter) well-known both for reinstating nationalist, American-Conservative myths and doing whatever needs to be done in order to move units and make money; its nature—a sequel to a prequel of a reboot of a reboot of a series of seven games—on a congenital level depletes it of sincerity.

Put another way: by its association to mainstream and shooting-based videogames of the past, it’s difficult for me not to assume that one of the main reasons modern Wolfenstein is so overtly, kind of golf-sale-sign-holdingly anti-Nazi and pro-diversity is because those kind of politics are currently in vogue, as in marketable, and that if they happen to reflect the political leanings of the game’s creators that’s likely just a happy accident, and that even if the game’s creators completely disagreed with these kinds of politics some combination of influences within mainstream game development and culture would force them to create a game emblazoning these kinds of politics anyway, because when it comes to creating mainstream games, what mainstream game-makers might actually want to say, discuss, or depict is still generally considered unimportant, as in negligible and creatively subordinate, compared to what makes money.

For illustration: Wolfenstein II’s images of an interracial couple having sex, a young rebel dropping acid, and a naked pregnant woman soaked in Nazi blood feel not exactly token or reluctant, but focus-groupian, shorthand and ultimately empty appeals to feminist and activist youths, groups that are understood, by someone overseeing the game, to be profitable but not understood fully, or regarded as anything other than something to which it is prescient to pay lip service.


Ed Smith contributes to Edge, Rolling Stone, Paste, GamesTM, and PCGamesN.