Wolfenstein II's picture of American fascism seems more prescient than ever
Content warning: This article includes some minor spoilers for Wolfenstein: The New Order as well as discussion of real-world events, including the recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The 2016 U.S. election surfaced an unfathomable darkness simmering beneath the farmlands, factories, and homes of the American working class -- a fear of the other. It's a fear which survived the establishment of this country, the formal deconstruction of the Confederacy, the Great Depression, two world wars, the Cold War and the Red Scare, 9/11 and the War on Terror of the 2000s. It also undergirds the settings of more than a few videogames, for which shooting at unambiguously evil Nazis and "terrorists" is a familiar pastime.
In Wolfenstein: The New Order, players assume the role of Allied Forces special operative William "B.J." Blaskowicz. It opens in an alternate history 1946, where the second World War still rages on and the Allied Forces are on the losing end. Following a failed raid on the wretched Nazi General Deathshead's hulking fortress, Blaskowicz wakes up fourteen years later from head trauma-induced coma in a psychiatric asylum in Nazi-occupied Poland. German fascism reigns supreme over the world. Soon after Blaskowicz awakens, he joins up with a fictionalized version of the anti-Nazi Kreisau Circle, who begin a counter-campaign to overthrow Deathshead and put a dent in German occupation of the planet.
Playing The New Order today is a far different exercise than it was upon its 2014 release; a time when many, myself included, did not fully understand the ease with which nationalism and fascism can breed itself into the popular consciousness of a body of people. A grounded, high-budget take on "hulking bald white man shoots, stabs and blows up several hundred Nazis and also robot dogs" seemed at the time silly and typically over-the-top videogame fare. Now it comes across as a defiant response to an increasingly present threat. We are living in a world where a man can throw up a Nazi salute or adorn a swastika in Germany and be arrested, while in America he'll be protected by police officers in riot gear under the shield of free speech. This is a time and place where punching a person who advocates ethnic cleansing is seen as a criminal act; a period in which the president of the United States needs to be informed by White House officials that not immediately condemning the actions of white supremacists maybe isn't a good look.
The New Order's portrayal of its wretched villains is often a bit more nuanced... This isn't an attempt to empathetically humanize the Nazis in some toothless appeal to "both sides" anti-politics.
Wolfenstein: The New Order's palpable resentment of this state of affairs feels liberating. Killing in this game feels as good as it possibly could. The visual and aural sensibilities on display here when firing one of the weapons in your available arsenal helps to create a perpetual state of kinesthetic pleasure throughout the game's main encounters. Getting up, close, and personal with a knife to a Nazi's neck or shoving one's head in a toilet and flushing just feels good. This is aided by the fact that The New Order's portrayal of its wretched villains is often a bit more nuanced than I've previously come to expect. In one scene, the player can sit and wait as two Nazis in a prison compound argue over the potential health defects of constructing with the Nazis' powerful über concrete material. One explains how he believes that his family at home has been adversely affected by it and is dying because of it, while the other believes his claim to be nonsense. This isn't an attempt to empathetically humanize the Nazis in some toothless appeal to "both sides" anti-politics; it's a way of showing that ultimately fascists are human beings just as the rest, only with horrifying and grotesque ideological backbones. This makes the act of murdering them one by one in a controlled digital setting somehow even more electrifying. The sense of period-appropriate realism present within the barracks, imprisonment camps, trains, and even space stations inhabited by these Nazis contributes to the raucous feeling one gets when mowing down dozens of them; little has me raring to go more than listening to a Germanic nationalist perversion of the Beatles.
Crucially, Wolfenstein: The New Order recognizes that the other key to resisting the rise of fascism and Nazism is self-care. Diligence, yes, but rest and relaxation too are foundational to preserving one's mental health. B.J. Blaskowicz and his allies operate out of a hideout in Berlin, commandeered by B.J.'s paralyzed old comrade Caroline. The hideout becomes a common refrain between missions for Blaskowicz, primarily for issuing missions and doling out health and armor upgrades. Stopping to survey the adornments and accoutrements which make up this space reveals a brittle historicity. Lit candles surround photographs of the dead, ensuring their lives and struggles are not forgotten. People sleep. The upstairs toilet is flushable; B.J. remarks to himself, "That seems to be in order," after using it. The outwardly hardass Klaus Kreutz cares for the mentally disabled Max Hass like a father; we later learn Klaus is a former Nazi whose child was murdered by the regime for being born with a defect. More than just an information dispenser, Anya's propensity for compassion is demonstrated by the tender relationship she shares with B.J. Somehow, love is able to bloom even during wartime, a radical act of defiance against white nationalism. Conversely, a recently-released ad for the upcoming sequel The New Colossus depicts a young boy having to smuggle chocolate into his room before being found out by his older brother, who scolds him for what he deems to be a matter of state security against the Fatherland.
Such fictional portrayals of life under fascism read as nothing less than honest and chillingly frightening in 2017.
The imminent release of The New Order's direct sequel, The New Colossus, is unintentionally prescient to the point of seeming almost opportunistic. The game envisions the United States under Nazi occupation, where German soldiers and Ku Klux Klan members meet openly on the streets. Compare this with reality, where on August 11th, a large group of Neo-Nazi white nationalists lit Tiki torches and took to protesting the removal of a statue in Charlottesville, Virginia of General Robert E. Lee, an icon of the Confederacy. Counter-protesters arrived as opposition to this violent nationalist contingency, often to minimal or belated intervention by police. As the protesters verbally and sometimes physically clashed into the next day, the city declared a state of emergency. A 20-year-old man later found to have ties to white nationalists rammed his vehicle into counter-protesters, injuring 19 people and taking the life of 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus' gutsy, unorthodox reveal trailer shined at E3 earlier this year, but left some critics feeling wary about how the game might approach topics like KKK and American fascism. In the wrong hands, commentaries on race relations can and often do derail into nasty centrisms of the perceived wrongdoings of both the oppressors and the oppressed. However, watching through recently teased footage, I'd say there's little reason to worry. When players visit the Roswell, New Mexico area (first shown in the E3 reveal trailer), they see an American woman accidentally speaking out of turn about something as innocuous as music, only to be informed that she will be reported and monitored for this minor act of verbal opposition. In another conversation, a woman offhandedly motions to another about an upcoming slave auction. Backgrounding these idle discussions is a parade announcer spouting the virtues of the Führer's eradication of "the Jewish plague" and that America will prosper given unquestioned loyalty and devotion to the German hegemony. MachineGames, a Swedish developer, likely did not intend to invoke much of the backwards terminology and doublespeak of Trumpism in crafting an honest, speculative portrayal of the victory of the Axis powers, yet the parallels between this one portion of the game alone and the daily life of many Americans for the last eight months are uncanny. Such fictional portrayals of life under fascism read as nothing less than honest and chillingly frightening in 2017.
Resistive works of art... are symbolic close-ranks which can inspire action and contemplation.
In such uncertain times, the existence of games at the scale and budget of Wolfenstein: The New Order and The New Colossus (to say nothing of their prequel The Old Blood, of which I'm admittedly unfamiliar) feels in some ways like an act of solidarity. That its rah-rah attitude and compassionate reverie for the plight of the oppressed are so elegantly synthesized is a testament to MachineGames' talent and vision. Ultimately, we will have to reserve full judgment until the game releases on October 27th.
Resistive works of art won't and were never meant to be the one thing which topples fascist oppression. Instead, they are symbolic close-ranks which can inspire action and contemplation. This harsh world is a better place with smart, biting games like Wolfenstein: The New Order and The New Colossus in it, if only just by a little bit. These days, I'll take what I can get.