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WARNING: This article contains spoilers.
Also, this conversation may get a little political but that’s exactly what this is: a conversation. If you wanna talk about it, let’s talk about it. And let’s all please be civilized.
Thank you for your time.
Art being used to spread ideologies and raise social awareness is a tale as old as time. Satire quickly comes to mind. But even when this is not the artist’s intent, movies, books, games, and plays usually have a theme around which they revolve; a message to deliver, and an art – being open to interpretation – always runs the risk of becoming inadvertently political. This game is no exception in which it does have a message to deliver, but that message may not be as clear as you may have thought.
I’m bob the Hollow and this is Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus.
Wolfenstein | An Overview
This reanimated IP goes all the way back to 1981, with the advent of Castle Wolfenstein. Later, what was originally a stealth based action-adventure game transformed into Wolfenstein 3D, a series that has been quite influential in the establishment and evolution of fast-paced, action-packed, first-person shooters. And just like its predecessor, the new series’ intended experience is to have fun. With its high-octane, “balls to the wall” philosophy permeating all aspects of game design. From gameplay to dialogue. Through soundtrack and art-style. The new games do their best to live up to the long history of sprite-based Nazi shooting.
With that in mind, it’s only natural that the focus of The New Colossus would be on gameplay, rather than narrative. One could even easily forgive its strictly cinematographic storytelling. But the topics that it covers, the coverage that it got, and the Video Game Awards nomination for Best Narrative kind of put it on the spotlight. You may start looking a little bit closer and notice that, right off the bat, the game renders Blazkowicz’ sacrifice irrelevant by having him survive the end of the first game, which later it renders its own stakes irrelevant by having him survive a full beheading.
And that these two combined will make any future sacrifices completely meaningless unless his head gets crushed, and at this point, to be honest, I don’t think even that could stop BJ. Then it becomes apparent that it remembers to be a video game when it comes to shooting, but it forgets to be one when it comes to storytelling, delegating that entirely to cutscenes.
It doesn’t seem to attempt, at any point, to integrate gameplay and narrative and sometimes it even inadvertently makes bad use of this feature such as in the higher difficulty levels that, in practice, make Nazis a superior race. Or the first section of the game, on a wheelchair. Both MGS V: The Phantom Pain and The Surge did a better job of making you feel powerless, one way or another. Here, you’re just a badass on wheels.
And once you finish the game, you’ll be left asking yourself “What?” as you realize that this was just half a game… OK, you know those games where you must gather your forces, recruiting allies from different factions and places, and then you can finally launch a full on attack against the bad guys? This game has only the first part. If it had its own self-contained arc that would conclude in this game, and then clear the way to the next one, then sure, that would alright. But it doesn’t.
I mean, they have Engel, the Nazi psycho that decapitates you and is in turn killed by you in the last cutscene, but she’s more like a side quest than anything else. BJ never made it his mission to seek revenge against her, especially since losing your head actually made things better for you, and they just stumble upon the opportunity to take her out. No, the goal of the game was always to start the revolution, but it never started. The best we got was to watch a call to action that, quite ironically, was indeed televised.
Again, all of this could be easily forgiven considering the intended response it was going for but, again, the topics that it covers kind of put it on the spotlight.
Lost in Translation
Wolfenstein is not a deep commentary on serious issues, but the issues are serious nonetheless. War, terrorism, discrimination, freedom and freedom of speech… It may look and feel like a simple, fun game with nothing more to it, but between Blazkowicz’s monologuing, his “debate” with Horton, Grace’s speeches, and all the historical, political, and social subjects being discussed in its otherwise simplistic narrative, the game does have a message or two. And how does Wolfenstein handle the delivery of its messages? Well, just like Cinderella does.
Cinderella is a timeless Disney classic story about hope and the power of love that can conquer everything. The problem is that, whether you realize it or not, Cinderella is also a story about acceptance in the face of abuse and assertion of both sexist female stereotypes of conduct and the subservient position that women should occupy relative to men.
Or how about they fix that with a story about a girl willing to literally fight for what she holds dear, for reaching her full potential, for love and her country…? And… how about she gives up everything she conquered so she can be a “proper” wife to her man? How about what counts is what’s in the inside as long as I get to transform you into whatever it is that I want you to be and… also, it doesn’t hurt that you’re rich and beautiful and get to live in a castle… So yeah…
And I’m not saying they had a hidden agenda or anything. I’m pretty sure they were just trying to make money out of cute cartoons for children but, whatever family friendly messages they set out to deliver, these messages really got lost in the process. And we see that in Blazkowics’ story too. They had a few very clear, cookie cutter messages that they wanted to convey but through some bad, bad decisions when it comes to their narrative, these messages simply lost their way. Let’s take a look at two of these messages down below, shall we?
Case Study #1: Prejudice works both ways.
Of course, that a game that has Nazis and the KKK for villains is going to feature prejudice and discrimination at the forefront of its themes. The problem is that this game does a very poor job at not perpetrating a discrimination of its own.
It’s one thing to have hordes of silent, faceless soldiers to shoot at and portray them all as objectively bad, especially if they follow the Nazi ideology. It’s another thing entirely to portray their entire race as such. Back in the day, in a game like this, we would have no insight into the minds, the history, and the culture of their society and their inhabitants, soldiers and civilians alike. But long gone are those days and with the commonplace addition of enemy banter and collectibles, we’re usually able to piece together at least some information on this regard.
Putting a face to the enemy and all those sharing their flag, without ever picking up arms. They present the perfect opportunity to show that while most of them are justifiably killed by the protagonist – it’s a war after all, that they are still people and, more importantly, individuals. Germans weren’t all heartless monsters and if you don’t want to explore that in your story, if it would break up the pacing or kill the mood, well, fine! But you don’t have only cutscenes at your disposal, so please use your other tools, like Collectibles, to show us doubt and dissent among their people. To show us that they are not all the same. I mean, honestly, if you wanna talk shit about people who discriminate, then don’t talk like they do.
And, yes, they do have Sigrun but, really, is that the best you can do? One single plump, cartoonish, almost puppy-like character designed to make you feel sorry for her? At no point does it feel like she represents any significant portion of the German people in this world, instead it feels more like she’s the odd one out, the anomaly, the only example of an actual human being from her entire people.
And also, yes, I do realize it probably sounds very harsh of me, to be talking like this about this game. But I probably wouldn’t be making this case if we were fighting aliens, or robots, or some fictional country. But we aren’t. Of course Nazism should be held to account for the atrocities that it has done. Of course it’s so extremely cathartic to kick Hitler in the face that I died about ten times in a row just to keep doing it. But it goes without saying that you shouldn’t judge an entire people by the lowest standard that it has to offer.
Case Study #2: Nukes are… good?
OK, this should be an easy one, right? Repeat after me: “Nukes are bad. Nukes are bad, period.” How they managed to mess this one up really baffles me. Despite what some people may think, this topic has never stopped being relevant. And it seems especially relevant these days. But nukes – are not the answer – for anything.
Now, of course you’re free to disagree with me on this and, if you do, we can have a conversation about that. But if you do agree with me then, like me, you may also think that it sounds like the game is saying the opposite of that. They could have focused on the horrors of the nuclear assault on Manhattan but instead, they choose to frame it as coming in second in the admirable race for dropping the bomb. To me, the message clearly sounds like “drop the bomb or lose the war.”
Which is further intensified by the heroes’ willy-nilly deployment of nukes. Not everybody that plays this game will have a full understanding of the consequences of nuclear war or the historic woes that it has already caused. And this game does nothing to help them form a reasonable opinion on the matter, in a time when not a month goes by without the threat of nuclear assault being thrown one way or another, and international talks about nuclear disarmament generate controversy when, honestly, there should be none.
People are more aware now. Even if some people are being left behind, even if some others are taking a little bit longer to catch up, I think that most people of this generation are a lot more sensitive to social issues, politics, and the general state of affairs of this world that we live in. The medium of video-games has also asserted itself as being as relevant to our generation as any other art form, and is gradually becoming more influential with each passing year. So, I think we really should start being a little bit more careful when dealing with topics like this, even if it’s (quote/unquote) “just a video-game.”
And now I’d like to briefly talk about my last gripe with Wolfenstein’s narrative. And oddly enough, it’s not about something they’ve done wrong, it’s about something they haven’t done at all.
America Under Siege
Yes, America is under siege, and I’m not talking about the game, I’m talking about right now. The way I see it, the United States and other countries are under siege by their own governments. When the government stops representing the interests of its own people, then it’s the people’s responsibility to fight back. Some of you may have already started fighting, others may be slowly realizing that fact, and others may completely disagree with my assertion and are probably going to scream at me for it.
But, in any case, this game had a prime opportunity to say something on the matter. In-game, America is literally under siege but it’s framed only as an outside invading force, it’s never presented as something that can creep up from the inside. There’s no need to preach to the choir, but that message could’ve been invaluable to those whose eyes are yet to open, or the younger generation, not yet old enough to actively participate in such things.
Like I said, it’s not something they’ve done wrong, it’s just something they haven’t done. The game is fun, even if the formula seems to be running a bit dry, I honestly enjoyed playing this game. But in today’s world, even if you’re making a “just for fun,” “art as entertainment” kind of game, you should be more conscious of the messages that you may be conveying. Or maybe, who knows, take the time to make something that is as meaningful as it is fun. It’ll be your chance to make a difference. It’ll be your chance to make something that matters. And people are gonna thank you for that.
As I said, this is a conversation and we’re all free to have our own opinions. I’m not bashing on the game just because, I’m just somewhat worried about its mixed messages and quite sad for the wasted potential of its narrative and setting. Whether you agree with me or not, let me know. I’m interested in hearing what other people may think of it. So, until next time. Cya.
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