by Jed Pressgrove
The vision of resistance to world-ruling Nazism in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is as stupid and disingenuous as neo-Nazis who use terms like “peaceful ethnic cleansing.” Like its 2014 predecessor Wolfenstein: The New Order, the game attempts to make you think you’re experiencing more than mind-numbing ultraviolence. Take one of the first cutscenes that delves into the past of protagonist William Blazkowicz (who, despite being half Jewish, wears the stereotypical white hero profile like a glove): young Blazkowicz and his mother suffer the racist wrath of Blazkowicz’s father after it comes out that the boy likes a black girl. The scene moves on to a manipulative and preposterous sequence where the father tries to force the boy to shoot the pet dog, as if the writers weren’t sure if the preceding physical abuse and racial slurs would communicate that daddy’s a giant asshole. This kind of extreme drama is what Wolfenstein II passes off as human-centered storytelling, yet as you survive suicide mission after suicide mission as the Terminator-like Blazkowicz, you realize he’s as inhuman as the Nazis, just in a different way.
If you really want to know the true maturity (or lack thereof) of Swedish developer MachineGames, look no further than Wolfenstein II’s pregame menu that asks players to choose a difficulty level. As you scroll from setting to setting, a picture of Blazkowicz changes to convey what you’d be getting yourself into. Put the cursor on the lowest difficulty (insultingly titled “Can I play, Daddy?”), and Blazkowicz becomes decked out with a bonnet and pacifier. This image is not just a cheap joke but rather points to one of MachineGames’ biggest influences: preening and gore-filled 1990s action games (including, of course, Wolfenstein 3D) that desired to flip the birdie to parents and politicians.
But, even with the game’s over-the-top bloodiness, the outdated adolescent politics of Wolfenstein II can be hard to dismiss or identify because of a veneer of sophistication. In one scene, Blazkowicz calls the Nazis “monsters,” and resistance leader Grace Walker corrects him with “Not monsters. Men.” It’s a profound line that’s never realized, as the game constantly portrays Nazis as monstrous fodder. Irene Engel, the main villain, wastes perfect opportunities to eliminate Blazkowicz for good as she parades around like a hateful cartoon. Adolf Hitler shows up in the second half of the game, pissing and vomiting, and can even be killed; it’s a lazy Quentin Tarantino-inspired appearance that lacks the irony of Charlie Chaplin’s brave satirization of Hitler in 1940’s The Great Dictator and the humanism of Bruno Ganz’s disturbingly real performance as Hitler in 2004’s Downfall. The only Nazi that reflects Walker’s insight is Engel’s daughter Sigrun, but then again, Sigrun quickly betrays her mother after being introduced in the story, indicating that she’s not meant to reflect the depths of the elusive Nazi soul.
The superficiality and gall of a Tarantino-like mind shows up several times in Wolfenstein II, muddying the game’s potential as a commentary on race and politics. During one part before Blazkowicz goes on a routine Nazi-killing spree, the hero shouts, “White-ass fascist Nazi pigs!” The “white-ass” descriptor is laughably out of place given Blazkowicz’s identity, but the contrivance echoes Tarantino’s deceptive white guilt, a wish to be recognized as an honorary person of color.
In another segment, two KKK members, white hoods and all, can be seen walking on a sidewalk in Nazi-occupied America. Although the real-world Nazis did admire racial hegemony in the United States, the KKK robes function as cheap shock value in Wolfenstein II’s alternate-history universe. Not only would there be no reason for the anonymity of such attire in a Nazi-ruled place, but Nazis would likely prefer their own imagery to be displayed among the populace, regardless of whether they’re white supremacists. The KKK members go on to have a conversation with a Nazi, who keeps correcting their horrible attempts to say German phrases. In Tarantino fashion, Wolfenstein II makes easy comedy out of subjects that evoke great pain to this day.
The most juvenile ode to Tarantino, however, is saved for one of Wolfenstein II’s last scenes, where Anya, Blazkowicz’s pregnant partner, strips off her upper garb and guns down Nazis, afterward turning to her man with her swollen torso soaked in blood. In this attempt to champion the equality of women, the game further confirms a lack of relatable vulnerability among its main characters, from Fergus’ Dr. Strangelove-knockoff mechanical arm to the piss-poor hit detection as you fight as Blazkowicz (many times you will be unexpectedly killed because the game does such an amateurish job of telling you when you’re taking damage; talk about fake difficulty).
What’s more shameful is that this game wastes genuine human moments, as when Blazkowicz has flashbacks to when he spent time with Billie, the black girl his dad hated. When the two children first meet, they articulate why they should keep their distance based on the discriminatory views of their parents. After they accept that they want to be around each other, they happen upon a drowning rat, and while Blazkowicz laughs and says the predicament serves the rat right, Billie is horrified. At the last second, Blazkowicz saves the rat, that which he doesn’t think deserves life. In a later sequence, mercy reappears when the adult Blazkowicz approaches an unaware Nazi. Because there’s no mission-related reason to kill the Nazi, Blazkowicz tells the man to run off.
Wolfenstein II could have been great if such complicated scenarios were its driving force, but these sensitive pieces ultimately seem accidental. The first-person shooter’s typical thrill of the kill reigns supreme, regardless of how much Blazkowicz’s body is annihilated. In the game’s closing credits, an anachronistic death-metal cover of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take it” plays, and some members of the press have suggested it’s a horrible final note to a good game. That’s not the truth, though. A game as violent and trendy as Wolfenstein II deserves such a ditty.