wolfenstein II

Loaded Questions Vol. 3

Loaded Questions is a new weekly feature at Game Bias. If you have a question you would like to submit, please email it to pressgrove84@yahoo.com or tweet it to @jedpressfate. Questions can cover anything closely or tangentially related to video games or art, including but not limited to criticism, culture, and politics. Questions may be edited for clarity.

Question 1

Ryan Aston: What do you think is the all-time worst game you’ve ever had the misfortune of playing, and how far did you play through it? Articulate why you consider it to be the worst, be it unplayably broken, thematically offensive/incoherent, or whatever. Same question for all-time worst movie you’ve seen.

Jed Pressgrove: There are so many candidates for the worst game I’ve ever played. For instance, there’s Messiah the Healer, a free game at Game Jolt that trivializes the miracles of Jesus Christ. Then there’s Pregnancy, which, as I said in my review here, uses “in-detail rape to hook you into a shallow lecture on abortion debate.”

But the king of bad games is Ryan Lambourne’s The Slaying of Sandy Hook Elementary. To make a point about gun control, this game allows the player to assume the role of Sandy Hook murderer Adam Lanza and shoot as many kids and teachers as possible at the elementary school. Afterward, the player must start over and use a sword to try to kill the same number of people. The idea is that, naturally, you wouldn’t be able to kill as many people with a sword, thus identifying gun control as the answer to the issue. Lambourne doesn’t consider, however, that his point will be lost on anyone with a shred of respect for the real-life victims of the crime. What decent person wants to reenact real-world carnage and tragedy, especially when it’s obvious that Lambourne is pushing propaganda and hoping to be seen as an important game developer?

As for worst movie, that’s easy. I have to go with an atrocious Japanese film my friend got me to watch: Killer Pussy. The name says enough, but to go into more detail, the story concerns a woman with a parasite in her vagina that kills people. If the concept alone isn’t enough to disgust you, everything about this movie is terrible. The most laughable part of the film is the special effects. In certain scenes, the parasite is depicted with the worst CGI you can imagine. In other scenes, the parasite is a puppet. I doubt Jim Henson would be a fan.

Question 2

Erlend Grefsrud: Do you see games as expressions or contrivances? Elucidation: expression is “communicating an intelligible intent,” while contrivance is “struggling to cohere.”

Jed Pressgrove: My first instinct was to say that a contrivance can be an expression (a bad one). But based on the two specific definitions here, I’d say the majority of games seem more like contrivances than expressions. We can see this in the way games often awkwardly transition between cutscenes and actual play. We can see this in the way games frequently tutorialize, suggesting that developers struggle to present rules and ideas intuitively. I suppose I could go on and on. I feel a lot of my reviews have an underlying anger about contrivances.

There is one thing I want to point out in light of recent dialogue about Far Cry 5. I agree with the critics who suggest Far Cry 5 is a contrivance. At the same time, just because something is a contrivance doesn’t mean it lacks ideology. In addition to the right-wing ideology I discussed in my review, Far Cry 5 also pushes a conservative game-design ideology that favors contrivance over expression. It’s interesting to me that many critics who dismiss Far Cry 5 as a contrivance are willing to accept an ideology of contrivance in other games when it suits their desires and worldviews.

Question 3

Martina Eva: Do you think there’s any potential left in the classic graphic adventure format?

Also, where do you think game criticism is heading?

Jed Pressgrove: Yes, there is definitely potential left, but developers have to play a careful balancing act. Mere homage to the genre is not good enough anymore, and to play off the point about expression and contrivance above, special care has to be taken with how, for example, puzzles are designed. Tim Schafer’s Broken Age both illustrates the potential of the genre and the pitfalls that developers should avoid. Broken Age is split into two games. The first game (or Act 1), in my estimation, is fairly brilliant. Act 1 of Broken Age allows the storytelling to dictate the puzzles. This approach gives the game an organic quality, and because of this, the story in Act 1 is able to make a powerful statement about how gender and race can divide us and bring us crashing together when we least expect it. Schafer, unfortunately, pisses all this potential away in Act 2, which features one contrived puzzle after another. It’s clear that Schafer backed away from his more creative instincts when he made Act 2.

Your second question is tough! There are a lot of critics out there, so you never know who might capture people’s imagination. But right now, I fear game criticism is headed toward more deception and marketing. Specifically, I think you’re going to see a lot more critics who claim to be more analytical than the obvious game-enthusiast movement, but instead of catering to people who worship games, they will cater to particular political factions. Now, I’m not saying game criticism shouldn’t be political, but there is a difference between the following two things: (1) the personal politics of the critic coming out as part of their creative expression within the art form of criticism and (2) the critic functioning as a lackey for a particular political persuasion. A critic in either case can be “liberal,” for example, but the second type will almost always fall on the most obvious, pandering side of liberalism. The second type will also be far less willing to consider the artistic merit of work that doesn’t cater to their political faction’s whims. The disgusting part is that game companies are becoming increasingly aware of this unexamined bias, and they’re ready to exploit critics with politicized marketing. Look at how Bethesda’s marketing for Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus panders to the “Punch a Nazi” crowd. Look at how games keep overusing the word “resistance.” Look at how the developer of Kingdom Come: Deliverance implies that a lack of racial diversity automatically equates to “historical accuracy.” Instead of ignoring this type of marketing altogether, many critics want to be a part of the publicity, whether good or bad, and they’re ready to redraw the lines that divide us, all in the name of ego and success.

Question 4

Adam Eisentrout: Was there one specific game that made you want to be a game critic or write specifically about gaming?

Jed Pressgrove: If I must boil it down to one game, it would have to be Blazing Lazers. It wasn’t the first game I wrote about, but it was the one that made me want to be a dedicated game critic. I first played Blazing Lazers after I had become a bit jaded about video games, and its brilliance showed me that sometimes you have to search for greatness rather than expecting it to show up for you in the popular channels. On a very basic level, Blazing Lazers made me excited to write about games.

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Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus Review — The Guilty White Resistance

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.

Pyre Review — Revolution by Sport

by Jed Pressgrove

I can’t recall a sports video game that captures the feelings that develop before and after a team-based contest like Pyre does. Although the rules and intricacies of Pyre’s fictional sport are fascinating, developer Supergiant Games’ greatest accomplishment lies in how it subverts role-playing game conventions to up the emotional ante and affect roster options, as when two party members, due to bad blood, refuse to compete at the same time. By the conclusion of this game, you take away a deeply personal win-loss record that can have world-altering effects on Pyre’s fantasy setting, including one possibility that speaks to a compelling type of political resistance.

As the mysterious Reader (think head coach), you lead a group of exiles on a mission to win Rites, three-on-three competitions where the object is to throw an orb into the opposing team’s fiery goal until the fire is extinguished. Every so often, a team member has an opportunity to return home to the Commonwealth, a place of prosperity, by winning what the game calls a Liberation Rite. Once a character is freed from exile, he or she is effectively retired and can no longer play on your team.

The catch is that only characters who have been leveled up a particular amount can be eligible for liberation. This rule means that if you stick to a favorite trio to increase your odds of winning Rites, you will have to do without a preferred athlete permanently if you are the victor of a Liberation Rite — an ingenious punishment for following the old RPG standard of leveling up with abandon. This set-up creates questions about how your strategy must change after you lose an essential piece of your team (a parallel might be losing, say, Kevin Durant to season-ending injury). Pyre forces you to learn how to use characters who seem less appropriate for your system. As such, the game works as a believable simulation of maximizing talent as a coach, with all the pride and frustration that comes with the job between significant matches.

At the same time, you are not required to win matches in Pyre. Here, the game deviates again from the norm: in most RPGs, losing a battle means you can’t progress. But Pyre continues even when you lose, which can set up a variety of emotionally charged situations. Before one Liberation Rite, one of your team members may plead with you to allow the opposition to win, as her sister plays for the other team and has an opportunity to be forgiven of her past misdeeds. In another case, if you win and choose to liberate a character before he has an opportunity to fulfill a promise to friends, you will be told about his guilt, so losing in that case might seem more fulfilling. Or what if you win every Rite with the exception of contests against a specific team? You then become acquainted with a nagging status that the New England Patriots must bear: a dynasty that nonetheless can’t defeat its archenemy (in the Patriots’ case, the New York Giants). With a storytelling fervor inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, Supergiant Games homes in on the friendships, rivalries, and other connections that make sports a lesson in theater and psychology.

Prye’s emphasis on motivation and ego shines the brightest with a character named Volfred Sandalwood. At first, Volfred seems like nothing more than an intelligent control freak, as he goes on and on about you and your team fitting into a plan to overthrow the powers that be in the Commonwealth, so that no other person will have to suffer the injustice of being exiled. But as your journey develops, Volfred develops humility under your authority. By game’s end, you can choose to set Volfred free, and if you do, the Commonwealth undergoes a nonviolent intellectual revolution. This fantasy scenario stands opposed to the adolescent hero-ball resistance presented in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, showcasing how rules-based competition can change society via individuals who inspire unity by speaking truth to power.