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No Game Understands Nazis Better Than ‘Wolfenstein’

‘The New Colossus,’ the latest entry in the ‘Wolfenstein’ series, out Friday, will prove gratifying for many players given the latest resurgence of Nazism in U.S. politics

Bethesda Softworks/Ringer illustration

It’s a forgivable oversimplification to suggest that Wolfenstein is a great video game series because it’s all about slaughtering Nazis, though slaughtering Nazis is, indeed, a classic and indispensable video game pastime. In fact, there are several video game titles that invite players to brutalize the Third Reich. In the Call of Duty series, there’s a secondary mode called “Nazi Zombies” in which the heavily armed player must fend off a swaggering horde of unarmed, undead Nazi soldiers who bite. Fantastically or not, video games have depicted (and celebrated) such violence against the Nazis since Muse Software released Castle Wolfenstein for the Apple II in 1981. Thus, Wolfenstein is the longest-running Nazi-killing enterprise in the history of video games, the Law & Order of antifascist entertainment.

The latest entry in the series, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus—out Friday for PS4, Xbox One, and PC—will prove gratifying for many players given the latest resurgence of Nazism in U.S. politics, not just because the game invites you to slaughter classic Nazi archetypes, but also because Wolfenstein II invites you to consider the ugliness of their ideology as well. In any other decade, Wolfenstein’s expounding on Nazi ideology might just lead to my praising the game for some decently imaginative characterizations and some wild hypothetical confrontations, such as the game’s pitting the Black Revolutionary Front, recognizable as the Black Panthers, against the Third Reich. But in 2017, as the United States has rendered its one decent reading of history (“the Nazis were evil, and it’s good that we fought and killed them”) into dispute by electing a president who enjoys support from many proponents of white supremacy, the game takes on new meanings and assumes renewed, remixed importance, even though it’s basically just another Wolfenstein game. The template predates this national reckoning. In Call of Duty, you fight Nazis. In Wolfenstein II, you fight Nazism, and the game’s bloody maps and cutscenes are quick to remind players what Nazism is all about—even if President Donald Trump and the “alt-right” would have you believe that Nazism is no longer a threat.

The New Colossus begins where the previous Wolfenstein title, The New Order, left off: on the run from Hitler’s victorious army of mutant, mechanized supersoldiers. B.J. Blazkowicz and his insurgent crew of soldiers, scientists, and navigators have commandeered a U-boat, Eva’s Hammer, from which they command a global resistance network, Kreisau Circle. At the start of the game, Blazkowicz wakes from a hospital bed with limited use of his legs, requiring players to spend the first couple of levels of the game navigating the U-boat in a wheelchair and struggling past staircases, conveyor belts, and ladders. (Still, Eva’s Hammer is a commendably wheelchair-accessible U-boat considering it was designed by mid-century Nazis who loathed and humiliated the disabled.) Despite the hero’s physical disadvantage, the Nazi soldiers that the player encounters all fear Blazkowicz; they whisper his name and know him as a bogeyman who slaughtered countless Nazis during the war. They mock Blazkowicz’s disability only after he is briefly captured and restrained by a prominent SS officer, who laughs at his inability to stand after being thrown to the ground. (He’s able to walk later, after the player attains an armored power suit that restores Blazkowicz’s mobility.) Kreisau Circle doesn’t just oppose the Nazis; the group’s composition is a tacit mockery of their celebrated Aryan ideal. Kreisau Circle is an inclusive volunteer crew of Latin, Russian, Arab, Ashkenazic, Slavic, Polish, and German surnames; men and women; and fit, fat, and unruly figures whom the Nazis ridicule as defective.

The popular video game studio Bethesda made the past two Wolfenstein games, which are much more character driven and plot heavy than the franchise’s breakout PC game, Wolfenstein 3D, a fairly simple-minded first-person shooter. Released in 1992, Wolfenstein 3D was a much lonelier game. The pixelated Blazkowicz, captured during World War II and imprisoned underground, would climb back to the surface, level by level, killing Nazi guards, stealing their weapons, and confronting deranged, mutant SS officers wearing mechanized gun suits at the end of each chapter before finally sprinting into the daylight, fresh air, freedom. Even in freedom, Blazkowicz emerges alone; there are no joyful Allied soldiers waving him back into civilization. In Blazkowicz’s universe, the Nazis aren’t a nation or a military, but rather a sickly cult. Wolfenstein has long characterized the Nazis as fanatical, basement-dwelling weirdos, which they most certainly were, and still are today. It’s by no means a realistic depiction, but it is, let’s say, more thoughtful and true than the standard-issue characterization of Hitler’s loyalists as fearsome, emotionally unavailable fathers who wore cool military jackets and fierce medallions. The Nazis of Wolfenstein are wrecked by vices and disease.

In all its incarnations, the Wolfenstein experience is defined by its steep power imbalance. Wolfenstein doesn’t simply present a world in which there are Nazis and there are Allies, and the two groups fight. Rather, Wolfenstein presents a world where the Nazis are everywhere, their presence so overwhelming and their influence so thorough that even the guns that Blazkowicz wields to slaughter the Nazis thrust the swastika and other Nazi insignia into the player’s face; they decorate Blazkowicz’s armor, too. In Wolfenstein II, dozens of Nazis have stowed away in the lower, quarantined sections of Eva’s Hammer, meaning that even the mobile resistance headquarters is overrun with armed, restless insurgents. They quickly outnumber the player in all encounters; the SS commanders will radio for more than a dozen reinforcements the moment they spot Blazkowicz creeping in the shadows. The halls of Eva’s Hammer and later levels are tight, cluttered, and dim, and so there are shadows everywhere, and each shadow hides yet another team of Nazi soldiers. There’s no relief. In a safe and sleepy corner of Eva’s Hammer, there’s a small, sad U.S. flag that is stowed so covertly that the white of the banner registers as a shameful and dying light. Next to the flag, there’s a discarded diary written by an anonymous rebel who doubts the resistance can last after having been driven not just underground, but underwater. “Safe? Inside the Nazis’ own fucking boat? Sure, Blazkowicz stole it, but how can we be sure there’s no spy equipment installed somewhere?” the demoralized rebel writes. “Humanity’s done for. The Nazis won. It’s over. They fucking won.” In a timeline where the Nazis have won so thoroughly that every shadow at every altitude on any given continent hides one, the only hope is that the Aryan ideal is so exclusive as to necessarily rally a critical mass of humanity against it, to extinguish it, sooner or later.

There’s a popular fascination with alternative histories of violent regimes such as the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the Third Reich, and alt-historians tend to fantasize about all manners of resistance. The Man in the High Castle, for instance, envisions a world where Germany and Japan conquered a defiant U.S. and drove a global resistance underground, but the TV serialization of that Philip K. Dick story saps all urgency from the antifascist cause despite the uncanny timing of its run. It’s a show so tedious and reserved that it essentially characterizes Hitler’s imperialism as a global siesta. The New Colossus, too, engages with complacency. Germany has nearly won World War II after successfully developing the atomic bomb before the Americans and the Soviets and then leveling Manhattan, but there are also hints, such as newspaper clippings preserved aboard Eva’s Hammer, that suggest a defeat that began with popular resignation among Americans through later phases of the Second World War. “It is time for America to wake from its naïve slumber. We are fighting our own nature and we are losing badly,” reads one in-game op-ed, written by an American and published in November 1948. “The United States was built by great white Americans, the sons and daughters of Germans like the ones we are fighting, who worked hard to make this country the best in the world. This is why we have been so successful throughout history. Our people should celebrate what makes us so great, and embrace it.” It is unclear whether the author has written his words of his own volition or else submitted them under duress; it is unclear whether the newspapers are to be trusted. In Wolfenstein II, the only certainties that prevail are two-fold: The Nazis are evil, and the world would be better off if civilization extinguished every last one of them without mercy, hesitation, or self-sabotaging moderation. An alternative history, indeed.