New Orleans is on fire, and the new word to have is revolution. In the alternate-history 1961 portrayed in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, the city has been walled-off, turned into a massive ghetto by the Nazis who won World War II. A place to send the “undesirables.” And now, with the stirring of legitimate resistance to the Nazi regime taking hold across America, the Axis fascists have descended on the city, intent on stamping out their enemies for good. When the player arrives, the bayou is a miasma of terror and bullets. And then there’s you, the hero, the quintessential figure of the American fever dream, the source of Wolfenstein‘s greatest strength and its greatest liability: a good guy with a gun. Shooting, chopping, punching, and dismembering Nazis to set the world right. No matter what.
The problem with Wolfenstein II is the same problem shared by media like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, and really by any story that purports to tackle serious issues while also indulging in ideas of righteous bloodshed. How do you make a story around over-the-top, violent revenge fantasies while also taking the subject matter seriously? How do you make a game about killing faceless, cartoonishly evil Nazis without somehow cheapening the real-world evil they represent? (Or, perhaps worse, by offering a cop-out: a way to indulge in imaginary violence without ever pointing back to the realities that spawned it?)
Wolfenstein‘s answer comes early. The game takes place after the ending of the first one, finding its Nazi-killing protagonist, former US Marine BJ Blazkowicz, triumphant in a major strike against the worldwide Nazi regime but left near death, crippled and comatose following a brutal final fight. In his months-long recovery, he dreams of his father. In a horrific, sudden scene, BJ flashes back to a moment of childhood abuse: his father insults BJ’s Jewish mother, drops the n-word repeatedly, and hurts both BJ and his mother.
It’s an unexpected moment, all the more horrific for its surprise, so harrowing that more telegraphing, or maybe an explicit warning, might have been appreciated. But it also makes an essential rhetorical point. If Wolfenstein, as a game about a big ol’ American boy fighting the baddies, is going to traffic in larger-than-life Americana, then it will do so while acknowledging that America is no stranger to cruelty of its own devising. By incorporating American racism and patriarchal violence into its narrative, Wolfenstein II insists that, even in its alternate history setting, the Nazis weren’t a new arrival to the United States. In a very real sense, they were already here.
And so the developers at Machinegames work to infuse their hyper-violent shooter with equal parts camp and authentic pathos. The Nazis are both absurd and horrific, as are the uniquely American horrors that BJ faces, like the Ku Klux Klan. The resistance is built from a coalition of period-appropriate American leftist movements, socialist labor workers from the South working with a Black Panthers-style group led by an Angela Davis lookalike, alongside a mystical purveyor of weird science out of an Indiana Jones flick. Actual references to Nazi atrocities like Kristallnacht give way to cathartic moments of self-righteous gore.
The camp here seems intended to act as a release valve for the story’s more serious morality-play elements; it’s a conduit for the player’s righteous anger, giving them the means to mete out justice against people who really, really deserve it. Meanwhile, the darker elements reframe the campy violence into a metaphorical statement against fascism, against abuse of power and racism and all the evils that feed into it. To occupy the Nazi-killin’ combat boots of BJ Blazkowicz is to affirm that it’s more than OK to punch Nazis—it’s necessary, if only to defend the weak and the marginalized.
And Machinegames makes one hell of an argument for that dynamic. The writing here is as sharp, as humanistic and witty and real, as anything in videogames, and the action is equally compelling. The levels are dynamic, challenging puzzles of ruined urban environments and gun-toting fascists. The guns, massive demonic machines in obsidian black, thunderclap with explosions like the sound of collapsing buildings. Enemy soldiers burst into bloody chunks, and Nazi war machines burn with all the colors of the sunset. Wolfenstein taps into that darker element of the psyche, that horrible ancient place that says, maybe, it’s okay to enjoy something horrible. They’re Nazis, after all.
Any given individual’s enjoyment of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is going to come down to their willingness to buy into that above assertion, and with it the messy juxtaposition of camp and tragedy that it tries to pull off. Its detractors will undoubtedly suggest it’s an insincere game, going for shock value and dumb laughs, not really doing justice to its ideas. And, in some instances, it almost certainly doesn’t. But Wolfenstein II is also authentically angry, a coiled and wild beast ready to strike. Machinegames has built something that honestly believes that evil needs to be fought, and it conjures that anger not just to entertain it but to stoke it.
Wolfenstein II believes that people can do things that turn them into monsters, and it believes that monsters need to be dealt with, in the fantasy world it creates but also in the real one. The imagery of American racism, of paternal abuse, is too stark, too specific and strong to suggest anything otherwise. Fuck up what you can, it says, in the name of BJ Blazkowicz.