Wolfenstein 2 and Mending Broken Things

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Expect spoilers.

Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus is about the ultimate fragility of two types of bodies that underpin Western values: the male adult and the liberal state. Each is a conceptual object that we expect to function perfectly—right up to the moment that they break down completely when confronted with something they were never built to deal with. The New Colossus is interested in what it would take for either of these to fall apart.

William “BJ” Blazkowicz is the quintessential videogame protagonist: a large, rectangular slab of white man-meat whose very shape belies how he has been a part of videogames since his flesh was square pixels. In the previous game, The New Order, he was an unstoppable hero—right until he was stopped, at the end of the game, by a lone grenade. That game saw this relic of the past of both his own world and videogames, revived after 20 years in a coma, left behind for dead. But sequels do what sequels do, and BJ was rescued, if not salvaged. When The New Colossus starts, his body is still destroyed. The opening stage has you pushing BJ’s heavy body through the level in a wheelchair, shooting Nazi’s with one hand while the other is on the wheel. Stairs are inaccessible and when the wheelchair inevitably gets tipped over, BJ is helpless. For a significant portion of the game, you are stuck with 50 health, instead of the typical 100, in levels that feel like they were balanced for a character with 100. It’s frustrating. It feels like it shouldn’t be this hard. It’s the frustration of a perfect, white male body encountering something unfair that is just a typical day for anyone forced to live in this society with any other form of body. 

BJ’s isn’t the only broken male body. Fergus, if you decide he survived the first game, has an arm ripped off and spends the entire game fighting with his bionic replacement—his body refuses to listen to him. Bombate is dealing with the internal trauma of losing his family and his time in the concentration camp. Another minor male character needs to take regular pills to prevent hallucinations. Adolf Hitler, when he shows up on the Venus space station is a decrepit old man, not allowed the suicide of his real-life counterpart, pissing in (and around) a bucket before puking up on the carpet and curling up in a ball. The ultimate humiliation the game can device for Hitler is not a cathartic, graphical murder but to have him grow old and have to deal with his body falling apart.

While The New Colossus’s men are reduced to the bodies they actually are and not the perfect translators of agency into a world they are typically permitted to be, the women are celebrated for the corporeality they are so often reduced to. Grace, leader of a Black Panther-like resistance group, casually breastfeeds her child while organising battle plans for BJ to fulfil. Anya, BJ’s love interest since the first game, is heavily pregnant now, as love interests often are in sequels. But instead of taking a backseat, she is no less likely to be on the battlefield. She just also happens to be incredibly pregnant. Other women minor characters are allowed to be sexual, have phobias, be large, and all of them find ways to live with these corporeal realities while the men lack resolution. The women characters are not just the bodies they are often reduced to. The men are forced to deal with the bodies that society would typically let them ignore, watching them break down around them.

There’s a parallel here with the state bodies we expect to protect our society increasingly falling apart and being corrupted around us in the real world. The liberal state is the other body that The New Colossus shows to be much more fragile than we take for granted. While Bethesda, the game’s publisher, downplayed any political meaning within the game leading up to its release, the developers (and marketers!) had a different plan. Wolfenstein, and countless other videogames, have always used Nazis as an easy, non-controversial boogieman enemy. Everyone hates Nazis, after all. But in 2017, with the resurgence of white supremacy around the world and especially in North America, it’s not quite so simple anymore. To make a game about Nazis in 2017 is not to make a game about the distant past.

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A common critique of alternative history media that depict the Nazis as winning World War 2 is that you don’t need Nazis to imagine that racism is still a problem because it actually is still a problem. Modern day racism is not speculative. The New Colossus transcends this by using Nazism not as an easy out, but to actually say something about current day white supremacy.

The simplest way it does this is, simply, to not detach the ideology of Nazism from white supremacy. Instead, it directly acknowledges it. On your trip across North America to bring all the resistance groups together, of course the first group you encounter are Black Panthers. Of course! Perhaps the best delivered line in the game is moments after BJ gets his lecture on race and North America from Grace when he blurts out “Come and get me you… white ass fascist Nazi pigs.” Down south, the Klu Klux Klan have allied with the Nazis to run their territories. The imagery of Nazi soldier and homegrown American Klansmen shoulder-to-shoulder walking down an all-American city street is an incredibly vivid image.

This Nazi-occupied America is not one where Nazis were airdropped into a perfectly liberal, free, rational American state and are simply keeping it oppressed through military might. The New Colossus is very careful to show that, for white Americans, life goes on under Nazi rule. Outside the cinema, people speak about how much more wholesome the films are these days. Elsewhere, echoing countless voxpops with Trump supporters, white Americans speak of how they can finally say what everyone was always thinking about all the “degenerates”. “The Nazis make some good points,” more than one letter scattered throughout the world says.

Nazis didn’t bring white supremacy to North America; it was already there. For BJ and the rest of the resistance, it is not simply a case that the soldiers need to be defeated, but the hearts and souls of the populace are themselves contaminated.

Something I remember saying aloud around September or October 2016: “Like, Trump can’t actually win, right? That’s absurd.” I just couldn’t comprehend that as a possibility. It was something that didn’t seem like it should be possible. The system shouldn’t allow it. I remember thinking that right up until the moment Trump won the election. And, for weeks if not months afterwards, it was still something I had to keep reminding myself actually happened. It just seemed so absurd, so impossible that something like that could actually happen. I think many on the left had similar feelings of disbelief. If you take for granted the promises of the liberal state and its democratic systems, you can only be shocked when it fails you utterly.

Just like BJ’s body, the America of The New Colossus is broken. Not simply occupied by Nazis but corrupt to its very soul by a white supremacy that was here before the Nazis ever landed (as the flashbacks to BJ’s childhood and racist dad makes abundantly clear).

The time in which The New Colossus was made is one in which people are staring in disbelief at what the systems they have long trusted are allowing to happen. All the pacts made after the hell that was the first half of the 20th Century to prevent that from ever happening again seem doomed to failure. The New Colossus was made in a time of utter despair and helplessness as we watch white supremacy gain popularity and confidence worldwide.

But this is also a world where we all bonded over Richard Spencer being punched on television. A world where, while cops might be shooting black kids in the streets, grassroot anti-fascist organisations are mobilising to put fear in the white supremacist who thinks it is okay to admit to being a white supremacist. It’s a time of helplessness, but also one of desperate mobilisation.

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About halfway through The New Colossus, BJ is beheaded at a Nazi parade opposite the Washington Monument. He has utterly lost. Previously, his body was completely and utterly broken and the Nazis captured him. He stands trial where, moments after being sentenced to death, he breaks free, his body working again, and you kill every fucking Nazi in the courtroom. Then you wake up, you’re still crippled, you’re still restrained, and then you are beheaded. Your resistance was just a dream.

It’s a moment of absolute defeat and misery. But then, in the wonderfully absurd science-fiction deus ex machina that only makes sense in these games, his head is captured by his resistance friends and transplanted onto the salvaged body of a Nazi supersoldier. Not only is BJ saved but is given a brand new body. Everything is okay now. Or maybe it isn’t. In a moment that echoes Total Recall, BJ wonders if this is actually happening, or if he is actually dead right now, if this is all some odd dream still.

Let’s assume he is not dreaming for now. This moment risks diluting everything the game is about. The idea that the mind exists separate from the very body that constitutes the mind is a falsehood that underpins most post-Enlightenment thought that sees rationalism and transcendence as the ideal. It’s this way of thinking that allowed us to be shocked when these male bodies and liberal states fell apart in the first place. The idea that BJ can simply replace a broken male body with a separate perfect one seems to contradict everything the game has to say about the fragility of these bodies. After this point, BJ goes storming through the levels, no longer restricted to 50 health. The game shifts from unbalanced frustration to a power fantasy, like any other blockbuster shooter.

I see this less as thematic hypocrisy and more like a call-to-action. The beheading in a Washington full of Nazis is a Ghost of Christmas Future moment. It’s grabbing the Western player and thrusting them in front of their own tombstone. “This is how you die. Now go back and do something about it.”

And then BJ goes back and he uses his new body to kill a whole heap of Nazis. Or maybe BJ did die when he was beheaded, and everything that happens after it truly is a dream. As if to say “We let the white supremacists win, but this is what we should have done.” The tone shifts with BJ’s body transplant from “Everything is helpless” to “So what are you going to do about it?”

This still wouldn’t be effective if the game did not end exactly how it ends. After capturing the giant Nazi airship that is used to suppress any uprising across the North American continent, the resistance members note that the game’s antagonist, Frau Engel, is still doing her live television interview on The Jimmy Carver Show, a clear reference to Trump’s appearance on Jimmy Fallon where this cruel, evil man was allowed to be seen as silly and affable. The game ends, almost anti-climactically, with BJ walking onto the set of the television show, encountering no resistance, and sticking a hatchet into Engel’s face. Then, as she dies, the various resistance members speak right to the camera, telling the American people to take to the streets, to rise up against the oppressors. It feels explicitly antifa. If you resist in any way possible, you are one of us. Over the credits we get a cover of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It”.

There is no moment in The New Colossus that makes it more clear that the developers are thinking about the current day situation that the game ending at the start of the revolution against white supremacy, not the end. The Nazis haven’t been defeated, but they’ve been shown up for what they are: white supremacists who have infected the heart of the very democratic institutions that were meant to prevent such hatred ever taking power. At the exact moment Trump was permitted as ‘okay’ by left-leaning media, and white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups were emboldened enough to march proudly through the streets, BJ Blazkowicz walks onto the set and puts a hatchet in a Nazi’s face and tells the people to rise up. As if to say “This is the moment it should have ended. It shoudn’t have gone any further than this.”

The New Colossus doesn’t have a deep, strong message that can be put into simple words but instead gives form to a range of emotions that capture the current atmosphere. The shock and disbelief of these trusted institutions falling apart, the restlessness and need to mobilise that this shock and disbelief evolves into down in the pit of your heart, and finally the catharsis of making white supremacists afraid again. That sense that if we want to live in a peaceful world, our collective hate of those that spread hate is powerful and important and worth celebrating. It’s hard to think of a pop cultural text more relevant to life in 2017 than this.