The player nor the many enemies in Wolfenstein 3D ever saw daylight. Just endless ceiling lights sliding by as you navigate the underground network of caves and tunnels. No war, no Nazi regime, no struggle, no outside world, just nine floors of horror in a realm that wasn’t quite ours.
This weekend the E3 kicks off, and Bethesda is expected to announce a new game in the Wolfenstein series. I look back at the 1991 game and how nothing was ever quite like that.
Something About Hitler
When I was about nine or ten years old, a classmate recommended Wolfenstein 3D to me. He told me stories about underground dungeons, hidden treasure, big guns, zombies and wild dogs that looked like wolves. And in the end you had fight an enormous boss. And once you killed him, “you get some message about Hitler or something, like you killed Hitler, and something about the Second World War, I dunno.” His literal words, back then.
Later, when I actually got my hands on the game, I was surprised to find out that it wasn’t just “something about the Second World War” – but an actual game about an allied soldier, trapped in a Nazi castle and having to fight German soldiers. I was amused back then, that my friend hadn’t recognised that. But only years later I realised how much more it said about the game, rather than about the perception of a nine year old child.
Because Wolfenstein 3D, if you play it now, you see that it has absolutely nothing to do with the Second World War. If you take a step back and look at it objectively, take away that nostalgia filter and that subconscious suspense of disbelief you manifest for in-game fiction, you see something different. You see a modern fantasy-horror game about a nightmarish labyrinth filled with infinite loops of violence and dread. Even if you take in account the dated graphics and lesser attention for realism in those days of videogame making, the world of Wolfenstein makes absolutely zero attempt at depicting a realistic, functioning location.
The first episode depicts the titular castle. What we are supposed to see is a medieval stronghold, repurposed by the Nazis as prison. But what we actually see are nine floors of underground dungeons. There is no logical placement of prison cells, guard quarters, storage rooms or maintenance. Castle Wolfenstein is as much a maze to you as it is to the soldiers patrolling the corridors. Chambers filled with golden treasures, blood smeared walls, skeletons and piles of bones in the corner, posters with Hitler’s portrait. The game world feels like a theme park haunted mansion or a crypt from a dark fantasy comic book. Seemingly without any goal but to murder escaped convicts, the armed guards stalk the hallways, not bothered that their dining rooms are filled with golden crowns, puddles of blood or have cages suspended from the ceiling with corpses in them.
Banned or heavily edited in Germany for the plutora of Nazi symbolism and graphic violence, the 1991 iD Software game bets heavily on the shock factor. Navigating a level in the first of six episodes in the original FPS feels like walking through a quasi-3D version of a Cannibal Corpse album cover. Also the later episodes in the game that take you to what they claim is Hitler’s bunker and various other castles, express a certain aesthetic that seems more reminiscent of a pulp novel hellscape than an actual place. It’s also the lack of backstory or proper motivation of your enemies that add up to it. The Nazis in Wolfenstein are void of politics, racism or anti-Semitism. They are mindless monsters, existing only to terrorize you, like minions of Satan torturing you in hell. They wait in confined rooms, standing still in small alcoves or around corners waiting to surprise you. They guard stolen Nazi treasure or golden keys that get you out of this nightmare. Wolfenstein feels like a Saw movie sometimes.
Remade, reimagined and rebooted
Since 1991, Wolfenstein has been remade, reimagined and rebooted numerous times. I played a good deal of those games and they’re all fun. Especially the latest one I can wholeheartedly recommend. And that’s why I’m also looking forward to see what Bethesda is going to reveal during next week’s E3. But none of these titles managed to tap in that weird, confined, surreal feeling of the original first person shooter. Because they tried to be better than that. The later games are World War 2 games with occult or horror elements, but they still try to convince some sort of outside world, a broader context that tries to make sense of it all. They have outdoor locations, refer to varying degrees to the war efforts or try to convey some sort of 1940s setting in terms of aesthetics and style.
The latest Wolfenstein had the old 3D shooter as an Easter egg hidden in the game. It was appropriately called “The Nightmare” – because honestly, that’s indeed how the old game plays like. Long winding, never ending corridors and a constant undercurrent of dread as danger could always jump out of nowhere. Layers of Fear might be a modern game that comes close to that feeling. Or Alien Isolation, perhaps. That game too had that oppressive feeling of never letting you out of the claustrophobic environment of the space station. The player nor the many enemies in Wolfenstein 3D ever saw daylight. Just endless ceiling lights sliding by as you navigate the underground network of caves and tunnels. No war, no Nazi regime, no struggle, no outside world, just nine floors of horror in a realm that wasn’t quite ours.
The inspiration for this type of style is not hard to trace. As also other popular media have covered in the past (Indiana Jones for example), the Nazis in real life had a remarkable fascination for the occult. Castle Wolfenstein itself is most likely based on Schloss Wewelsburg in Westphalia, Germany. This castle was purchased by the SS in the early 1930s and developed as a cultural centre. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, had the place renovated in a Arthurian style with marble walls, stone columns, murals with Nordic runes and ceremonial tombs for fallen SS officers. It was Himmler’s goal to create some sort of mythos surrounding the elite troops of the Nazi regime. He reinstated many pagan celebrations, collected (and allegedly forged) artefacts from pre-Christian Germany and had a vision of the SS growing into some sort of modern Templar Order. Same as the story from the second episode of the game about biologically enhanced mutants, likely draws from doctor Mengele and his horrific practises in Auschwitz. These sorts of elements have been used in every game in the series that followed. But commonly as flavour to a historic setting. Perhaps influenced by the popular World War Two games of those years, it often took that event as a solid basis and then started to deploy the campy supernatural part around it.
Wolfenstein will always be an amazing and unique gaming experience. A delightful campy, pulp take on the Second World War with the aesthetics of horror fantasy and comic book villains. Perhaps it can be considered shallow and flippant to use the atrocities of Nazi Germany for entertainment like this. But it might just settle their legacy in history as just that: amoral monsters without human face. Just like Vlad the Impaler was once an actual despot terrorising the region and now the source of the world’s most famous vampire story.
The new game in the series, allegedly soon to be announced, will be no doubt another amazing experience. But if Bethesda ever wants to take Wolfenstein back to the atmosphere of that old, iD Software era, it needs to make it a horror game first and foremost. A horror game that just happens to have Nazis in it. So that perhaps another schoolkid can figure it ‘has something to do with Hitler’.