Wolfenstein and Being Woke in 2017

After my previous piece about the old 1992 game, I felt the new series deserved their write-up too. Because it’s very different from the original, but also very, very brilliant. Last week, as I predicted in my previous article, Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus was announced at E3. When the name of this new game was leaked ahead of the reveal, it didn’t immediately click with me. But a little research was enough to find its origins.

The New Colossus

“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

This is the sonnet “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), which she wrote to raise funds for the construction of the pedestal that the Statue of Liberty in New York is mounted on. The sonnet itself found its way on a bronze plaque inside said pedestal.

Recently it was recited a lot again, in response to the attempts of President Donald Trump to issue a travel ban for people from predominant Muslim countries. It can also be heard at the end of the first Wolfenstein game, as we see freed prisoners being led to safety by Anya Oliwa, one of the game’s main characters.

Eight Minute Long Video Feature

It’s the title of the new game, which takes place in the United States, in the same alternative universe where the Nazis won the Second World War. The US are occupied and our hero William Blazkowicz attempts to start a revolution to overthrow the fascist government.

It’s a grave, serious subject that at first sight feels out of place in a game known for exploitive violence, over the top brutality and horror and generally surreal thematics like sci-fi and occultist/supernatural elements. But whoever played its predecessors knows how well MachineGames can handle the fusion of these bizarre tonal shifts.

“It felt like watching a trailer for a Kojima game” – was the commentary during one of the many post-E3 podcasts discussing the trailer for the new Wolfenstein game. They referred to the eight minute long video feature (because trailer isn’t even the right word) that Bethesda used to introduce us to the world of Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus. Machinegames upcoming title turned out to be one of the most discussed and most appreciated new announcements during this E3. Ever since the first release in the long running franchise’s soft reboot, The New Order from 2014, the game had a substantial following of fans and appreciators. But last week’s unveiling seemed to have gained them the full triple A attention.

The Brilliant Da’at Yichud

And that is rightly deserved! Let me take you on a little journey to the wildly brilliant, ironic and deeply meaningful thematics of The New Order. A game which, at first sight, just seems a solid first person shooter that glorifies excessive violence and makes game-long bullet porn festival out of killing Nazis. But as we play, we come to meet a cast of diverse, quirky and bizarre characters. For starters, the majority of your allies are German. In a Europe conquered by the Nazis, Blazkowicz hooks up with the local resistance. Instead of the familiar Allies versus Germans narrative, the story focusses on ordinary German people that happen to hate fascism. The story takes a more philosophical meaning when we discover the reason why the Nazis won. Through a Jewish contact we learn about an old secret society, Da’at Yichud, a collective of Jewish scientists developing advanced technological inventions. The discovery of this knowledge helped the Nazis develop advanced weapons, vehicles, computer technology and a type of ‘super-concrete’ to build impenetrable buildings. The concrete formula however, is tampered with, making it vulnerable to mould. Your Jewish contact reveals to be behind this and also helps the resistance to locate a vault with Da’at Yichud technology to defeat the Nazis.

I can’t begin to explain how amazing this plot is. The irony of the Nazis winning the war because of technology from the people they hate the most and deemed subhuman. And the fact that a build-in flaw in this technology is the one that will bring down their empire. This clever, almost poetic plot point stands in absurd contrast with some of the other elements in the game. From the comic book villainy of Frau Engel (Mrs. Angel) to the gameplay element that has you take a plate with two cups of coffee through a driving train and the wild, over the top violence that includes dual wielding sniper rifles and fighting mechanical dogs.

Another outstanding feature of the game, is its detailed attention for retro-sci-fi. Nuclear launch codes in the game are vintage punch cards, for example. But most eye-catching are the alternative takes on 1960s pop-culture. In a world taken over by Germany, band like The Beatles and The Animals have to sing in German. Throughout the game you can find album covers and news articles depicting these alternative reality bands. And the video feature during Bethesda’s E3 press conference, elaborated further on this concept. The reveal of Wolfenstein 2 The New Colossus started of with a live action segment that lampooned Lassie, only with a mecha dog instead of the familiar Collie. From there we’re taken on a wild ride of more television spoofs, explosive gameplay and weird out-of-context dialogues between characters from the new game. And to top it off a short fragment of a resistance member tripping on LSD and talking to a cartoon salamander while a pregnant lady in the background stabs a Nazi soldier.

Donald Trump and Fascism in America

It was the talk of the town next day, and the press conference was dubbed “The Wolfenstein Show” afterwards, in the absence of any other Bethesda reveals that, according to press, shook the audience as much. Perhaps it was the promise of fighting Nazis in America, and the meaning of that concept in today’s world. A much debated part of the eight minute patchwork trailer was a moment where a uniformed soldier or policeman, gently escorts two people in Ku Klux Klan robes away from a very American looking scene. Is the fictitious America where the game takes a place a world where organisations like the Klan are being tolerated? How much similarities are we going to see with current America and Donald Trump’s far right politics? Exactly what role is the titular colossus going to play in the story?

MachineGames showed us that action packed gameplay and exploitive, pop-culture laden thematics, don’t rule out politically woke commentary and meaningful stories. We can have fun and laugh at absurd humour and still being told a deeply philosophical, thought provoking tale and be introduced to both kooky and memorable, well rounded characters. The Wolfenstein of the 21st century is a perfect reflection of the tough, complicated but hopeful culture of today.


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