So I’ve been playing Wolfenstein 2 – you’ll probably know about the whole No More Nazis ad campaign. You might also know that most reviewers have described it as bigger and bolder than New Order, but ultimately not as good. That’s about right – it has some little moments that are exciting (for example, both the first breastfeeding scene I’ve seen in video games, and the first wheelchair combat level), but it raises too many themes and just doesn’t follow through with them.
The other thing is that it applies the Nazi regime of New Order to the contemporary race situation in America today. I was initially uncomfortable with the idea – it seemed like it would either underplay the horrors of the Holocaust, or denigrate the issues facing black Americans. I didn’t think it would be able to balance the two against each other. However, I can confirm it does balance these themes, in the sense that both of them are ultimately equally neglected.
Probably the cleanest relationship between the two is in the game’s opening sequence. BJ’s father is a hardcore racist, and his 1920s prejudice towards both blacks and Jews seems to be the same xenophobia expressed against two different targets. My concern was that in the present-day scenes, in the wake of the Holocaust, it would seem insensitive to speak of the Jewish experience of oppression in the same sentence as that of African Americans. The game’s solution is to tell us that black Americans have suffered the same fate as the Jews: they were rounded up and executed. It’s worth noting that historically under Nazi Germany, black people were considered an inferior race, but were never exterminated en masse as the Jews were. On the one hand, this change gives the Jewish and black characters of the game a sort of shared persecution, a sense of camaraderie; but at the same time it seems slightly off to portray black characters as sharing in the experience of the Jews, especially when the black experience in Wolfenstein 2 is so closely tied to the contemporary racial situation in America today. At times, the game swerves perilously close to comparing Black Lives Matter and the Holocaust, and that’s not on. Note, for example, the pinball table below – ‘Yes We Can’ is the 2008 Obama slogan, and the ‘Out of Order’ sign connects the game’s commentary with the current post-Obama administration.
With those broad strokes out the way, I wanted to focus on one particular level: Manhattan. In Wolfenstein 2, we discover that instead of the Americans nuking Hiroshima, New York was nuked by the Nazis. And you get to drive past the sunken head of the Statue of Liberty, and the shattered landscape is a symbol of how evil the Nazis are, and – to be honest, it’s just really boring. We’ve seen this premise too many times now: the baddies invade America, and they threaten the integrity of American freedom by being evil, and the Americans force them out of the land and save the day. Modern Warfare 2, Homefront, Call of Duty: Ghosts, Assassin’s Creed III, Red Alert 2 – we’ve seen it all before. Here’s a suggestion: what if the bombing of New York had never happened? What if, instead, you had to play through the bombed-out ruins of Hiroshima?
Hear me out. New Order begins in 1946, which is meant to illustrate that the war has gone on longer than it should have. The Nazis haven’t lost yet, mostly because of their new secret superweapons, which, of course, presumably include the nuclear bomb. But Nazis having the bomb doesn’t preclude the Americans from having the bomb too. Hiroshima got bombed in 1945, a year before the start of the game. Historically, the Germans had already been defeated by this point, and Truman dropped the bomb on the Japs partly so he wouldn’t have to invade, and also arguably because he wanted to intimidate the Soviet Union – note that some historians see the bombing as the start of the Cold War. So it’s reasonable to imagine that in these different circumstances, Truman might not have had the same motivations to drop the bomb – but let’s say he did anyway. Playing through Hiroshima would then give the game an interesting way to talk about the issues of American history that it’s already trying to talk about.
Currently, we see these issues explored through characters like the protagonist, BJ Blazkowich. In New Order, for example, BJ occupies this weird position where he physically fits the Aryan ideal, but is also Jewish. He’s a tall, muscular, blue-eyed-sandy-blonde-haired Jew. This puts him in a difficult category – he’s hard to pin down. When he meets Frau Engel on a train to Berlin, for example, she comments “Very nice Aryan features”. But you’re also part of the resistance trying to overthrow the Nazi regime and their Aryan ideals, and later in the game you will get Engel’s skull crushed by a murder robot, which, of course, ruins her fine Aryan features. To us as players, BJ looks and acts like a classic hero. He’s masculine and rugged. But because he looks like everything that the Nazis endorse, there’s a hesitation to our enthusiasm for his image.
BJ’s image further becomes the location of conflict when you talk to the (black) guitarist in Wyatt’s timeline (in New Order, I mean). This guitarist (basically Jimi Hendrix) calls BJ out on America’s history of racial violence: “Before the Germans, before the war, back home, man, you were the Nazis.” BJ slams him up against the war, because he’s deeply hurt by the idea, and the guitarist says “Violence. Language of the man.” Now I just challenged New Colossus on comparing the white oppression of blacks in America to the Holocaust, but I think the guitarist’s claim is more legitimate. I think it’s an exaggeration, to some extent – I don’t think the angry reaction of the Jewish BJ is necessarily unjustified – but there’s a legitimate point to be made. There is a history of racial violence in America that needs to be acknowledged, and by comparing BJ to the racist Nazis, the guitarist raises that history.
Now: the bomb. As it stands, the whole Manhattan episode is kinda boring, for me. It too easily makes America look like the victim – even though many white Americans have become happily complicit with the Nazi regime, the geography of America still bears the scars of a nuclear bomb. But if BJ had gone to Hiroshima, for whatever reason, we’d be able to explore some of the shitty things that America had done even while they were fighting against the legitimately evil Nazis. It muddies the narrative, calls into question the ethics of the American people. You can imagine the Nazis setting up a memorial or a museum in Hiroshima, using it as a propaganda machine against the Americans. The whole situation just becomes so much more complex and interesting. Yes, the Americans did a bad thing by nuking Hiroshima, but also the Nazis are bad and shouldn’t be weaponising guilt against the Americans. It’s also disrespectful to the Japanese, because their pain has been hijacked by the Nazis for a political agenda. Suddenly you’re introducing themes of guilt, moral grayness, propaganda, and the intersecting histories of violence. These intersecting histories are partly evidenced in the Roswell level, where you see white Americans cheering at the Nazi parade, but it’s just not enough. As noted above, Wolfenstein 2 just doesn’t deal with any of its themes properly.