Wolfenstein The New Order: Mental Health

This week we’re tackling the asylum level in The New Order. As mentioned last week, I’m going to go through The New Order and talk about themes roughly as they come up in the game. This week though, there’s actually a few sort of interrelated themes that all hover around the asylum – they’re not all necessarily worth an entire article on their own, so I’ll keep the asylum as a focal point and spin them all out from there. 

At the start of the asylum level, there’s a really stunning cutscene that shows off some of the great writing in this game. This video shows the transition from the end of the compound level right up to the start of gameplay in the asylum. “Sometimes Christmas. Sometimes birthdays. And sometimes Nazis come.” Actually, also note that the lead Nazi has an eyepatch – just refer back again to last week’s article on bodies, disability, and evil.

So really quickly, here’s the plot of the asylum level. You’ve taken serious brain damage escaping Deathshead’s compound, and you get picked up and put in an asylum. The doctors and staff take care of you, and in cutscenes, you see Nazis popping in and taking patients away for experiments. Eventually the Nazis decide to shut the hospital down, and begin executing all the patients. The doctors resist and try and interfere, and the Nazis just kill them too. Enter you, standing up and killing Nazis and beginning the actual gameplay.

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In some ways, the representation of the asylum is very traditional. It hits a lot of classic horror-esque beats about mental health being scary and dangerous – the front patient in that image above sways side to side, like a deranged lunatic, and when you’re actually out and about in the hospital everybody’s dead and there’s blood everywhere. Think, like, literally every single horror game set in an asylum. OutlastArkham Asylum, Evil Within, the asylum levels in games like Thief or BioShock Infinite – they all operate under the basic assumption that mental health is scary.

What’s interesting about New Order, then, is – well, there’s a few things. Firstly, the mentally ill patients are being looked after by genuinely nice caring doctors. They might not be well, but they’re getting better. And you see the doctors doing birthdays and Christmas with the patients – it’s actually really sweet. When the Nazis come, the patients are shackled and have black bags put over their heads – you can see the bags in the picture above. You see that removal of the face again when the Nazis start killing all the patients – they take the pillow out from under a patient’s head, put it over their face, and shoot them through the pillow. You see it two or three times, repeated – the pillow covers the face, and then they’re shot through the pillow. It’s just a really subtle way of dehumanizing the patients so that it’s easier for the Nazis to brutalise them. The patients are treated as human until the Nazis treat them otherwise. That’s a really strong political point about how we think about and portray mental illness. It shows how the act of stigmatizing the mentally ill is, well, kind of a Nazi thing to do. We know that the Nazis historically set about exterminating the mentally ill or physically disabled alongside Jews and Romani. The doctors here care for the mentally ill, and the Nazis dehumanize and kill them. That’s a criticism of Nazism as well as negative or stigmatizing depictions of mental illness in other games or media more generally.

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Second, then, when you get out into the asylum proper, it’s all covered in blood and everyone’s dead and shit’s on fire. It’s another stereotypical representation of asylums – we’ve seen this kind of thing before. In Outlast especially, the whole thing is that there’s an asylum, but everything’s fucked and everyone’s dead and there’s blood everywhere and body parts strewn about the place. It’s all part of the wider process of stigmatizing mental health – those patients in Outlast have gone nuts and fucking murdered everybody. What’s interesting about New Order, then, is that the patients actually haven’t done anything wrong. It’s the Nazis who came in and started killing people. It’s just a really interesting variation on the typical portrayal of the asylum – it’s still all covered in blood and everybody’s dead, but this time it’s not the fault of the patients. The game imitates the typical portrayal of an asylum, but subverts and resists the narrative of stigmatizing mental health by changing the overarching plot.

Last point, then – the other big thing about the asylum in New Order is that you’re one of the patients. BJ Blazkowicz spends fourteen years in that asylum. He’s part of the furniture by the end of it. He’s really strongly identified with the patients – and so when the Nazis come a-shooting, the patients (through Blazkowicz) fight back and beat the ever-loving shit out of them. It’s a revenge fantasy, a way of empowering people who are normally marginalised or stigmatised. It’s also refusing to let the patients just be victims – you can show the horror of their experiences at the hands of the Nazis, but the bigger intervention is to then empower one of them to actually do something about their situation. Django Unchained is the obvious parallel – there are plenty of slavery films showing the horrors of slavery, but how many of them actually move beyond representing trauma? It’s the difference between ‘man slavery is awful’ and ‘hey here’s a story about a slave kicking the shit out of slavers’. New Order represents the trauma of brutalised mental health patients, and then allows one of those patients to stand the fuck up and fight back against the Nazis. That’s cool shit.

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