Wolfenstein II: On Disability

Hopefully just a normal length post today team – last week’s got up to 2000 words. Turns out there was a lot to say about ol’ Rip. Anyway, this week I think the topic is a little simpler. We’re dealing with the whole wheelchair thing in Wolfenstein II‘s first level, on the stolen Nazi submarine ‘Eva’s Hammer’. After all of those extended cutscenes in the introduction, you finally wake up to a Nazi incursion onto the sub. One of the resistance members gives you a gun, and off you go – except you’re in a wheelchair.

The idea is that you’ve been heavily wounded, and you’re still recovering. But as an opening for a macho shooty bang bang murder game, it’s odd. It doesn’t fit the stereotype of masculinity that we expect from the genre. Obviously we’ve talked before about masculinity in New Order, how you’re often identified with marginal groups like the mentally ill or prisoners. That depiction sits in contrast to your Aryan features, and your fulfillment of a certain masculine action hero stereotype. New Colossus takes that basic idea and goes even further. You’re not just wounded, you’re not just weak – you’re actually fully disabled. You can’t walk. You can drag yourself across the floor, but that’s it. You’re a disabled action hero. You move around in a wheelchair and you’re in a fucking hospital bathrobe. And you’re still able to kill Nazis, in direct opposition to the Nazi idea that being disabled makes you a lesser person. You might remember that Klaus’s son in New Order was executed shortly after being born, as he had a club foot. That’s how Nazis treat disability. Here, BJ fights back from within the space of disability and kills a fuckload of Nazis. It’s the same sort of thing we’ve seen from New Order, just with a different group of people.


That said, playing as a disabled hero is miles away from playing as a prisoner or someone with mental health issues. We’ve seen the latter two before – we’ve seen asylums and prisons and all that. A wheelchair hero is something else. Obviously this decision is really startling in terms of representing disabled bodies in video games. There aren’t heaps of disabled characters generally, and when they do exist, it’s typically not as action heroes. Barbara Gordon in Batman, Joker in Mass Effect – they’re not really action heroes. Well, Barbara obviously is sometimes – I’m just thinking of her incarnation as Oracle in the Arkham games, where she focuses on tech support.

I should note as well, actually, that I’m not counting the whole cyborg thing. I don’t count Adam Jensen as disabled. Sure, he’s lost most of his limbs and shit, but he’s got robot limbs now. He’s got built in sunglasses that retract into his face. More seriously, cyborgs and the whole robo-prosthetics group do get complicated. Obviously we have people like Oscar Pistorius, who’s disabled, but is also still faster than you. The conversation about prosthetics and that kinda post-human cyborg thing is not something I want to get into – well, not just yet, anyway. For now, the point is that BJ is a) disabled and b) using a relatively primitive technology to compensate for that disability. He’s not an Adam Jensen super cyborg.

Given that take on disability, then, New Colossus here is showing us something new and exciting. As a stand-alone plot element, it’s genuinely startling. We barely see any action heroes in wheelchairs – and that’s probably the simplest way to conceptualise the difference between BJ and Jensen, too. Anyway – there’s a few interesting little twists attached to the wheelchair thing. For instance, when you’re going down stairs, you just roll right down them. You get on the slope and your wheels pick up momentum and suddenly you’re at the bottom. In some ways it’s a loss of control – you’re not controlling the whole descent down the staircase. You can’t stop halfway if you see a Nazi. Similarly, you can’t go up staircases. In the image above, there’s a staircase on the left and an elevator on the right. As a player, you have this moment, this little realisation – oh shit, I can’t use the stairs any more. I have to take the lift. Fuck, it’s a good thing there’s a lift here, otherwise I’d be stuck. It’s this tiny little insight into what being disabled is like. You suddenly understand accessibility ramps and disabled parking and all the rest of it. Obviously you still don’t really know what it’s like, but it’s a partial insight. It teaches you something about the issues faced by people in wheelchairs.


The game spends time balancing its depiction of disability. On the one hand, it’s trying to create a positive depiction, showing how strong-willed disabled people can still get around and fight Nazis. On the other hand, it’s trying to show some of the disadvantages and difficulties associated with being in a wheelchair. It’s a delicate balance, and I don’t know how disabled people might actually feel about it. I suggested just before that one of those difficulties related to the staircase. Another difficulty might be the whole conveyor belt scene in the second half of the level. You’re on a conveyor belt, just trundling along, and then – fuck! A Nazi reverses the belt and you go flying back down the chute. You come off your wheelchair, and you’ve got to blast away at Nazis and clear a space to get back up. Most of the rest of the level (it’s not long) sees you trying to fix the conveyor belt and get back up to the elevator. If your legs were working, you could probably just find another set of stairs, or even run up the conveyor belt faster than its movement in the opposite direction. But because you’re in the wheelchair, that’s your only way up. You need to fix it.

Partly the conveyor belt sequence demonstrates some of the inconveniences of disabled life. But also, I suggest, it’s the start of a wider theme in the game regarding the relationship between machines and the body. In New Order, the commentary on machines is relatively simple. There’s two types: the Da’at Yichud technology, which is scary, mystical, a little bit spiritual, and super advanced – and then the Nazi technology, which is grim, perverse, and awful. The Da’at Yichud technology is often gold, associated with light and the sun, while the Nazi technology is grey, associated with concrete and lifelessness. New Colossus is trying to do something more complicated in how it approaches technology. In this first level, BJ is dependent on the chair, he’s dependent on the belt – there’s a lot of dependency. I won’t say any more about it now, but just, uh, tuck that away for later.


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