Wolfenstein II: The American People

What’s the overarching story of New Colossus? And given that story, what are some of the elements you might expect to see in the game? In New Order, there’s a very simple plan: kill Deathshead. That’s the big thing. As a result, the story is focused on the interpersonal relationships between a relatively small group of people. We want to know about BJ, Deathshead, and any other supporting or relevant characters. But in New Colossus, there’s a different story arc. Supposedly, the game is about liberating America. So where are all the Americans?

When BJ first meets Grace, at the top of the Empire State Building, they fly off together in the helicopter. On the way back to the sub, they have a conversation about their plans for America. This is the scene where the overarching structure of the game is laid out. It’s where the game tells you that its arc is going to be about freeing the American people. BJ says to Grace “We gotta set this right, Grace. Put the fighting spirit back in the American people. Ignite a revolution.” Grace replies and says she’s been fighting every day, but white America has “packed up and given in.” BJ says no, white Americans will definitely join the revolution: “All they need is for someone to show them how.” Grace retorts that the Klan is running the South, and BJ says well, forget those turncoats, let’s start with the grass roots or something. And then it’s a big uplifting speech about how the Americans grew comfortable under tyranny and we all have to jolt them out of their stupor and ignite a revolution. Okay, fine, cool, we know what the arc of the game is going to be. We have to fire up the American people and get them rebelling against their Nazi masters. Sounds good. Here’s where I enter with my problem from the start. Where are all the Americans? Obviously Grace and her cohort are American, and so are Horton and the Communists. But those are the revolutionaries, not the commoners. They’re the evangelists – my problem is that we’re not seeing the people they’re trying to evangelise.

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Let me give another example of a game with a similar narrative structure, just to see if it casts any light on how New Colossus is handling business. In XCOM 2, you play the leader of the resistance fighting against Earth’s alien masters. At its simplest, your goal is to free Earth. That means building up the resistance and stopping the aliens from making progress on their sinister Avatar project. So again, there’s three main components to this story arc: the rebels, the evil overlords, and the common people. The rebels are outside the law, and they’re fighting the system to free the people. That’s basically the same narrative structure as New Colossus – just in terms of those key actors. The difference is that XCOM 2 spends time establishing the common people. You’re often sneaking around in highly urban areas, and you’ll often find civilians wandering around doing their day to day business. If they see you, they’ll raise the alarm and the aliens will come kill you. Once the shooting starts, they’ll run the fuck away. Even with that really simple system, we learn some things about the common people: they don’t understand the mission of the resistance, they’ll largely side with the aliens over the resistance if given the choice, and they’re scared and vulnerable. Those are all fine and interesting depictions of the common folk, and they pop up enough times throughout the game that you’re pretty constantly reminded of them. You also get some focus in the game’s opening cutscenes, where you see how humans are controlled and treated by the aliens, and you get more focus near the end of the game, in a couple of key story missions.

In one of those missions, you’ve got a videotape of the aliens killing humans and melting them into genetic juice or whatever, and you’re going to play it over a global TV system during the Speaker’s broadcast. Oh – that’s another thing, actually, you often see or hear the Speaker, the human mouthpiece for the aliens, giving talks over the radio. He’ll give a little spiel after you complete a mission being like ‘uhh no it’s cool we meant to knock down that supply depot it definitely wasn’t terrorists.’ It reminds you that your actions are part of a war for the hearts and minds of the common people. It’s not showing you the commoners directly, but it’s showing the government’s statements towards the people, thus demonstrating a) that the people exist, b) that the government is controlling them with propaganda, and c) that your actions are having such a significant effect that the government feels compelled to combat those actions with propaganda. Anyway: so you send out the signal, and it interrupts the Speaker’s live broadcast, and so he’s giving his speech and everyone’s watching this genocide footage. And he’s all like aw shit and all the people are like hey fuck you man and he’s like aw SHIT and the crowd goes wild and they riot and grab him and fucking murder him. And it’s like hey, you’re actually mobilising the population and seeing how they respond to your actions.

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So that’s XCOM 2. And when you think about that, there’s really nothing comparable in New Colossus. You’ve got the Roswell sequence, which is tragically short. There’s crowds at BJ’s execution, but they’re all kinda just splodges of colour. You also get a room full of journalists when BJ is revealed – you have a woman run up and slap you for murdering her son. And those are all fine, but they’re all very pro-Nazi moments. There’s not really any moments that show how the general public are reacting to your resistance-building efforts. You drop a nuke on Roswell (more on that later), but you don’t see how the public react. Actually, oddly, the only time it’s mentioned again is when you’re in the courtroom – a judge reads out your crimes, which include “terrorism, including nuclear, both domestic and abroad.” Anyway: you also murder General Engel on live national television, but you don’t see how the public react. You all give a rousing dramatic speech to the people, but – again, you don’t see how the public react. And that seems like a pretty big gap in the structure of the game. Consider other, similar texts: The Truman Show, you see the public reaction; V for Vendetta, you see the public reaction; Network, people stick their heads out their windows and scream “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more!” You as audience are shown a clear response from the wider public. They are enlightened, or entertained, or whatever else – you see how they react to the content that’s being delivered. That never really happens in New Colossus. You’ve got cheering crowds at the Nazi parade in Roswell, and that’s really your only significant interaction with the public. And it kinda lessens the impact of your actions. Are they effective? Are you achieving anything? Who knows – we’re not told. New Colossus is a game about the people’s revolution, but it doesn’t really ever depict the people.

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