Wolfenstein II: BJ Nuked America

Okay I said last week that we’d talk more about the nuking of Roswell, and now it’s next week and we’re talking about Roswell. So one of the big segments in the game sees you go to Roswell, where there’s a massive Nazi command unit. You sneak into the base, pop a nuke in the reactor, and fuck off before it all blows up. It really only hit me on this playthrough, uh, but you straight up nuke America. Let’s chat more about it.

So – the more you dig into this move, the more it seems just like a totally incoherent decision. Obviously the game has the whole Manhattan sequence, where you go to Manhattan and the twist is that the Nazis nuked New York because it’s an alt-history and they didn’t want to include Hiroshima because that would be too real or something. And your introduction to Grace’s character includes her monologue on the horrors of the nuke and the resulting burns all over her arm and so on. And – just for a moment, can you imagine if Grace was a Japanese American giving that monologue? That would be a fucking massive commentary on the really complex elements of American history that Wolfenstein 2 is trying to deal with. Tangent, I know, but just a thought.

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Anyway: so yeah, there’s all this stuff throughout the Manhattan levels about how the bomb was awful, and millions of people died, and it’s a massive scar on the psyche and geography of America. It’s built up as this massive insane thing that killed millions. But then the Roswell levels also revolve around BJ taking a nuke to Roswell and detonating it. BJ nukes America. That’s a thing that happens in Wolfenstein 2. Ostensibly it’s supposed to be a major act of resistance against the Nazi overlords, and maybe you even actually killed a bunch of them – probably the lower-level officers who weren’t able to escape via space rocket. But what’s the blast radius of that nuke? How much damage does it do to the actual city of Roswell? How far does the radiation go? Wolfenstein 2 is set in 1961, and according to US census data, the population of Roswell in 1960 was a little under 40,000. The game makes a little effort to show that the population are being evacuated: when you put the bomb into the reactor, Spesh tells you over your headset that one of his people rang the tornado alarm and everyone’s evacuating the city. That’s… okay, I guess, but it’s a bit limp. How far away would the population reasonably have gone? When the nuke does go off, everyone within half a kilometre radius of detonation would be obliterated, and everyone within a 1.34km radius would get radiation poisoning, with resulting mortality at 50-90%. That’s not accounting for the third degree burns suffered by everyone in a 2km radius, or the radiation further spread by nuclear fallout. Plus, keep in mind that BJ put the nuclear warhead inside a nuclear reactor. During the meeting with Spesh, BJ is told to put the warhead inside the reactor so that the Nazis won’t be able to track it down and disarm it. We’re not only talking Hiroshima here, right, we’re also talking Chernobyl. According to Wikipedia, radiation after the Chernobyl meltdown spread across an area of 162,160 square kilometers, with radioactive particles discovered as much as 1100km away at another power plant in fucking Sweden. Let me say this again: BJ nukes America, right after going to Manhattan and seeing firsthand the effects of the previous nuke. And somehow, after writing Grace’s monologue about the horrors of the bomb, nobody on the team was like ‘hey do you think Grace should be a little less keen to detonate another nuclear weapon?’

Now, this is something I didn’t really focus on in my original article about the bomb. I was focused on a general summary of the game, as well as suggesting Hiroshima instead of Manhattan as an interesting place to explore. I also suggested that the game is trying to link Nazi Germany with contemporary America, noting, for instance, the out of order pinball table bearing Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan. But I totally missed the irony of the Manhattan bombing and the Roswell bombing – in the final paragraph I even start talking about ‘the bomb’ right underneath a picture of BJ holding, you guessed it, the nuke that he’s taking to Roswell. That little irony just slipped right past me.

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The one thing I didn’t really note in that article was how it’s kinda rude for the Wolfenstein developers to be appropriating the trauma of the Japanese. If New Colossus was just a straightforward alt-history, that might be one thing. I’d be relatively okay with it, although it still seems a little rude to fantasise about Americans as the victims of one of the great horrors of the war – especially when it’s a horror that they historically inflicted on somebody else. What makes it less acceptable, to me, is that New Colossus is very interested in comparing this alt-history with the contemporary situation of modern-day America. You’ve got newspaper articles with the headline ‘The Klan Endorses the New Regime’, obviously a David Duke reference. In a private letter, obviously sent before WW2 started, one person says “Have you heard about Germany? That buffoon won’t last long. People must grow tired of his tirades. I suspect he will be gone within a year.” It’s meant to be another Trump reference, suggesting that maybe things started the same way in Nazi Germany. Maybe we should be more concerned about the way things are going in the States. There’s also the whole ‘so much for the tolerant left‘ scene that’s circulated pretty widely, as well as the marketing reference to punching Richard Spencer.

And all of these moments put together make it pretty clear that New Colossus is using its alt-history to comment on the contemporary political situation in America. That’s not a controversial point – it’s pretty obvious. But that’s where the problem starts. If you want to talk about the contemporary American political situation, you need to acknowledge that Americans have done a bunch of shitty, shitty things. For instance, they nuked Japan – twice. But instead of acknowledging that part of the national history, Wolfenstein 2 papers over that violence and redirects it towards themselves, taking a moment of national shame and presenting themselves as the victims. That’s the great scandal of the Manhattan levels. At the same time, when BJ nukes Roswell and nobody gives a literal shit, including the people who were at the site of the initial Manhattan bombing, the message is very clear: nukes are fine when it’s Americans setting them off. BJ can even detonate a nuclear weapon on American soil, killing American civilians and polluting American land, and nobody blinks an eye. It’s only bad when they do it; when we do it, it’s fine. We don’t need to be guilty about Hiroshima. In fact, guilt is so deeply unimportant that we can set off a nuclear weapon in our own country and nobody will feel guilty about it.

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I’ll close with this. Wolfenstein II tries to step into a global political arena. I can’t think of any other triple-A game that takes on contemporary political events in the same way. It’s worth celebrating Wolfenstein for trying to step up to the plate. But I think it’s also clear that operating in that arena is fucking difficult. You have to be really aware, really competent in dealing with a whole range of political and cultural issues. And ultimately New Colossus just isn’t up to the task. It takes a good shot, but there’s so many gaps in really important places. Wolfenstein II is proof that the industry is maturing, that there are intelligent and politically aware individuals trying to step up their game and take on more serious and hefty topics. Taken as indicative of a broader trend, Wolfenstein II is exciting. Considered on its own merits, it’s less so.

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