Wolfenstein II: On Unreality

Okay, this one’s a bit mind-bendy. I’ll map out today’s territory, and then we’ll get to work. We’re talking about the section from immediately after Roswell up until the beginning of the trip to New Orleans (via Manhattan). At the start of this section, BJ’s body is continuing to grow weaker, and he feels like he’s running out of steam. By the end, the armour suit has been taken, but he’s in a new body, fully equipped with swanky new gear, and he’s feeling pretty great. He’s also not sure if he’s even still alive – we’ll get to that.

So between those two points in the game, there’s a huge theme of unreality. Things get a bit hazy, and you can’t quite tell what’s real and what’s not. I’ve got a bunch of notes on Wolfenstein II from December 2017, and in those notes I brought up three different approaches to the theme of unreality. We’ll go through and just briefly cover the related material.

1) Brain Pictures

The first approach was basically referred to as ‘brain pictures’. They aren’t all hallucinations, but they’re also not just memories either. They’re – yeah, brain pictures. What’s on the screen in front of you is a composite of what’s actually happening in front of BJ, his memories of past times, and his roving imagination. For instance, while you’re at the farmhouse, you’re able to activate a whole bunch of memories of Billy’s childhood, including his friendship with a local black girl (also called Billy). They play out more or less like film clips. Also, after you’re captured, you have the courthouse scene, during which BJ imagines breaking out of his restraints and murdering everyone. The scene concludes with him opening a door to find his mother (who we know is dead). He talks with her, and then snaps back to ‘reality’ as the judge sentences him to death. A dream of the mother is a bit of a problem though, right – because I initially wondered whether the father in the house was even real. If BJ has been ‘seeing’ all these earlier moments in his life, why couldn’t he be imagining his father too?

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2) Fantastic Events

This one’s a bit of a weird one, but it follows on from the courthouse sequence. In that moment, you escape from your chains by basically just being super strong and breaking free. That’s obviously ridiculous, because you’re crippled and weak. In fact, you can’t even fucking walk outside of the (now destroyed) super suit. So it’s fantastical, in the sense that it reads like a fantasy if you stop and think about it. But that’s kind of a dangerous place to go in a game about Nazis with magic science gear. If you have this attitude of ‘Oh, that’s obviously not real, that’s ridiculous’ – frankly, there’s a bunch of other stuff that’s equally questionable. How did BJ survive the fall to earth from miles up in the air? Is his suit really that good? Seems too fantastic. And then his head gets cut off but it’s reattached to a new clone-body by Set’s super-science? Again, too fantastic. Too wacky, too unreal. What about the Ausmerzer tearing the house out of the ground in the first place? Surely you wouldn’t be able to tear it out of its foundations – seems more likely that the roof would just come off. That seems to be the more reasonable outcome, from a structural engineering perspective. Can’t be real – it’s too fantastic. You see where this attitude leads? It’s not a useful metric for distinguishing between truth and fiction. New Colossus just isn’t the kind of game where you want to invoke disbelief.

3) Cameras and Acting

This whole sequence has an emphasis on cameras and acting, further adding to the sense that something suspicious is going on. The reveal of BJ to the media is a prime example of propaganda: the media are used to disseminate the Nazi message that BJ is an evil terrorist. We see the media used in this way again at the end of the game, with Engel’s interview on the Jimmy Carver show. As players, we know that BJ is the hero; we therefore see the media and cameras as tools used to construct and disseminate false messages (fake news, even). It introduces the idea that what’s being seen (by the viewers at home) is not real. It’s fake, a performance. We see the same processes repeated again and again throughout this sequence. As another example, the Super Spesh visit in the cell highlights several layers of unreality. Spesh arrives at the prison and calls the upcoming trial a charade. But Spesh is also enacting a charade: he’s ostensibly there to act as BJ’s lawyer, but really intends to break him out. So he’s pretending to be a lawyer, and he breaks his own nose to make it look like BJ attacked him – another charade. Then the guard who enters pretends to believe him but really knows what’s going on (another charade), and Engel enters and shoots Spesh in the head. The charade of the trial is countered by the charade of Spesh as lawyer, which in turn is countered by the charade of the Nazis playing along. It had me questioning – what else is a charade? Are we even in a prison? Did Super Spesh really die, or is he a turncoat? Is he going to stand up, prove the whole thing was unreal? Are we maybe on a film set? Or having a nightmare?

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The cameras in the court scene elicit the same sense of falsity as in the earlier media scene. We know the court will find BJ guilty – it’s a sham trial. The cuff-breaking almost makes sense in that context – it’s okay for your actions to be unrealistic if everything else is equally unreal too. And then you’re publicly executed, and Engel drops your head down into the furnace, and the screen goes black. And then it flips back on. And you see the pause symbol on the screen. Why the fuck is there a fucking pause symbol? And it starts to rewind, and you realise you were watching a video, and it’s not real, and it’s all just TV, except it is real, and they recover your head and tape it to a super-body and then the game slowly gets back on track. But is any of it believable any more? Is any of it real? It’s a question that BJ himself starts asking. At the prison, Spesh tells BJ that Anya and the others are waiting in the garage to help BJ escape. He says, “We got some tricks up our sleeve though.” After BJ is resurrected and has his head sown onto a clone-body, he talks with Anya to ask how she escaped the Nazi ambush at the prison. He stares at her suspiciously the whole time: “What happened in the garage? … I heard the gunshots.” She repeats Spesh’s line: “Oh, that was nothing. We had some tricks up our sleeve.” BJ blinks slowly, and replies “That’s exactly what Super Spesh said.” So – hang on, what the fuck, why is she repeating Spesh’s line? Is BJ still dreaming? Is he dead? He must be dead. What the fuck is going on? BJ asks again: “Is this real? Or am I in heaven?” But Anya is asleep, snoring softly. BJ never gets his answer. And neither do we.

Between these three types of uncertainty, I never really recovered from this sequence. I was in epistemic shellshock. Things happened afterwards, but they had no meaning; I couldn’t tell if any of it was real. It was like playing through purgatory: everything was suspended, frozen. It was fucking weird. And you know, after the game came out there were all the think-piece Youtubers going ‘Is BJ Actually Dead?’, pumping out these videos about how BJ might have been killed in one way or another (the fall, the execution proper, or whatever else), and the rest of the game is like the moments before his brain shuts down where it’s just lightning-fast imagining this massive hypothetical future. They point to things like the relatively repetitive plot elements – for instance, where in New Order you went to the moon, in New Colossus you go to Venus. It’s the generic space mission being repeated. I won’t say anything more about Venus, because we’ll talk about it properly when we get there. I’ll just show you this one quote from the end of the Roswell level. In the final room, where you dump the nuke, if you’re quick you can hear a couple Nazis talking about Venus. One is asking the other what it’s like, and the reply goes “You know that feeling of unreality? Where it feels like you are wandering through a dream. That is what it’s like on Venus, only ten times more.” 

Ultimately it does seem like BJ was actually alive. According to the limited knowledge we have about the next game in the series, Youngblood, BJ’s twin daughters have grown up and are looking for their father, who has recently gone missing. Unless Machine Games are fucking with us, BJ definitely survived and the whole thing is just poorly framed theming. We’ll wait and see when the game comes out – it’s hard to be sure from here.

(Also, came across this article on cartoon & realism in Wolfenstein II and I hate that I didn’t write it. It’s great! Give it a read)

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