Wolfenstein II: The Acting Motif

So we’ve already talked broadly about the theme of unreality in the Mesquite episode. That theme turns up again on Venus, when BJ gets to go meet Hitler and play himself and not be very good at it. The developers probably just thought it was funny, but it’s also some insane postmodern video game writing. I’m not gonna go into the theory around that stuff here, but just so as you know, it’s wacky as all hell.

So there’s the thing about unreality. BJ starts hallucinating his dead mother, he’s imagining breaking out of the chains and running around killing people in the courthouse – and when it starts, the player isn’t explicitly told that hey, this isn’t real. So there’s a suspicion that’s raised about whether or not the shit you’re experiencing after that moment is real. Here’s an RPS article going in pretty hard on the idea that your execution is real and you’re just dead. Note that the writer invokes “the improbability of Blazko’s escape.” I listed improbability as one of the three big issues in my article on unreality, saying that New Colossus “just isn’t the kind of game where you want to invoke disbelief.” Once you start questioning shit in this game, you’re never coming back. The RPS writer goes as far as suggesting that the events of Youngblood, the next Wolfenstein game, are also part of BJ’s fantasy, arguing that “if [BJ’s] crusade was such a resounding success, why, so many years later, does the Nazi empire even stand?” To my mind, the answer is because MachineGames want to make another Wolfenstein game – but you see how slippery this slope is. The fucking sequel is getting sucked into this vortex of disbelief.

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Anyway, if MachineGames wanted to assure people that everything was real and it definitely wasn’t a hallucination, they did it in the worst way. New Orleans seems kinda sane and reasonable, but then on Venus, BJ plays an actor auditioning to play BJ. He’s got his head sown on to a fake body, and looks at pictures of his dissected real body. Everything in that sequence is different levels of unreal – or rather there’s an interplay between the authentic and the fake. Helena, the director, is dressed up like an artist, with a beret and a big scarf, performing the image of a creative type. Similarly when Hitler turns up, he’s all old and vomits a bunch, and Helena has to pretend that she’s cool with it. She wipes his chin and he leans his head on her breast: “Mother?” The whole way through, she’s pretending that everything’s fine – when Hitler’s pissing in a bucket, when BJ is murdering the ever-loving shit out of one of the guards, when Hitler’s shooting the different actors that displease him. Helena rolls with the punches, acts like everything’s cool, and after BJ murders that guard, Hitler gets excited and Helena starts clapping, reading the social cue and acting like she’s expected to act, rather than based on how she’s feeling. There’s this one shot where she has this amazing grimace on her face, the authentic reaction – right before it’s replaced by obedient clapping. I’ll put it in just below, with the original shot – I’ve blown it up, so it’s a bit pixelated, but you can still see the revulsion:

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For Helena, survival is predicated on performance. She’s not allowed to show what she’s really feeling, because Hitler likes to shoot people and Helena is trying to survive. In this Nazi world, survival means being a good faker. The first actor to die, Ronald, upsets Hitler by calling him “Mister Hitler” instead of “Mein Fuhrer.” He fails to perform obeisance in the correct way, and so he’s killed. The second to die, Llewellyn Ewing, isn’t able to fight the soldier in the glass cabinet. He fails to perform violence convincingly, and so Hitler kills him. The third actor, John Anderson, is killed in a pretty off-handed way. Hitler decides BJ will play BJ, and so shoots Anderson – he’s just not going to be as good a performer, and so there’s no need for him.

Now with BJ, the most obvious irony is that he’s not good at playing himself. His line reading is really awful – Hitler complains, but doesn’t shoot him, because that would ruin the story. It kinda seems like BJ is bad at performing, but in a weird way he’s also really good at it. Nobody notices that he’s Terror Billy. Nobody notices that he’s not Jules Redfield, the actor he’s impersonating. His performance keeps him alive, just like with Helena.

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There’s also a broader point to be made about how we present ourselves to others, how we communicate our identity – sometimes arguably without even meaning to. In this sequence, two of the major components are voice and body. Before Hitler shoots Ronald, he says “Your words provide insight into a most treacherous mental apparatus.” Words reveal our identity. You can also compare the performances of BJ and John Anderson, in the green shirt with the glasses. Hitler wants the actors to communicate BJ’s psychology through their voice. BJ does a really bad job of it, and Anderson nails it. But shortly afterwards, the actors are asked to knock out a Nazi soldier. The final actor, Llewellyn Ewing, does a fucking awful job. The soldier breaks his nose, and then Hitler shoots him for being shit. When BJ goes in, he murders the ever-loving shit out of that Nazi. His actions are both real and unreal, both an act of resistance and part of the show. Fake and real.

Ultimately none of this stuff really means anything. It doesn’t have any wider significance for the game as a whole, it’s just a really rich and diverse use of the acting motif. My favourite part is probably Hitler’s awful playscript, personally – it feels like New Colossus is just mocking all the games out there with shit writers that actually write like that. There’s easily more to say about the scene, but I think you get the picture. It’s a talented and clever looping of the one motif. Contextually it’s a really bad decision, because it reawakens these wider questions about whether or not everything’s a dream and BJ’s actually dead. I mean, I say it’s a bad decision, but we’ll wait for Youngblood to come out. It’ll eventually be clear one way or the other.

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