Alright so this one’s more of an analysis of one little scene in Call of Duty: World War II. It does have some problems, as a sequence – most notably it feels like a bit of a rip from Inglourious Basterds or basically any other text that has an Evil Nazi Villain (looking at you, Wolfenstein: New Order). As a scene it’s not particularly new or innovative – all of the things that it does have been done before. But that’s fine. Today we’re overlooking all of those things and just being unreservedly positive, because sometimes that’s how you need to be. Similarly, even though we could use any number of other examples to make similar observations, this is the one in front of us, and it’s as good an opportunity as any to think about how this kind of scene actually operates. With all of those qualifiers in mind, let’s talk about Nazis in Paris.
The Nazi headquarters mission comes about halfway through the game. It’s the fifth of eleven levels, although I’d really call it the end of Act 1, with shorter Acts 2 and 3 taking up the second half of the game. In this level, you begin by infiltrating the Nazi headquarters in Paris. You walk around with fake official papers, bumping into Nazis and apologising and trying to find your way to your contact. You’re briefly sidetracked by an evil Nazi commander, who previously murdered your husband and child (you’re playing as a French resistance fighter in this level), but you murder him in his office, sneak away, and manage to plant some dynamite, triggering a massive Allied attack and eventuating in the takeover and liberation of Paris. So it’s not a complex string of events. And as I say, it’s not really unfamiliar either. It does feel a little like the theater scene from Inglorious Basterds, complete with Nazi commander recognising a woman from the resistance. That said, it’s still a competent scene, and I do want to spend a little bit of time just skating through the major themes going into it, because they’re pretty well put together.
The first theme, which is very apparent, even just in the screenshot above, is the combination of wealth and extreme evil. We’re not talking about ostentatious Lex Luthor wealth, either – more the comfortable, well-off sort of rich that’s associated with the upper middle class. You still have to work for a living, but you get cigars and brandy every night. It’s a pretty classic set-up: all of the horrors committed under the Nazi regime are contrasted with the comfortable, well-lit, remarkably civilized lifestyle of the Nazi elite. It’s not even an exclusive Nazi trope, to be honest – you can see the same dynamic in things like Snowpiercer, or Elysium, or 3% on Netflix. A small, comfortable elite lives happily, either oblivious to or without regard for the writhing mass of downtrodden people living in squalid conditions under them. The stark contrast is one important piece of the puzzle – the people who seem the most cultured and civilized are the ones running the death camps. But with Nazis specifically, there’s also a sort of moral horror that isn’t necessarily present in all these other scenarios. Namely, we ask: how could normal people have gone along with it?
Within that context, the player enters into the Nazi stronghold as an enemy, but also as a bit of a tourist. There’s a morbid fascination with the circumstances of Nazi administration. How could people have lived like that? How could that secretary be sitting there typing up notes for literal Nazis? How is it so normal? How is it so familiar? There’s a kind of transgressive curiosity underlying the whole scene, although you don’t have to feel bad yourself, because you’re playing a secret rebel. The narrative insulates you from any sense of complicity, giving you free reign to be curious while still maintaining a sense of moral integrity.
So the whole scene is focused on the contrast between civility and cruelty. The Nazis look very normal and civilized, they speak and behave in all the ways we’ve been socialized to see as good – but they’re also Nazis. That civility is, in a sense, a lie – it conceals the violence that underpins and sustains the whole system. The narrative arc of the sequence is therefore all about puncturing the facade. It’s a truth-telling exercise. We get to see the lie of Nazi civility, and then we slowly bring forth all the violence and terror that they’ve been repressing in order to maintain their civilized environment. First, the underlying cruelty of the Nazis is revealed. When you meet with the chief Nazi in his office, he recognises you from when he murdered your family, and moves to kill the shit out of you too. He betrays his fundamental evil, legitimising the violence that you immediately visit upon him. From there, you sneak around the camp, murdering Nazis and planting dynamite. Your violence is righteous. It tears away the facade of civility. It’s a symbolic act, branding Nazism as violent by transforming their headquarters, the symbolic core of their collective identity, into a place of violence. At the end of the level, when you return to controlling your Allied soldier, you boot down the door into the Nazi hall, fill it with smoke, and set about murdering the shit out of coughing, spluttering Nazis that just minutes earlier were lounging about and listening to classical music. The repressed violence underpinning the Nazi regime erupts into the foreground. It is purifying, redemptive violence, violence that is truthful and honest. It operates on a symbolic level and a practical level: you’re revealing the underlying violence of Nazism, and you’re also killing all the Nazis. You also reaffirm that moral boundary between yourself and your curiosity – sure you were really voyeuristic about the whole thing, but you weren’t actually that into it. You prove your own moral integrity by murdering all of the Nazis, reinforcing the boundary between you and them by ending their lives.
Now, the final twist in the tale. In the traditional reading, this sequence is about the basic conflict between good and evil. The evil pretend to be good, and go around hurting people, but the good rise up, unmask the evildoers, and take back control, ushering in an era of peace and prosperity. That’s the very run-of-the-mill reading of that scene, and also kinda of WWII. The more troubling read, but I think probably the more honest one, has to do with our morbid curiosity. According to this reading, we’re not so different from the Nazis. We find their civility fascinating because it’s exactly like the life that we know. We play out being the heroes, reaffirming goodness and true civilization over the false civility of the Nazis. But we still have a nagging question about our own supposed goodness. We hear about the trauma that we have visited on indigenous populations, that we are still visiting upon them. We wonder if our civility is also based on violence and repression. We wonder if our civility is just as false as theirs. And we explore it, and we think about it, and then we destroy them. Maybe we’re letting ourselves off by locating our fears in an acceptable enemy, and punishing them to make ourselves feel better. Maybe we’re killing them so we can just forget about it. In this reading, the reason we’re here playing the game in the first place is because it tells us something about ourselves. It helps us to contemplate the question of our own inner evil in a safe, relatively circumspect environment.
So like I say – not revolutionary, not particularly innovative, but WWII carries it through in a confident, capable manner. It’s miles above most of the trash churned out by the other Call of Duty games. And even generally speaking, we see these types of scenes often enough that it’s interesting to actually sit down and think about how they’re designed. From here, we could go on and spin out the subtleties and nuances of different versions of this type of scene. We could talk about Wolfenstein or whatever else. And maybe WWII won’t emerge as notable or even particularly impressive against the caliber of the other games and texts that we’re comparing it to, but fuck, good job even getting to the point of having a story with structure.