Traditionally, scholars have turned a critical eye to literature, analyzing its value and role in society at large. Works throughout the ages have been analyzed for their political and social commentary, as well as the greater historical context that surrounds them and their authors. Even film has been given this treatment, recognized by scholars as having genuine “literary” value. But today’s world has many forms of media – video games being one prominent example. But no medium exists in a vacuum, after all. Considering this and considering video games’ popularity, this literary scholar thought it might be interesting to consider and analyze video games the way I might do a novel or a poem. As I complete video games (which will be seldom for the work load grad school places on me) I will add to this new series of articles, critiquing them not only for their playability, but also their “literary” merit. In this article, I will examine the first person shooter Wolfenstein: The New Order (2014), which is a sequel to 2009’s Wolfenstein. In the interest of full disclosure I will point out that I have not played the previous title. It’s also worth noting that this is the latest installment in a series of Wolfenstein titles, stretching back all the way back to Castle Wolfenstein (1981).
Spoilers begin here if you have not played the game
The game opens in 1946, at the height of World War II. The player, controlling Captain B.J. Blazkowicz, is part of an allied assault on a Nazi fortress, specifically that of General Wilhelm Strasse (“Deathshead”). These two characters have history; Deathshead was Blazkowicz’s enemy in the previous game, and dear old B.J. was able to foil his plot to use supernatural forces to win the war, leaving Deathshead near dead and badly disfigured. The assault on the fortress at the beginning of this game does not go well; The Nazis control technology far beyond anything the Allies possess (or anything that should exist in the 1940s period), such as massive metal robots and cybernetically enhanced soldiers and war hounds. Blazkowicz and his companions (who include Fergus Reid and Private Wyatt III) are captured and taken to Deathshead’s personal human experimentation facility within the fortress, where Blazkowicz (or, more accurately, the player) is forced to choose whether Fergus or Wyatt will be allowed to live. The player’s choice will alter dialogue and cut scenes slightly throughout the rest of the game, but reportedly does not seriously alter the storyline (I have only played the Fergus timeline). The survivor of the player’s choice aids in the escape from the laboratory, but in the process, Blazkowicz sustains a head injury and lapses into a coma. He is brought to an asylum in Poland where he remains in this state for 14 years.
Through a series of cut scenes, the player watches through Blazko’s eyes as Nazi officials come and go, taking away and murdering patients they deem unfit for their new society, much to his caretaker Anya’s dismay. In 1960, the Nazi regime decides to shut down the facility permanently. Nazi soldiers arrive and begin to put the patients to death, and murder Anya’s family when they object to what is happening. Blazko awakens from his
coma in time to save Anya and kill the soldiers, and the two escape. They flee to Anya’s grandparents’ house, who smuggle them onto a train to get to Berlin, the heart of the Nazis’ power. In the process, Blazko learns that the Nazis have not only won the war, but also control much of the known world. He and Anya, bonding over their loss, enter into a romantic relationship.
In Berlin, Blazko orchestrates a jailbreak for the survivor of his choice 14 years earlier, who is incarcerated in the Nazis’ most infamous prison. Afterward, they reunite with a resistance movement known as the Kreisau Circle (which makes its first appearance in the previous game). Here, he learns that the Nazis were able to achieve such technological advancements through the discovery of a cache of technology developed by the Da’at Yichud, a Jewish secret society that had developed technologies centuries ahead of their time, with the goal of understanding God through the pursuit of knowledge. This technology was sealed away to prevent its misuse, such as how it was used by the Nazis to achieve world domination. Reunited with this Resistance, Blazkowicz, Anya, and either Fergus or Wyatt (depending on who the player chose to save) launch a series of missions to undermine and fight the Nazi regime, hidden in their base at the heart of Berlin. These include an assault upon a Nazi research facility where the extent of their use of Da’at Yichud technology is revealed, a liberation of a Nazi work camp, a trip to another of these Da’at Yichud caches to gain advanced technology of their own, and even a trip to the Nazi Moon Base to steal Nazi nuclear warhead launch codes in preparation for their final assault on Deathshead’s fortress itself.
But before this ultimate plan can be put into action, the Kreisau Circle is discovered, and its members (and the liberated work camp members) are imprisoned within Deathshead’s facility, including Anya. Blazkowicz, Caroline Becker (leader of the Kreisau Circle) and Fergus/Wyatt use stolen Nazi stealth helicopters and a stolen U Boat to launch their final assault on the fortress, in which the player frees the prisoners and faces down Deathshead himself. Here, the player is forced to face the ultimate consequence of their choice at the beginning of the game; Deathshead reveals that he had removed the
brain of the character Blazko chose to die and had installed it in a new model of robot, forcing Blazko to kill his old friend once and for all. Then, he faces off against Deathshead himself, who after an extended battle he manages to kill – but not before being gravely by one of Deathshead’s grenades. Unable to escape, Blazko ensures that the prisoners escape safely before giving his comrades the all clear to fire the stolen .nuclear weapons, sacrificing himself in the ultimate destruction of Deathshead’s facility. Now, I’m not a video game design expert, so I will not linger too long on gameplay, but as a game’s accessibility to the player (and, by extension, its story’s accessibility to the player) is dependent upon gameplay, I cannot bypass it completely. The gameplay is actually pretty straightforward, with controls that are relatively similar to other FPS titles. They are responsive and not overly clunky, or hard to manage. The game does a satisfactory job teaching the player the mechanics, and the learning curve is not overly steep. The AI occasionally does leave something to be desired; the enemies you face are certainly not the smartest I have encountered in a video game. The enemies are, by and large, pretty much the same across all levels of the game, scaling up slightly in difficulty to defeat but otherwise not so markedly different from earlier iterations. They can often be easily fooled by simple tricks and maneuvers, which does occasionally rob from the immersion. They still do present a satisfactory
Now, I’m not a video game design expert, so I will not linger too long on gameplay, but as a game’s accessibility to the player (and, by extension, its story’s accessibility to the player) is dependent upon gameplay, I cannot bypass it completely. The gameplay is actually pretty straightforward, with controls that are relatively similar to other FPS titles. They are responsive and not overly clunky, or hard to manage. The game does a satisfactory job teaching the player the mechanics, and the learning curve is not overly steep. The AI occasionally does leave something to be desired; the enemies you face are certainly not the smartest I have encountered in a video game. The enemies are, by and large, pretty much the same across all levels of the game, scaling up slightly in difficulty to defeat but otherwise not so markedly different from earlier iterations. They can often be easily fooled by simple tricks and maneuvers, which does occasionally rob from the immersion. They still do present a satisfactory challenge however, and the graphics are fantastic. It is apparent that there was great attention paid to detail here.
The story, however, is somewhat lacking. The premise of the game, as shown in the plot synopsis above, is pretty straightforward; we see an alternate history where the Axis Powers were victorious. There are subtle world building clues the player can discover as they progress throughout the game to get insight into backstory, learning what all happened in the 14 years Blazko was in a vegetative state. This all could have been used for a greater purpose, such as presenting a cautionary tale for political extremism, espousing the dangers of xenophobia and intolerance, or even making a comment on the depths of darkness in the human heart, but instead the game leaves the player feeling unfullied. Rather than making such a bold statement, which in my opinion the setting
almost cries out for, the game falls a bit flat. The plot hinges around Deathshead finding some of this ancient technology that had been developed by the Da’at Yichud, but takes no time to explain in detail how this happened or explore in-depth who these creators of the technology really are. They are practically shoehorned into the story almost as a quick (and unsatisfying) explanation of how the Nazi war machine grew so advanced, and as a quick (and unsatisfying) answer to the protagonists’ problems. In the end, no overall point is made, and displaying this alternate timeline provides little to no political or social commentary, though there is a certain amount of bitter irony that the Nazis misuse Jewish-developed technology to aid in their attempted obliteration of its creators.
The result of this is that the Nazis are presented as flat, simply sadistic individuals, which is not historically the case. Nazism was, in fact, much more dangerous than it is presented in the game. The genocide carried out during World War II was deeply socially and politically motivated. The Nazi Party, a short form for its full name, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, was firmly anti-commnist, anti-Marxist, and held extreme nationalist beliefs, considering Germany to be above all others. It was fiercely against the Treaty of Versailles (which ended World War 1) and, with Adolph Hitler at its head, railed against minorities of all kinds and anyone who didn’t fit their view of the “ideal” German. Following Hitler’s rise to power, his party assumed all political control of the country, and the democracy that was once known unofficially as the Weimar Republic became a Nazi dictatorship. All of this is well known, and the result of this kind of xenophobia and hatred is what we now know as the Holocaust. But what makes the Nazi Party even more terrifying was the fact that they did not seize power in a vicious coup de tat or civil war, as did the fascist dictator Francisco Franco in the brutal Spanish Civil War. Rather, he gained his power through the legal election process, feeding on people’s fear and anger to reach the Chancellorship, where he was able to consolidate his control over the country. He was a charismatic leader that managed to sway people’s beliefs and made sure to leave a lasting legacy.
This would take form in the indoctrination the Nazi regime would instill in its people, and especially its children. In fact, a recent study showed that adults who grew up during the Nazi regime would remain much more fiercely anti-Semitic than individuals who did not. The researchers point out that the use of policy intervention and schooling were the most effective means of accomplishing this, far more than film or radio propaganda. This means that the Nazi regime was not simply populated by caricatures of real people, filled with violent, sadist urges. The efforts to stamp out all of those deemed unworthy of the new order was cold, calculated, and intelligently thought out. The result of this is a legacy that has lasted decades. A few prominent antagonists of Wolfenstein: The New Order, such as Deathshead himself and Frau Engel, espouse this belief system in a bit more detail than the rest of the game’s enemies, but since there is little to no overall development of these characters they fall flat, coming off simply as black-and-white super villains commonly seen in children’s cartoons. This undermines the actual dangerousness of the Nazis and other movements like them. As IGN points out in their review of the game, the attention to world building and connections to the real, historical Nazi experimentation on humans and with advanced weaponry does do wonders for immersion and believability, but it does not, in my opinion, do enough to prop up the story.
In the end, we have a game that is stylistically beautiful and fun to play overall, yet feels like it is simply violent for the sake of being violent. Now, this gamer has no problem with violence in video games in general, but my personal preference is for it to be supported by a solid story to give it a sense of meaning. A perfect example of this would be The Last of Us (2013), a game which remains solidly in my top 10 favorite games ever played (but that’s another article entirely). Playing as the protagonist BJ Blaskowicz in Wolfenstein: The New Order, however, felt like you were wading through carnage for the shock value alone, which also lies at the core of the display of horrors committed by Nazi characters within the game. The point of the game’s experience seems to just be killing “cartoonish” Nazis, which leaves a lot to be desired and certainly detracts from its overall academic merit.
tl;dr – Wolfenstein: The New Order is a good game if you’re just looking for some intense FPS fun. However, if you’re looking for a deeply profound story that will move you and make you think, look elsewhere. Have another opinion? Share it below, and let us know what you think!