Why would a game company want to piss off potential customers?
It was the most obvious question for Bethesda’s Public Relations VP Pete Hines about their newest game, Wolfenstein II, The New Colossus. Bethesda’s ads for the game, specifically the ones that referenced Donald Trump slogans (e.g. “Make America Nazi Free Again”) were angering some alt-right types online, and that some gamers were even threatening to boycott the game altogether.
Asked if the company is “poking a hornet’s nest,” Hines paused for a moment and laughed.
“Maybe a little bit,” he said. “But the hornet’s nest is full of Nazis. So fuck those guys.”
But that “hornet’s nest” just so happens to include a lot of Bethesda’s potential customers. Right after the game launched, angry reviews criticized the “story riddled with anti-white propaganda and social engineering” as “absolutely atrocious [sic] SJW propaganda”. A commenter on a gaming thread remarked that the game “might as well have been made by the terrorist outfit antifa for all it says about white people.”
Depending on how you view the world, this criticism isn’t wholly unwarranted. The game’s storyline makes some Nazis out to seem like pretty decent guys, introduces the Black Panthers as a moral authority, compares the alt-right to the KKK, and repeatedly suggests that America is an inherently racist country
Bethesda’s new Wolfenstein saga is set in 1961, in an alternate reality in which the Nazis won WWII and have colonized America. The Wolfenstein franchise as most know it, however, began in 1992, with id Software’s Wolfenstein-3D on the PC. Even non-gamers have a basic idea of the premise: it’s WWII, you’re an American spy, you’ve been captured by Nazis and thrown into a dungeon, and you have to kill them all to escape. It was fun, it was bloody, and it was a smash hit. Game historians generally point to this title as the birth of the first person shooter genre.
id’s true stroke of genius, however, was in understanding how to make animated violence palatable. id had stumbled upon the perfect enemy — who could feel bad about killing Nazis?
In the new reboot of the Wolfenstein series, though, that question no longer has an obvious answer. If you play the game as its creators intended, you run a very high risk of accidentally agreeing with a Nazi.
Take, for example, the following conversation, which takes place between two non-playable characters in the game:
“I have no sympathy for terrorists. How can they promote violence, just because we have a different point of view? I think they were born without a moral compass.”
“You’re right, Karl. Acts of violence are never okay. Never.”
You’ve probably seen something very close to the above in a Facebook thread. The conversation sounds completely reasonable: Violence is wrong, and political disagreements should be handled in a civil manner. Hell, even philosopher Slavoj Zizek has spoken out against that video of Richard Spencer getting punched.
But the above conversation takes place between two Nazi stormtroopers. So as you (the “terrorist” they are referring to) hide under a stairwell, waiting to ambush the two soldiers, you just might find yourself thinking: Hey, those Nazis have a point.
In fact, aside from a handful of truly sadistic characters, most of the Nazis in the this series are pretty reasonable. Some of them are deliberately depicted as sympathetic characters.
As you sneak through dark corridors, you might overhear a Nazi soldier trembling in fear at the thought of confronting the “terrorist” (you), and his older brother consoling him; or a stormtrooper who is worried about his daughter’s illness. These people have friends, families, emotions, fears. Just like you.
This all might seem like a terrible idea. Isn’t humanizing Nazis – a group we consider universally evil – immoral? Or even dangerous?
In 1963, political theorist Hannah Arendt faced precisely this criticism. She had just published a study of Adolf Eichmann, an SS leader who handled the logistics of the Holocaust. After attending his trial, she concluded that Eichmann was not a “monster”, but a pretty normal guy. If anything, he was a bit stupid.
Arendt, herself a Jew who had fled Germany as the Nazis rose to power, found herself being attacked for trivializing the horrors of genocide and humanizing the evil men who committed these crimes.
But, she countered, her point was that under a totalitarian rule, some will resist, but most people will simply comply. The government will reduce them to mere “functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery” of a system of terror. She had a phrase for this: “the banality of evil”.
This seems to be what Tommy Bjork, Narrative Designer for the Wolfenstein series, is aiming for.
“I think all societies are susceptible to those kinds of ideologies, those kinds of fascist ideologies, if they don’t fight them,” he said in an interview at Bethesda’s headquarters. “I think that’s something that you get to see [in the game]. There’s a whole spectrum of reactions within [American] citizens towards this takeover. Some of them welcome it.”
Pre-release footage for the game showed some of this off in a scene of a Nazi soldier having a (mostly) friendly conversation with two hooded Klansmen.
But the truly unsettling part starts when you explore the town and meet the more “normal” inhabitants. If you hang out long enough, you’ll hear a woman complain that her slave has been misbehaving (apparently, the Nazis let the Southerners have their slaves back). Another thanks the Nazis for ridding the country of jazz and other “jungle music.” The most disgusting characters in this scene are American, not German.
In fact, there are times when even the Nazis seem a bit confused at the mechanics of white American racism. Early on in the game, a Nazi defector joins your team. When you first bring her onto your ship, she notices a black man in the control room, and looks, frantically, at the nearest white woman.
“Do you allow blacks on board?” she whispers incredulously.
But why she says this is left ambiguous — is it because she herself feels uncomfortable around black people (probably not: she later has sex with him), or because she is familiar with American Jim Crow-style racism, and is shocked that your crew is not also racist? It could go either way, but given that the Nazis were inspired by American Jim Crow laws, it might well be the latter.
It only gets heavier when the player is introduced to the Black Panthers.
Early on in the game, your character is sent to make contact with a woman named Grace Walker, the leader of resistance group that has been hiding out in New York. She is the leader of the Black Liberation Front – a direct reference to the Black Liberation Army, an actual organization that was linked to the Black Panthers.
Once Grace Walker enters the picture, she immediately takes charge of operations. For the rest of the game, you will be taking orders from a black woman.
But her importance as a character takes a back seat to her role as a plot device. Like her counterpart in the previous game who tells your character that living under Jim Crow as a black person meant living under white terrorist rule, her first function is to point out the inherent racism America had even before the Nazis arrived, telling your character that not all white Americans even want to be free of the Nazis:
“We’ve been fighting every mother fucking day, Blazkowicz. White America though? They done packed up and given in. See I guess they don’t have the fighting spirit no more. Nah, they just do whatever their fucking Führer tells them to do.”
Wolfenstein 2 came out yesterday, and @dexdigi did a table read of one of the best scenes with Debra Wilson, who plays Grace Walker in the game. But she had to give him a pep talk first.
A post shared by Vice News (@vicenews) on Oct 28, 2017 at 2:35pm PDT
There are other parts of the game which might even feel like a personal attack to some people.
While the story was first conceived in 2014 and thus wasn’t inspired by recent events like Charlottesville, the developers have snuck in some last-minute Easter eggs that are deliberately thumbing their nose at the right, like a newspaper article with the headline “Meet the Dapper Young KKK Leader With A Message of Hope,” an almost word-for-word parody of a real article fawning over white supremacist and alt-right founder Richard Spencer.
Another article predicts the ‘plain folks of the land’ putting a ‘downright moron’ into the White House, which feels like a Trump reference if there ever was one.
It’s not quite fair to say that everyone angry about this game is a literal Nazi. Many of the people angry at this game are less angry about the politics of the game than the fact that the game has politics at all. Reading through a sea of bitter tweets and forum comments, the point of argument that everyone seems to settle on is that these themes just don’t belong in a game. Games are fun! This is just a game.
But it’s precisely because this is a game that it has so much potential power. Whereas there is a sense of distance between the reader or viewer in a book or film, the medium of games is much more personal, because you are actually controlling the character. Things don’t happen to someone on screen so much as they happen to you.
So when a someone tells your character that white America is racist, they’re talking to you. Depending on who you are, this will make you uncomfortable.
Of course, you don’t have to deal with any of this if you don’t want to. You don’t have to pick up any of the newspapers, a lot of the cutscenes can be skipped, and if you think some of the Nazi conversations might upset you, you can silence them by by simply shooting the offending characters before they start talking.
It’s hard to say if the game will change anybody’s mind about anything. If you’re an alt-right fanatic, or hey, an actual Nazi, you’ll probably just ignore the story – that is, if you can finish the game without getting triggered. And the further left you are, the more likely you are to find some of the black characters a little too flat and exploitative.
If you’re somewhere in the middle, or if you’re willing to put your convictions aside and explore a bit, you’ll probably find yourself laughing often, nodding here and there, and maybe, once or twice, questioning your own beliefs.
But, who knows. It’s just a game.