Welcome to Waypoint's Pantheon of Games, a celebration of our favorite games, a re-imagining of the year's best characters, and an exploration of the 2017's most significant trends.
The God of War: B.J. Blaskowicz (Wolfenstein: The New Order)
Wolfenstein: The New Order remains one of the most remarkable games of the past decade for myriad reasons, not the least of which is how a Schwarzenegger-looking character known for grunting transformed into someone who quietly and introspectively contemplates their penchant for enacting violence, wrapped within a game whose tones swing wildly between hilarious, sad, inspiring, and upsetting.
And it works?
It works because of B.J. Blazkowicz, a character whose emotional arc across The New Order and its 2017 sequel, The New Colossus, ranks as one of gaming’s most unexpected.
Warning: There are spoilers for The New Colossus and The New Order in this piece.
You’re given zero introduction to Blazkowicz in id Software’s seminal shooter, 1992’s Wolfensetin 3D. Nothing sets up the game beyond a content warning for “profound carnage,” and the splash image of a nameless soldier hiding around a corner. The name “B.J. Blazkowicz” isn’t featured in the game, even after you spill Hitler’s blood. To learn anything about the protagonist, you needed to search through the manual, which detailed Blazkowicz as the “Allies’ bad boy of espionage and terminal action seeker.”
That’s everything Wolfenstein 3D has to say about Blazkowicz, which made sense at the time. (It wouldn’t be until decades later anyone would ask the basic question of whether he was Jewish, and required multiple developers to eventually settle.) Wolfenstein 3D was a game about showcasing id Software’s revolutionary engine tech, and making a game where you fight Nazis (aka bad guys) was an easy sell. It wasn’t a game making a statement about Nazi ideology, or how endless war impacts society.
The New Order opens with Blazkowicz’ front and center, and in the opening beats, floats through a dream about what his life might be like after Nazis.
“In my dream I smell the barbeque,” he mutters to himself, surrounded by suburbia. “I hear children. A dog. And I see someone. I think I see someone. These things…none of it for me. I move by roaring engines. Among warriors. We come from the night.”
In an instant, he’s back at the warfront, back to being his most useful: killing Nazis.
The game makes it clear Blazkowicz is very good at that job. Like 2016’s fantastic Doom revival, The New Order and The New Colossus successfully update the frenetic gameplay of these old school shooters into a modern context. But while Doom embraced a fourth wall-breaking story with minimal characterization, Wolfenstein took a different tact: dropping emotionally believable people into an absurd world. It works, yes, but doesn’t land unless you’re able to connect with the game’s core, B.J. Blazkowicz.
Blazkowicz, like most main characters in a game, is a savior. What’s different about Blazkowicz is how he acknowledges how much he would like to stop being one.
Importantly, he recognizes his violent streak over the course of both games. Multiple times, his response to success and failure is exhaustion, an inability to see light at the end of the tunnel. You kill one Nazis, there are a million more to go. A victory is a victory, but the only future it promises is more death, more killing. For Blazkowicz, defeating the Nazis is as much about saving the world as it is saving himself, a point underscored by the character’s evolution in The New Colossus, which used his largely unexplored backstory as an opportunity to put more weight onto Blazkowicz’ mission.
Now, instead of Blazkowicz maybe being a Jew, his mother is explicitly a Jew, one sold out to the Nazis by a monstrously cruel father who blamed his own ineptitudes on everyone but himself. It’s emotional context for why Blazkowicz finds the strength to grab his guns once One More Time, and what might fuel him to see all this through.
The writing in both games is strong, but what makes Blazkowicz work is the person bringing his inner monologues to life: voice actor Brian Bloom. The reboot's developer, Machinegames, changed a lot about Wolfenstein for their take, but interestingly, it didn’t run from Blazkowicz’ 80s action movie look. They lean into the stereotype we form about someone who looks like a musclebound jock. We expect Blazkowicz isn’t the type of person who capable of expressing themselves in nuance.
Bloom’s performance undercuts our cynicism, and plays Blazkowicz as the quiet, shy type. He’s always muttering under his breath, seemingly worried about what might happen if he vocalizes what he’s thinking; shattering the illusion others take from his stature might be seen as weakness. But inside, Blazkowicz is broken, and the whisper-y tone Bloom deploys conveys a complicated man trying to find their way.
The shooting in Wolfenstein is fine—good, not great. What elevates The New Order and The New Colossus is why you—Blazkowicz—are pulling that trigger. Most big-budget shooters don’t have much to say about the human condition. This one does.
God of the Nameless: Participant (PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds)
The various Battlegrounds participants are numerous and bloodthirsty, caught in loops of death and rebirth onto the battlegrounds. Each is nameless—just movement on the horizon or the source of muzzle flash—until after their (or your) death, lending an air of mystery to each encounter, anonymous bodies stalking each other through the fog and ruins. Every other character in Erangel or Miramar is a real person, but they are as alien to you as you are to them, known only by gunshot sounds and the dead in their wake.
The Lorekeeper: The Last Castoff (Torment: Tides of Numenera)
I give the Last Castoff a lot of credit. You wake up, with no memory of who you are, and you find out you’re connected to an all-powerful, immortal being who just did away with your body after he was done with it. You spend the bulk of 40 hours just trying to understand the basics of your life while people put you in constant impossible situations. If the Last Castoff were a real person, that would be a stressful first (and last maybe?) days in existence. Imagine being born and finding out not only is your life probably a lie but that you’re not even a real person? There’s so much to unpack in Torment, but when you have to read rows and rows of text to even understand your basic life, you know it’s going to be complicated.
The Adversary: Your Echo (Echo)
The creatures will be introduced to you slowly. I will not tell you whether this is to minimise your level of shock or to lull you into a false sense of security. At first they will be a dark stain on the tiled floor, a spatter, barely alive. The lights go out and come back on. Now, a fleshy mass rests somewhere in the middle of the stain. A pulsing organ. A blackout. Look, limbs will emerge. A torso. Sticky, blackened arms that reach out as you pass. After a while, the shapes will totter onto two feet, turn putative heads in your direction, fall down. They’re so nearly complete. In a blackout or two they will be ready, pin-sharp. Their bodies, their faces, their intentions a perfect mirror of your own.
The Siren's Song: The Music of Nier: Automata
I love working to video game soundtracks. Some are soothing, some energizing, but they are almost always designed to be played in the background, which makes them perfect for my purposes. Listening to the Nier: Automata soundtrack, however, feels like laying down putting a heavy weight on my own chest. It’s so beautiful, and somehow so hopeful, and yet every note seems to carry the entire existential load of that game with it. The power each one of those tracks has retained over the course of the year is awe-inspiring to me. But lord, I’m never going to be able to get shit done while I listen to it.