Why 'Wolfenstein II' Could Never Be a 'Walking Simulator'
I didn't like the action in the game as much as I loved the story, but it was necessary
I realize that I may be in the minority, but I don't play Wolfenstein II to kill Nazis. I play Wolfenstein II to listen to the people who survived the Nazis.
Wolfenstein II is a fantastic game about murdering racists in an alternate version of 1960s America, where Hitler dropped the bomb on Manhattan and won World War II. It's a beautiful, violent, and depressingly relevant game. I love its stories and characters, I want to know what happens to depressed hero BJ Blazkowicz and his motley crew of revolutionaries. I'm less interested in going on the missions that keep them safe.
I wish Wolfenstein II was what gamers sometimes derogatorily call a "walking simulator." Walking simulators such as What Remains of Edith Finch and Firewatch allow players to explore an area and experience a story with low stakes. There's maybe puzzles and a few scares, but rarely combat of any kind. I didn't think the combat missions in Wolfenstein II, and by extension violence against Nazis, aren't necessary. The villains of this world instigate violence, whether the player participates or not. Their ideology is predicated on violence since it requires removing or exterminating entire segments of the human race.
Wolfenstein II makes it crystal clear what happens when you don't take actions against violent ideologues—you, and everyone you care about, dies. As the Wolfenstein 3D mod Dialogue 3-D showed, if you debate them you're already dead.
Of course, Wolfenstein II is primarily designed to entertain, and all the Nazi shooting is meant to be an enjoyable way to pass the time. But I personally didn't think it was that fun, primarily because I've played much better shooters recently. I didn't kill the Nazis because I enjoyed it, I killed them because it's the only way to keep the characters I care about safe.
I love exploring the Eva's Hammer—the submarine base for the game's crew of rowdy misfits and radicals. Between missions, main character BJ wanders the halls of the sub listening to the brief chatter and small stories of his crew. I hate leaving them behind to kill Nazis. It feels like a burden and the warm and inviting level design of the sub, when contrasted with the cold, concrete, maze-like feel of Nazi outposts, reinforces that.
Wolfenstein II is a game built to kill Nazis and it's good at it, I just don't like doing it. I wish I could just walk the sub, talk to people, and explore the environments of the game world without having to mow through hundreds of faceless troops. Every death feels like it's keeping me from where I want to be.
There's nothing wrong with Wolfenstein II's combat. Everything functions as it should and slamming a hatchet into the crotch of an unsuspecting racist feels just as good the 100th time as it did the first. Yet, as I plow through the maze-like halls of bombed-out Manhattan and the secret base underground in New Mexico, my mind wanders back to the gang's submarine base.
Part of the reason for this is Bethesda's other big first person shooter, Doom, which was so good it might have ruined the genre for me. It was a fast-paced game with no reload button and no health regeneration. It forced me to rush into combat and assault demons for health and ammo. The Doom Marine never cowered behind a box while his health regenerated.
Because of that experience, Wolfenstein II feels like a half-step back. It has the speed and intensity of Doom while clinging to all the FPS tropes I'm now sick of—reloading out of habit, a slowly regenerating health meter, and a weapon selection wheel that ensures you die if you try to switch weapons in a firefight.
There are so many small and beautiful moments back on Eva's Hammer. I want to hear more from Francine, the French mental patient who tends bar with a habit of oversharing. I want a good end for Sigrun, the daughter of a Nazi commander who wants forgiveness and love.
I want to Connie, one of the black radicals the crew picks up in Manhattan, to be OK. She rarely talks and another crewmember finally pushes her into opening up. When she speaks, she delivers a stilted staccato description of a nuke hitting Manhattan that sounds like a Langston Hughes poem. It gave me chills.
I wish Wolfenstein II was a walking simulator, but it can't be, because it's full of Nazis. That's why, in this world, a sub full of stressed-out revolutionaries is so much more inviting than the city of Manhattan. Nazis don't create a world that's fun to walk around in.
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