The Peaceful, Human Dreams Behind the Nazi-Slaying Fantasy of 'Wolfenstein'

A seemingly generic shooter protagonist harbors surprising dreams.

Dec 3 2017, 9:01pm

screenshot by author

The problem with Wolfenstein protagonist B.J. Blaskowicz, at least on the surface, is that he fits a certain mold. He looks like any other video game hero: male and white with a square jaw and a large frame capable of punching bad guys. He’s been given a backstory, love interests, and children, but for the most part, what we know about him is standard video game fare. He’s there to be a conduit for fantasy violence, as that is the main reason for playing shooters. So he’s strong and manly to go along with it. It’s always been kind of boring.

Changes made beginning with The New Order and continuing into The New Colossus, however, have turned B.J. from typical video game protagonist into a complex action hero. B.J. isn’t just a Nazi killing machine, but a vulnerable, sensitive Southern Jewish boy who wants nothing more than to be with his family and to live a quiet life. Those changes are never more apparent than in B.J.’s trial sequence in New Colossus.

(We’ve talked about the scene in question before, so spoilers if you haven’t played it yet).

screenshot courtesy of Bethesda

If you’ve played the game, you know how it begins. B.J. is on trial for war crimes when he suddenly breaks free of his restraints and goes on a killing spree. You begin with no weapons and no health or armor, so you have to collect as you go. Combined with the sheer amount of forces that are sent after you, the sequence is tense and difficult, probably the most challenging in the entire game.

As you take out wave after wave of Nazi soldiers you’re rewarded with escape -- or so you think. You open a door to find your mother sitting at a window, looking the same as she did when you were a child. B.J. is overcome with emotion and collapses at her feet, resting his head on her lap. The man who just took out dozens of Nazis, the man known as Terror Billy and one of the most dangerous war criminals in the world, is taking a moment to breathe.

“I don’t wanna go back out there,” he says. “I can’t do this anymore.”

“We will be together,” she says. “Soon. You just have one more hardship to get through.”

At this point the player has realized this can only be a dream—since his mother was sold out to the Nazis by his father—so what we’re seeing is a manifestation of B.J.’s needs. At this moment, the moment before his death, he wants to be reunited with his mother. Not even Anya, who is pregnant with twins, makes an appearance. Instead, he spends his last moments of freedom (false freedom but freedom nonetheless) becoming a child again.

B.J. has many moments of vulnerability throughout the series, but The New Colossus is ripe with emotional conflict. The dream sequence reveals something interesting about his psyche though. While killing Nazis is satisfying for him, it’s not his goal. He’s too tired for that. His goal is peace for his country and for his family.

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B.J. gets a second wind later both physically and emotionally, but we’re still left with the dream sequence and everything before it. The first half of the game is filled with B.J.’s ruminations about death, his feelings for Anya, and him remembering Caroline. He barely talks about killing Nazis besides a few memorable quips. For a game that markets itself as a pulpy, violent throwback, it sure features way more character moments and internal monologues.

I think a lot about video game protagonists and how we as an industry can make them more compelling. We’re on our way thanks to a more diverse group of new heroes such as Alloy from Horizon Zero Dawn, but also in how we’ve reimagined old ones like B.J. It’s easy to dismiss him as just another white male action hero, but luckily that’s not done before understanding that underneath his gruff exterior, he longs for something relatable and small.

What makes B.J. so great as a character isn’t how skilled he is at violence, but how despite all of this, he doesn’t want any of it. Wolfenstein is a fantasy, allowing the player to gun down rows of truly evil, faceless villains with relative ease while giving them the chance to use every kind of gun possible. The player feels powerful, but in a lot of ways, that goes against B.J. himself. Wolfenstein gives you what you want in an action shooter, but contrasts it with a character who wants literally anything else. So you’re left to wonder if it’s a fantasy at all.