This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #101. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.
Corey Milne stands at the intersection of gaming and world history to see what he can see.
I don’t care for Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus.
I think it is in many ways one of the worst games I’ve played in a long time. I struggled through the deeply unsatisfying gunplay of its first half, grasping to the hope that it might at least present an interesting narrative. The game instead offers up a medley of bite-sized scenarios constructed in a way to be easily shareable and memefied, callously engineered to get the #resistance audience salivating. It’s something that Bethesda’s marketing department was clearly eager to jump on. They knew who they were targeting when they modeled ads around the real-life punching of Nazis. While punching Nazis remains a good thing to do, any corporation that tries to sell your activism back to you for profit also deserves a good kicking.
Playing the game, it’s not long until you realize that when it comes to resistance and the opposition to state violence, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus doesn’t have a whole lot to say. I guess Bethesda wants to sell as many copies as possible, so it can’t afford to alienate any of its audience. Even the fucking Nazis. So we’re treated to digital dioramas that strain to tell us how shocking all of this is, before we’re chaperoned to the next shooting gallery with an accompanying playful dig at America’s current political climate.
America has always had a strong pull on games. Sequels have a tendency to cross the Atlantic. Sony’s first party game Resistance: Fall of Man did this. What started with liberating Britain from alien hordes made its way to San Francisco for Part Two. It might seem strange that it’s the Resistance franchise, a middle-of-the-road and mostly forgotten series, that came to my mind here. Resistance 2 is the first time I was keenly aware of just how disappointed I felt seeing another game’s story ship out to America. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve machine-gunned my way down New York city streets, or repelled assaults on the Golden Gate Bridge. For all of the games centered around American jingoism, there are just as many that position it as an underdog. We must always step up to liberate America.
I’ve lost count how many times I’ve machine-gunned my way down New York city streets, or repelled assaults on the Golden Gate Bridge.
The New Colossus embraces this and does no real work to subvert the fantasy. BJ is fixated on the idea of bringing freedom back to the American masses. The Germans will rue the day they took liberty from them. A section of the game that became the focus of much of its marketing takes place in Roswell. Here, Klansmen walked down the street with impunity and Nazi officers drink milkshakes. Players will spend all of ten minutes in Roswell. A stormtrooper admonishes the Klansmen for their poor grasp of the German language. There’s a military parade and walls plastered with propaganda. You can catch snippets of conversations from the townspeople, but none of these lives are ever explored or given room to breathe. Before you can get your bearings, the game whisks you away on an actual rocket propelled train.
Every group BJ recruits to his cause tells him that America wasn’t that great before the Nazis arrived, but they’re never given time to grow as characters and are quickly sidelined. Early on, BJ says it was monsters who nuked New York. It’s Grace, leader of a group modeled after the Black Panthers who corrects him and says it was men who did this. Portraying the Nazi monsters as the men they really are is clearly something the game wants to explore. Hitler is presented as a frail old man. Other pillars, such as head of the Nazi war machine, Frau Engel, or BJ’s abusive, collaborating father, are both killed easily with an axe. To portray these oppressive symbols as vulnerable pieces of flesh and blood could have held some weight.
Here they’re just figures to be sacrificed in the service of action. The New Colossus moves as if it’s been strapped down to that damn rocket train and has to hurl itself at a climax. The writing isn’t the only casualty here. Even just getting to the end of levels had me smashing the guide button throughout. I was constantly getting lost and the game does a poor job of guiding the player down a preferred path. There’s a lack of vision that permeates every aspect of this game. Wolfenstein: The New Order had a confidence that is notably absent here. Just like BJ’s broken body, momentum seems to be the only thing holding this game together.
Corey Milne is an Irish freelance writer who likes to poke at that strange intersection where games meet history. A roundup of his writing can be found at coreymilne.com. You can join his Rad-Lands motorcycle bandit gang on Twitter @Corey_Milne.