Remembered (along with the recently remade Doom) as the Grandfather of the modern First Person Shooter (FPS) genre, 1992’s Wolfenstein 3D is just as famous for its campy use of Nazi imagery as much as the revolutionary gameplay it pioneered. It is a game that lurches between Horrific (if Graphically Poor) depictions of Torture to a boss battle with Hitler in a Mechanized Suit of Armour. Taking its cues from the pulp literature of the 1950’s it took on the tone of a Boy’s own tale, Glossing over the visceral horrors of war in order to place you in the boots of the heroic American gunning down hordes of National Socialists who electronically vocalise “Achtung!” When shot.
After the Second Most Recent modern title, Wolfenstein (2009) took the camp up another notch with Nazi Wizards and Wehrmacht Generals that were Trans-Dimensional Slugmen, Bethesda decided to radically change the direction. In the 2014 re-introduction of the series, Wolfenstein: The New Order, they decided to ask a disturbing question about the series: What if these Super-Scientist National Socialist Wizards came to power?
Not that this is wholly an originally idea. Phillip K. Dick notably used the concept of an Axis Victory in the Second World War to analyse such things as metaphysics and human psychology in his work The Man in the High Castle, Recently made into a TV Serial and also interesting for being an alternate history novel that deconstructs the concept of alternate history.
But the twist that Bethesda added to a well used concept was to imagine the world under the Hakenkreuz-Punk Jackboot of the Pulp Nazi, to imagine the truly horrific reality behind a stock-villain.
The game opens in 1946 with a D-Day Style airborne assault on the fortress of the main villain, General Willhelm Strasse, Nicknamed “Deathshead” for his skull like visage. We are told he is the man behind the massive technological leaps Germany has been able to make, including the robotic dogs that make short work of most of the joint British-American task force on the shore (in one of many subtle nods, we can see that some of the American Soldiers are black, indicating that the United States was forced to de-segregate in desperation)
We are placed, once again, in the body of the improbably huge B.J Blaskowicz, All American hero in the vein of John Rambo, including the crippling post-traumatic stress disorder. B.J’s internal monologue, increasingly unhinged as the game goes on, provides us the mood for most of the game, whilst most of his spoken dialogue is clipped and to the point in a manner appropriate to a protagonist of such a game.
The introductory level, too, for the most part, plays to the standards and tone of most games in the genre, beginning with a disastrous beach assault and moving on to a stealthier infiltration of a Castle, where we can find, amongst other things, A letter to a German Soldier from his brother describing the atrocities being committed by both sides in the Central-African front, and various newspaper clippings of Hitler’s congratulatory speeches to his victorious troops around the world. While many of these hint at a much darker experience than one would initially expect from a series known for Mecha-Hitler, it is not until Blaskowicz reaches the inner sanctum of General Strasse that the game fully takes a turn into some very uncomfortable areas.
Finding a sterile white room with the emaciated bodies of concentration camp prisoners undergoing dissection, the last few remaining Anglo-Americans are easily captured by Strasse. It is here that the player is forced to make a choice. Strasse instructs them to look at either the young American Private. Wyatt, or the Glaswegian veteran Fergus Reid, with the chosen man suffering the fate of being used for one of Strasse’s fatal experiments, and the other one to take the role of primary supporting character for the rest of the game.
After this decision, the player is bidden on to escape, falling into the Baltic Sea and subsequently spending 15 years in a vegetative state in a Polish Asylum for the mentally ill under the care of a friendly family of Polish doctors. The player is treated to a montage in which time passes, holiday’s are celebrated and SS squads frequently visit to take some of the patients away for human experimentation and extermination.
Thus begins the story proper, as one of these squads handling of the staff swiftly degenerates into a massacre which our protagonist takes as his cue to snap out of his coma, gutting a soldier with a steak knife and rampaging through the SS men. We get the sense that that Blaskowicz has been waiting for this the whole length of the coma, and he repeatedly makes remarks about his only purpose being to kill Nazi’s. Whilst this sound like bravado, the tone of his internal monologue points to a man as broken as the world around him, and has the game goes on the player is made to feel more and more uncomfortable as the bleakness of Blaskowicz’s thoughts mirror more and more the world around him.
It is after escaping the Asylum that Blaskowicz meets up with his love interest for the duration of the game, Anya Oliwa, the head nurse at the asylum and daughter of the now murdered couple that ran it. Together they decide to make a move to Berlin to try and find any signs of resistance, which we’ve been explicitly told by background characters that there isn’t, and the German Reich is said to cover all of Europe, Asia and America, with only Southern Africa standing as a stubborn hold out.
The Berlin they manage to get to is the one the Nazi’s had imagined, with grandiose domes and fortress like buildings of concrete making it an oppressive, dominating place.
It is here the plot begins in earnest, with Blaskowicz rescuing his surviving squad mate from 15 years ago and joining up with a small resistance cell,, in all honesty a fairly standard video game plot. We learn from a concentration camp inmate that the Nazi’s vast leap forward in technology is the result of reverse engineering the inventions of a secret Jewish sect. This a particularly harrowing level set in said camp that includes a baby being thrown to the ground to die and a man implied to be the alternate history fate of Joachim Kroll, the Ruhr cannibal, having found work as a guard in the camp. The game uses this level as an opportunity to further explore an aspect of the Second World War usually considered far too dark for the genre, and to build the world. We learn, for instance, that “American” is a category for prisoner, along with “Jew” and Homosexual”. We meet a Southern African who tells a little more about how the conquest of Africa is going, alongside various other prisoners who seem to be from nearly every corner of the world. The game decides to take a step back in pace during this segment, as Blaskowicz, for the most part, goes through it armed only with a knife, and there are numerous breaks that consist of nothing more than talking to the other prisoners within the bunkhouse. This provides the player with a break to contemplate this world, providing us a way to interact with it other than simply gunning down hundreds of soldiers, which Blaskowicz himself bemoans several times throughout the game. The Game deliberately forces us, through several well-spaced points, to sit back and think about what this world is like, and what kind of person our character is, creating a far more tense and uneasy atmosphere than a game solely focused on shooting could have.
After aiding in the escape of the camp inmates (including the aforementioned Jewish techno-mage) The resistance cell, composed of a wheelchair bound former Teacher, an Ex-SS man and his mentally deficient son, and either an autistic-savant Russian woman or Jimi Hendrix (Depending on the choice the player made earlier) decides to go on the offensive, seizing a cache of the Jewish hyper-tech for themselves, and hijacking a nuclear U-Boat in the process. It is at this point that Ania reveals herself much more to Blaskowicz, reading veiled diary entries from her ”cousin” relating to taking sadistic joy in luring away individual Nazi soldiers and murdering them in often cruel and unusual ways. Previously the only major character that didn’t seem to have a major defect, We find out that nobody escapes this world unscathed, and everyone we meet will be broken by this oppressive regime.
After attacking a Trans-Continental bridge with Jewish Tech in order to steal an identity that will allow him to access to a moon base, Blaskowicz proceeds to steal the nuclear launch codes from there. Things we can find in this level include a letter from a Nazi Officer to a dating service, and a report ascertaining the feasibility of Lunar concentration camps. This is likely the lightest level in the game in terms of both tone and game-play, with it being a simplistic and fun area in which to gun down soldiers with Moonraker style laser weaponry, and very few references to more realistic atrocities the other levels include. Blaskowicz literally leaves his earthly problems aside for a short period, even beginning the level in the guise of a German Officer, and receiving a friendly greeting from the sentry who states he also is “a veteran of the Great War”. After Blaskowicz successfully steals the launch codes, we are called back to earth, with our character quietly musing about the strange things he’s seen whilst dispassionately stabbing to death an unarmed and terrified German Cargo Pilot.
After returning to Earth Blaskowicz finds most of his resistance cell either dead or captured by General Strasse, the man behind this entire timeline. The hostages he holds prevents the remaining resistance members from launching a nuclear strike directly at his base, thus we enter the final mission, were Blaskowicz must personally rescue the prisoners and kill Strasse.
After fighting through armoured guards, robots, and metal dogs, Blaskowicz rescues the hostages and confronts the general, who first attacks with a robot controlled by the lobotomised brain of whichever comrade was left behind at the beginning. To euthanize the machine, Blaskowicz must first shoot down a pair of zeppelins providing it power, to which Strasse chides him for by telling him the were crewed by “good men, men with families”
After defeating the Robot Blaskowicz confronts Strasse himself, also utilising a large killing machine. After finally destroying this, the elderly Strasse is left wounded and presumably helpless, and the player is encouraged to approach him and end his life by stabbing him. Strasse pulls a grenade when the knife enters his gut, killing himself and wounding Blaskowicz, who hears over the radio his comrades escaping, signalling an impending nuclear launch. As the credits begin to roll, Blaskowicz recites Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus”.
As difficult as it is to use a video game to discuss subjects with a deeper meaning, particularly one in a genre known primarily for its mindless action, Wolfenstein manages to do so quite effectively. By giving the player a break from the action the game gives itself space to drive home the depressing, dehumanising subject matter that underpins it, and the flow and pacing in the game prevents it from ever completely giving in to crushing morbidity.
Like it’s protagonist, the game is about death and killing but wishes to be something more than that. Blaskowicz musings and inner monologues help highlight the sense of ill-ease of a wish for peace in a setting that can only ever be about war.