When Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus was announced this summer, it became a strange rallying point in the battle against modern white supremacy. Its 2014 predecessor Wolfenstein: The New Order added emotional stakes to the cliched gaming activity of shooting Nazis, which was considered a storytelling victory, but not a political one. The New Colossus, by contrast, recently hit stores as real-world white nationalists were holding rallies in the streets — including one where a masked anti-fascist punched “alt-right” leader Richard Spencer in the face. Suddenly, “should you punch a Nazi?” wasn’t just a gaming trope. It was a divisive philosophical question about the ethics of violent resistance. Wolfenstein II has a clear and unambiguous — if not particularly nuanced — answer: yes.
Wolfenstein II publisher Bethesda Softworks leaned into the controversy, tweeting messages like “Make America Nazi-free again.” But its developers at MachineGames were cagey in interviews about acknowledging any specific political message, insisting that the game was simply a “timeless” alternate-history yarn. But as long as the subject is white supremacy, the Wolfenstein aesthetic is almost inherently political. The New Colossus injects the moral simplicity of ‘90s first-person shooters into a more rich and multi-layered plot and setting, and the result is a game about considering the nuance of an enemy’s position… and then obliterating them anyway.
(Spoilers for Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus ahead.)
Like its predecessor, The New Colossus is set in an alternate 1960s where Germany won World War II. But where The New Order was set in Germany, the sequel takes protagonist William “B.J.” Blazkowicz to a Nazi-occupied America. The main plot is pulpy sci-fi: our grievously injured hero has returned home after waking from a 14-year coma, and he’s aiming to start a second American Revolution using a power suit made by an ancient Jewish sect. But the world he finds is full of unflinching racism and anti-Semitism—prejudices that stem not just from Nazi ideology, but homegrown American bigotry.
One of Wolfenstein II’s clearest themes is that Nazis didn’t need to conquer all of America through futuristic technology for white supremacy to flourish there. Roswell, New Mexico, where one of the game’s most memorable missions takes place, is a creepily cheerful small town that’s simply replaced American flags with swastikas. In documents and conversation fragments throughout the game, Americans express relief that “degenerate” black and Jewish culture is gone, thanks to Nazi purges.
‘Wolfenstein’ Nazis can be unusually nuanced, but they have to be cartoonishly awful, too
This is an unusually complex take on video game Nazis, who are often depicted as generic cannon fodder on par with aliens or zombies. But the more human an enemy, the harder it is to justify killing them at the rate that Wolfenstein allows. Players don’t just shoot guards and footsoldiers in unavoidable firefights in this game; it encourages them to shred, vaporize, immolate, and dismember hundreds of people, often in situations where it’s logistically unnecessary. Whatever Blazkowicz’s cause, he’d be a monster in the real world.
Plenty of other shooting and action games have faced this conundrum, struggling to tell serious and humanistic stories through experiences that are designed to make mass murder fun. Some games gloss over it, and some — like Spec Ops: The Line and Hotline Miami — revel in the dissonance, forcing players into violence and then condemning them for enjoying it. Wolfenstein takes a more straightforward approach: if Blazkowicz kills Nazis on an absurd and cartoonish scale, then Nazis have to be absurdly and cartoonishly awful.
So while MachineGames suggests that some Americans might easily become Nazis, it doesn’t offer those happy converts much sympathy. The Reich of Wolfenstein wears its atrocities on its sleeve, complete with reinstituting slavery and conducting public beheadings. Supporters cheer productions like the game show German… or Else!, where players race to translate English words into German, and soldiers whisk the loser away to reeducation.
The New Colossus has earned obvious comparisons with TV series The Man in the High Castle, which also depicts an Axis-occupied America. But Wolfenstein has no interest in layered characters like Man in the High Castle’s Obergruppenführer John Smith, a chillingly wholesome and charming Nazi commander. There’s variation within the game’s resistance faction, which includes an ex-Nazi still throwing off her reflexive racism. But current Nazis and their sympathizers — from ordinary citizens to Adolf Hitler himself — are invariably ignorant, brutish, smarmy, or sadistic.
Blazkowicz’s father, a once-struggling Texas businessman who seethes with a familiar strain of angry white masculinity, is Wolfenstein’s archetypal American collaborator. A cruel and bigoted domestic abuser who thrives under the Nazi regime, he marries a Jewish woman for her money, beats her for protecting their son, and later hands her over to the Nazis. During an interactive flashback, he forces a young Blazkowicz — and by extension, the player — to shoot his own dog as punishment for befriending a black girl.
This isn’t even the most upsetting vignette in the game, and it’s obvious why MachineGames chose to include them: they establish villains that aren’t just hateful, but so gratuitously evil that they tip the larger-than-life moral scale of a Wolfenstein game, and make their inevitable gruesome executions feel justified. But as Danielle Riendeau points out at Waypoint, they also make it totally impossible to excuse joining their side.
When ‘Wolfenstein’ questions your violence, it’s through hypocritical Nazis
Real fascist and white supremacist movements can attract people with promises of purpose and community, while claiming that they’re unfairly associated with those other violent bigots. Even actual Nazi war criminals could argue that they were cogs in a bureaucratic machine, committing atrocities without really understanding their actions. In Wolfenstein, the lines are drawn so clearly that these arguments sound ridiculous. The same goes for anything that minimizes, justifies, or even explains an antagonist’s actions — like arguing that Blazkowicz’s father was a product of his circumstances as a disenfranchised white man, or that archvillain Frau Engel is expressing pride in her heritage. Either they were monstrous people to begin with, or their ideology has corrupted them so completely that there’s nothing left but hatred.
When the game questions your enthusiasm for violence, it’s through the mouths of Nazis, whose superficially reasonable-sounding criticisms are revealed as hypocrisy at every turn. When Blazkowicz is confronted by the mother of one of his victims, it’s part of a cynical propaganda tour organized by Engel, and he’s pulled away without being able to respond or hear more. A soldier complains that the resistance is just killing people they disagree with, before musing about his death squad assignment. Late in the game, Blazkowicz gets to see how Germans view his constant killing, putting on a disguise and auditioning for the role of himself in a movie about the notorious “Terror-Billy.” But its screenplay is also written by Hitler, a senile paranoiac who shoots civilians on a whim. The whole game plays like an unintentional answer to Dialogue 3-D — a Wolfenstein 3D mod that parodied the Nazi-punching debate by deluging players with well-meaning anti-violence pop-ups.
And though some Americans might turn toward evil in the Wolfenstein series, the American ideal is ultimately never tarnished, only betrayed. Both The New Order and The New Colossus feature scenes where counterculture figures attack Blazkowicz’s military record, arguing that the US government was already too racist and oppressive to support. The games treat these complaints as legitimate ones, but Blazkowicz still wins his critics over to the American cause, thanks to his own humble patriotism and the more pressing problem of literal Nazis. His guiding principles aren’t presented as wrong or naive; they just haven’t been fully applied yet.
You can’t celebrate the brutal death of someone who, but for the grace of god, could be the player
Similarly, The New Colossus could have used its wealth of Nazi-fied kitsch to suggest that American pop culture itself is philosophically fascist. That’s what author Norman Spinrad did with The Iron Dream, an alternate history book where Hitler immigrates to America and channels his ideology into a beloved Golden Age sci-fi novel. In Wolfenstein, it simply illustrates how thoroughly Nazism has colonized American thought.
Wolfenstein’s moral certainty means it can’t delve too much into why decent-seeming Americans might become fascists. That would mean celebrating the brutal death of people who, but for the grace of god, might be the player. Instead, it offers a straightforward caricature that puts white supremacy past even the allure of tragedy or anti-heroism, and invites players to join the fight against it. And as a first-person shooter, there are huge swathes of experiences it can’t touch; by definition, the solution to almost every problem is easy, cathartic killing.
If MachineGames tried to really push for something more realistic, it would risk ending up with either an unplayable shooter or a glib and half-hearted critique of fictional violence — like a less successful version of Inglourious Basterds, a Nazi-fighting fantasy that eventually turns a judgmental gaze on its audience. In The New Colossus, the path away from fascism is easy to find, if not easy to take. It puts enemies within understanding, but beyond sympathy or redemption. As a political commentary on our own time, it's idealistic and uplifting — but also deeply bitter.