Midway through the recent press preview of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, I (as protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz) found myself sneaking around a secret base in Nazi-occupied 1960s America, getting ready to stow away on a train to Area 51. On the catwalk across from me, I heard a couple of heavily armed soldiers lamenting the state of the American resistance.
“I have no sympathy for terrorists,” one of them complained in German. “How can they promote violence toward us, just because we hold a different point of view?” His partner commiserated: “You're right, Karl. Acts of violence are never okay. Never.” Karl kept going, indignant. “What kind of society would this be if I were to kill anyone who does not subscribe to my viewpoint?” I politely let his partner finish the conversation before stabbing them both.
The game might take place half a century ago, but this little exchange is a clear riff on contemporary internet politics — specifically, the exhaustive debate over whether or not it was okay for an anti-fascist protestor to punch white nationalist Richard Spencer unprovoked. It’s a real, canonical cousin to the satirical Wolfenstein 3-D mod that needles Blazkowicz with moral questions about Nazi-killing, and an almost verbatim echo of a YouTube comment calling The New Colossus “a game where you kill a bunch of people you disagree with.” (Its author confirmed to me that he’d been trying to parody angry alt-right trolls, but some other commenters seemed dead serious.)
The sequence is also an apt sign of how strange a culture The New Colossus will enter. In its 2014 predecessor Wolfenstein: The New Order, developer MachineGames was tasked with making Nazis feel like meaningful enemies instead of warmed-over cannon fodder. In 2017, it’s facing the opposite problem. When you’re making a game about fictional Nazis in America, should you also try to address the increasing prominence of their real, modern-day analogues?
“On some level, of course, everything that you experience influences you, right?” says creative director Jens Matthies. “But it's not really how we approached the game. Our vision of the game is to create something that's timeless as a piece of art, even thought that sounds pretty pretentious. ... I don't think you can really do that if you're doing sort of an ironic commentary on society. I think it has to be something sort of more universal than that.”
“Our vision of the game is to create something that’s timeless.”
Matthies doesn’t claim to be above the occasional contemporary allusion. “Every once in a while, you can't resist slipping a joke or two about the state of the world,” he says. As video game cultural references go, it’s a pretty sly one, but it suggests MachineGames and publisher Bethesda Softworks understand exactly what their game will symbolize.
As with The New Order, however, The New Colossus’ serious commentary seems ultimately written in service of its pulpy action. In the preview mission, Blazkowicz carries a miniature nuclear weapon (disguised as a fire extinguisher) through downtown Roswell, New Mexico, listening in on mundane conversations about life under Nazi rule. While one young woman flirts with a Nazi officer by practicing German, another casually discusses a slave auction.
The preview’s most effective vignettes are the subtle ones, suggesting that citizens’ mild, latent prejudices made full-blown fascism an easy jump. Perhaps least satisfying is a chat between Nazi soldiers and a couple of Klansmen, which got hinted at in the trailers: it’s a cheap joke about southern hicks who admire Nazis but are too ignorant to say “thank you” in German.
The Klansmen skit is where Wolfenstein’s limits come into view. It reminds us that the series isn’t trying to bear the weight of deep political commentary or realist world-building: Matthies says the KKK still wear hoods not because there’s still a reason to hide their identities, but because it saved the team from having to render more faces. So far, The New Colossus’ world holds together just well enough to pull players into the melodrama of Blazkowicz and his makeshift family of rebels — then propel them through several entertaining hours of shooting Nazi robots in the face.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus will be released on October 27th for PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.