Guten tag! In a previous video feature on Gaming Culture, I wrote that I was having trouble deciding what game to play when I have free time. Thankfully, I’ve manned up and made a couple of executive decisions about what to play. Recently, I purchased Wolfenstein from Steam and decided that if I wanted to break my habit of vacillating between one game or another, I had to commit myself to beating it at the exclusion of other distractions. I’m glad I did–it’s a special feeling, being able to watch the end credits.
What is Wolfenstein? Wolfenstein was released in 2008 by Raven Software, id Software, Pi Studios, and Endrant Studios and published by Activision. It is a first person shooter driven by story which revolves around Nazis and the occult.
That last sentence ought to give you a reasonable idea as to why I picked up the game for the princely sum of $5.00. You see, Wolfenstein’s aesthetic hits all of the notes which make Nazis perfect antagonists in video games. They are faceless, yet their Hugo Boss style apparel makes them interesting to look at (and gratifying to kill). Furthermore, if demons and the occult were really powerful, what better evil organization to exploit it than the Nazis? Also, by highlighting the occult aspect of the Nazis’ evil plans, the game allows for both a fantasy and science fiction element to be introduced into what would otherwise be a alternative history piece.
Wolfenstein is by no means the only piece of media to pursue this theme of Nazis and demons/sorcery/evil bad things. Perhaps the most famous example of this comes from the Indiana Jones series. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones tries to prevent the Nazis from acquiring and exploiting the Ark of the Covenant. In The Last Crusade, Indy and his father once again try to foil the Nazis, preventing them from getting the Holy Grail, which would grant immortality. The films were perfect “good versus evil” tales because it presented an already evil entity trying to tamper with powers to enhance their evil agenda.
But here’s a problem: What is this evil agenda? World domination? If this were the case, why would we need Nazis? Couldn’t we just substitute Napoleonic France or the Roman Empire? The answer is obviously no. The Nazis are great antagonists because they are universally reviled. This is due in no small part to the Holocaust.
And yet, the Holocaust is rarely mentioned in action pieces. Video games and films that deal with Nazis as antagonists rarely address the Holocaust. Isn’t this strange? Movies have historically done a better job with addressing this issue that video games. Schindler’s List is the best example of this. Then again, Schindler’s List was not about blowing up Nazis.
Why is the Holocaust–the main reason why the Nazis are so reviled in history–so absent from video games like Wolfenstein? Indeed, the protagonist of Wolfenstein, B.J. Blazkowicz, may himself be Jewish (it’s unclear one way or the other), which means that there could have been a deeply personal reason from Blazkowicz to take down the Nazis. Instead, no character remarks upon this possibility, and Blazkowicz remains a typical white-washed hero.
The reason Wolfenstein and many other games and movies with Nazi antagonists do not touch upon the Holocaust is that the facts of the Holocaust are well known and it is unnecessary to put that slaughter into a situation where the slightest irreverence could be shown. As I said in a previous article, the reason that the rape of East Germany in 1944 is never depicted in video games is that video games exist primarily to entertain, not to make the player feel uncomfortable. In other words, the player does not need another excuse to hate the Nazis, so why put that player in an awkward situation?
Although Wolfenstein never directly addresses the Holocaust, it does try to paint the Nazis as a group who do not value human life. They take human test subjects and turn them into gruesome science experiments, mutated to bend to the Third Reich’s will. This gives Blazkowicz enough reason to fight his way through scores of SS and Wehrmacht soldiers as well as genetically enhanced super soldiers.
As I said, the Nazis make for a satisfying enemy, even more so than zombies because Nazis are at least capable of exposition and can offer options players different gameplay challenges. Gameplay in Wolfenstein is fairly unique because it seems to straddle two schools of though in first person shooter design: old and new. Wolfenstein has its heritage in the early 1990’s as DOOM’s younger brother. As such, it maintains certain qualities that hearken back to an earlier time in FPS design:
- The ability to hold 8 different weapons at one time
- Boss fights involving a single high HP enemy
- Cut scenes aside, the protagonist is generally silent
- Standard enemy types divided clearly by visual style (still holds true for many modern games, but variability in modern games gives enemy types a bit more variety–not so in Wolfenstein, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing)
It also has qualities which suggest more modern sensibilities:
- An upgrade system for weapons
- Secondary abilities which allow you to see better, slow down time, do more damage or block damage
- A regenerating health system
- An open “hub world” from which missions are assigned
Wolfenstein generally succeeds in merging the old style of FPS design with modern mechanics and is truly an oft-forgotten gem in the world of shiny first person shooters. Also, the enemy types are diverse enough and your own weapons and abilities are interesting enough that the game goes by fairly quickly, without overstaying its welcome. A concise narrative with tangible rewards for progressing through each level is a critical component of a successful FPS, something Wolfensten definitely succeeds in.
If you ever see Wolfenstein on sale, and feel like playing an adventure game with sci-fi, alternate history and fantasy elements, pick it up and play it through until the end. It’s an enjoyable experience, even if the story isn’t exactly going to make you ponder the nature of war and humanity.
My next post should be another episode of Grubber’s Game Box, so until then, keep on gaming!