Complex Narratives, the Rise of Fascism, and Wolfenstein II

Wolfenstein is no longer appealing to the target demographic that the series has historically adored it, and there are two main reasons why.

As October creeps ever-closer, so does the release of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, MachineGames’ sequel to the 2014 revival of the iconic nazi-killing action series. Wolfenstein has been a mainstay of video games since the third title in the series, Wolfenstein 3D, revolutionized the first-person perspective by introducing simplistic, fast-paced gun combat into the series’ anti-fascist formula, and practically inventing the FPS genre back in 1992.

And once again, it’s bringing a revolution to the industry: or, more accurately, to an alternate version of 1960’s America where Germany won the Second World War. Nazi flags fly in the streets in place of the star-spangled banner, Klansmen talk with SS officers about catching up on their German lessons, and game shows like “German… Or Else!” are broadcast to every television set in the United States. And we, dear old B.J. Blazkowicz, fight alongside a unified resistance movement to try and bring freedom back to the land of the free.

And that’s all well and good, you’d rightly assume. If you asked someone to list things that they could kill in a video game, Nazis will almost always be one of their first three responses. Their historical hatred and acts of genocide has cemented their ideology as one of society’s generally-agreed true evils.

But in the past decade, far-right mentality–not limited to Fascism and white supremacy–has experienced somewhat of a mainstream resurgence. It’s always been there, creeping in the shadows and manifesting with subtlety in power structures across the globe, but until recently it hasn’t been worryingly-common to see them marching in the streets brandishing swastika flags. The normalization of such bigotry can no doubt be attributed to a fast-growing movement spawned by the likes of the National Policy Institute and 4chan: the Alt-Right.

The loosely-defined group of extreme right-wing thinkers purposefully evade any definitive goal or official organization, allowing them to dodge critique and paint the left as paranoid and reactionary. But in observing the beliefs of many who claim ownership of the term, much of the Alt-Right stands for one thing: the advocacy of a socially-conservative white ethno-state. They’ve always walked the fine line between what is considered socially risqué in a liberal-centrist society and outright Nazism, aiming to present a less-threatening image, tidying up their language; opting for dog whistle terminology like “identitarianism,” and “preserving Western values.” But in doing so, they’ve shifted the global political spectrum far right enough that bona fide fascism is beginning to be seen as simply a “differing political opinion,” and as such, more and more have begun to openly espouse the rhetoric of groups like the National Socialist Party of America.

Now, how does this all relate to Wolfenstein II? Well, Wolfenstein as a series and the countless first-person shooters that have spawned from its legacy have always marketed to a stereotype target audience: the young, hyper-masculine “dude-bro” archetype. This demographic is seen to have an undying love for fast-paced, action-packed, gun-running violence, and for a significant portion of the genre’s history, this was almost always directed at video games’ favourite villain, the Nazi.

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And for a while, this was absolutely fine. But, as with many things, we can apply a Venn diagram, and there’s a large intersection between the target demographic of the FPS, and the target demographic of Alt-Right recruitment: insidious propaganda campaigns designed to appeal to both the impoverished white working class and the middle-upper class yearning for a sense of purpose, making promises like “reclaiming the honor of your ancestors.”

Of course, nothing definitive or factual can be said of the circumstances without conducting studies and surveys, but we can at least theorize that a chunk of the typical first-person shooter demographic may have fallen victim to the temptations of the Alt-Right. This in turn may introduce these same people to other flavours of pie in the far-right pie shop, so to speak, possibly explaining fraternal groups like the Proud Boys.

And with the FPS genre focusing more on the modern day and futuristic landscapes in recent times, it makes sense that we haven’t seen this politically-incidental backlash until recently. Only now that video games are really returning to Nazis as the central villain in their worlds are we feeling the heat from Alt-Right gamers. The comment sections of The New Colossus’s trailers, the replies to tweets from the Bethesda and Wolfenstein Twitter accounts, and threads on forum sites like Reddit and NeoGAF are worryingly filled with comments decrying the game for encouraging the murder of ‘people with different political beliefs.’

But killing Nazis isn’t the only part of Wolfenstein II that’s fueling far-right outrage. Many are also critical of the diversity present in the resistance, and accompanying the defense of Fascism are accusations that Bethesda are pandering to ‘political correctness’ and ‘social justice warriors.’

Those that Blazkowicz will ally himself with in The New Colossus are quite the varied bunch: people of colour, those experiencing varying degrees of disability, and even a positive portrayal of (genuine) Communists. B.J. himself even fits into this crowd, as a now paraplegic jewish person who only finds himself on his two feet and slaying Wehrmacht thanks to a futuristic exo-suit. And in reality, these are groups of people that would and do in fact lead the charge against Fascism wherever they see it.

The representation in Wolfenstein II is an example of how far video games have come in their ability to convey rich and complex narratives. In Wolfenstein 3D, due to technical limitations and societal perspectives on what video games should be allowed to explore, all you really did was run around a castle and shoot SS soldiers. But now that we have even bigger studios with teams dedicated to storytelling, all existing within a slowly-maturing industry, the stories that we tell in games have a heightened potential to show us more of the intricacies and details that one would find in the real world.

We saw resistance movements resembling that in The New Colossus in Nazi Germany. They were small and often disorganized, but they were certainly there. Red Orchestra, a group of anti-fascists, Communists, and Anarchists, assisted in the production of anti-Nazi propaganda and aided Jewish people and other targeted minority groups in fleeing the country. Not to mention the countless attempts on Hitler’s life throughout the period of the second world war. And it’s this aspect of a Fascist occupation that we can realize in games, with more dedication and time put into them, and it’s exactly what’s being realized in Wolfenstein II.

This no doubt contributes to the greater outrage surrounding the game. But it also has another impact: it’s making it more appealing to the progressive left. Whether intentional or not, MachineGames have, in their fleshed-out depiction of a Nazi United States, given the voiceless and the downtrodden some representation in a fight against Fascism. If it weren’t enough that one could enjoy killing Nazis with giant guns as it is, we can now do so alongside people that we feel stronger connections and a greater degree of empathy with.

Through a mixture of a global political shift, a rise in Fascism, and a greater ability to construct narratives in video games, the target audience of Wolfenstein, be it intentional or not, has shifted. No longer is the demographic the hypermasculine with a penchant for violence. Wolfenstein is now a game for the exploited, the minority, and the unashamed anti-Fascist.

(Special thanks to my editor Wesley Elkins for helping me with what was a very lengthy job.)


Nothing Else About E3 Matters Because There are Communists in the New Wolfenstein

We’re right in the middle of E3, a week-long extravaganza showcasing what every big triple-A games publisher has to offer for the coming year and beyond.  But none of it really matters, except Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus because it’s got Communists in it.

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a sequel to 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order, which took series protagonist William “B.J.” Blazkowicz through an alternate timeline 1960’s Europe where the Nazis’ technological advancements secured their victory in World War II. The New Colossus brings us to the United States of America in the same timeline, and from the trailer we can see that the US Government have welcomed the Nazi Occupation open-armed, with SS Officers drinking strawberry milkshakes in diners, and making sure Klansmen have been keeping up on their German lessons.

Now, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but I’m a bit of a fan of Communism. Shocking, I know. And as a result, when a piece of media, especially video games, portrays Communism in a positive light, I get a warm feeling deep inside of me that reverberates throughout the very core of my being. So, it’ll come as no surprise the immense joy that I felt when I watched the reveal trailer for The New Colossus, that premiered at Bethesda’s E3 conference last Sunday.

It has Communists in it, which renders everything else about this year’s E3 completely unimportant.

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There are a lot of other things to love about The New Colossus‘s reveal: the diverse cast of minority and disabled characters, including the fact that Blaskowicz himself is paraplegic (we can see badass action missions in the trailer where Blaskowicz is wheelchair-bound), the poignant commentary on the shared views of the Third Reich and many Far-Right organisations in the western world (the aforementioned Klansmen), and the abject hilarity of the Alt-Right’s sheer anger over the game’s objective of killing, I quote, “people you disagree with.”

But, I’m all about that on-brand content. So for me, more important than all of that, is the group of American Communist Revolutionaries that Blaskowicz seems to recruit into the Kreisau Resistance. We see as-of-yet unnamed men and women with red-banded arms engaged in distanced gunfire, surrounded by what looks like vintage distillery equipment, as Blaskowicz sits down to share a bottle of whiskey with the assumed leader.

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The old man talks with fury about the Imperialist war machine of the United States, the greedy moneymakers of Wall Street, and the families of the Proletarian masses. They even have a Constructivist propaganda poster on the wall, with a rising sun backgroup and hands clutching a hammer. And look at that man with the claranet. That’s fucking amazing.

That’s the most important thing to take from this year’s E3. Not the tactical opposition to fanatical religious cults in a Southern American state in Far Cry 5. Sure there’s Boomer, the Fangs-for-Hire who nicks guns off of your enemies and gives them to you. He may be a very good boy, but is he a Communist in The New Colossus? Nay I say!

Not the revamped gameplay and fascinating new setting of the upcoming Assassins Creed Origins. Yes, Eagle Vision is actually the vision of an eagle now, and the main protagonist doesn’t have a painfully out-of-place American accent like Altair in the first Assassins Creed. But even worse, Communism didn’t even exist in Egyptian times! Ridiculous.

And not the much-awaited unveiling of Beyond Good and Evil 2 and Michel Ancel’s resultant tears of joy. Yes, BG&E2 looks like literal gold embezzled onto a screen and Ancel’s muted outburst of pure emotional catharsis was one of the most beautiful parts of the Ubisoft conference, nay, the entirety of E3. But you know what London slang-spouting anthropomorphic monkeys don’t beat? Communists in The New Colossus.

Killing Nazis has always been a timeless conquest in video game history. They’re the perfect enemy. And I look forward to Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus‘ continuation of the medium’s tradition. But, as proven in actual World War II, the most effective force you can throw at a Nazi Occupation is a big handful of Communists, which makes me ever-more eager.

[This is a disclaimer that I’ll be adding as a footnote to all of my work from now on: any nonsensical connections made between video games and Communist themes, zealous and self-righteous dictator-esque behaviors, and perceived support and/or apologism of oppressive regimes like the Soviet Union are purely instances of self-satire as a means of comical introspection, and in some cases have no basis in truth or personal belief.]