Learning to love wisely
What can one of the most violent videogames ever made teach us about love?
I had hamstrung people with a jagged combat knife and slashed jugulars. I had pushed a man's face into the toilet he’d just used, then stabbed him in the back of the head. Decapitating people with machine gun fire, tearing gaping holes in their sides and watching the guts spill out, I waded through corridors choked with corpses and slick with gore. Now that it was all over, I found myself doing something I almost never do with a videogame: I was sitting through the credits. And as the mournful closing music of Wolfenstein: The New Order (TNO) played I found myself experiencing a rare emotion: sadness.
Not regret that the game was over, or sorrow concerning the dismal fate of the majority of the characters in this story-driven shooter. This was something different, something I can only describe as a profound melancholy concerning the human condition. There was only one explanation.
I was in love.
I had, of course, been in love before. I’d fallen hard, often, and without requital for works of literature, film, theatre, music. But now I was in love with a high-res slaughterfest that seemed on its face to be little more than an ode to hypermasculinity.
The game’s hero, William ‘B.J.’ Blazkowicz (aka ‘Blazko’), whose first outing was in 1992's Wolfenstein 3D, has had a long career slaughtering one-dimensional Nazis in games of variable quality, where he was in essence a non-character, an empty vessel for adolescent male empowerment fantasies. TNO opens with WWII going very badly for the Allies; Blazko is gravely injured during a disastrous last-gasp operation and remains in a coma at a German rest home until jolted back to reality by Nazis murdering the rest-home staff. After his escape, Blazko learns that 14 years have elapsed and it’s now 1960, and that after suffering a nuclear attack the US surrendered and Nazi Germany rules the world.
Released in 2014, TNO represents a major departure from the previous games in the franchise in two important ways. First, Blazko is now a fully realised protagonist, replete with a reflective internal monologue. Second, the game engages in pointed sociocultural criticism; it’s one of the very few games (Bioshock Infinite is another) to raise the centrality of racism to US history and it denounces the US for including the same fascist tendencies that created Nazi Germany. With the luxury of hindsight afforded by the recent dire electoral contest in the US – where Trump’s slither to the surface is merely a local instantiation of a worldwide love affair with populist authoritarians – we should be asking if popular entertainment was somehow tapping into something about the political landscape that few members of the punditterati saw coming. Equally striking is the fact that the game shamelessly bites the hand that feeds it, mounting a number of sly attacks on the very genre (the first person shooter) of which it’s such an exemplar – and, even more audaciously, on the entire Wolfenstein franchise.
Examining how TNO blends what seem to be radically contradictory impulses tells us how far videogames have come as a creative medium. It also tells us why that progress is passing largely unnoticed.
Back in 2006, media critic Chuck Klosterman noted that popular appreciation of videogames was crippled by the absence of genuine videogame critics. We were, he argued, saddled with reviewers who offered only simplistic consumer advice: should you buy this thing or not?
Ten years on, not much has changed. We’re awash in videogame reviews, but genuine criticism’s thin on the ground. As a result, videogames are for the most part treated only as product. Certainly there’s always been tension when responding to art and entertainment. Individual works are products in the sense that they’re almost always offered for sale, so a decision to engage with them is in essence a decision about whether or not to make a purchase. Yet there’s the sense that reviewing a product emerging from an accepted artform requires a distinctive approach. In other words, you wouldn’t review a novel the same way you’d review a lawnmower.
That’s precisely the problem with videogames: even people who love them with a passion tend not to see them as an artform (a label that doesn’t require every single instance be a Great Work – just that the form itself is capable, from time to time, of producing such). Consequently, they’re reviewed as a specific kind of product: a device. As with a camera (or a lawnmower), reviews of videogames largely confine themselves to describing appearances and listing features.
We tend to forget that consumer advice (in the form of reviews) and criticism ask fundamentally different questions about a work:
What features does this thing have?
What factors shaped this thing?
Is this thing similar to other things?
How is this thing adapting conventions?
Is this thing worth your money?
Is this thing worth your time?
Should you buy this thing or not?
Is this thing significant or not?
Players no less than developers are likely to respond to calls for better criticism with the charge that it’s just pointy-headed academicism. The frothy-mouthed hate directed at Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women series is a good example of the response to any attempt to treat games as something more than mere toys (the intensity of the hatred, of course, had everything to do with Sarkeesian’s gender). This leads to a belief that the way videogames are being reviewed at the moment gets the job done and serves the needs of players more than adequately, thank you.
Except it doesn’t.
Criticism's third and fourth questions operate on a completely different level. The corresponding questions for consumer advice can be answered with a simple yes or no, a mechanistic approach that explains why most video game reviews are not only indistinguishable from one another but look as if they were assembled by a machine. This impression’s enhanced by the ubiquitous practice of providing numerical ratings, a sure indicator of consumer advice (when was the last time you saw a review in a literary periodical score a title out of ten?).
In other words, you wouldn’t review a novel the same way you’d review a lawnmower.
The numerical illusion of objectivity is raised to the nth power by aggregation via services such as Metacritic. While numbers tell us little worth knowing, their reverential invocation by players speaks volumes about our culture's touching faith in the monkeys-typing-Hamlet logic of The Crowd. Yet the reason that questions posed by consumer reviewing of games can be answered with machined writing is because they treat games themselves as basic machines, delivery devices for simple fun.
There’s nothing simple about fun. There’s probably nothing more complex than trying to articulate the parameters of individual and collective pleasure. The questions being asked by the critic – for example, is this thing significant? – not only indicate that the answers might be complex, but that they will be complex because the work itself is complex. The benefit for players of videogames is that a good piece of criticism will in fact deliver all the benefits of an effective consumer review. You can't, after all, begin to answer the complex questions without establishing some of the basics first. So when reading a piece of criticism a player will still get a lot of information about the nature of the game, its features, strengths and weaknesses, etc. But they’ll also get much more. Which raises the obvious question: why don't people just write criticism in the first place?
The short answer’s that consumer advice is easy. So easy anyone can do it, as the numerous ‘buy/don't buy’ reviews on Amazon testify. Criticism is hard. Not everyone can do it. That’s a deeply unpalatable truth, one that’s become even more so given the marketing of our socially mediated reality is itself predicated upon a faux democratism. Like our painstakingly curated social media experiences, consumer advice reviewing diminishes the works it covers by treating them as inherently less rich and rewarding than they may well be. Similar, too, is the way such reviewing panders to readers and viewers by providing the appearance of intellectual richness while offering them merely an easily digestible simulation of such activity. Consumer advice is to criticism what cable news is to journalism. A consumer advice culture positions reviewing as a passive, secondary activity, one that can comment upon practices but has no real influence. By treating all works the same it blinds us to true innovation.
In recent years, more sophisticated discussion of videogames has emerged online as creators experiment with different formats; Penny Arcade's Extra Credits series is exemplary in this regard. But the world of videogame reviewing has remained stubbornly focused on consumer advice. For a while, the work of The Escapist's Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw seemed to indicate a new direction for videogame reviewing. Croshaw frequently points out the mundane nature of so many of the games that other reviewers shower with plaudits, implicitly – and, occasionally, explicitly – taking other reviewers to task for their slavish devotion to conventional gaming wisdom. Croshaw’s Zero Punctuation series spawned more than a few imitators; sadly, the only lesson most of them learned from Croshaw was to lace their otherwise pedestrian consumer advice with the word ‘motherfucker’ from time to time. Genuinely critical explorations of specific videogame titles, such as Tom Bissell's superb review of Spec-Ops: The Line, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Shooter,’ have remained rare. Moreover, unlike virtually every other cultural form, the discourse concerning videogames has remained stubbornly isolated in a variety of (mainly online) specialist publications.
It’s been all too common in recent years for players, developers and reviewers to acknowledge that yes, games might not be that great in comparison with the Great Works of our culture but just give them time. Eventually, this logic runs, the conditions will be right and games will be Great in their own right. But the history of new cultural forms teaches a different lesson.
When was the last time you saw a review in a literary periodical score a title out of ten?
We need to figure out new ways of seeing the greatness that’s already in front of us. It’s easy to forget, for example, how long it took for cinema to be regarded as a medium capable of producing insightful and inspiring works. An entirely new set of critical vocabularies, frameworks, and – most importantly – ways of writing had to be developed. We’ve only just passed that threshold for television (and for some people, television’s still a medium defined by the production of unredeemed awfulness). So it is with videogames. They don't need to meet our existing expectations. They need to teach us what the new expectations should be.
One factor that’s thwarted the emergence of genuine criticism is simply the tyranny of timeliness; reviews need to come out as close as possible to the performance, publication, or release date. It isn’t necessarily a problem that the entire enterprise is geared toward facilitating a consumer’s purchase; art is, as I pointed out earlier, rarely not a commercial transaction. The problem instead lies in the emphasis on encouraging consumers to make yea or nay buying decisions right this minute. This isn’t a process geared toward the needs of the consumer – or even the creator – but the seller.
Consider the etymology of ‘review:’ usage examples in the venerable OED emphasize that re-viewing involves taking a second look at something. Contemporary reviewing practice, by contrast, concentrates almost entirely on taking a first look at something. If experience teaches us anything, it should be that our first impressions of something are often wrong, and a true appreciation not just of how something works, but more importantly its value, only emerges over time. Historically, however, ‘to review’ has also meant not just taking a second look at something, but also trying to see it differently, to look at it with new eyes.
What is it that makes it possible for us to see differently, in the way criticism demands? The answer I’ve settled on, somewhat to my own surprise, is love.
This perspective runs counter to many of the aesthetic traditions of modernity that are, by and large, deeply suspicious of passionate attachment. For example, in The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Human Rights, Susie Linfield charts a long history of distrust and even contempt for photography on the part of those often regarded as the medium’s most important critics. Central to this distrust of photography, Linfield argues, is a hostility toward emotional engagement with your object. “For these writers,” she argues, “criticism is a prophylactic against the virus of sentiment, and pleasure is denounced as self-indulgent.”
As a counter-example, she offers the work of film critic Pauline Kael who, Linfield observes, “argued that the only truly capacious, mature way to experience movies is to combine our deepest emotional reactions, which should never be disowned, with a probing analysis of them. She did not, as some have mistakenly thought, champion unadulterated emotion or unexamined fandom; on the contrary... feeling could enhance rather than undermine critical thinking.” Kael’s aesthetic is thus a sharp contrast to that of Susuan Sontag: “If On Photography was written by a brilliant skeptic, ‘Trash, Art, and the Movies’ is the work of a smitten lover. And what Kael showed is that the lover can see just as clearly, and be just as smart as the skeptic.”
It’s Linfield to whom I’m indebted for the title of this essay, a reference to a piece written for The Dial in 1840 by critic Margaret Fuller. The genuine critic, Fuller argued,
will not disturb us with personalities, with sectarian prejudices, or an undue vehemence in favour of petty plans or temporary objects. Neither will he disgust us by smooth obsequious flatteries and an inexpressive, lifeless gentleness. He will be free and make free from the mechanical and distorting influences we hear complained of on every side. He will teach us to love wisely what we before loved well, for he knows the difference between censoriousness and discernment, infatuation and reverence. . .
Both the reviewer and the critic may be driven by love of their object, but only the critic attempts to love wisely.
The absence of two critical perspectives present in reviews of other media indicates most clearly the failure of videogame reviewing to emerge as a more complex and sophisticated form: these are acknowledging the political and cultural context of a work’s emergence, and recognising the capacity for metacommentary.
Videogame reviewers will adopt the first perspective approximately never. As far as they’re concerned, videogames are created entirely by people living in hermetically sealed vaults, and played by people similarly enclosed: they’re never engaging with political and cultural issues and are incapable of influencing their players to think about anything beyond strategy and tactics. Similarly, reviewers only tend to recognize the metanarrative potential of games when they’re hit over the head with it, as with the excellent The Magic Circle, where players are trapped within an unfinished videogame.
Consumer advice is to criticism what cable news is to journalism.
Upon TNO’s release in 2014, a competent critic might at least have remarked on the coincidence that it was in development at the same time as Amazon’s adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Instead, reviewers and players alike confined themselves to praising the voice acting, dialogue and extraordinary visuals, the latter produced by the designer’s attention to facial expression capture alongside the more common body motion capture.
It’s true that the level of nuance TNO’s characters demonstrate – foreheads furrowing in puzzlement, slight shakes of the head in stunned disbelief, nervous smiles – is extraordinary. All of this facilitates the most striking feature of the game: Blazko emerges as a fully realised character. Still a fount of bloodthirsty wisecracks, but this time with a reflective inner monologue and a broad emotional range covering everything from vengeance to shyness and uncertainty. Even the minor characters in TNO are provided with idiosyncratic gestures, nervous tics and speech patterns, establishing themselves as people without the need for the tedious exposition of an individual back story that so many games are forced to employ. Players encounter these characters and form impressions about them just as they would people on the street: by how they act, what they say, and how they say it. As a result, you come to care about even the minor characters without even being aware of it. Talk of ‘caring about’ characters is, of course, straying uncomfortably into the dreaded territory of emotion, so most reviews of TNO confine themselves to discussing this aspect of the game as a purely technical achievement.
One example of an approach that would allow us to see TNO differently is provided by Marsh Davies, a freelance critic who writes a series of columns for PC gaming site Rock, Paper, Shotgun (RPS). In 2015 RPS launched a regrettably short-lived series by Davies called ‘Fail Forward,’ a set of video essays whose purpose was to explore the significance of those elements in games that don't quite work.
As game theorist Jesper Juul pointed out in The Art of Failure, failure’s at the existential core of gaming’s appeal. Not only in the sense that players spend most of their time failing rather than succeeding but because games make all failure our fault. However much players may rant about ‘bugs,’ ‘hacks’ or ‘lousy AI’, the inescapable fact is that when we fail in games it’s we who fail, not an avatar, not a mechanic, not a sub-routine. Our choices led directly to us lying there in a bloody mess on the floor of a Nazi dungeon. Contrary to the widespread cultural belief that people play games primarily to indulge in fantasy scenes of empowerment, games are in fact one of the very few human experiences short of masochism or – same thing – reading about masochism in Fifty Shades of Grey where we deliberately choose to have our own inadequacies and powerlessness flung in our face. Repeatedly.
Davies argues that instead of seeing moments of apparent failure in game design as elements that hold the game back from some imagined perfection, we need to understand how moments of failure in some of the best games are often what propel the game forward. One of the things that makes great games great is that their reach exceeds their grasp; the kind of failure manifested by the large pool of mediocre games, on the other hand, is due precisely to the fact that, terrified by the marketplace, they couch their ambitions comfortably within the range of their abilities. This is to say that great games fail in interesting ways, while average games fail in utterly predictable and ultimately boring ways.
Davies focuses on two interesting failures in TNO. The first is that the game’s relatively nuanced representation of Jewish occult beliefs compromises the game’s explicit denunciation of the Nazis’ eugenics-based ideology. The game takes us into labour camps, shows us all kinds of victims of Nazi cruelty, and never plays their suffering for laughs. It also mocks Nazism’s eugenic certainty by having Blazkowicz himself mistaken for an Aryan. However, in showing the Nazis as having stolen much of their advanced war-winning technology from Jewish occult science, the game portrays Nazi behaviour as having been driven at least in part by the (accurate, in the context of the game) perception that the Jews were a threat. The game, Davies argues, thus ends up misrepresenting, despite its intentions, the way in which Nazi cruelty was grounded in an elaborate mechanism for persecuting people who were arbitrarily seen as inferior, different, and a threat.
This is part and parcel of the most interesting problematic element: the game risks inflicting extraordinary levels of cognitive dissonance on its players. The mayhem that you witness and which you are largely responsible for inflicting is extraordinary, yet the game also wants to be a deep human drama.
Whereas some reviewers saw this as a weakness, or at the very least a sign of developer inconsistency, Davies instead draws a useful parallel with several examples of Korean cinema that tell engaging and often moving stories while promiscuously mingling genre conventions. Police procedurals merge with slasher flicks and morph into comic buddy movies. This, he argues, is a counter to one of the central conventions of Western art – that creators should strive for a unity of effect, bending every aspect of their works toward a single consistent impression. One of the things that makes videogames so culturally significant is that they revel in radical discontinuities; our minds have a remarkable ability compartmentalize and to examine phenomena in isolation, and games like TNO exploit this to great effect.
While it employs traditional (and lengthy) cut-scenes to carry much of the narrative load, TNO also draws on other influential games (such as System Shock, Deus Ex, Thief, and Bioshock) in its use of what I term total environment storytelling: where environment is not simply a setting or channel for directing player movement, but a character in its own right. Designers marshal every detail – a piece of overheard music, a poster on a wall, the tableau offered by a room – not simply as set dressing, but as channels to communicate meaning, reinforce (or complicate) the unfolding narrative or provoke a speculative disposition on the part of the player.
TNO uses this total environmental storytelling to layer its alternative history in disquieting ways, gradually forming the impression that this version of the 1960s may not be quite as alternative as it appears.
In the first place, the alternate Nazi reality is not visually dissimilar to the historical one, a fact emphasized by one of Blazko’s internal monologues as he’s hitching a ride atop a transport bound for a prison in the heart of Berlin: “Steel. Stone. Concrete for miles. I wonder if there is anything in this world worth saving.” Many of the game’s elements play upon this oscillation between the claim that this is a ‘new order’ and the evidence that it contains many elements of the old. For example, as you progress through the game you come across occasional LPs that you can collect and play at your leisure. A couple of these allow you to see what might have become of the Beatles if the world had fallen to the Nazis. In Blazko’s world, they were forced to learn German, change their name to Die Käfer and release recordings like ‘Das Blau U-Boot.’ You haven’t lived until you’ve heard the Animals’ ‘House of the Rising Sun’ rendered by a Polka band.
In the fictional world of the game, this makes an informed historical sense. The Nazis’ hostility to ‘deviant’ or ‘decadent’ art (i.e. anything that wasn’t naturalistic and awash in syrupy evocations of family and duty) would surely have meant that neither Motown nor Rock 'n' Roll would have seen the light of day. The result would have been a tidal wave of the bland schmaltz exemplified by the game’s musical artefacts. Yet while we love to celebrate the historical 60s as a decade of rebellion underscored by an explosion of music that kicked in the doors of convention, the truth is that schmaltzy convention existed quite comfortably alongside the world of Dylan, the Beatles and the Stones. I remember my own parents buying records by groups like the Ray Conniff singers, whose aim seemed to be to take popular, often edgy songs and re-arrange them so as to destroy your will to live. There were plenty of people throughout the non-alternate fifties, sixties, and seventies who were quite happy to embrace the kind of pap in which the Nazis would have revelled.
The game also bucks many of the conventions of its genre, most obviously in the way it handles the issue of narrative choice and branching storylines. In the game’s early phase, at the end of WWII, Blazkowicz and two comrades, Fergus and Wyatt, are captured by the scientist Deathshead; in an allusion to Sophie’s Choice he forces Blazkowicz to choose which of the other men will be tortured and dissected, and then to watch while it happens. This is the moment when the narrative seems to branch. The character you don’t choose will eventually come back and help you. Your choice opens up slightly different play mechanics, some new secondary characters, but the overall narrative doesn’t change much. This has been portrayed by some reviewers as a flaw and a missed opportunity; virtually no reviewer seems to have considered that in a work that in every other respect demonstrates extraordinary attention to detail, such an ‘oversight’ might in fact be deliberate.
If, at the moment of terrible choice, you elect to save Wyatt, you eventually meet a secondary character at resistance HQ, J, an African-American guitarist from Seattle who collects sound equipment and experiments endlessly with riffs on his guitar (in the Fergus narrative J is replaced with Tekla, an asocial numbers obsessive). J doesn’t serve any useful purpose as far as either the gameplay or central story is concerned; he doesn’t accompany you on missions or appear in any of the major story cut-scenes. He is, however, quite obviously a stand-in for Jimi Hendrix. When the Nazis finally raid the Resistance hideout, J dies in a hail of bullets, but not before unleashing Hendrix’s distortion-laden version of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ across the rooftops of Berlin.
Yet if J is another of the game’s stark reminders of a sixties that would never have been, he also serves as a reminder of the real sixties that almost never were. Hendrix’s version of the US national anthem has now become so iconic that we forget that when he unleashed that little gem at Woodstock it was seen by mainstream culture as the equivalent of taking a dump on the US flag.
Prior to J’s death, he and Blazko also have a sharp exchange in which J reminds Blazko of the US’ own problematic history of racial discrimination and its belief in the genetic inferiority of African Americans. “Back home,” he tells Blazko pointedly, “you were the Nazis.” This turns the moment where the Nazis compliment Blazko as a fine specimen of Aryan manhood into much more than a simple vehicle for exposing the arbitrary nature of Nazi eugenics beliefs. We’re getting a pointed reminder about some thorny aspects of US history and the way in which many so-called democracies were, in the 1930s, deeply enamoured with Fascism. The fascination of the British ruling classes with Hitler and Mussolini has been pointedly addressed in works as various as Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and 1995’s Richard III. Yet if we squint slightly, the 1930s US with its many acronymic organizations, its circulation of symbols of national unity and civic endeavour, its mobilized crowds, starts to look more than a little familiar. No less problematic is the hero worship of FDR whose tenure in the oval office started to carry more than a few overtones of president for life.
Intriguingly, the designers seem to have gone out of the way to nudge you in the direction of ignoring this aspect of the game. You only encounter J if you choose to save Wyatt from Deathshead, but the game loads the dice against this choice. You’re with the character of Fergus from the very first moments of the game and the narrative also makes clear that he and Blazko already have some history together. He is a profane, wise-cracking Scotsman, a proficient and fearless soldier, and extraordinarily courageous, something that you are given numerous opportunities to witness in the prologue. Wyatt, by contrast, is a weedy, uncertain, scared recruit that you have to rescue repeatedly and with whom your most memorable interaction is teaching him a trick to stop himself from throwing up. I would bet that your average player would unhesitatingly choose Fergus.
In fact, I don’t have to bet. TNO offers an elaborate achievement system, and if you download the game via Steam, the achievement statistics for all players are recorded; as of this writing, 61% of all players have saved Fergus, while approximately 43% have saved Wyatt. The game buries its most potent social critique in a plotline that it actively dissuades you from accessing. Why?
Arguably, the social critique buried in the Wyatt plotline is an implicit criticism of players’ shallowness in their expectations concerning gaming characterization. Go ahead, the game seems to say, choose based on your preference for wise-cracking manly men with exotic accents (in the gaming world Scottish counts as exotic) at the expense of blubbering, hesitant dweebs. Make that choice, and you’re going to miss out on stuff.
The game includes a more obvious critique of players’ fascinations and obsessions. When you arrive at Resistance HQ you have your own room, and lying down on the bed provides you with a health upgrade. But if you explore HQ, you discover another bed in the attic marked ‘Nightmare.’ Lie down and you’re transported into a re-creation of the first level of the original 1992 Wolfenstein 3D, complete with block architecture, pixelated graphics and the repetitive but oddly compelling MIDI soundtrack.
Players have treated this as an ‘Easter Egg’ or a simple trip down memory lane. This requires players to ignore the entire context of the game; there’s no evidence that the designers are prone to wallowing in simple nostalgia. The key to what’s going on is hidden in plain sight: this is described as a nightmare. While you can sleep on that bed as many times as you want during the game, in true nightmare fashion the dream is always the same. This suggests that Blazko and players are trapped; despite the passage of the years and the development of all manner of graphical and auditory splendiferousness, all of us are still stuck playing that first level of Wolfenstein, with relatively minor cosmetic variations.
Blazko himself tries to tell us this repeatedly throughout the game. Our access to his internal monologue makes it clear that Blazko will do what he has to do, and that any Nazis who mess with him and his are going to get theirs. Yet the world-weariness of this version of B. J. Blazkowicz saturates the game. He wants nothing more than to put an end to killing Nazis and to live a ‘normal’ life with Anya, but comes to understand that he’s seen too much, done too much, and too much has been done to him, for that to happen. Tellingly, this happens when we are finally shown what he witnessed when he was forced to choose between Wyatt and Fergus. There can be no Blazko and Anya, a fact reinforced when the two characters are forced to say farewell through the tiny crack left by a malfunctioning elevator.
It becomes abundantly clear that Blazko realises his only way out of this world of endless killing is for him to die. In the final confrontation with Deathshead, Blazko defeats him not once but twice, only to have the Nazi pull out a grenade. What’s most striking about this cut-scene moment, however, is that there’s a marked delay of several seconds between pulling out the grenade and it going off. Blazko, the hyperkinetic man of action, could attempt to disarm the Nazi scientist. He could run. He does neither. Our last view of Blazko is of him lying on his back, grievously injured. As he awaits the nuclear blast that will destroy Deathshead’s compound and all its secrets, the camera moves in close, offering the most intense focus on his face since the scene where he’s forced to witness the torture of his comrades. Unlike that close-up, Blazko is looking at something else; this time he’s looking at us. At us.
What Blazko has seen, what he has done, what has been done to him is all because we made him do, and see, and subject himself to those things. We are the ones whose expectations and needs have trapped him in a world of endless killing and perpetual horror. That he’s trapped is indicated by the way in which his fantasy of a normal life with Anya, a hazy dream of a backyard suburban barbecue, is first presented to us: in truncated form as a dream from which Blazko is forcibly awakened back in 1946, 14 years before he ever meets Anya.
The entire game is actually the thoughts of a dying man replaying his life, forced to re-enact it. Everything for Blazko seems to hinge on the choice he made in 1946; when we replay the game to experience the alternate plotline we are playing as Blazko replaying events in his memory to see if anything would have made a difference. So one of the most criticized elements of the game – that choosing Wyatt or Fergus doesn’t have an impact on the game’s outcome – is exactly the point. It leads us to the same despairing realization Blazko himself reaches.
As the close-up on Blazko fades out and the credits begin to roll, the game designers play their final card. The song playing over the credits is ‘I Believe,’ originally a rather indifferent honky-tonk number penned by Chris Isaak, here transformed into a thing of sublime beauty in a performance by Melissa Hollick. “I believe in a beautiful day,” she sings. “I believe things are gonna work out OK. But not for me. And not for you.” That this is Blazko’s point of view is established by the fact that some of the lyrics, including the hook (“But not for me. And not for you”), are incorporated into Blazko’s in-game farewell to Anya. Now there’s no audience but the player, and the suggestion’s obvious: there is no future here. For either of us.
We can inhabit the world of a game fully and stand outside it with our critical faculties intact.
It is in every respect an astonishing moment. A game that represents one of the most storied franchises in first-person videogaming history is telling us that the time has come to let go. The Wolfenstein franchise has taken us about as far as it can. Perhaps the run-and-gun shooter has also run its course; Blazko’s Wolfenstein 3D nightmare reminds us that we’ve been playing the same game for over 20 years, and the larger recurring nightmare that is the game’s structure suggests this is ultimately a trap with no exit, only endless recursion (ironically, of course, the game’s success in making this point indicates that maybe these games have at least one new thing to say). Finally, the game suggests – without the handwringing of Concerned Parents or even the more thoughtful reflections of critics like Bissell – that maybe, just maybe, there are costs associated with this fixation on killing those who, we are told, deserve to die.
This is, then, the extraordinary genius of Wolfenstein: The New Order. A design team that is (in every sense of the phrase) at the top of its game, responsible for creating one of the most viscerally engaging and intellectually satisfying splatterfests in recent memory is capable of crafting a game that forces us to confront tough questions about a beloved franchise, as well as a hugely popular and commercially successful gaming genre. To extend Davies’ point, it isn’t just the case that games can successfully blend often wildly contradictory genres; The New Order proves they can also blend contradictory intellectual dispositions. We can inhabit the world of a game fully and stand outside it with our critical faculties intact.
Whether we have a culture capable of recognising and responding to such an achievement is an open question. If you stay all the way through the closing credits, the sound of a helicopter briefly fades in. Whether the helicopter’s arriving or departing is unclear. The game implies that it’s most likely departing, bearing away the few survivors of the resistance movement in the final moments before an atom bomb wipes both the Nazi compound and the gravely wounded B.J. Blazkowicz from the face of the Earth. But we are, after all, in the world of mass entertainment and this looks like classic, albeit uncharacteristically restrained, sequel setup territory. Indeed, at this year’s E3, Bethesda Softworks confirmed Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus for release in the latter part of 2017. As one of the most famous action figures of all time it seems unlikely that B.J. Blazkowicz will be permitted to die.
But that, in fact, is just what the man wishes. In a game that both deploys and interrogates alternate histories it isn’t surprising that the ending challenges us to imagine, just for a moment, an alternate present. One where we don’t feel compelled to generate yet more carnage but can honour the world-weary desire of gaming’s iconic butcher, and just leave him alone to die, finally, in peace.