I had fairly limited expectations of Wolfenstein: The New Order going into the game. I was familiar with Castle Wolfenstein and Wolfenstein 3D, but knew almost nothing about this installment. I had heard it was decent. A few reputable video games websites were giving it high marks. But, otherwise, it had largely floated beneath my radar. I picked it up only because I needed a pleasant and blood-spattered diversion during some time off from work. I figured I’d get to shoot a bunch of Nazis, stab a bunch of Nazis, and maybe explode a bunch of Nazis, all the while basking in the glory of my own ginormous noggin.*
It would be a frank and productive way to spend my vacation.
But, something entirely unexpected happened, and I don’t mean that in the Upworthy-clickbait sort of way where the game, like, appears to be a crotchety old miser but is actually a breakdancing philanthropist. No. Something genuinely unexpected occurred: I became emotionally invested in the characters of this Nazi-shooting, Nazi-stabbing, Nazi-exploding first-person shooter that had no obligation to me other than to provide ample Nazis to shoot, stab, and explode. (Which, of course, it did.)
I was aware it was happening. I even fought it. It wasn’t subtle. Within the first 40 minutes, I was greeted with a “tough choice” involving a young, naive and eager soldier, and my scrappy, world-weary, brother-cum-father figure (whatever will the repercussions be?!), at which point the game brushed aside its emover, turned, and told me how it’s not like those other FPS games I know. it’s deep. It has feelings. So many moments in the early game seemed manufactured for pathos, or to funnel me down some inescapable path whose outcome was equally certain – and all of this presented in tidy shorthand. That dutiful nurse who tended me through long years of catatonia becomes my love interest. (Will our romance end as tragically as it began?) That ragtag team who become my ersatz family? Plucked from a barrel of stock characters. There’s the manchild behemoth and the bereaved father who becomes his caretaker. There’s the iron-willed, paraplegic survivor who leads the resistance from her wheelchair. The schizoaffective, fatalistic math genius who spews equations and insults. The wise, affable, and inexplicably helpful African guy with only one name. Was there a Gilligan? There might have been a Gilligan.
Yet, though I saw all these dominoes being moved into position, I was shockingly affected when they came tumbling down. I loved my stupid, stock character family and their stupid stock character arcs. Over those 15 some odd hours of Nazi killing, I came to know these NPCs as people. I gave a fuck what happened to them. And this, to me, was not only a surprise, but was what made this game so surprisingly good. Yes, the setups and signals were obvious and cliché, but the final execution, a sort of Chinese water torture of exposition, was brilliant. In drips and drabs – some throwaway one-liners; optional cutscenes happened upon by chance; entirely inconsequential scribblings, notes, and letters – these NPCs took on dimensions I could not have anticipated. They were human.
The character I learned the most about, of course, was me. Well, not *Marie-me*, but BJ-Blazkowicz-me. That steely-eyed, ham-headed, demigod killing machine, had depth, poignancy and knew how to enjoy a quiet moment. He had range. But, it wasn’t through the clumsy canned monologues (all those quaint recollections of swimming made me want to sit still and drown) that I learned this. It was through lines as simple as “Fuck you, Moon,” – which BJ utters after reading that Nazi’s had landed on the Moon – revealing BJ’s impotent rage at being awakened into a world ripped from his worst nightmares, a world that simply made no sense: Even the Moon has betrayed us! Or, when BJ actually goes to the Moon and takes a moment to yell out “I’m on the motherfucking Moon,” revealing a man who can still feel wonder and something akin to joy, despite the innumerable horrors he’d experienced and was undoubtedly still to experience. Or, how he looked after his “family” in big ways and small – teaching that somewhat abusive (she called BJ a “laughing anus”) genius how to use a gun, taking time out of his Nazi killing to round up some lost toys for the manchild, and, you know, saving everybody’s lives time and again. Or, how he just wasn’t very good at operating a coffee machine.
I could go on and on about BJ – or Anya, or Caroline, or Fergus, or, in particular, Bobby Bram – but I’ve honestly spoiled too much already when what I really want to do is get at least one person who might have dismissed this game as just another Nazi shoot-em-up to play it. Actually, that’s not true, I want all the people who might have dismissed this game as just another Nazi shoot-em-up, or just another “gritty reboot,” to play it. In fact, I would like nothing better than for all the people everywhere to play this game and for MachineGames to make buckets of money for daring to *write* a game, for endowing their characters with reality and gravity, for delivering above and beyond genre expectations. But, I won’t accomplish that by spoiling it.
However, if I may be allowed just one tiny, little, last spoiler, I would like to mention another moment deserving of attention. It’s the moment late in the game when Bubi – a bad guy, a Nazi – has got me on the ropes and, in truly villainous style, takes the opportunity to reveal something unexpected about himself: Bubi genuinely loved Frau Engel.
He would do anything to see a smile on her ruined face, including gut me from tip to toe. The whole game I thought he kind of had a thing for me/BJ. I was genuinely so shocked by his admission that I said out loud to my television, “Huh. He really did love her,” and thought a little while about how love is blind and unpredictable and how, I guess, even Nazi’s have desires and affections. And then I went straight back to killing Nazis and it was awesome.
Finally, I’d like to give, hmm… let’s say five thumbs up to the lovely and unexpected end-credits cover of Chris Isaak’s “I Believe.” It is lovely and perfect and made me sit through the entire credits just to listen.
Thanks for reading. Go play this game.
* I always consider the protagonist of a game to be “me,” even when it’s a dude, even when its some ginormous blond dude with wicked scars. Such is the beauty of the medium.