“A Conversation on The New Order,” by Bullet Points

Wolfenstein®: The New Order_20170629165355

To wrap up our month on Wolfenstein: The New Order, we wanted to discuss some of the points that hadn’t been fully addressed during previous weeks. The three of us discussed the game’s use of violence, the ways in which its writing and performances do and don’t succeed at communicating its story, and the worth of introducing science fiction elements to a World War II game.

Ed Smith: In one sense, the moral implications of your violence in Wolfenstein: The New Order are more or less nil. You’re not supposed to care about slaughtering Nazis. More than that, you’re supposed to love it, and love that you love it, and to feel like the game loves you for loving that you love it. In another sense, the moral implications are enormous. If you don’t successfully murder all these people the world will be irretrievably ruled by fascism.

So my opening question is this: Does moral condemnation make a violent videogame seem more intelligent automatically?

Reid McCarter: I think there’s a lot to talk about with how Nazis are portrayed as videogame enemies. They’re set up as the perfect shooter villain, which is hard to argue against because they’re the aggressive face of historical evil, but the lack of nuance also flattens any discussion of violence regarding the games they’re featured in. I don’t want to go too far on a tangent related to this, but I worry about the way we excuse ourselves from an actual conversation about violence in so many of these games by essentially pulling out a wild card to shut it down: “If you’re shooting Nazis, we don’t need to talk about it.” The New Order avoids this problem in a really clever way.

I don’t think moral condemnation would’ve helped its point because, as plenty of games from the past few years show, wagging your finger at the player for engaging with the systems a game offers them hardly forces any kind of reflection. It just makes them feel hoodwinked and condescended to. The New Order doesn’t do this and I think it’s better for it. Blazkowicz kills Nazis in all sorts of brutal ways and you can never feel bad for them because they’re both the instruments of a triumphant Nazi party and the foot soldiers of villains who are so cartoonishly evil it’s impossible to scan their side as anything but caricature.

Instead, the violence’s complexity is reflected through Blazkowicz and the other characters in the resistance–the game’s heroes. They’re not conflicted about killing Nazis, but they’re all enormously tired of killing in general, which I think is a bigger and better point to make when it comes to a World War II game (even an alternate history one). The tragedy of fascism is that it’s an ideology uninterested in diplomacy. Nazis have to be physically hurt to be stopped and this is something that The New Order centres above all else. Blazkowicz is exhausted. He dreams of being able to have a family and to stop killing. He—and the player—aren’t meant to feel bad for murdering Nazis, but they are meant to remember that having to do so takes a terrible toll on everyone involved. It costs and stunts the full potential of lives.

That said, I’m curious what both of you thought of the game’s violence. Is it easy to give The New Order too much credit because the dialogue is so sharp and well acted? Is it actually as humane as I’m giving it credit for?

Ed: I think you’re right about the complexity being reflected through the protagonists here rather than their enemies. I also think Deathshead adds to the Nazis’ broad, blanket evil. He’s not charismatic or anything like that—they don’t try to muddy, or rather unmuddy the water. They give all that blanket evil a face and a voice. They give Blazkowicz a very, kind of one-on-one personal stake in the war. If complexity is partway synonymous with motivation (the more we feel like we’re playing something intelligent, that has a point, the more we might want to play on) Deathshead, killing Deathshead, drives us through The New Order. Like the Resistance, Nazism gets a human face, but not to make some casuist, semi-observation about understanding or placating it. The game just understands we’re more eager to kill if we’ve got a firm, substantive, maybe individuated target. Going up against a governmental concept feels too vaporous. Going up against Deathshead sounds like a blast.

I disagree on the dialogue, though. Well, not disagree, but I think its quality gets overstated. Brian Bloom, who plays Blazko, and also Kane in our beloved Kane & Lynch, has one register. I know his whispering and monotone reflect Blazko’s forcing down his pain, and I like what you said Reid about the character having sad eyes, but it’s try-hard, and reminds me of Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed, who seems intimidated by the more-esteemed actors in his scenes and keeps squinting and fast-whispering and moving his eyes to try and affect some gravitas. It did partly work on me. I cared about everyone in The New Order. But it’s the old “for a videogame.” “Great dialogue and acting here, for a videogame.” But that statement should be used for the prosecution of games rather than the defence.

Patrick. Your thoughts on all this?

Patrick Lindsey: I think that the game has a complicated relationship with its own violence. As a shooter it’s a given that it’s going to have to either accept its own violence or spend its time hand-wringing, yet this game does neither. BJ’s violence is, like you said Ed, celebrated by his comrades, if it’s even mentioned at all. Klaus and Caroline and Fergus all have combat backgrounds but even Anya seems completely unbothered by the fact that her romantic partner has dismembered people with his bare hands.

Interestingly, I don’t think that the Nazis are supposed to be evil because they’re violent—the Allies are violent, as we see through BJ. The Nazis in The New Order are evil because they’re Nazis, and that fact alone is supposed to absolve both BJ and us of guilt over their wholesale slaughter. We have the benefit of historical context, while BJ and his team have the benefit of direct personal experience surviving the war. Either motivation is, according to the developer, enough to sweep any questions of morality under the rug. Not even BJ, who is committing all this violence is bothered by it. His weariness isn’t moral ennui so much as it is just existential exhaustion.

Reid: One small note is that Anya, going by the notes she at first reads as having come from “her cousin,” has grown up killing Nazis with her bare hands in occupied Poland, too. I think her relationship with BJ circles back to what I’m talking about. She, more than most of the other characters, is presented as a full person who has lost a tremendous amount due to the war. Her university studies were cut short and her ability to help her parents run the asylum was interfered with constantly by the Nazis. It would’ve been easy enough for the game to say “she’s Polish” and leave it at that, but I think part of The New Order‘s intelligence comes from how it provides details that it could get away with ignoring.

The Resistance is made up of people who have been harmed by the Nazis directly and, in a lot of ways, stand as representative of the religions and nationalities they belong to. Instead of being Polish only as a background fact, Anya is, like her country, just starting to define herself when the Germans occupy her home. (Poland was reconstituted as a nation after World War I following a long period of foreign control only to be occupied by Germany and the USSR soon after, which prematurely cut off any real chance at political self-determination for roughly the next five decades). I touched on more of these kind of examples in my article earlier this month regarding how other members of the group—dissident Germans, Jews, Slavs, and Africans— stand in for those explicitly targeted by the Nazis and I think it’s one of the things the game does really well. It assumes its audience knows who the Nazis are and works as a reaction to that.

I’ve probably drifted a bit off course here, but I think all of this, even the cast’s performance (which I would personally defend, Ed), speaks to a thoughtfulness too often absent in action games in general and WWII games in particular. Maybe, again, I’m being too charitable with certain aspects of the story, but I really do believe it’s a smart game. Patrick and I both wrote about some of the unfortunate subtext of its take on America during the war, but I think elsewhere it’s really strong. It’s for reasons like this that the unquestioned violence in the game, like I said in an earlier response here, doesn’t bother me in The New Order. I trust that it’s been created by people who were actually thinking about what they were making, which isn’t an impression you get often enough in big shooters.

Ed: I agree with everything you say in the last paragraph there and I’ve never once been bothered by the violence in Wolfenstein; on the contrary, I love it. But I love the violence in a lot of games, even if I do detect an admonishing tone from the creators. If the thrill in The New Order is killing Nazis and that thrill is heightened by how the game presents what is at stake, and what the Nazis seek to destroy, it reminds me of Medal of Honor and Medal of Honor: Underground on the PS1, where you had to stop them destroying ancient monasteries and historic works of art—I think all these games are trying to get at how the Nazis want to wipe out things that are human and humane and the opposite of uniform, and they all do it well.

But why the sci-fi? Why the stuff about the occult? I don’t mind it. I like it, even. But do you think a game about World War II or murdering Nazis or being part of a Resistance comprising, as Reid points out, a cross-section of threatened peoples would be somehow less palatable without The New Order‘s fantastical flourishes? This isn’t a judgement call. But I’m curious why you think that stuff is there. It could just be to contextualise more tools/toys with which you can wreak havoc, but that doesn’t seem quite enough of an explanation.

Patrick: Well let me push my glasses up for a second here . . .

Occult influences have always been present in Wolfenstein (remember that horrible 2009 game?). Also, Heinrich Himmler in real life did have an obsession with the occult. He even started the Ahnenerbe project whose purpose was to look into supernatural research.

The more likely answer I think is that games still feel like they need an element of fantastical genre-fiction-type stuff to soften the blow of subject matter and material. The New Order is an excessively violent game—and I think we’re all in agreement that it’s all in service to the game’s themes—so giant robots and laser guns make it more like a cartoon and less like murder. It’s actually an issue that pervades most games. It saddens me that developers at least don’t seem confident enough in their stories to just let them exist without these stylistic flourishes.

Thankfully, The New Order retains these elements but pulls them back considerably. The Da’at Yichuud plotline is central to the game’s story, but the real narrative surrounds, as you both have said, the individual characters and their struggle. That’s new to the series, whose previous games have all just starred BJ killing Nazis.
Ed: But why do we need the blow softened? Do we just not want this stuff out of games? Are we not ready for it? I mean, I am. I think you two are. I think a lot of people really, really are.

Reid: We don’t need the blow softened, but I think trying to grab at mass appeal means adding in extraneous stuff that isn’t technically necessary. Without sci-fi junk, it would be “just another WWII” game despite the ways it elevates how the era is typically treated in games in subtler ways.

This isn’t a defense. I think I like The New Order in spite of its fantasy elements instead of because of them. At times I think it even comes close to defeating itself with some aspects. The Da’at Yichuud plotline is pulled off well, but, you know, it also (hopefully subconsciously) supports incredibly stupid Jewish conspiracy theories by showing that yes, in fact, the game’s world does contain secret, incredibly powerful weapons inaccessible to the rest of the world. That’s a deeply uncomfortable aspect to the game that comes from it’s inclusion of fantasy that I really wish was not there. There’s also the questionable taste of creating a concentration camp patrolled by robot dogs. I’m of two minds about how this works because I’m a big proponent of keeping the lessons of history alive by introducing them again and again to pop culture, but I think in certain cases a game like The New Order feels unsavoury in its attempt to reconstruct and reconfigure real world tragedies.

It’s for that kind of reason that I prefer more grounded historical fiction. I think everything that I like about The New Order would have worked as well if not better if it was presented entirely straight, no alternate reality or mystical stuff thrown in.

Patrick: I have lots of complicated thoughts on the subject. I think largely it stems from the idea that games are supposed to be Fun and not deal with Real Issues. What I think makesThe New Order so unique is that it is a fun shooting game that manages to also develop characters in a way that feels real and relatable. Even games that have tried to do that have failed (Tomb Raider immediately springs to mind). There’s a mistaken notion that your game can either be enjoyable or it can be Serious and I think that imaginary distinction needs to go away.

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Ed Smith contributes to Vice, The Observer, Edge, Play Magazine, and Kill Screen. Find him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.

Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.

Patrick Lindsey is a Boston-based game critic who likes to focus on narrative and thematic design. In addition to cohosting the Bullet Points podcast, he also co-edited SHOOTER, an ebook anthology of critical essays on shooting games. Follow him on Twitter @HanFreakinSolo.