“Wolfenstein: The New Order and the American Underdog Story,” by Patrick Lindsey

Wolfenstein®: The New Order_20170626012337

World War II was one of the defining moments in recent American history. It was the conflict that catapulted the United States to the superpower status it’s enjoyed ever since. This fact of geopolitical ontology seems to grate up against another seemingly fundamental aspect of the Classic American Psyche: The underdog story. Whether stemming from the country’s origins as an upstart splintering away from an Evil Empire, or simply the narrative manifestation of the nation’s obsession with Bootstraps Mentality, there are few things more common in American media than the idea of a small ragtag band with a heart of gold overcoming a seemingly insurmountable evil force that by all rights it should not be able to defeat. The fundamental tension this raises is how to reconcile these two foundational facets of American identity? How can you both maintain your spot at the top of the geopolitical food chain while satisfying your compulsive need to overcome adversity? This is a question that Wolfenstein: The New Order tasks itself with answering.

Like its predecessors, The New Order stars longtime protagonist BJ Blaskowicz killing Nazis. Unlike earlier games in the series, this chapter focuses on an alternate future—one in which the Allies lost the war, and the bulk of Western Europe has been turned into an occupied Nazi protectorate. The overarching goal, rather than to strike the killing blow that will decapitate the Third Reich and end the war, is simply to survive; the player finds herself leading not an elite platoon of infantrymen, but a band of resistance fighters.

All of a sudden the whole tone of the series has shifted from standard (not to mention a little goofy) power fantasy territory to something more somber and introspective; BJ himself transforms from a simple buffer between player and her simplistic desires to exercise virtual violence to an actual independent character in his own right. BJ circa The New Order has thoughts, vulnerabilities — not to mention dialogue. Previous iterations of the hero had little more than a variety of facial expressions presented through the on-screen avatar-cum-health display.

These differences in power dynamics—not just different from history, but different from previous games within the series—are the central driving narrative force of the game. The demarcation between Nazi and Ally could hardly be more stark. Deathshead, this game’s principal villain, is like something out of a monster movie. Rail-thin, his pock-marked face and German accent borders on pastiche. As far as evil boogeymen go, he’s an imposing figure that could rival Cushing’s Van Helsing. In contrast, BJ himself is a muscular hulk of a man, all blocks and hard edges, with his jawline as sharp as his close-cropped crewcut. Whereas Deathshead’s German accent skewers the player with each utterance, BJ speaks in a softspoken voice lightly tinged with a relatable, unthreatening Southern drawl. BJ is as righteous as Deathshead is evil.

The contrast extends beyond the hero and the villain. The Reich of The New Order is cold and impersonal, composed entirely of concrete and steel; it stands in contrast with the pastoral idyll of the Polish asylum BJ wakes up in after the game’s prologue. Whereas the Nazis project power through mechanized means—cyborgs, giant robots, stealth choppers, and fancy guns—the Allies’ most valuable assets are more cerebral. BJ’s immense physique, yes, but also Caroline’s leadership, Tekla’s mad genius, Anya’s wide-eyed idealism, Fergus’ never-say-die attitude, and even Max’s unwavering loyalty are all qualities that are noticeably absent from any of the game’s enemies.

This technological divide is one of the more prominent chasms The New Order‘s developers try to draw. During the game’s prologue, as the player is assaulting Castle Wolfenstein alongside Fergus and a squad of Allied soldiers, Fergus makes the offhanded comment that the team should hang on to any Nazi weapons they find, since they’ll no doubt be better than what the Allies are equipped with. This comes after Fergus and BJ were shot down in their period-appropriate transport plane, reminiscent of an old US C42, by a Nazi craft that looks like a cross between a stealth bomber and a UFO.

The game’s central MacGuffin, the ancient technology of the Hebrew secret society Da’at Yichud (translated roughly to “secluded knowledge”) highlights this technological gap. Unlike the sharp steel edges of the Nazis, the ancient “good” technology is, much like the protagonists tasked with rescuing the tools from the Nazis, carved from stone and glowing with secret promise. It is only by stealing and ultimately perverting this benevolent technology that the Nazis were able to gain the upper hand in the first place. And so we see that even the evil technocracy of the Nazi Reich ultimately is inferior to the pure good represented by the Da’at Yichud. It’s like Yoda said: The Dark Side isn’t stronger, it’s just easier and more seductive.

BJ’s ultimate triumph over Deathshead is also then a victory of American grit and determination over the cold, mechanized Nazi war machine. What’s so interesting about this particular narrative arc is that it’s so wildly inconsistent with the actual American story. One doesn’t have to go very far back into the history of the West to see the contradictions; the technologically-driven brinksmanship of the Cold War or the frantic race of the Manhattan Project to develop atomic weapons before the German and later Soviet enemy are both more consistent with the portrayal and imperialism of Deathshead’s Reich than of BJ’s resistance.

The paradox is perplexing. American culture, having fought so hard to establish itself at the top of the pecking order, is more eager than ever to prove its credentials by playing up its own idea of hardscrabble feistiness. While this game in particular is clearly more concerned with telling an exciting story (the section starring Moon Nazis is notoriously hard to take seriously), it’s still indicative of a trend in Western game design characterized by a paradoxical shame of its own cultural reality. The trope of evil technologism opposed by good grassroots values is more present in The New Order than any other game in the series: Deathshead doesn’t just kill Allied soldiers, he mutilates them, transforming them from their natural purity and perverting them by literally turning them into a cog in the Nazi war machine. The irony of this narrative setup, contrasted directly by things like the American war machine assimilating former Soviet engineers into its weapons R&D programs post-WWII, is hard to ignore. And yet, as flagrantly as The New Order ignores its own cultural history, its commitment to thematic cohesion even at the expense of political verisimilitude is admirable.

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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.