“Wolfenstein: The New Order Fights for the Past,” by Reid McCarter

Wolfenstein®: The New Order_20170626012841

William “BJ” Blazkowicz’ most striking feature is a strong, square jaw. It’s a very American jaw, anchoring a face that can stand up to any of the punches the outside world can throw at it. His second most important feature is a pair of sad, watery blue eyes. These eyes are meant to look out at his aggressors with a kind of sympathy. They know not what they do. Hit Blazkowicz and he can take it, his face says. But he’s sad that anyone would think to do so.

The first time we see Blazkowicz in Wolfenstein: The New Order he is waking from a dream of peace. A scene of domestic, quintessentially post-war bliss—him lounging in a suburban backyard as children play and an unseen woman tends a barbecue—is interrupted by sounds of war. Blazkowicz sits in an attack helicopter. A group of Allied soldiers, British and American, are assaulting a Nazi fortress. It’s July 1946 and, contrary to history, the Second World War has not ended. Instead, the German forces are ascendant. The attack goes wrong and Blazkowicz is horribly injured, waking 14 years later in a Polish asylum where he’s been cared for during two decades of slowly improving brain trauma. He regains full consciousness in 1960 and the Nazis, we learn, have conquered the world. They have betrayed their Axis allies and forced the Allies into surrender and occupation. Blazkowicz asks about the United States. He’s told the Americans stopped fighting once the Germans dropped an atomic bomb on their country.

This is a revelation that should give pause. The New Order recasts the Second World War’s actual end—Japan’s surrender after two devastating American atomic attacks—by reversing one of the most horrific decisions of the 20th century so that those who launched the bomb become the ones who suffered its effects. Contrary to history, the Allied forces remain victims. Because they never gained the upper hand in the game’s fiction, they are not mired in the guilt of taking drastic military action to end a war.

In the real world, America typically casts itself as having been dragged into World War II—an unwilling victim of international aggression that had no choice but to respond to attack. As in the First World War, America’s isolationism kept it from responding to a gathering storm that, for a time, could have been considered other continents’ problem. (The United States’ position is easy to condemn with hindsight, but is made somewhat understandable within the context of considerable problems at home and the still-recent end of the prior World War.) Its entry to the war, then, becomes a story of standing up to a bully that offered no choice.

Pop culture, dominated by American narratives, propagates this idea. A modern understanding of WWII finds the United States grimly taking up the burden of defeating the Axis forces, doing what had to be done in a Europe and Asia not capable of handling its own affairs. Soldiers deploy to foreign lands to liberate their people, shedding blood in the ultimate act of selfless heroism. Poised as the world’s police, WWII media defaults to a portrayal of America as a global officer, stepping in to end fights it would really rather not get involved with. (Fittingly, in these examples the war was not being fought until the United States stepped in. Its major battles began in 1941 and all included Americans.)

A cursory knowledge of the Second World War can put this media within a proper context, positioning it as one viewpoint in a much larger story. But as time goes on, the worry becomes that the wider view of WWII history gets swallowed up or obscured by a narrow retelling.

The New Order, though created by Swedish studio MachineGames and despite a deft, beautifully acted script, largely exaggerates a troublingly common, American understanding of the war. The most clear sign of this is the player character himself. Blazkowicz is the cultural ideal of the Second World War-era American soldier. He’s a straight white good old boy. He’s a ferocious warrior and carries himself with incredible confidence even though his inner thoughts are deep and tortured. He speaks with an eloquent simplicity—a slight Southern tinge inflecting a masculine intellectualism in the tradition of Hemingway. As Blazkowicz, the player channels the righteous fury of a simplified past, becoming the avatar of an America that doesn’t want to fight but knows that it has no choice but to do the right thing and lead the free world. Gone is the bloodthirsty blank slate of previous Wolfenstein games, replaced now with a more nuanced character who nonetheless communicates an overly simplified vision.

This isn’t to say that The New Order’s version of Blazkowicz isn’t a great creation. A step forward from the mute killers of so many other shooters, he’s a character we can believe in as a real human being. His whispered inner monologue and the pained look in his eyes provide a welcome depth that makes guiding Blazkowicz through the game honestly compelling. The game’s writing is its strongest aspect, and it’s of a high enough caliber that the larger issues plaguing its alternate history premise are difficult to notice for long periods of time.

Take, for example, the internationally comprised Kreisau Circle resistance group that Blazkowicz fights alongside. The New Order doesn’t make explicit that Nazi ideology touches the lives of its Jewish, Slavic, African, and mentally handicapped German characters differently than it might a blonde, blue-eyed white American, but it probably doesn’t have to. Instead, it trusts us to remember the context of Nazi ideology, offering only a few scenes outright demonstrating these viewpoints, and brings together a cast whose very existence stands in defiance to the enemy they fight against. In this, it exhibits an uncommon intelligence and faith in its audience. At its best, it shows Blazkowicz acknowledging that his immediate stakes in the war are different than that of the others by putting him in situations where he’s the only character capable of infiltrating the Nazis. We see Blazkowicz in an enemy uniform, know he’s one of the only Kreisau characters capable of pulling off the disguise, and feel a tug of revulsion.

Even as these scenes elevate the game, though, they also force a consideration of Blazkowicz as an archetypal figure. Why is this soft-spoken, preternaturally skilled warrior the ambassador of another World War II game? What does it mean that it’s an American man who serves as the viewpoint of righteous vengeance against the Nazi forces?

The Nazis feel good to fight. They act reprehensibly within the game and they carry with them, too, a still palpable association with historic evil. As in most WWII media, though, their atrocities are only barely examined, portrayed more often through camp moustache-twirling (General Deathshead, Frau Engel, Hans “Bubi” Winkle) than the more insidious horror of knowing what Nazi ideology means for the Kreisau Circle’s members and anyone who looks or thinks like them. Without examination of the nature of German fascism, it becomes easier to positition anyone in opposition as fully heroic. In The New Order’s immediate story, this isn’t a big deal—as an occupying force, the Nazis need to be removed by any means necessary. Within the unavoidable context of history, though, it provides an opportunity for America’s part in defeating Nazism to be exaggerated to mythic proportions, stretching a real story to the point that all nuance is erased with the blunt force of an atom bomb.

This is a problem inherent to almost all alternate reality historical fiction. The New Order, despite its best intentions, undermines the importance of the past in determining our present. It stretches the already troublingly distorted legend of unquestioned American war heroism into something even more tantalizing—and frightening—than past decades of nationally produced pop culture. The myth is blown into enormity and with it we lose everything but the simplicity of the easiest possible narrative: America is good and what it does on the global stage is always admirable. The Nazis are a perfect foil. Making their evil last forever turns America’s part in their defeat into a constant good that can stretch beyond 1945, through the 1960s, and, following this pattern, into the present day.

The New Order is still an admirable game in most aspects, doing better with its subject matter than many other World War II era pop culture fantasies. But the larger implications of its vision are worth questioning. How we reframe a country’s history presents a model for its present and future. The way we think of America in the 20th century reflects the way we think of it now—something especially important to remember at at a moment in time when American identity demands continuous, rigorous, and unflinching questioning.

Unlike Blazkowicz, it is not a nation that has been continually wronged by the rest of the world’s problems. It is not a warrior poet, eternally, heroically fighting off enemies to save the people of other countries unable to save themselves. America is a nation that, like all nations, is more complicated than any story of good and evil can summarize.

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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.