Can a videogame ever make a person change their mind? That’s the question on my heart with the debut of Wolfenstein II. When the reboot originally came out, the idea of killing Nazis in fiction was almost laughably trite. Three years later, as coincidence and tragedy have completely reshaped America’s political dialogue, it comes off as defiant. As I so often ask, is a game defined by its mechanics, its narrative, or both? Wolfenstein II is more than its action, but also more than its ideology. The combination of the two provides the potential for casual indoctrination, an unavoidable side effect that, wielded properly, can be redirected towards the greater good. With that in mind, is the anti-Nazi backdrop of Wolfenstein II just a shock value set piece? Or is its willingness to defy fascism enough to inform a person’s perspective?
Nazi shooting aside, perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of Wolfenstein II is its simplicity. Today’s first person shooters are all but bogged down by overstimulating user interfaces that distract from the experience. Wolfenstein II, keeping intact its legacy as one of the first proper shooting games, is almost minimalist by comparison, lacking the laborious menus and inventory systems of its peers. Instead it encourages forward momentum and continually rewards the player for tackling conflict head-on and at high speed, primarily by scattering pick-up items around the map and avoiding any permanent character upgrades. If you want to stay alive in Wolfenstein II, you better keep moving.
This is not to say that the game’s stealth elements go underused or ignored. Available as an alternative option to solving certain problems and combat scenarios, it too is understated and generally unsaddled with the many tweaks and innovations made to its genre in the past two decades. While the stealth enthusiast in me almost wishes the systems were fleshed out a little more, at the same time, the added complication would ruin the game’s rhythm, so it’s a sacrifice I can accept. Whatever method used to tackle a mission, the ensuing rush is completely satisfying.
As for the game’s narrative material, I’ve somewhat said my piece on the matter already in a recent essay, but my sentiments about the overall game are similar. Wolfenstein II makes no secret of its hatred for Nazis, and indeed has even embraced this stance as a position to market from. Thus, they’ve extended an invitation to criticize their ideology, or rather, how it is delivered, and whether or not it’s effective. While the game is inarguably on the correct side of the moral issue, it’s still important to talk about the indoctrination potential of videogames, and ask if that responsibility is being handled with care. Wolfenstein II makes some narrative choices that are bold and necessary, not just for videogames but all entertainment mediums, and in that sense it excels. But in the future I’d like to see the developers reconsider the context and framing of some of their cut scenes, and ask themselves if it actually subverts the existing power structures the game’s plot hinges on. Often the characters are treated with a fiendish brutality that is less about evoking sympathy and more about painting a villain to cartoonish extremes. If the developers truly believe that the Nazis are the bad guys, they don’t need to show Frau Engel playing with a bloody human head to make their point. The effort would be better spent making the case for the value of human life—something hard to achieve with a violence that is often voyeuristic, and disrespectful to the sanctity or significance of key characters’ (like Caroline’s) lives.
That being said, I have to praise them for some of the smaller details of the game. It is a daring choice in this day and age to, say, feature a breastfeeding scene, or openly challenge white supremacist patriarchy. In fact, I’m almost shocked that they not only wrote in the Black Panthers but also made their leader, Grace, a woman. And I think it’s always a positive thing when a strong male lead character is shown to have a rich inner life exploring his emotional vulnerability. Though sentimental, bordering on melancholic, B.J.s turmoil over Caroline, and his wife, make him seem delicate, at times fragile. While a few scenes related to BJ’s backstory are heavy handed, perhaps even manipulative, others show a restraint that somewhat softens the game’s harder edges, while adequately providing a thoughtful explanation for his character’s perspective. The game makes a rough first impression, but improves as it wears on.
Meanwhile, the story’s many highs and lows are over-the-top and absolutely exhilarating, pulling the player in every emotional direction in every flavor of extreme from sorrow and despair, to joy, rage, depression, unbearable anticipation, and pure shock. The writers of Wolfenstein II are fearless, and as a result, the game is wildly entertaining. I feel like this is the first time I’ve been interested in the actual plot of a shooter in ages, and I haven’t had this much fun with a gun-based game since Saints Row IV.
I think it’s also worth noting that, at times, the writing of the game (in dialogue or readable items like letters and postcards) seems to directly address the hostile climate in the games industry and much of the ideas and rhetoric that ultimately led to the rise of the white nationalist movement in American politics. It’s probably the most direct opposition I’ve seen from a major games developer yet. I wish I didn’t have to be so grateful for a game having the willingness to buck the status quo, but I am nonetheless. It helps restore a bit of the sanity I lost these past three years.
On the visual side of things, the game’s use of Nazi imagery is chilling, and almost thought provoking, in its effectiveness. In terms of level design, the pacing is fluid and intuitive, and provides plenty of variety over the course of the game. I did encounter rendering bugs in some environments, and I’m not a fan of the underdeveloped goal marker system, which actually made navigation worse more often than not. But generally I was able to find my way through each level without even using a map. And about halfway through the game, a major addition to B.J.’s combat options adds yet another exciting dimension to how Wolfenstein II is played, proverbially hitting the refresh button on the player’s strategy and attention span.
Wolfenstein II has made me think a lot about how I judge a game based on its ideology. Most of the time I think our beliefs and life experiences form our reaction to entertainment, and it’s good to explore and explain our perspective when assessing the value of art in any form. I think it’s important to consider not only a game’s impact, but also its intent, what it tries to be versus what it is. But I also don’t feel that those are the only factors that matter when criticizing the merit of videogames, because the medium can’t be defined by narrative alone. The beliefs inherently expressed in a game, be they good or bad, are sometimes its entire identity, but other times, it’s only part. Where does Wolfenstein II fall?
I’m not sure of the answer to that question yet.
Ultimately, while I hope that the writers at MachineGames continue to think about how the narrative of the series might be refined in the coming years, Wolfenstein II is a superb and impeccably designed shooter. I have my misgivings about some of the finer points of its message and how it is delivered, but nonetheless it’s a masterfully balanced blend of action, heart and campy extremes that make it one of the strongest virtual entertainment experiences of 2017. Wolfenstein II is a masterpiece.
Wolfenstein II was developed by MachineGames and published by Bethesda. Our review is based on the PlayStation 4 version. It is also available for PC and Xbox One.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer living in Seattle, WA. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.