The Catharsis and Philosophy of 'Wolfenstein II' Buckets-of-Blood Gaming

A discussion of the Wolfenstein's conceit with the game's creator

In Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus, I amble down the crowded small-town-America street, trying not to draw attention to myself - after all, I’m a wanted man. Nearby, a Nazi officer chides a Ku Klux Klan member for his broken German. I creep through an alley, where a drunk man tells me that the broken America will rise again. Eventually, I reach my destination, a diner down the street from a bustling parade celebrating the Nazi’s triumph in World War II over a decade ago. Soon after I sidle in, a Nazi officer swaggers through the door, slurps down on a strawberry milkshake, and tells the proprietor - my ally - to change their menu. The fare is “too American.” He says I look familiar. I sit there as he studies my face, waiting for the game to let me crack his skull against the glass counter. But I don’t get the chance. As he finally recognizes me as Terror-Billy, slaughterer of Nazis, scourge of Nazi America, the proprietor blows his brains out with a pistol. Oh well - there’s a battalion of Nazis waiting for me at the next checkpoint, anyway.

If you’ve played a video game in the past forty years, it’s safe to assume you’ve jumped on a platform, solved a puzzle, or shot a Nazi in the head. While this might seem like a slight exaggeration, the truth is from the very moment that a computer could generate a tiny bolt of light, game developers wanted to make that bolt a missile, or a bullet, or a laser, and those projectiles had to hit some kind of bad guy. As games evolved from blips and bloops to polygons and textures from the Eighties to the early Aughts, the MP-40-toting Nazi - eternally clad in the swastika, shouting out his evil deeds in staccato bursts of German - became the archetypical fodder for generation after generation of shooters. Yet even as the technology soared and their uniforms glistened ever-sharper with blood and viscera as you mowed them down, the depiction of the soldiers' mentality remained as flat as the sprites we began with.

Few game series represent this shift better than Wolfenstein, a name almost as old as gaming itself. Though the franchise is best-known as the continuing chronicle of square-jawed action-hero William “BJ” Blazkowicz carving up swath after swath of the German frontline with his trusty chaingun, its origins run a bit deeper than that. The original Castle Wolfenstein from 1981 has you strap on the patent-leather boots of an anonymous American agent as you sneak your way through the eponymous structure - it’s one of the first examples of what we might now call the “stealth” genre, ironically enough.

id software’s Wolfenstein 3D blew that paradigm away in a hail of gunfire, replacing it with the shoot-first-ask-questions-never attitude that became the series’ trademark over the years. But while previous Wolfenstein entries - and, arguably, every other World War II game ever made - treat Nazis as little more than cardboard cutouts for you to eviscerate, The New Colossus tries to scrape off the layers of cheap paint to show you what the Nazis were really like, and the implications of all their twisted, tortured ideology. As you might expect, the results aren’t pretty. But, according to Tommy Tordsson Björk, the narrative designer at Machine Games, the developers behind The New Colossus, the ugliness is intentional - every slur, every swastika, every salute. What he didn’t expect was the impotent rancor that the game’s release would ultimately stir up on certain social platforms after the game’s release.

“We thought it was really important to have a strong anti-Nazi message,” he says. “You’re dealing with something that’s had such a huge impact on our lives, even now. We chose to wear that anti-Nazi message on our sleeves.”

While this might sound an obvious route for a WWII-inspired game to take, both Machine Games and the publisher Bethesda leaned on this sturdy message harder than anyone expected, with some of the game’s marketing even overtly referencing anti-Trump slogans at times. This sense of aggression applies even to the game’s death animations - the predecessor to Colossus, 2014’s The New Order, spilled more than its fair share of blood and guts when you finally got his hands on the scheming Nazis, but Colossus manages to up the ante even more, to an almost comical extent. You chop their legs off, tomahawk a fire-axe into their back, laser their brains into hot mush. Video games are no stranger to extreme violence, of course, but in our hyper-polarized age, it’s clear that this sort of graphic disembowelment of evil men can be a rich vein of catharsis to a certain kind of audience. (Just look at this GIF of BJ sinking a hatchet into a Klansman’s neck, which got 47,000 upvotes on Reddit - some of my non-gaming friends even asked me about it.)

Throughout the game, you witness the terror and destruction that the Nazis have wrought firsthand: New Orleans as a moribund ghetto, New York as a bombed-out wasteland, fear and repression on the faces of the anonymous citizenry. Yet, as with the street scene, I outlined above, you also see the sort of everyday oppression that affects so many in our world, ratcheted up to eleven. The Nazis confer with each other, bicker among themselves, compare notes on Terror-Billy, the debauched subhuman that keeps killing them. One soldier complains that he wants to serve on a death-squad - he wants the real action. His world-weary comrade assures him that while it might sound like fun, it’s a lot of hard work, digging through empty houses and dragging corpses. According to Björk, depicting this sort of casual horror was a core design goal of the entire franchise.

“Nazism is itself an evil ideology, and absolutely monstrous to its core,” he says. “That being said, they’re still humans, and they act out the atrocities of the ideology themselves.”

Björk specifically cites a scene that happens early in the game, where B.J. reflects upon the destruction of New York - exploring a post-nuclear Manhattan is one of the game’s most striking set-pieces. He remarks to another character, a black radical named Grace, that the Nazis are “monsters” for doing this. “Not monsters,” replies Grace, snuffing her cigarette out. “Men.” It’s not exactly a subtle exploration of the theme, but, then again, a game with Wolfenstein in the name would never lower itself to the small-bore - it wants to blast you with the cannon, every time. “B.J. wants to make them into something separate from himself,” says Björk. “Obviously, they’re not.”

At times, Wolfenstein II can feel like it’s trying to punch above its weight, especially when the ideology tries to move past simply blasting Nazis to shreds. Though B.J. and his allies are united in their hatred of their shared ally, that’s about the only thing they have in common, besides a love for creative profanity. The sheer extent of the conflict that shakes the commandeered U-boat that serves as the headquarters for your ragtag group of revolutionaries is one of Colossus’s major departures from The New Order, and altogether one of the shakiest. One scene sees B.J. trading whiskey shots with a Bible-thumping communist named Horton, who rants about the evils of capitalism as gunfire rains down on his allies. Whenever the characters descend into this sort of Sorkinesque political babbling, it feels as though they’re reciting the Wikipedia pages of their various ideologies rather than actually engaging in a meaningful debate. Thankfully, the game doesn’t dwell on it for long - you’re never more than a couple of minutes away from splitting another Nazi skull right down the middle. For Björk, this was one of the game’s trickier elements.

“We like to call it the ideology of human decency, basically,” he says. “These characters come from different political stances and ideologies, but come together and unite under the idea that people can be free to think what they want and be whatever they want without being deemed unworthy. That’s what the Resistance represents.”

Though The New Colossus is certainly one of the more politically-sophisticated shooters we’ve yet seen, when it comes to the intended message of the game, Björk says that what you see is largely what you get.

“The theme of the game is catharsis, and that can mean a lot of different things,” he says. “We try to tell stories that engage the id, that move you in a primal way.

“The core of the story is what you might call a cautionary tale about fascism and Nazism. There’s always a risk in every country that ideologies like this can take root and grow into something that is really harmful.”

Björk cites the inclusion of the Ku Klux Klan in the game as an integral part of this message. While some might see it as controversial, Machine Games felt that it was important to demonstrate how factions within the country can be receptive to compatible worldviews, which ultimately results in fascism.

Since the game’s release, a tiny but vocal group of arch-conservative games enthusiasts have decried the game’s anti-Nazi message as too “political.” While these assertions have been thoroughly mocked by the larger Internet gaming community, the fact that we even have to have that conversation at all shocked many people, including Björk.

“It’s been really disturbing, to say the least,” he says. “We started working on this game in 2014, and we had no idea that in 2017, it would be seen as controversial to make a game that has a strong anti-Nazi message. Who can argue with that? It really boggles the mind. That’s really all there is to say about it.”

For those of us who view the wholesale slaughter of Nazis as morally uncomplicated, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus offers a different kind of shooter, a romp with a raison d’etre, a purpose beyond just the squalid pleasure of bullets ripping through flesh and blood. It suffers from many of the classic syndromes of a video game sequel, such as endless corridors and a dearth of fresh ideas, but, ultimately, it’s one of the few works that manages to be exactly what you want it to be. In the world of first-person shooters - the world that Wolfenstein helped build, blocky brick by blocky brick - bloodshed is compulsory. Best, then, that the buckets of gore convey something vital, even if it’s as straightforward as Nazis are bad.