Gaming seems to be in a kind of deeper retreat into escapism in 2017. Just look at the most popular titles this year: PlayerUnknown’s Battleground, Overwatch, Grand Theft Auto V and Final Fantasy XIV.
I expect games to be abstract and sensational, to facilitate things impossible in reality. But I expect them also, like the science-fiction and fantasy canon they so regularly plunder for inspiration, to have something more meaningful to say about my world.
I understand that it is more enjoyable and still entirely possible to learn about, for example, the second World War and Nazis when you're doing it with a laser gun in hand. But this year, pop games seem increasingly determined to lock us into single, unending unrealities, and the response is either extreme profit or tacit consensus, that this is what games are best at and should be doing more of. And it feels as if the culture is becoming successively less bothered about what's underneath the sugar coating. So entrenched is this escapism in video games, that even questioning it can come off as condescending or artificially contrarian.
But there are those occasional, meaningful games that manage to embrace the escapism and still deliver something potent and honest. Such was the case with the reboot of the storied Wolfenstein franchise, a series of games about killing Nazis which was traditionally more akin to Inglourious Basterds than it was Dunkirk. Despite those roots, and all of its robots and moon bases, Wolfenstein: The New Order was still a game about grief, love and acute human loss, and one of the biggest sellers of 2014.
I fear that won’t be the case with its sequel, due out in October.
Given what's happened in the last three years in our real world, it's little wonder that escapism of an overt kind is making headway over more meaningful story-driven games. So it might not be surprising that Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus looks like part of the trend toward anything in video games, absolutely anything, other than our current reality.
Because disregarding what's happening in the real world seems in vogue, I'm struggling to believe Wolfenstein II can ease into people's hearts any relevant, political analogy, or at least one that isn't simplified and easy to swallow.
That’s unfortunate, because the game's premise, whereby the Nazis take over America, seems almost clairvoyant. It's as if MachineGames, Wolfenstein's Swedish developer, knew Donald Trump would become president before he even announced his candidacy – if I were one of its directors, some small part of me would be jumping for joy, grateful to reality itself for lending my game satirical bite. A couple of years ago, Nazism in America might have been regarded as fringe. Today, and from the government down, it seems to be creeping steadily back into the mainstream.
I can hardly criticize Wolfenstein II for failing to properly address a political situation which didn't fully exist when it was conceived. What bothers me instead is how gaming culture might have changed, to the point it no longer accepts that more meaningful, biting criticism. Wolfenstein II, because it combines Nazis with androids, feels like the perfect excuse for escapism to keep hanging around. Taken in isolation from 2017 and this encroaching escapism, I think it will be a great game. But if modern game makers really are bothered about diversifying and challenging their audience, like they keep talking about, the last thing they need is more justification for remaining plainly, purposelessly, unreal.
Much of my angst is driven by what I’ve heard of a game yet to be released, and what I fear the makers may have done to make it more palatable for today’s audience. But there is at least one moment of hope to be found in the minutes Wolfenstein II’s teasers, previews, interviews and trailers.
On July 26th, publisher Bethesda released a brief, oddly compelling scene from the heart of the game. Freed from the plot and almost entirely without gameplay, it offered some hope for what Wolfenstein II could be.
The sequence opens in an traditional American diner and features a malevolent Nazi ordering, and then enjoying a delicious strawberry milkshake. Like The New Order, which at its best was a game about how big picture politics attend personal loss, Wolfenstein II, in this scene, seems confident to ignore fantasy, and instead consolidate its horror into terse, plausible dialogue.
If video games are becoming escapist, somehow more brazenly than ever before, watching a Nazi drink an American drink, in an American restaurant, while the American guy behind the counter has no choice, really, but to act like everything's normal, is reassuringly pithy. It's a combination of fantasy and fidelity that leans, rarely, more toward the latter.
Compared to a lot of modern games, where the sandbox, Tolkien or Arthur C. Clarke-esque world seems to get construed first, and then seasoned with things from real life, even the subtly-threatening look on the Nazi's face and his passive aggressive, impervious attitude, feel unblinkingly honest.
Authenticity needn't mean punishing the audience, or holding their head by either side and making them stare right into their bleak world. A game can be authentically happy or authentically uplifting; or, as would appear to be the case in Wolfenstein II, it can simply capture some kind of authentic human behavior.
I don't know how Wolfenstein II's creators plan to use this authenticity; if they will create something more compelling that another piece of escapism. What I do know is that in a year – when gaming culture seems not only content with ignoring the real world, but almost celebrating that fact – the assured smile on a Nazi’s face while drinking a strawberry milkshake can be more powerful than any killstreak.