I never thought it would be the Wolfenstein series that touches on the more sinister and taboo issues arising from the rise of the far right and Nazism during World War II. We’ve had scores of games based on that six year period, 1939-1945 where most of the developed world was embroiled in war, as the Nazis pushed for control of Europe and the Japanese the control of the Pacific. From these games we know that Adolf Hitler and his henchmen were maniacal supremacists committed to righting the wrongs imposed on Germany following the end of World War I and the crippling impact the Versaille Treaty had on its welfare. We know that Japan was looking to continue its previous imperialistic push into much of Asia at the will of the Emperor (Hirohito). We know that while Britain’s forces fought with incredible bravery and determination to hold off the push of Hitler’s forces from mainland Europe to the British Isles, it was the entry of the Americans into the war that put the first real chinks into the Nazi armour. We know that victory was heralded by the allies in May of 1945, with the fall of Japan coming a few months later in August.
But did you know that the Nazis were also responsible for one of the biggest programs of genocide the world has ever seen? If videogames are your only insight into the war, well you’d be forgiven for not knowing.
It is a side of the war that video games seldom go near. It is an inconvenient truth likely deemed too touchy for anything remotely interactive. There are still survivors of the holocaust living today, and for many people, the experience of being held in concentration camps across Europe during the war is still very real. While there are museums and documentaries that remind us of the atrocities committed under Nazi rule, the genocide, in particular the persecution of the jewish population of Europe, is something that pop culture well and truly avoids – particularly when it comes to interactive media.
But Wolfenstein: The New Order bucks that trend by creating an alternate universe where the Nazis triumphed over World War II and is able to pursue its aryan agenda. It is a bleak alternative future that has seen the United States of America surrender at the hands of a nuclear enabled Nazi Germany, Europe occupied, and the people repressed. It is a world where Nazi propaganda is rampant and the streets are guarded by heavily armed German soldiers and mecha. And it is this bleak alternate history world that has enabled the developer Machine Games to explore the Nazi pursuit of purity through persecution.
Tactfully and subtlety Wolfenstein exists in a world filled with intherent and widespread racism and genocide. An early encounter with Nazi aryan supremacists in a train is a confronting one, with the enemy casually discussing the virtues of pure aryan blood, forcing you to take a test to prove your purity. It is an uneasy moment in a game that perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the game. Wolfenstein is confronting thematically but it is handled incredibly well within the confines of the narrative and the construction of the world. Conversations and newspaper articles flesh out the world, never hesitating to touch on great acts of discrimination, almost all resulting in murder of innocents. At one point you are told of an innocent baby being taken from its parents, probably murdered, because of a physical disability. It is a world full of human atrocities, and atrocities that the developer has no qualms in bringing to the players attention.
But Wolfenstein takes these themes in its stride, never stopping to labour on the point or make moral judgement. Mentions of aryan bloodlines or religious or social ‘cleansing’ are fleeting. It is clear that the nazi doctrine is one without virtue from the outset, and in an act of having faith in the intelligence of the player, Machine Games made the decision to not push a wider moral onto the player. It isn’t romanticising their behaviour by staying silent but rather advocating a view that feelings of human equality should be universally held. After all vivid imagery of torture and human suffering shouldn’t need a caption or a commentary track explaining why it is bad. It just is.
And that’s the way Wolfenstein tackles these weighty issues. It just is. Perhaps its the fact that Wolfenstein: The New Order takes place in an alternate universe that allows it so much freedom to explore these mature themes with such ease. While it is clearly a time and place in history that we are familiar with, it is the fantastical nature created for Wolfenstein that distances it far enough from the human suffering experienced during World War II, to avoid criticism of juxtaposing issues of humanity with the bombast the Wolfenstein series is known for. But whether it was intentional or not, Wolfenstein: The New Order heralds a new era of maturity in video games, one where issues of racism and the beliefs held by the far-right can be discussed and portrayed in such an open and honest manner. But more importantly one where the darker side of human nature isn’t glossed over or made into black and white for populist consumption. Wolfenstein doesn’t purport to be a dramatic statement against beliefs of aryan supremacy or pure bloodlines, but by taking these issues in its stride, Machine Games has created probably the most mature discussion of these themes in video games.