Among the other things I got this holiday season was the Wolfenstein: The New Order game. It’s so nice that Steam has sales.
While it is one of the prettiest games I’ve played to date, and it is, without question, a decent game, in that the shooter gameplay is done by the book, with its own curious gimmicks, there are a few things about its plot that produce nagging fits of fridge logic that make it both more amusing than it says it is, and possibly, deeper than it was meant to be.
But let me explain this in greater detail. Spoilers follow, not like this should be a detriment.
Everyone in my generation has probably played the original Wolfenstein, the game that made 3d shooters popular. It was a cartoon by necessity – raycasting was the only practical way to do this at the time, and it was also computationally expensive, there basically was no room to be serious, and games didn’t contemplate being more than doodles on the wall back in the day anyway.
So it’s not a surprise nor particularly unusual that William “B.J.” Blazkowicz1 eventually goes up against Hitler in a mecha with two gatling cannons in the original Wolfenstein.2 The current Wolfenstein is a reboot of the franchise, and it’s not a surprise Hitler got written out, being the extreme case of Godwin’s Law.
For the reboot, they came up with Wilhelm Totenkopf, a mad scientist/general that eventually supplants Hitler as the actual head of Nazi war effort, and he daringly escapes at the last moment, leaving the player to fight the boss monster…
Ten minutes into the New Order, in a last ditch attempt to raid Totenkopf’s stronghold, Blazkowicz is captured, and forced to pick which of his two comrades suffers a deadly and pointless “medical” procedure.3 This, as well as Blazkowicz’s daydreams about a peaceful life, are presented with such a morbidly straight face, that it certainly drives home the point that the game means to be taken seriously, that it wants to say isn’t a cartoon, but rather a straight piece of alternate history science fiction drama.4
A few more minutes later, Blazkowicz gets a piece of shrapnel in his brain during the inevitable escape and wakes up fourteen years later, in a psychiatric asylum in Poland, where he spent most of this time as a vegetable.5 And it’s 1960.
This is a world where Nazis won, and this is the point where the entire game world is permeated with subtle weirdness, so pervasive, that you might even think that Blazkowicz is just hallucinating – not that he hasn’t given us cause to think that.
The world of the New Order is full of technological marvels far ahead of its time, and in many places, far ahead of ours. There’s a bridge across Hibraltar. There’s a base on the moon with a baggage claim area and regular shuttle flights, from London6, with plane style seats7 – something obviously impossible without NTR, a technology that in our timeline never took off the ground because it was thought to be too expensive. Not to mention it’s a tremendous feat to achieve in just fourteen years, impossible without a myriad other achievements, like Moon mining. There’s a twenty meter statue of Von Braun8 and a huge Moon globe for tourists to gawk at.9 There are personal computers, including office models and models for private use. The first laser weapon you get isn’t a weapon – it’s a portable cutting tool,10 designed as such. The world is full of majestic architecture, which characters call a monstrosity every chance they get,11 and the dirtiest place in the game is the rebel base.
The only civilians Blazkowicz meets are Polish. Who, despite being defined as untermensch by the Nazi ideology,12 are for some reason not imprisoned nor enslaved, permitted to run a psychiatric asylum in relative peace, with only occasional visits of uniformed Nazis who take prisoners away for undisclosed purposes, have that asylum equipped better than the Soviet or Russian psychiatric establishments I’ve had the occasion to observe, feed their patients sausages, appear to have no shortage of medication or other necessities and even certain luxuries, like, say, books.13
Very soon after he wakes up, Blazkowicz meets the family of the Polish nurse that took care of him in the asylum. Which are farmers in Poland, who are permitted to own weapons, have a decently sized, decently furnished house, with a barn with a car in it and full of odds and ends. Somehow this doesn’t feel particularly oppressive, certainly no more than, say, modern Russia. Which has much worse hospitals.
As if the game is aware of what impression all this must be giving the player, it makes sure to give us every possible reason to hate the Nazis anyway. Nazi soldiers are all Blazkowicz ever sees beside those people,14 and while the rank and file never get to actually do something inhumane, the officers he meets engage in extreme cruelty – for no discernible reason other than to produce a reaction in the player. The concentration camp he visits along the way insists on using prisoners for operating heavy machinery which would be trivial to automate, while it being manually operated is what permits Blazkowicz to sabotage it.
At the same time, a major plot point hinges on Jews not actually being actively exterminated, so even the scenes at the concentration camp sort of fall short – they just clash too strongly with the image of a strong civilization otherwise presented. It is revealed along the way that most of these advances are at least partially due to the work of a Jewish sect, who saw invention for invention’s sake as a way to commune with God. However, someone has to have acquired this knowledge, seen that it had merit, and made use of it.
And that someone is definitely not Totenkopf. When we actually get to listen to the man himself, it becomes patently clear he is no scientist, no genius, and certainly has no idea whatsoever what the fuck he is doing, even though he fancies himself all of that and more besides. As he recites portions of Doctor Breen’s speech about how the player “has destroyed so much, but created nothing”, it certainly doesn’t feel that he himself had any part in it.
It’s as if all of Blazkowicz’s struggle and personal war against Nazism, conducted with just as much cruelty as they have shown, is just a sideline in the business of a world that is otherwise about something else entirely, which is just so prosperous now, that it can afford to support a bunch of costumed sadists and tolerate their antics purely for tradition’s sake.
Or was it all just a dream?
It’s interesting how in W:TNO, some characters pronounce it the way it’s supposed to be pronounced (Blazkovich – he’s supposed to be a son of Polish expats) while others pronounce it the way it’s written, and nobody seems to comment. ↩︎
It’s more of a surprise Hitler isn’t riding a dinosaur! ↩︎
The only really annoying moment for me in this game is that you just die if you try not to pick anyone. Sensible, but a choice I feel they really should have permitted to the player, Totenkopf could just flip a coin in this case… ↩︎
Comic relief in the form of robot dogs jumping after thrown sticks notwithstanding. ↩︎
Yep, the shrapnel is still in, and remains in there for the duration of the game. ↩︎
A rocket launch site that far north is at a significant disadvantage for reaching anything resembling an equatorial orbit. ↩︎
Which implies the flight takes a short enough time for this to be practical. Which itself implies that it goes at something like 0.5g acceleration most of the time. Which implies the delta V on their spacecraft is far in excess of anything we currently have. ↩︎
Rather than Hitler or Totenkopf, mind you. A gigantic statue of a scientist speaks a lot about a society if you ask me. Why don’t we have a statue of Von Braun anywhere? Or of Korolyov, for that matter? There’s the Gagarin monument, but nothing of this size for the people who made his flight happen, at least, not that I remember. ↩︎
Considering all these things are located right where the shuttles take off in the middle of London, I imagine one could also get to watch the launches right from the educational museum. ↩︎
For the record, portable laser cutters good enough for metal are problematic due to power requirements and cost. Blazkowicz finds his in a random workshop. ↩︎
Which I don’t feel it honestly deserves. ↩︎
Notice that the original plans for Slav peoples involved them mostly being deported to Siberia. ↩︎
They certainly never mention not having anything they needed, and there’s copious visual evidence there’s no shortage of stuff lying around. ↩︎
There is never a proper explanation why, in a world where Nazis won, there are so many soldiers everywhere, and yet the only resistance and opposition visible is Blazkowicz’s team. ↩︎