‘Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus’ is a cautionary tale for America

“Wolfenstein II” will have plenty of Nazi-shooting, but the most interesting thing in Machinegames’ latest demo was how it might engage with American racism.

When Wolfenstein: The New Order appeared on the scene three years ago, one of its more interesting aspects was the world its developers imagined, in which the Nazis were triumphant in 1945. Skipping ahead years, most of the game took place in the 1960s, where the Nazis — and their ideology — dominated the world. It was as horrific a place as one might imagine (and filled with interesting cultural asides, like the teaser Bethesda showed at E3 for an insane, destructive Lassie-style TV show, with a robot dog).

“When you’re making the first one, you have no idea how it’s going to do, so it’s a little bit scary.”

Video games have been pitting players against Nazis for years, but The New Order took the step of casting players as underdogs, members of a tiny resistance cell that felt like it was engaging in a losing struggle. It drove home those stakes by taking players to the awful locations indicative of what Nazism hoped to achieve: Not just its military strongholds, but its death camps.

This year, the sequel to The New Order, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, will do something similar by taking players from Europe to a Nazi-dominated United States. There will be plenty of bases and barracks to clear of armored-up Nazi troops along the way, but we’ve already seen protagonist BJ Blazkowicz also bear witness to some of the worst elements of America, emboldened by Nazi domination. And with Machinegames revealing it plans its Wolfenstein games to be a trilogy, the question of what it means to do with its alternate history setting is looming ever larger.

A larger universe

At a recent preview event, New Colossus Creative Director Jens Matthies told journalists that his team imagined the modern Wolfenstein series as a trilogy, something that hasn’t been much discussed before. The reason? Developer Machinegames and publisher Bethesda needed to wait and see how The New Order fared. But Machinegames was sure to litter The New Order with story points that could carry forward.

“When you’re making the first one, you have no idea how it’s going to do, so it’s a little bit scary, Matthies said. “But at the same time, you know that, unless you start building in things, you won’t have enough — you can really sort of make a better meta arc over the whole thing if you’re building in stuff that will be cashed in later on in the first one.”

The prospect raises some interesting possibilities about the themes in The New Order, and the ideas on which The New Colossus may be building.

“… On some level, of course, everything that you experience influences you, right?”

The preview event featured a new, extended look at Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, allowing us to try two sections of the game. One was an extended version of the demo shown at E3 2017. The second, was much more disturbing (part of it is shown in this trailer). BJ’s mission took him to the town of Roswell, New Mexico, where Nazis parade through the streets and Ku Klux Klansmen walk around in their robes, presumably celebrating their “heritage.”

In a political climate like that in America today — one in which the on-going discussion of the U.S.’s relationship with racism is punctuated by protests of the Nazi-sympathetic “Alt-Right”The New Colossus has an even greater amount of relevance than its creators likely anticipated.

But it isn’t a response to current politics in America Matthies said. (Or Europe, for that matter, since developer Machinegames is based in Sweden). That its alternate universe’s look at an overwhelming, maybe unwinnable fight against oppression might be a testament to the more universal themes the team is going for.

Nazi Missile Silo — Wolfenstein The New Colossus

“It’s hard to say, because on some level, of course, everything that you experience influences you, right?” Matthies said. “But it’s not really how we approach it, because our sort of vision for the game is to create something that’s timeless as a piece of art, even though that sounds pretty pretentious. So I don’t think you can really do that if you’re doing a sort of ironic commentary on society.”

Nazi world domination, by way of Robocop

Of course, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus isn’t entirely serious. This is the follow-up to a game in which BJ laments the pain and suffering its endless war has caused to him and others; but he also curses out the moon because Nazis were the first to land on it. Matthies said The New Colossus is toeing the same line.

“There are things that I love tremendously that walk that same tightrope, like Robocop, or District 9, or even Guardians of the Galaxy,” Matthies said. “I love that kind of story, that takes you through just the extreme over-the-top and really crazy stuff happening, but is grounded in a way that you have real relationships with the characters. There’s a darkness there, and there’s some sort of emotional core or truth in it.

The biggest questions remain in what The New Colossus will do with all that Nazi-killing, though, in order to make something more than just a fun opportunity to annihilate more of history’s most hated baddies. BJ is back home, in a country that has a long, dark history with some of the same concepts that drive the Nazi ideology. How Machinegames works those ideas into what is also a raucous, sometimes ridiculous first-person shooter remains to be seen, but it’s nothing if not fertile ground.

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