Something’s clearly wrong with me. Xbox One Controller in hand, having just defeated the final boss of Wolfenstein: The New Order…I found myself choked up by the ending monologue. Maybe I was tired. Maybe it was the current political climate. Maybe it was my mood.
Maybe…maybe…it was just good.
Like, really good. But seriously, Wolfenstein is the game to make me cry? Not Bioshock, not Bioshock: Infinite, not Final Fantasy VII, not Grand Theft Auto IV or V, but Wolfenstein: The New Order. Seriously?!
(Warning: spoilers for Wolfenstein: The New Order, and Terminator 2: Judgement Day below)
In 30 years of life, I can count the media that’s choked me up on both hands, and have two fingers left over : Wonder Boys, Creed, Stranger Than Fiction, The first two ‘season finales’ of The Telltale Walking Dead Games, military drama ‘Megan Leavey’, The ‘No Man’s Land’ scene from Wonder Woman, and the long-forgotten animated TV special Santa Vs. The Snowman.
And now, Wolfenstein: The New Order has lodged a lump in my throat. It turns out, I am not alone:
But the question remains, why this game? Wolfenstein: The New Order is a colossally silly endeavor, an alternative history balls-to-the-wall FPS with giant robots, steam-punk technology, cartoon proportions, and a mission taking place entirely on the moon. The player character, BJ Blazcowicz, looks as ridiculous as his name sounds; like a 1980s G.I Joe character on steroids, rather than someone worth investing in. He’s more ‘Terminator’ than John McClane.
Which is ironic because Terminator 2 is another property that has zero right being as emotionally devastating as it is. 26 years ago, renting it on VHS, my Babysitter lamented how the ending, where the T-800 must sacrifice himself for the future, made her cry. She was also not alone:
Terminator 2’s ending was an emotional punch of the inevitable. Having finally won the day, with a moment to breath, the Terminator realizes he has to go, else ruin the timeline. Little John Connor – having finally re-united with his estranged mother and running with a version of a father he never really had, must now say goodbye. Just when it seemed everything would be okay, too – taking John Connor’s last bit of childhood naivety with him. Devastating.
Wolfenstein: The New Order, is not dissimilar from Terminator 2 in terms of how it punches you in the gut – and that’s why it works so well. You win the day only to realize great victory comes with great sacrifice. If Terminator 2 uses the loss of a parent or loved one as the crux of its final emotional climax, Wolfenstein: The New Order uses a nostalgic love for one’s country and faith in humanity as a whole – and everything that entails, to get you.
BJ, is stoic, and a weapon, the weapon, of the resistance – not unlike the Terminator. BJ’s a soldier, and is completely willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good; the good of the world, the good of his friends, and the good of Anya, whom BJ views as a bastion of light in a shockingly dark world. The world he’s fighting for is a world that shouldn’t need someone like him.
This is typified by his recital of the poem from the Statue of Liberty, ‘The New Colossus’. As the world crumbles around him, he’s referring to his love, partner, and person who’s saved his ass more than once, Anya, as ‘The Mother of Exiles’. Meaning BJ’s the destroyer, and Anya’s the builder – the very embodiment of what America means to BJ.
If you pay attention to the news at all, it’s clear the United States of America is facing a bit of turmoil regarding its legacy, future, and ability to interact with one-another. Media sensationalism, vitriolic politicians (and constitutes), and issues of race, gender, and personhood are all being challenged and argued at the loudest possible decibel level. These days, regarding someone like Thomas Jefferson as a ‘hero’ is a controversial statement to many Americans.
Which makes it hard to call yourself a Patriot, or for a game to be Patriotic without being divisive or cheesy. Wolfenstein: The New Order gets away with it by setting this state-of-the-art action game in an ‘old fashioned’ time – World War II, when, in the eyes of the public, America unquestionably stood for truth, justice, freedom, and opportunity. When it was a point of pride that we welcomed the tired, poor, and huddled masses yearning to breathe free. When the bad guys wore uniforms, and the good guys got Bob Hope for a job well done.
The greater good. Freedom. Opportunity. Patriotism. A noble sacrifice for these principles following a rollicking adventure is a story as old as time, and one that still gets people in ‘the feels’.
Wolfenstein: The New Order’s writer, Jens Matthies told Giant Bomb that films like Robocop and Inglorious Basterds informed his writing of the game. Both are movies that oscillate between over-the-top violence, gallows humor, and emotionally resonate moments; sometimes all within the same scene – Inglorious Basterd’s opening features prop comedy involving a comically large pipe, palpable tension, and ultimately a tragic and brutal slaying of unarmed citizens in the basement.
The problem games have, particularly games like Wolfenstein, is you need to account for gameplay. You risk alienating your audience by dehumanizing the characters via a relentless onslaught of violence, by forcing them to sit through boring cut-scenes, or via terrible implementation of tone.
Dishonored 2 featured an all-star cast and failed at all three aspects. The characters sounded like they were reading the script for the first time. They’d move around and appear to be invested, but their voices would betray their actions and faces. By the end of that game, as you launch your final assault on Dunwall, it’s nearly impossible to care about anything because none of the actors or voice-directors cared. I think the lady with one arm tried to kill me once? Who knows. I simply did not care.
Meanwhile, a ‘worse’ game like Lost Planet 3 is easier to invest in because the characterization and interactions with the characters feel human. The different accents, the fact they sometimes stumbled over their words or repeated themselves, made the world, and thereby your goal, more believable.
Similarly, Wolfenstein: The New Order, works on an emotional level thanks to a command of tone, good (and human) acting, good writing, and low expectations. *No one* expected the writing to be as good as it was. Nor did they expect the death of their main character – so when it happened in a sequence not unlike the final moments of a favorite TV show or movie, it hit us hard.
It’s also worth noting the reason any of this works is because none of the characters think what they’re doing is particularly ridiculous. There’s no wink-to-the-camera or indication it’s all a lark. But they’re also human, and have interests outside of their cause and feel, well, ‘alive’ – war torn, depressed, sometimes evil and possibly brain-damaged, but alive.
Which brings us to the sequel, aptly titled ‘The New Colossus’ – which is a reference to the poem from the end of The New Order. Matthies returns in the position of creative director. The sequel has retconned the emotional ending from the first game – BJ lives. The game must now contend with hype and a far more sensitive political atmosphere. With a bizarre trailer featuring LSD and animated hallucinations, it seems the title is going for an entirely different tone.
As we prepare for what is likely to be a distinctly political atmosphere regarding the game, how Nazis in that game are handled, and if it’s ‘responsible’ to have such a light touch regarding them, it’s important to remember just how in-command-of-its-tone The New Order was – and most importantly, how a stupid shooter with giant robots made you feel. Like a bad-ass sure, but also, like a Patriot.
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