The Wolfenstein games have always had an endearing simplicity to them. They are games that largely consist of running through rooms with a machine gun, gunning down Nazis. With the Axis powers being modern history’s most popular monsters, these games never needed any narrative justification to push players onwards. The Allies won the war, and Wolfenstein 3-D was created to allow the player to win the war.
This is not the world of Wolfenstein: The New Order. The game’s protagonist, B.J. Blazkowicz, is a man struggling against a current that threatens to engulf him. After a battlefield injury leaves him in a vegetative state he awakens years later in the 1960s. He is faced with a terrifying future more closely resembling the world of Philip K. Dick’s The Man In The High Castle (in which the axis powers won and now rule the United States) than the world war he left behind. The American heartland has been sliced up and shared between the prevailing Axis powers, and the Allies consigned to the history books as the losers who were always destined to be slain.
Wolfenstein heralded the coming of the shooter genre of video games. Yet The New Order is a radical departure from what the series once offered. Blazkowicz is now fighting against not only a global fascist power, but the idea that the world has simply moved on and no longer needs his head strong, gung-ho attitude. What developer MachineGames did is not only revitalise an ailing franchise, but acknowledge that what modern audiences expect from and understand about games today has fundamentally changed.
Blazkowicz has come to represent the old guard of action heroes, when a narrative could consist of travelling from point A to B while killing as many enemies as possible in between. That is what he continues to do in The New Order. The difference now is that there is never any discernable change within the world and positive outcomes fail to materialise. In a world where the Allies no longer exist as a credible force, B.J. does not have the support structure necessary to bring about swift change. No matter how many men are bludgeoned or enemy camps are destroyed, Blaskowicz’s battlefields—his country—are still hostage to an overriding power structure.
Yet we go through the same old motions, perpetrating violent acts that bear a closer resemblance to terrorism than any kind of heroic military operation. While the nature of the violence has changed within the game to reflect the new environment, players are unable to channel it into any meaningful outcome. They are at most isolated acts of sporadic violence. One particular moment stands out, when the player is tasked with assaulting a Nazi research facility. In order to soften the defences a resistance member drives a car loaded with explosives into the entrance, briefly conjuring memories of when two men tried to do the same thing to Glasgow’s International Airport in 2007. So Blazkowicz does what many others have done: he retreats into the familiar and digs in his heels.
He’s the grandparent claiming that back in their day they could keep the back door unlocked, without the fear of being burgled. Any argument to the contrary doesn’t stand a chance against the wistful past. Yet is this surprising when, over the course of many years, you wake up one day to realise that the present is utterly alien? Society has marched on and somewhere along the line you’ve fallen behind. It’s only natural to grab onto the familiar. All of B.J’s allies are old and beleaguered, except Anya, the younger and more careful member of the rebel group, who is constantly reaching out to remind B.J. of the humanity he is fighting for.
Shooters aren’t what they used to be. While critics and players alike now look upon gaming’s innovations with a more discerning eye, it could be argued at the same time there has been a move to recapture the spark of gaming’s glory days—or at least encapsulate what we as an audience beholden to nostalgia remember as the purer experience, no matter how imagined that may be. Some games now stand out by offering faster and stripped down controls or blocky visuals, all in sharp contrast to modern and ultra sleek iterations of today’s games. Yet Wolfenstein: The New Order manages to do something greater than this, because its classic stylings are not merely skin deep. Its message is a simple one: games cannot afford to stand still. The relatively simple running and gunning of the game harkens back to a time when games were simpler, but coupled with a strong narrative it also exhibits how the status quo that shooters have relied on all these years is untenable.
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and Blazkowicz is as old as they come. Writing on the weariness that permeates the game Ed Smith, a writer who has written for in the past, states, “B.J. Blazkowicz is a tired character. It’s in his eyes when Anya tells him the US has surrendered, in the way he whispers all his threats, barely flinches at physical pain.” Perhaps we’re being forced through the same cycles of violence because B.J. simply doesn’t have the energy, or the heart, to do anything else.
It is unsurprising that at it’s core The New Order is a tale of revenge. In Deathshead, the game’s old school video gamey antagonist, we have an identifiable figure in which Blazkowicz can channel all of his hate and thirst for carnage into. In chasing this one man we have a goal to achieve as we travel from point A to B. The path B.J. has travelled down since he first appeared in 1992 allows for nothing else.
Naturally the end of the story Deathshead is slain. Our hero lies broken and bloodied on the shores of death. Objective complete. And guess what? The Nazi are still in charge.
Yet far below the bleeding man is the figure of a young woman with a torch leading the way. With gamers these days expecting more than simple retreads of the past, games may need to set their sights higher than Nazi-strewn corridors if they want to keep pace with our ever changing attitudes. And Blazkowicz has certainly earned a rest.