The lights are on
When I first previewed Wolfenstein: The New Order in a small, press-only gathering earlier this year, I came away surprised. The gunplay, alternate history, and even the traditional method of gathering ammunition with a button press all gelled nicely. What I wasn’t prepared for was the humanity flowing through the narrative.
I experienced some trepidation when we published that preview. In the first three chapters of the game, I got a good look at the horrors of a prolonged World War II. I experienced the gruesome Mengele-esque experiments conducted by antagonist General Deathshead. I saw 14 years of life pass before a helpless B.J. Blazkowicz. I had no guarantee that Machine Games would carry that thread of strong character development through the entire experience, but I had hope.
My faith was rewarded. Between the intense moments of bloodshed, B.J. drops his guard. He experiences regret for those he was unable to save. He falls in love with a strong woman who cared for him during his invalid years. He lives a human existence.
All of this is on the surface, though. No matter what you do in the game, you will see B.J. and Anya fall in love. You will hear his lamentations and see the despair on his face as he is insulted by a friend he chose to save.
In order to truly appreciate Machine Games' careful narrative crafting, you need to be willing to take just a few moments and let the game guide you. When you first reach the resistance base, you are encouraged to sleep. Doing so will reward you with an upgrade to maximum health or armor (depending on which timeline you are playing).
Each time you return, you’ll be able to collect that reward. On the final time, you will be be woken in the middle of the night by Tekla, one of the resistance members. She is a bit of an odd duck, and B.J. is clearly unsettled by finding her staring at him and Anya as they slumber.
What follows is a lengthy conversation about what it means to be human. In this exchange, Machine Games (through Tekla) asks the player to confront the very definition of self. It is a surprisingly compelling moment that stands in stark juxtaposition to the brutality players deal out and have inflicted upon them. You can watch that moment below.
This is not the only opportunity that Machine Games takes to surprise the player through narrative techniques. Approximately halfway through the game, Anya tells B.J. that she discovered her cousin Ramona’s diary.
She reads passages to him, and players are prompted to pause the game to listen. It’s easy to miss them in the heat of battle or shrug them off as unnecessary.
If you have finished Wolfenstein: The New Order without listening to these, go back and take the time. If you haven’t played yet, stop reading and simply remember that these are worth your attention (spoilers are coming).
The diary entries are triggered at specific points in the level. I made it a point to listen as soon as the prompt appeared, and I’m glad I listened through the end.
Ramona’s story is a sad one that begins with the cold-blooded murder of a lover at the hand of the German occupiers. As Nazis take over Poland, even those who resisted bend and then break, at least feigning allegiance to the ideals of the new world leaders.
In her diary, Ramona tells of how she built up the courage to strike back, murdering one, then many Nazi officers. Ramona’s tale is a tragic one; she becomes pregnant at the hand of one her victims, whom she strangles in his bed. What follows is a painful, successful termination of the pregnancy and more acts of resistance in an increasingly helpless situation. Her deeds are hinted at in newspaper clippings, which mention a serial killer targeting Nazi soldiers.
It is not until the 24th and final entry that it becomes clear. Ramona does not exist at all. It was with a pit in my stomach that I realized that Anya was using the diary entries to reveal her strength and her guilt to B.J.
“That was the last entry, William,” she says to him. “Some of the things in this diary happened a long time ago. And some of them may have happened to me. I miss you. I missed you a long time before I met you.”
It is clear from the diary that Anya quietly worked to save B.J. from Deathshead’s men at the asylum. She confided in him, though he was too weak and distant to respond. Long before William “B.J.” Blazkowicz snaps out of his vegetative state and saves Anya, she rescues him.
Wolfenstein: The New Order will likely be remembered as an extremely competent shooter that redeems the franchise. I hope that it is also looked upon fondly for its exploration of characters in a genre that typically props up caricatures rather than relatable figures. It’s worth taking the time to explore everything Machine Games carefully wove into the experience.