The Virtual Life – Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus Has One Of The Best Stories In Video Games
Note: This article contains full-on spoilers for Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. If you haven't played the game yet and don't want the campaign spoiled for you, come back later.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus pulls no punches. It was inevitable, in a way. The first game in MachineGames' planned trilogy was a strange breed similar to that of Metal Gear Solid, with a tale balancing both zany, gross antics with somber storytelling that touched on themes like racism, despair, fascism, and genocide. In the opening of The New Order, we saw series hero B.J. Blazkowicz fail to save the world in a full-on assault of his nemesis' castle, a level that would have been the finale of any other FPS. Afterward, he woke up to a world ruled by the Nazis, his failure inescapable as massive concrete structures bearing Swastikas surrounded him. In between gun battles as B.J., we snuck through labor camps, where bodies of minorities were incinerated, and watched as a former Nazi tried to atone for the sins of his past by adopting a mentally disabled man named Max Hass. Where many critics have described Wolfenstein: The New Order as an angry game about resistance and taking back the world, I've always seen it in a more somber light: a story about scurrying in the shadows and trying to survive long enough just to find the strength to fight back. The New Colossus is where B.J. and his friends find that strength and anger, but it doesn't come without a cost.
Within the first 10 minutes of The New Colossus, Blazkowicz discovers not only can he no longer use his legs, but that the villainous Nazi Frau Engel has launched an assault on the rebel base. Less than an hour later, he watches in horror as Engel beheads resistance leader Caroline Becker. In the cruel aftermath, Engel shoves the decapitated head in B.J.'s face so the player can see every trace of life fade in her eyes. The New Colossus is an angry game. It seethes venom and rages incessantly against nazism, cowardice, abusers, complacency, the monsters who hide inside the skin of everyday men. But it doesn't rage pointlessly or for the sake of it. Every articulation of anger is pointed and beautiful in its construction. These scenes almost always build upon a foundation of sorrow. The new revolutionary leader Grace recounts the horrors of a bombed-out Manhattan as she breastfeeds her daughter, eyes gazing outward in numb horror as she relives the memory she can never escape. Bombate painfully reveals why he can't bear the sight of Max Hass being sad - it reminds him of his dead family:
In these scenes, The New Colossus presents its justification for fighting back against an overwhelming regime that literally wants to wipe out any person that doesn't fit its ideal image. From Engel's acts of barbarism to the nervous whispers of oppressed people in the street as they glance nervously at Nazi soldiers walking about, both entries give you more than ample reason to hate the regime. However, what's truly impressive about all of this is that Wolfenstein never forgets its roots, that it's a series that emerged from a game that was originally about sneaking around castles, killing Nazis, and eventually taking on Hitler in a giant mechanized death suit. Even more than The New Order, The New Colossus tries to balance these very different tones and does it with a ridiculous amount of success.
Wolfenstein 3D more or less created the first-person shooter genre, a genre the foundational titles of which have all more or less leaned into the strange and odd, often attempting to marry serious thrills with wacky sci-fi. Doom, Half-Life, Unreal, and Quake all fit this mold. The New Colossus can't escape this legacy any more than any of those others can, so instead of trying to, it embraces it not just in the gameplay (which lets you dual wield shotguns with laser rifles because sure, why not?) but also in the storytelling. The New Order did this to a degree, with the biggest zany moments being with B.J. going to the moon to fetch nuclear missile launch codes and taking down a massive robot in a London parking lot, but for the most part played it straight. The New Colossus takes a different tack, turning both the despair and zaniness up to 11.
One scene in particular perfectly encapsulates the game going all out on both fronts. After blowing up a Nazi base in Roswell, B.J. returns to his childhood home in Texas and finds his abusive father waiting for him, shotgun in his lap. The two have an emotional exchange that ends with Papa Blazko, a Nazi sympathizer who send his own Jewish wife to a concentration camp, trying to murder his son. This goes about as well as you'd expect - B.J. lops off his dad's arm and buries the hatchet in his chest. It's a painful but also satisfying scene to watch, with a piece of human garbage getting what they deserve. This is immediately followed by a Wizard of Oz-style fight as Engel's airship lifts the house high in the sky and you face off against Nazis while also trying to detach the house and escape. After B.J. is captured, The New Colossus makes its drastic tone switch again during a long sequence focusing on the failure of his comrades to rescue him from his imprisonment. The scene ends with Engel executing B.J. on live television, and that's when things get really crazy.
As the head plummets toward the fire beneath the stage, a Kreisau circle drone rescues it, replacing it with a fake head, and then takes B.J.'s head back to the Kreisau Circle so they can reattach it to another body. It's a neat narrative sequence that masterfully accomplishes several things. The first act presents BJ in a believable, weakened fashion after his near-fatal encounter with Deathshead at the end of the first game. It also dually makes the player hate the Nazis and Engel even more while also creating a way to give B.J. superpowers in the form of contraptions that can be used with his new body. Lastly, this whole act pays tributes to the absurd quality of first-person shooters and once and for all cements Wolfenstein's tone in a clear way, creating a world where kookiness collides with bleakness in a tale of hope versus despair.
Many critics and players have critiqued both Wolfenstein games as uneven experiences, with the games' tones bouncing all over the place. I disagree strongly with that sentiment. When held up against the pantheon of pulp sci-fi media that also function as artistic works with pointed commentary, The New Colossus is honestly not that strange. Consider The Day The Earth Stood Still, a meditation on the need for humanity to work together to survive, ostensibly packaged a bog standard Visitor From Another Planet flick. Or John Carpenter's The Thing, with the paranoia of the Cold War transmuted into a tale about men in an arctic outpost turning on each other as a mysterious invader takes them over, one by one, and assimilates them. Wolfenstein's mixture of bleak real-world subject matter like the Holocaust and racism with the pulp sci-fi territory of head transfers and space travel seems odd for video games, but it's hardly new territory for sci-fi in general.
So if it's not new territory, does that make The New Colossus just an interesting story and not necessarily a great one? No, because in the end, the foundation for MachineGames' take on Wolfenstein is comprised of believable characters just as much as it's made up of fantastic action-packed gunplay. The New Order introduced a fascinating cast of characters, but didn't necessarily give them much room to breathe. The New Colossus develops those characters further and introduces new additions who are just as interesting, like Sigrun, the turncoat Nazi who struggles to find love and acceptance from her understandably distrusting peers. Even B.J. is given some contextualization and background development, with a number of cutscenes flashing back to a troubled childhood with an abusive father who hated him and his mother and B.J.'s burgeoning friendship with a black girl named Billie. These scenes are critical, especially the incredibly uncomfortable ones that show young B.J. spouting off racial slurs, because they tie directly into the theme of how men and not monsters are responsible for monstrosities. How close was B.J. to becoming his father, if not for his formative friendship with Billie and the kindness of his mother?
These scenes mark an important transformation for Blazkowicz, who has always existed as at least half-heroic caricature, even in The New Order. They provide context to why he pulls away in disgust whenever a Nazi comments on how he looks like an Übermensch. In these sequences he becomes more than the Nazi-murdering force of justice the gameplay needs him to be, but instead a fully developed character who is clearly defined by his traumatic past. We've had grizzled anti-heroes protagonists with clearly defined backstories that give them shades of sympathy without letting them off the hook for their actions before, like Joel from The Last Of Us. But Blazkowicz's development is noteworthy because it's rooted in believable, real-world awful and shows how someone can emerge from the other end of that as a force for good. Even so, The New Colossus questions Blazkowicz's moral alignment at points, such as when the woman of a Nazi soldier he killed runs up to the stage after he's captured to slap him and weeps. I think it's beyond question that the game ultimately emerges on the side that, in its world, killing Nazis is a moral imperative, despite the fact that they are people and not monsters. Still, it's nice to have the game acknowledge that complexity and question B.J.'s actions, even if it's a slightly limp-wristed effort.
In the end, I've come to think of The New Colossus as an incredible tightrope act. There's such a fine balance in how it intertwines the comically fantastical violent roots of the series with a deadly, grim complexity while also making room for hope. It's a hope that doesn't come easy, with countless lives lost and despair around every corner, but it's there, a glint in the mud. Equal parts complex meditation on surviving despair and thrill-ride power fantasy, I've never played anything quite like The New Colossus.
I hope that changes soon.