2017 has been a great year for video games, with so many new and fun titles that even the professional critics can’t find time to play them all. Even if you managed to play most of them, it can be challenging to try and remember them all when the end of the year is nigh and it’s time to start thinking about “Best of the Year” listicles. This year I’m not even going to try and fill a list because there is one game that stands alone on the pedestal of Must Play—Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. And the reason for that is not the superior graphics or shooting mechanics, although they are quite solid, even impressive at times. But the real reason to play, the thing that everybody is talking about, is the story. That’s right—Wolfenstein, the classic pixelated Nazi-butchering simulator, has become one of the most compelling and well-told tales in all of video games. How did this happen? Let’s take a deep dive into the narrative craft of this game and see if we can’t figure it out.
In case I haven’t made it painfully obvious yet, I am going to discuss every last detail of this game. If you want to experience it for yourself, read no further and go play. For here there be SPOILERS.
The first way W2: TNC sets itself apart from its peers is its literary construction. It begins like a classic bildungsroman, with the protagonist laying at death’s door and reflecting on the course of his life. We are then inserted into the memory of an important and formative time in his youth, when he was still just a little boy hiding from his tyrannical father, unable to protect his loving mother from her husband. You watch your father through the slats of the closet door, completely helpless to intervene as belittles and abuses your mother, all while shouting racist slurs and bemoaning the plight of the white man. He then beats and degrades you, saying you are weak and “can’t fight for shit,” as if there was ever an eight year old kid that could knock his old man flat. Then he drags you down to the basement, ties a shotgun to your hands and demands you shoot the family’s poor malnourished dog, justifying it as some lesson about making hard choices. Even if you purposely miss, your father will slap you before killing the animal himself.
Afterwards, your mother will console you as you bury your pet, assuring you that things will end better than they began.
These flashbacks are the building blocks of BJ Blazcowicz, the foundation of his character. From his mother he inherited a strong sense of compassion and perseverance—she never stopped trying to protect her son, no matter how much it cost her. In the same way, BJ will never leave a friend behind, whether on the battlefield or at home base. One of the most human scenes in the whole game happens when he goes to check on Wyatt (if you saved him in the first game), who is struggling to deal with the violence and stress of running a rebellion. He turns to LSD and psychedelia to help him “make sense of it all,” and as he explains his many existential revelations you can see the look of utter confusion on BJ’s face as he struggles and fails to understand anything his pal is telling him, so he gives him a pat on the back and some generic words of encouragement. For better or worse, BJ also learned from his father. He can take a truly inhuman amount of damage and he fights like a cornered demon, lessons handed down over a lifetime of ass-beatings. But BJ is more than a skilled combatant—he delights in delivering punishment to those who deserve it, brutalizing the Nazis he comes across. When you do a melee takedown in this game, he doesn’t just kill them quickly. BJ always severs a limb or cuts off a foot before he sinks a hatchet in their face or twists their neck shut like a jar of peanut butter. This begs the uncomfortable question: if Blazkowicz was doing this to anyone but the Nazis, would we still call him a hero?
Historically, Nazis have always been a pretty safe choice for video game enemies, but most games would simply stamp swastikas on a bunch of NPCs and tell you to go kill them. Call of Duty tried to go back to that golden era this year, with middling success. Wolfenstein II has an entirely different approach to its Nazis—it doesn’t simply give you a quest marker and order you to kill them. No, the game makes you want to kill them so bad that you curse every loading screen that dares interrupt your righteous slaughter. Wolfenstein II gives you reasons to hate them, until these Nazis become more than just targets. They are your mortal enemies, and it feels damn good to rip and tear through their goose-stepping ranks. The first Nazi you encounter that’s more than cannon-fodder is Frau Irene Engel, commander of the task force that has been hunting your ragtag crew of resistance fighters. BJ surrenders to her to buy time for his friends, and she mocks his weakened state and inability to fight. She then orders her daughter, Sigrun, to take an axe and decapitate one of her prisoners. When her daughter refuses, Engel berates her for being soft, fat and weak, calling her a disgrace to the Nazi Party, before she takes the axe and does it herself. Your father’s hateful philosophies echo throughout the game, parroted by every Nazi bastard you cross.
The Third Reich prefers its simple, reductive labels that make people easy to catalogue and control, but the cast of characters stand as a staunch rebuttal to this worldview. None of them fit neatly into one box. BJ is capable of savage violence, but is also kind-hearted enough to spare a kitchen rat. Anya appears practically angelic through his eyes, but she’s also just as capable an ass-kicker as her man despite being pregnant with twins. One of the most deceptively deep characters you encounter is Max Hass. At a glance, he’s just a giant man-child, only able to say his name after a lobotomy from Nazi doctors. But just because he can’t speak doesn’t mean Max can’t express himself. When you return to the Eva’s Hammer, your secret submarine base, you will often see Max scribbling with his crayons. The first few hours of the game he mostly produces the kind of pictures that adorn the fridges of proud pre-school parents. But as the story progresses, more people come onboard, bringing with them paintings, records and art books. Then you head out to the flight deck for a mission one day and discover Max’s drawings all over the helicopters. He starts leaving murals on the bulkheads, his style evolving with each work. By the end of the game, he reveals his magnum opus—a mosaic portrait incorporating elements of abstract impressionism and some ‘60s psychedelic flavor. This isn’t a side quest or even a cut scene; if you’re not looking for it, you could completely miss it. Not even the Nazis are one-dimensional in this game. Early on in the game, BJ goes hunting for Nazi stowaways on the Eva’s Hammer. As you delve deeper into the bowels of your stolen submarine you will come across various narrative objects that tell the tale of a small community of Nazis living in hiding, constantly afraid that “Terror-Billy” will come murder them all. Which turned out to be a totally justified fear, as upon finding them, I did exactly that. But as I read their notes and letters detailing the stress and madness of trying to live in absolute silence, to terrified to even cough, it suddenly dawned on me why this scenario felt so familiar. It was The Diary of Anne Frank seen through a glass darkly—in this version, the Nazis were Anne Frank, and I was the Nazi. It’s the kind of literary magic trick you find in the best novels, where the writer is able to make you empathize with a hated monster.
Sympathetic Nazis aren’t the only trick Wolfenstein II has up its sleeve. This game constantly challenges your perceptions, like in the courthouse scene. You believe BJ finds the strength to fight on because he’s surrounded by Nazis that need killin’, only to discover it was simply an empty power fantasy, like most other video games. It’s exactly the kind of ending a lesser storyteller would settle for, but Wolfenstein II calls out this literary laziness just so that it can take even bigger narrative swings. Every time you think things can’t get more ridiculous, you are proven wrong. Any one of the major plot twists would have been enough for any other game, but Wolfenstein II is just warming you up for its most mind-bending reveals.
At its core, this game is a storytelling device. Everything in it has been designed and crafted to that specific purpose, and it shows. Wolfenstein II stretched the limits of what a video game story can do, and set a pretty high bar for games yet to come. It makes me look forward with anticipation not just for the next installment of Wolfenstein, but for all the future games it will inspire.