GOTY 2014 Contenders – Wolfenstein: The New Order
Starbreeze are a studio blessed with a Midas touch, insistent on using their alchemical wiles in turning trash fiction such as The Darkness and Riddick into gameplay gold. The success of their projects comprises a range, but the oeuvre as a whole is patterned with a flair for the experimental. Riddick has its fantastically realized anthropological framework and prison ecology, with you as the agent flitting between beleaguered inmates and shank fodder, with all the politics and power games implied. The Darkness has its attempt to humanize the narrative subject of a teenage power fantasy, and Brothers has some of its most poignant moments as well as its final emotional pay off embedded in the ways in which the characters are controlled. Imagine the studio turned loose on gaming’s more pitiable franchises: Duke Nukem could become a reflective look at its own lack of cachet in a modern world, its protagonist reveling in schmuckery while the world looks on and laughs. Imagine a Bayonetta or Resident Evil that wasn’t the output of a syphilis-afflicted mind. Imagine Wolfenstein.
With The New Order’s developer Machine Games being a Swedish outfit comprised of the remnants of a mass exodus from Starbreeze, I took a similar “what if Starbreeze” perspective to my anticipation of Wolfenstein: The New Order. The end result; how ridiculous is it to suggest that in 2014, a Wolfenstein game is one of the best of the year? Pretty ridiculous, but that’s what makes it such a weird and remarkable achievement.
I’m not going to delve too much into a mechanical analysis, because the game plays pretty much the way you’d expect; you take aim and shoot, and whatever’s in your crosshairs typically explodes into a colourful array at the hands of BJs cornucopia of janitorial tools, purpose made for the mopping up of Nazi dregs. Instead, Wolfenstein’s appeal lies in the creation of a world that surrounds and makes sense of the mechanics. The game is full of juxtaposition and recurrence. Your first hour culminates in a pivotal scene wherein Blaskovicz is held down by soldiers in Deathshead’s medieval Nazi castle, and forced to choose between the demise of two of his fellow company men – a scene symbolically repeated later in the sanitarium as the family of the nurse that tended to him for fifteen years are summarily executed while he’s held down by a sliver of shrapnel embedded in his cerebellum. In the first instance, whichever choice you make is played off as mistake in a later scene when the surviving member of your company expresses both guilt and frustration at having to be the one saddled with the task of leading the resistance in BJ’s protracted absence. The best choice, and the goal of the mission you just failed – popping wrinkly old grandpa Totenkopf – was forcibly kept from you. The instance in the asylum serves as a sort of recompense for the earlier failure, with BJ’s mental shackles serving as metaphorical placeholders for his physical constraints in the castle. Its an interesting narrative contrast, and the outcomes of the two scenes emphasize the play of will and principle against the now gargantuan physical force of the brutal Nazi regime, mirroring the apposition in the game itself of explosive, violent mechanics and a narrative that is far more nuanced and well considered than a Wolfenstein game warranted.
By presenting us with these scenes of desperation at the hands of The Reich, The New Order pulls off an act of will by creating a situation in which the doling out of death and destruction are the only remaining terms success can be couched in. The killing isn’t something that just happens; it’s a calculated choice, contextualized and justified by the narrative backdrop. At the same time, there’s a skeptical predilection anyone familiar with the franchise will be likely to express; that these elements were obviously retrofitted to a series whose underpinning mechanics were long established. And that’ll always be one of the limitations of the Wolfenstein name. But one can’t help but admire the artistic feat of taking barren soil and making it bloom in a way that’s carefully considered and apparent in many facets of the game’s design.
Exemplifying this are crescendos of Waffen S.S. slaughter accompanied by Frederik Thorendal’s musical backing, which is conceptually fantastic, because characteristic of the way the riffs repeat, the subtle differences in note choice and syncopation are lost in the onward march of the broader structure of the piece, sort of in the same way that two Nazis barreling towards you might behave in a slightly different ways, but together their identities are imperceptible as they meet your unremitting, rhythmic waves of machine gun fire. The discussion of how death is synchronized with a beat could be taken as diagnostic criteria for severe psychopathy, but then the same apposition is reflected in the game’s protagonist who has an oddly poetic inner life for someone whose interactions with the world are comprised of the wielding of various implements of grotesque and brutal death. Again, it seems this isn’t by accident. Brazen absurdity is recurrent in a plot that features a Nazi lunar base, a deep-sea diving mission for ancient freemason future tech, giant mechanical dogs, and so on. These elements are conspicuously contrasted with a solemnity in much of the characterization, albeit one which adds to its pathos with frequent touches of levity.
And a feeling of the absurdity of the situation is bone deep in the game, where the Nazis are mocked and the circumstances of their victory reduced to the chance discovery of what amounts essentially to magic. Through the ridicule, though, is an actual engagement with the values of The Third Reich, extrapolated to a situation in which they’re granted absolute power. Meaningfulness and character are given to almost every life you see taken away at their farcical hands. So initially, the juxtaposition of serio-comic violence and poeticism seem bizarre until you clock that every instance of BJs inner life in the game, from his recollections to his dreams, is colored by nostalgia for those he’s lost, a life he’s been unable to live, and wistfulness for a future never to come. The gun-down goonery imposed on a character who in his off hours shuffles around headquarters playing DIY dad to his collection of friends and compatriots, then seems perfectly matched for the mad world of the fiction in which Nazism is the status quo and a psychopathic contrast of inner musicality and outward mayhem is the only available recourse. The game becomes a tussle between contrasting elements, and the dissonance between them is the point of the game.