If you’re the sort of person who thought the opening scene from “Saving Private Ryan” wasn’t quite bloody or visceral enough — or, more specifically, that it lacked giant robotic death-machines — then “Wolfenstein: The New Order,” an explosive new first-person shooter developed by Machine Games and published by Bethesda, is for you.
It tells the story of Capt. B.J. Blazkowicz, humanity’s last hope in an alternate-reality 1960 in which the Nazis have steamrolled the world as a result of the potent technological horrors created by their leader “Deathshead,” a.k.a .Gen. Wilhelm Strasse. The game, available for PC and both of the most recent XBox and PlayStation consoles, is a reboot of “Wolfenstein: 3D,” one of the first-ever first-person shooters to go mainstream-ish, back in the early 1990s. That was an era in which developers hoping to portray a menacing Nazi soldier were limited by a palate of blocky pixels. These days, most of those limits have fallen away. So “Wolfenstein: The New Order” portrays its terrifying reality in an all-too-believable palette of grays and browns and, most saliently, reds.
This is a very violent game, and at a certain point it turned me off a bit. That’s a sentence that, until fairly recently, I never could have imagined myself writing, so maybe I’m simply facing a depressing threshold, and after I cross it I will be Youngish rather than Young (30 seems an appropriate age for such a transition). Still, in my defense, here’s a brief list of things that happened early in the game: I stumbled upon a lab in which near-corpses had been torn into by a mechanical device that was turning them into something horrible; my player was forced to choose between two comrades to be brutally murdered before my eyes; my player was forced to watch helplessly as Nazis raided an insane asylum and executed its patients; and I was forced to watch as my player used a chainsaw to interrogate an SS officer and then cut his head off. (In both the choose-which-friend-survives and chainsaw scenes, the action cut away at the very last moment, which raises its own questions about player complicity and ethics in games.)
Partially because the bloodbath numbed me to the action, I ended up focusing less on the game and more on the outlandish story. Why, exactly, are we so attracted to the idea of Nazis as not just the personification of evil, but as also possessing horrific technological or mystical powers? There’s a rich vein of this sort of fiction, after all, from the mainstream (“Indiana Jones,” the novels of Philip K. Dick) to the very niche-y and weird. What literary or psychological work is being done by elevating Nazis out of the realm of mere (if incredibly evil) humans and into something more like sci-fi villains? I e-mailed a few experts to find out.
Charles E. Gannon, a sci-fi author and professor at St. Bonaventure University, explained: “The Nazis are savage but they are a machine-like savagery. Stalin’s gulags were messy and barbaric; Temujin/Ghengis Khan’s slaughters were wild-eyed orgies of death with a very practical purpose. But the Nazi death camps were industrial scale/methodology genocide: systematic extermination conducted with a kind of mechanistic regularity and planning. The Nazi wonder-weapon is not, in my mind, a diminishing of the horror of Nazi inhumanity: it is an amplification of it.” In other words, we take what it is that made the Nazis scarier than other forces of evil and ramp it up. In these stories, the heroes are fighting not just an opposing military force but an almost supernatural power seeking to snuff out “every gentle and innate bit of human innocence and goodness.” Killing these monsters, then, “is almost as guilt free as killing robots.”
Heather Urbanski, a writing teacher and sci-fi scholar, noted that “Wolfenstein: The New Order” is “part of the long cultural tradition of making the reality even more monstrous that then interacts with medium and genre considerations in which science fiction weaponry make for more exciting gameplay than what was historically available in reality.” Not just the weaponry — but the enemies, too, from hulking super-soldiers to terrifying cyborg-dogs. There’s no denying that these features make the game stand out. Urbanski also tied the game to mid-century fears about what technology was doing to humanity overall, particularly in times of war. “Many of the landmark dystopias and technology cautionary tales were produced during this time period,” she said, “which seems to hint at a cultural sense that there has to be something more monstrous than ‘ordinary’ destruction in the modern age.”
My own theory lines up with Gannon’s. The reality of Naziism is much more difficult to squeeze into a pulpy pop-culture context than these sexed-up versions. Yes, the Nazis were terrifying for their weapons and efficiency, for their racist ideology, for what they did to an entire continent. But underlying all this is a different sort of horror: They were human beings, not some distinct species. That’s the truth we have had to grapple with ever since, and it’s a bit too twisted and unwieldy to necessarily work for easy-consumption entertainment like a video game. Throw in some robots and technological or mystical powers, though, and it’s a bit easier. They’re not quite human — they’re part machine, or part supernatural, or something else. All that matters is that they’re very, very powerful, and they all need to be killed.