Wolfenstein: New Order and Nazis in videogames

Nazis have long been villains in videogames, but isn't it about time we saw a more subtle treatment of a dark moment in history?

Gaming has come a long way since the days of Wolfenstein 3D, widely recognised as the first significant first-person shooter and the game that made mass-scale Nazicide a top gaming pastime right up until today.

The shrill, processed cries of “Achtung”, and “Mein Lieben!” from Wolf 3D are the stuff of gaming folklore, but just as Nazis were reduced to expendable, catch-phrasing expendables, so they essentially remain today. While this is great for gaming from a commercial perspective (how many people bought Call Of Duty: World At War just to kill zombie Nazis?), it may be holding the medium back on a cultural level.

And what better way of demonstrating this problem than in the latest addition to the venerable franchise, Wolfenstein: The New Order?

New Order is a very enjoyable game. The gameplay is unashamedly action-packed and violent (its intentions are made clear when you get to dual-wield assault rifles about five minutes into the game), while setting it in an alt-history 60s Nazi Germany makes  it feel fresh and visually intriguing. From the mechanised enemies to the monolithic architecture, New Order offers us a vision we haven’t quite seen before. 

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So New Order breathes some revamped-history life into the Nazi videogame formula. But this scarcely covers up the fact that the game’s villains remain mostly one-dimensional; an alternative dimension, certainly, but 1D nonetheless. It’s as if after the Nazis’ victory in WWII, they started growing their population in test tubes, completely isolated from anything we recognise as humanity; there is little sense of history, and the only people you encounter in Berlin are cyber-soldiers.

This article isn’t a call to show the ‘sensitive side’ of Nazism, but merely to explore it in more depth. By all means keep all the exciting high-octane violence; New Order is just that kind of game. But wouldn’t a single sequence where Blazkowicz crashed through family homes in an apartment block while escaping the Nazis have given an interesting insight into what this oppressive regime meant for the people living in it? 

The resistance movement you join in New Order – composed of several Germans including a defected Nazi – provides a small counterpoint to the game’s uncompromising Nazi-bashing. Its characters don’t leave nearly as powerful an impression as the main villains; your first encounter with Frau Engel and her effeminate young lover (think Maggie Thatcher with a swastika) is tense and memorable, as she tests your Aryan purity with a menacing little card game. Deathshead, meanwhile, remains wonderfully scar-faced and sadistic.

And why should New Order not conform to the Nazi-bashing trend? Wolfenstein has always been a bit on the irreverent side, and Nazis are history’s ultimate villains. But unlike previous Wolf iterations, New Order does squeeze some substance into its story. Blazkowicz hazily swoons over Anya in voiceovers, and there are a couple of harrowing moments that echo actual Nazi atrocities; there is nothing comical or absurd about the asylum massacre early on in the game. New Order is an intriguing combination of serious and comical, but seems to invest all its character depth points into the good guys, leaving the bad guys as caricatures.

Slaughtering Nazis is like slaughtering aliens or zombies, only more enjoyable because on the inside Nazis aren’t made out of ectoplasm or black, mouldy guts, but wonderful red blood and viscera, just like real people. We justify killing them because even though they look human, they’re unworthy of a place on the morality scale. 

By killing Nazis in games, we’re doing a good deed for the world at the same time as getting to blithely tear through well-rendered flesh and blood and bone. New Order offers us the best possible version of this experience.

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On the other hand, many games journalists and developers are perpetually battling for videogames to be treated on a par with literature, film and theatre as a creative form. Unfortunately, gaming’s depictions of easily typecast groups like Nazis, gay people and – to a slightly lesser extent – women are hardly on the same level as the best offerings in the aforementioned fields. It’s little wonder that in Germany, New Order had all references to Nazism removed because videogames are deemed toys rather than art. While Germany permits Nazi symbolism in what it considers worthy art forms, it’s (understandably) not allowed in action figures, Lego, or videogames.

While many gaming commentators will no doubt feel insulted by Germany’s trivialisation of our glorious medium, we can hardly blame the country. While goose-stepping, sieg heil-ing Nazism is quickly entering mythology for much of the world, for Germany it remains the most traumatic, embarrassing period in the country’s history. They’re not yet ready to start jovially blasting away caricatured or zombified versions of their grandparents. 

But what if someone created a game about a young Nazi recruit drafted into the Warsaw Ghetto, where the atrocities happening around your character leads him to question the Nazi cause and help with an alt-history version of the Warsaw Rising? Maybe that would also be too raw a topic for Germany to tackle at this point, but it would certainly challenge the gaming norm, and convey the message that videogames are capable of being ‘art’ as well as big kids’ toys.

Just as there will always be room for Inglorious Basterds in cinema, there will always be room for carefree Nazicide in videogames. However, cinema has its Schindler’s List, The Pianist, Stalingrad (1993), and countless other films that show some humanity amid the atrocities of World War II. The fascinating, harrowing topic of Nazism is just one of many that videogames need to tackle in a thoughtful way if they’re to mature.

The problem, as New Order shows, is that there is no more satisfying videogame enemy to kill than a Nazi.

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