On a superficial level, a game like Wolfenstein: The New Order — or its sequel, out later this week — shouldn’t do anything for me. Its star is a buff guy with a machine gun, while I like my heroes young and reedy; its environments are often cold and unwelcoming, where I tend to prefer blue skies and smiling, numerous neighbors. (Do I, a known fan of RPGs and provocative indies, even need to mention the gameplay?)
But The New Order resonated with me because it defies those expectations to go much deeper than its surface could suggest. Despite looking nothing at all like them, The New Order has something in common with many of my favorite games: a great story that feature some fantastic, inspiring characters. It’s a game populated with some vibrant personalities, few of whom have much in common with Action Hero B.J. Blazkowicz.
Best of all? The fantastic female cast, which looks to only get better with Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus. The leader of the underground resistance against the Nazi regime is Caroline Becker, who comes back from a terrible, paralyzing injury to dish out commands to new recruit B.J.
I think I was predisposed to like Caroline because I thought of her as a relative; my grandmother’s maiden name was Becker. But the real reason I liked her so much from the start was her unshakeable strength, her ease at commanding a crew of strong dudes while not seeming at all like she was punching above her weight class. (Speaking of punching, she lost the use of her legs in a fight where she punched a 6-foot-4 Nazi.) Caroline is smart and fierce and dedicated, and B.J. — or any man — would never dare to question her.
The same is true of Anya Oliwa, who has a more conventional role in The New Order’s cast. Her professional relationship with B.J. begins only after their personal one blooms; Anya was B.J.’s nurse at the psychiatric ward where he was first confined, after all. But Anya isn’t a damsel in distress, even if she plays the part of B.J.’s companion most of the time. She helps out the resistance by handling all radio comms, which is no small gig. She’s obviously brilliant, and her research paves the way for the rebels to make some breakthroughs. Plus, Anya is somehow still able to get it on with B.J. during these dark and anxiety-ridden times, so, good on her.
But I still found Anya harder to love than Caroline, maybe because her story starts with B.J. coming to her rescue. (Especially because the dude had literally just been catatonic, so, like, come on.) Except here’s my favorite part of The New Order: You can collect diary entries from someone named Ramona throughout the game; Anya says that Ramona is her cousin, and she reads them to B.J. over the radio. These stories are brutal and heartbreaking, telling of Ramona’s life going undercover to work for the Nazis in an effort to kill them. It’s ... not a happy story. At all.
And by the end of it, we find out that the diary actually belongs to Anya. The revelation broke me into a billion pieces, and I realized, OK, I love Anya, too. How beautiful and fantastic it is to get the chance to learn her history in this intimate and vulnerable way, I thought. And who would have thought that a game that looks like Wolfenstein on the outside would be the one to tell this woman’s story?
It’s reductive to say that all it takes to make me like a game is for a woman to have a backstory in it. Of course it’s not, and there are other characters and parts I liked in The New Order beyond these two women. (R.I.P. Fergus, man.) But I will always be struck and moved by a mainstream, masculine-skewing game that doesn’t talk down to women, that embraces them as part of the story — that makes them just as important, interesting and badass as their male cohorts.
The New Colossus looks like it will have more stories to tell and amazing women to meet, and that’s all the inspiration I need to check it out. It’s out this Friday, Oct. 27.