Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus is an excellent game that handles its tone better than you would expect. It’s a violent game, but it’s not incredibly dark. It celebrates life and how people learn to cope with trying circumstances without seeming too optimistic about human nature.
At least, it handles all this very well after the first 10 minutes or of the game. But those first 10 minutes are a doozy. Be aware that we’re going to dive into some spoilers for the opening of the game.
We get it, these are bad people
The game’s opening wants to communicate that B.J. Blazkowicz’ father is an abusive, bigoted asshole. And it does so over and over and over.
It’s not just that the father is racist, anti-semitic, or physically and emotionally violent towards his wife and son ... he also hates animals. Or at least is very comfortable doing them harm. These are points that could be made with a little more care, without losing the blunt impact of how hard life must have been for B.J. Blazkowicz, because the amount of time spent hammering these lessons into the head of the player feels manipulative and unnecessary.
We get it, the father is a piece of shit. You don’t need to spend the next five minutes running down all the ways he’s a piece of shit during one or two scenes. It veers from the scary to the cartoonish, and it doesn’t add anything to the emotional impact of the game.
The New Colossus introduces one of the Nazi characters in the same garish, exploitative manner.
“With Frau Engel, this is turned up well past 11. She was already a Nazi,” Waypoint observes. “The first game already established her as a sick, twisted, Nazi fuck. Did I have to watch her berate her daughter with fat-phobic and homophobic language? Did I have to watch her take the severed head of the beloved Caroline (one of the best, strongest, most beloved characters from the first game) and literally rub it in her daughter's crotch to emphasize how much she hates gay people? I already hated her.”
This isn’t an argument against using violent or even sadistic imagery in a game about fighting Nazis in America, a topic that is sadly relevant in 2017. It’s about trying to figure out what the writers and developers are trying to achieve by beginning an experience that’s so consistent otherwise by slamming the player’s face into scenes that resemble torture porn.
“Those who are on the fence or sit on the wrong side of the moral issue at the foundation of Wolfenstein are unlikely to become self critical and see themselves in the depiction,” Paste stated in an article about these opening scenes. “And those who are on the right side of history will only be tortured by the material.”
The game loses something when it goes this hard on its villains, and the brutality of these characters is handled with more care and for much greater effect as the game goes on. The Paste article nails it: The real horror of these scenes should be that the violence inflicted on others is something we feel like, if things were a tiny bit different, we would be willing to do ourselves. By going this far over the top, it’s easy to dismiss these characters as caricatures without any humanity. And that makes them much easier to torture and kill.
The game revels in the harm you cause your Nazi enemies, but it does ask you to face that level of violence in the story as well. It may not be critical of how much pleasure Blazkowicz takes in tearing apart Nazis, but it’s at least willing to take a good, hard look at the sort of violence it seems to be advocating.
Both the Nazis in these scenes and Blazkowicz himself are doing the same things with the same goal: to dissuade other people from fighting back by enacting the maximum amount of damage to anyone they get their hands on. Both sides are sending a message both in the people they’re killing and how they’re killing them; it’s performative mutilation.
Blazkowicz is excused because he’s fighting for the good guys. That’s a helluva thing to think about, but it’s also not much of a debate. The end goal of the Nazi ideology is racial purity through genocide. The end goal of the resistance is stopping the Nazis. The violence on one end is entirely justified.
The game recovers from its own opening scenes, but it takes a bit of time to get there. The rest of the story is far more effective and conveying these ideas gracefully, without easing up on the violence or surreal imagery. The New Colossus’ introduction would have been more effective if it had been able to pump the breaks a bit to allow the player to see the villains as people who have been twisted by their shitty beliefs and environment.
Instead they’re shown as cartoons, which makes these scenes both harder to watch and less of a statement to the player. It doesn’t feel edgy, it feels gratuitous.