Years ago, when MachineGames began production on Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus, I can’t imagine the studio — or any of us — would have guessed that actual, real-life, yes-I-mean-it Nazis would march in the streets of America in 2017, wielding torches, spouting hate speech, suffering little to no consequences as the nation looked on. And yet, here we are. 2017 happened, whether we like it or not. It’s a lot.
I watched the first season of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle when it came out. It was striking, enjoyable prestige television, adapted from a Philip K. Dick novel imagining that the Nazis had won World War II and occupied the United States. As alternate history about the oppressiveness of living in America under the Third Reich and the machinations of those trying to work within it and against it, it was grim but compelling, a story that humanized characters on both sides. But, guess what? That was 2015. The second season of the series was released on Dec. 16, 2016. It was not the time. I wonder how many other people weren’t quite ready to have fun with watching the struggles of ordinary people suffering under the yoke of an oppressive regime, weren’t ready to really invest themselves in feeling empathy for the officers of fascism. I wasn’t.
Fast-forward to October 2017. Into this moment, a game about fighting back against fascism without remorse, about there being no “two sides,” about the power ordinary people have to stand up and band together and kick some fucking Nazi ass is released unto the world, and goddamn if it isn’t glorious.
Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus is unapologetic. It presents a world of perfect clarity. Nazis are evil, white supremacy is a cancer and fascism must be destroyed at any cost. Ordinary people, in extraordinary circumstances, have the power to rise up and reclaim their liberty. In a time of hemming and hawing about the limits of civil discourse when it comes to dealing with those advocating for genocide, we find a game that says, fuck that. There’s a lot of things you can do with a hatchet and a Nazi.
For years and years and years in popular media, Nazis were the most heavy-handed signifier of “evil.” You needed no excuse to root against them; they were shorthand for the enemy that you needed no reason to oppose. That the depiction of Nazism in a game like The New Colossus could, in 2017, be controversial in any way says as much about the times we’re living through as anything.
Even so, the game’s very existence, the exhilaration and catharsis it offers, the confidence with which it sticks to its belief that the most basic truths about intolerance and oppression remain true, and that resistance against the forces of evil deserves to be played out in vivid, audacious, unapologetic glory — it gives me hope that we can restore the order of things, that we can put the times we’re living through behind us, that we can be better.
But in the moment, sometimes we just need something that makes us feel good. In 2017, Wolfenstein 2 was that.
Steve Gaynor is a founder of Fullbright, the video game studio that made Tacoma and Gone Home.