I didn’t own the game — I didn’t have a computer capable of running it — but what little I played at other kids’ houses felt dangerous and magical.
It was a “how are graphics like this possible?” mixed with “is it okay for me to be playing this?” mixed with “but I’m killing Nazis, so surely it’s fine!” mixed with “but this is hard cuz they keep killing me” kind of thing.
There have been a number of followups since 1992.
The most recent games in the series, however, have been produced by Machine Games, a studio in Sweden. They got the license after Bethesda (or, rather, Bethesda’s parent company ZeniMax) purchased Id, then purchased Machine Games. Fascinating, right? (I don’t know why I care about this kind of stuff, but I do. Feel free to skip to the next section if you don’t. You are likely saner than me.)
Machine Games released Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus in 2017 — the year after America’s disastrous presidential election — and Panic Button ported the game to the Nintendo Switch in 2018. (To “port” a game is to make it run on a system it wasn’t originally programmed for.) That Panic Button was able to get the game to run on the Switch, which is a low-powered system, was impressive to all.
And I’m glad they did, because that was where I played it.
Why I Started Playing Wolfenstein II
Wolfenstein — since its transformation by Id — has belonged to the FPS genre: they are First Person Shooter games. A game like Super Mario Bros. is third-person: you look at Mario from “outside,” as he runs and jumps and throws fire balls.
In third-person games, however, you see through the eyes of the main character. Here’s what Mario might look like as a first-person game:
One reason I don’t typically enjoy first-person games is that they feel claustrophobic. Your field of view is too restricted — you have no peripheral vision. It’s like you’re wearing blinders.
Another reason I typically don’t enjoy first-person games is that they feel too intense. Since you’re looking through the eyes of the main character, the enemies are attacking you. It makes me feel like I’m the one in danger, not B.J. Blazkowicz.
A third reason I typically don’t enjoy first-person games is that they tend to be shooters — games in which you shoot your enemies, rather than jumping on them, punching them, or slashing them with a sword. The First-Person Shooter (FPS) is one of the world’s most popular video game genres, and playing them is evidently good for you.
But I’m a relatively timid guy, so if I’m going to play a shooter, I’d rather play one of the third-person games.
I decided to play Wolfenstein II, however, because it was the first in the series to come a console I owned (at least that I knew of) and it seemed like a small way to counteract the rising tide of fascism here in the US. Here’s the way the game was marketed:
Why I Stopped Playing Wolfenstein II the 1st Time
I played through the initial set of levels when the game was released on Switch, but then stopped. I really appreciated the presence of non-white male characters on your ship (a captured U boat).
There are white dudes on your team, of course, and you play a white dude. But even the white dude you play is half-Jewish. So, I think they did an unusually good job with diversity.
In spite of the cast, I got distracted by other games I found easier to play. I was enjoying the story, but it was also stressful. BJ is convinced he’s dying but doesn’t want to tell Anya — his Significant Other — since she is pregnant with their twins.
I made it to the Roswell mission, but then turned to lighter fare.
Why I Stopped Playing Wolfenstein II the 2nd Time
This past week, however, I found myself wanting to play a game that had an engaging story. I love platformers — skill-based games like Mario, where your primary job is to get from platform to platform without falling — but they often lack an immersive narrative.
I also found myself wanting to finish up the pile of games I had purchased but not finished. Games are like books that way. You often end up owning more than you find the time or energy to complete.
Furthermore, I found myself wanting to work on my aversion to first-person games. I don’t like being cut off from an entire genre in which you will find many universally-lauded games.
So, Wolfenstein II killed three birds with one stone. I picked it up again, and loved just about every second of it from Roswell through the end.
The reason I stopped playing it this time, therefore, was that I finished it. But — to bring up books again — finishing a game is often like finishing a book with footnotes and appendices. Just because you’ve gotten to the end doesn’t mean there ain’t more to do. And just like with books, few people ever read all the “end matter.” So, I’ve finished the game, but not completed it.
That distinction — between finishing a game and completing a game — is one I learned from one of my favorite YouTube channels.
Point and Click
People often worry about the connection — if there is one — between violent video games and real-world violence. For more in-depth discussions of that topic, see the Psychology of Video Games website and podcast.
One thing that struck me while playing Wolfenstein II, however, was that the primary gameplay in it was essentially the same as in point-and-click adventure games. Here’s an example of that sort of game:
Now, take a look at your main view in Wolfenstein II
Do you see the white circle in the middle of the screen (at which your gun appears to be pointing)? That’s your “reticle.” Your job is to move till that circle is over an enemy, at which point it turns red:
Then you click a button to fire.
This is exactly the same as moving your mouse till the pointer is over what you want to select, and then clicking. It’s probably the least dramatic gameplay “move” imaginable. I’d much rather a game in which you punch Nazis or jump on their heads.
In any event, shooting guns in a game is boring; it’s just a matter of pointing and clicking. Unlike yelling at someone over voice chat in a game — which is very much like yelling at someone in real life — the in-game act of shooting a gun seems much more like trying to click on an icon than like shooting an actual gun.
Then again, I’ve never shot a gun, so maybe shooting a gun is as boring as clicking on an icon. If so, that’s kind of terrifying.
What’s also kind of scary is the idea that drone warfare may have turned shooting people into a matter of pointing and clicking.
Mind and Body
SPOILER WARNING: what follows will give away a central turning point in the story of Wolfenstein II. I’d call it a twist, but it ends up being portrayed as inconsequential. So maybe it’s no big deal. Just, be warned.
. . .
Ready for the spoiler? It’s already given away by the game’s cover.
. . .
Okay, here goes:
In the game, BJ Blazkowicz is captured and beheaded. Fortunately, his team manages to retrieve his head and attach it to a genetically-engineered super-soldier body his team stole from the Nazis.
This solves BJ’s main problem in the game: he’s sick and dying, and his unwillingness to speak with Anya about his concerns is ruining their relationship.
With his new Nazi super soldier body, however, everything is fixed. He’s no longer dying. The plot moves on and no complications are explored.
When Anya wakes up next to BJ after his surgery, for example, does she think to herself that she isn’t touching BJ’s body — she’s snuggling with a Nazi super soldier’s body? The game doesn’t show this if she does.
Do either of them wonder what the Nazis did with the body’s original head? The game doesn’t show it if they do.
Does BJ worry that he and Anya can’t have kids together after their twins are born — since any DNA from BJ’s new body’s sperm would be from his new the genetically-engineered body?
And does anyone on BJs crew worry about what effects his new body will have on his personality? They don’t know, of course, about the connections between the brain and gut.
Take the James-Lange theory of emotion, for example.
If James and Lange are right — and I think they are — you couldn’t have emotions without a body, and given a different body with different responses, you’d have different emotions.
The more you read about embodied cognition and enactivism, furthermore, the more you wonder to what extent your thinking and perceiving would change if you had a different kind of body. Fortunately for BJ, his new body is still of the human type — with its opposable thumbs, binocular vision, and limited odor-detection abilities — so it’s unlikely he’ll suddenly start seeing things like a dog or a bat or an octopus would.
But nobody asks if a body engineered by Nazis might have certain reflexes programmed into it that decrease empathy — what if it were designed to feel disgust at the sight of vulnerability? — or alter affordances — what if the body were programmed to make it difficult to talk, but easy to punch?
Related to that, no one points out the dualist assumption built into the thought that BJ could be the same person — just with a different body — so long as his head is the same.
The idea that you are your brain, not your body, reminds one of the older Platonic and Cartesian theory that you are you mind or soul, not your body. I love Plato and Descartes, but their view of the human person is now the most unpopular among philosophers. It is fortunate for BJ, therefore, that no one on his crew is a philosopher. Otherwise, the moment he woke up after surgery, he may have heard an annoying voice saying, “But is that really BJ? Have we decided the neurological Cartesianists are right?”
And finally, no one points out that they have essentially turned BJ into Frankenstein’s monster.
The game’s subtitle — “The New Colossus” — does put me in mind of Frankenstein‘s sub/alternate title — “The Modern Prometheus” — but it’s a reference to Emma Lazarus’s poem of the same name. And if that isn’t a protest against all things Trumpian, I don’t know what is.
Fortunately for us all, furthermore, the fact that the game doesn’t explore the above issues (excepting the Emma Lazarus-style issues) doesn’t make it a worse game. Wolfenstein II is the sort of game that’s meant to be delightfully silly in places. For example, there’s the one stretch where you get to ride a fire-breathing robot dog.
And in another stretch, you end up infiltrating another planet, disguised as an actor auditioning to play yourself in a movie.
So, while the game deals with serious stuff, it is still meant to be lighthearted. It’s just that while playing it, I worried for the characters about all of the above, just like my mom the psychologist worried for the kids in Jurassic Park even after they escaped the island.
I plan to do more WISP (Why I Stopped Playing) posts in the future, but I don’t know how I want to conclude them. I could end with a score, but I have to grade papers for my job, so I don’t feel like grading games. I could end with a proper philosophy-style conclusion, where you recap what your argument has been. But that feels too stilted.
So for now, I’ll end with this: Wolfenstein II is a fun game with good character diversity, a sense of humor, and an unfortunately level of relevance to today’s America. And it raises a raft of philosophical questions without realizing that it has done so.
Or maybe it does realize it. The sequel, which will star Anya and BJ’s twin daughters, is coming out soon.
Maybe all my questions will get asked and answered there. Whether they do or not, I’m looking forward to it.