The Incompatibility of The Heist and The Camp in Wolfenstein: The New Order

[Originally published July 2, 2016]

Wolfenstein: The New Order is beyond ambitious. It’s an FPS stealth-action hybrid with an alternate-history narrative written and shot like a heist movie, colorized like a gritty WWII film, and visually constructed using a speculative combination of Classic Nazi and Futuro-Fascist architectural design as reference. A real mouthful. That The New Ordersucceeds on any front – in spite of these wildly disparate influences – is an accomplishment that Machine Games should always be proud of. New Order is one of the more unique FPS’s I’ve played in some time, but it’s not without its flaws – specifically, its concentration camp sequence. It’s a bold, necessary inclusion, but it’s at odds with the genric legacy of its narrative. I’d like to talk about why that is.

Wolfenstein’s plot loves to trope off of heist movie narratives. In fact, almost every mission begins like a heist story. [Edgar Wright-style scene transition to our crew circled around a table] Alright crew, we need to go to [Nazi Cultural Iconography X] and capture [McGuffin Y]. Hut, hut, blue-42, break. You go get the [thing] at the [place], and return with [thing], which you will then use to infiltrate the next [place]. This isn’t all that uncommon in Video Game Plots, but The New Order is one of the few games I’ve played that really goes whole hog and embraces this narrative legacy. The fun and intrigue of the heist structure lends credence and motivation to Blazcowicz’s journey, and makes for a great excuse to tour the player through modernized versions of iconic pieces of Nazi culture. Involving all these Nazi landmarks is sort of a requirement, after all – necessitated by The New Order’s engagement with the Wolfensteinfranchise and modernization. It was, then, inevitable that we players would end up in a concentration camp – one of the most central ideological and strategic inclusions of the Nazi war machine. I had just hoped it wouldn’t be couched in the irreconcilable trappings of heist narratives.

Every narrative heist follows – more or less – the following pattern: Plan, Infiltrate, Snatch/Grab, Exfiltrate. That last part – exfiltration – is the part of The New Order’s script that’s irreconcilable with the setpiece of a concentration camp. Not the giant robot dogs. Not the super-concrete. Not even the mech suits. This is a speculative alternate-history, so there’s a certain suspension of disbelief when it comes to these sci-fi industrial elements. What tears the tone apart is every single piece of Blazcowicz’s exfiltration – not merely because it is improbable, but because it flies in the face of the overwhelming experience of a concentration camp prisoner.

There were several camp escape attempts – even a few uprisings – but none are as successful as Blazcowicz’s. By the time he rescues the prisoners from the camp, he permanently scars the Head Overseer, kills 100+ Nazi’s, and practically blows the camp to kingdom come. It is spectacular and triumphant and – as the game’s industrial butt-rock guitars would like to jarringly remind you – totally wicked bad-ass, man.

Perhaps the closest the real-life victims of concentration camps came to this bombastic escape was in Sobibór, 1943. A group of prisoners kills nine SS and two low-level guards. Their bodies are discovered at a critical moment of the escape, and the alarm is raised. For fear of retaliation, 400 of the 550 total prisoners run for their lives. 58 actually manage to get away. That’s about 14.5%. The remaining 150 prisoners who do not run are executed.

14.5 is a generous percentage, especially when considering the totality the Holocaust. 14.5% of 7,000,000 – the rough estimate of those killed in death camps – is 1,015,000. I can promise you that nowhere near that many people managed to escape. This is why – when Blazcowicz breaks his cement mixer in full view of two guards, when Blazcowicz is caught snooping, when Blazcowicz literally climbs out of a furnace, etc. etc. etc. – the quirky tonal dissonance of The New Order crumbles to pieces. The juxtaposition of the WWII-narrative and the heist-narrative necessitates these moments – to avoid the subject of concentration camps entirely would leave a gaping thematic hole in the narrative, but to put Blazcowicz through the actual horrors of a concentration camp would end the narrative in short order. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation, and – despite my reservations – I’m kind of glad Machine Games went ahead, damned themselves, and did.

Excuse me. I just took a break to check twitter, and saw the news that Elie Wiesel died today. I apologize for the jarring shift. For those that don’t know of the man – he was a Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and outspoken activist. Everybody should read his book, Night, which is an incredible narrative of the suffering that occurred in the Nazi concentration camps. I was lucky enough to hear him speak at my highschool, where he gave a haunting and powerful speech. He hoped that the world would never forget what happened in the death camps, no matter how hard those memories might be. He said that he came to speak to those of us too young to know that period of history, so that he might provide us with a warning to always remember the potentials of human cruelty.

I’m glad that games have come to this point where they’re confident enough in the medium and their players to throw them into something as horrible as a concentration camp. I hope Mr. Wiesel would be glad too. Games are ‘the young person’s medium.’ The medium of a generation that Mr. Wiesel sometimes feared might forget the horrors of the Holocaust. I’m sure he would have had his apprehensions over the tonal treatment of Eisenwald, but hopefully he would have felt reassured that the narrative of Nazi evils and Jewish perseverance found a place amongst the mediums of the youth. The New Order’s camp Eisenwald is a flawed setpiece, but not wholly tactless. Its narrative requires it to ignore some of the finer brutalities of a death camp, but at least it didn’t choose to ignore the camp itself.

Go read Night. Go read some history. Play Wolfenstein. And think about all of it.

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