Games Examining Issues

So, the last video from Extra Creditz that I’m going to look at in this two week span is this one about the need for “B” games to discuss issues, using Wolfenstein: The New Colossus as an example of that. Their main comparison is that the AAA game “Call of Duty” has finally in its latest incarnation actually shown a concentration camp, and has never really explored Nazism, fascism, or any issue like that despite spending a number of incarnations in WWII, while the “B” game “The New Colossus” explores this in a completely in-your-face manner, and that’s not only what games need to do, but what we as people need right now.

The problem is that it’s unclear whether “The New Colossus” ever explores the topics at all. I haven’t played the game, but I have read Shamus Young’s series on it, and he fills in some of the details around those explorations. For example:

After the Siege, BJ and Grace have a conversation that makes no sense. BJ talks about how they want to liberate America. Grace argues that white America is a lost cause because they’ve already settled into Nazi rule. Then BJ says some platitudes about freedom and suddenly Grace starts agreeing with him.

This is wrong twice. One, what was she fighting for if she already thought this was a lost cause? I thought we were teaming up with her because mumble mumble something about revolution. But now she’s not even aligned with our cause? What was her plan then?

Secondly, BJ never says anything to convince her. She spells out reasons why the citizens of the US are a lost cause, and BJ doesn’t say anything to counter this. But she changes her mind anyway because there’s a musical swell while he makes his dumb arguments and that makes this feel inspirational.

And:

We learn that the Nazis are letting the KKK run the south, and during our walk downtown we see KKK guys casually chatting with Nazi stormtroopers.

This is interesting because the war ended 14 years ago. At this point in history, we would have the first generation of adults who had little or no meaningful memories of the old USA. The men signing up for military duty now were raised in Nazi America. They’ve spent their entire lives attending Nazi public schools, watching Nazi television, and reading Nazi books. They would all speak German as a second language, and for people working with the Nazis on a daily basis it might gradually become their primary language.

Certainly there would be a few holdouts, keeping the old ideals alive and hiding the occasional book from the censors, but for the coming generation this will be the only world they’ve ever known.

And if you think about it, this would suggest that most of the faceless troopers you’ve been blowing away were probably more likely to be from Houston than Hamburg. The Nazis won the war, but unless they invented a cloning machine then they wouldn’t have the numbers to occupy the entire planet like this. Certainly some of their forces would need to be locally sourced. Perhaps they would have German officers in charge of native conscripts, with all of the really good hardware (the mech suits, the power armor, and the zap guns) reserved for guys from the Fatherland.

I have to wonder: What is the KKK at this point? The Nazis have put them “in charge”, but what does that mean? Are they a political party? A government agency? Are mayors, sheriffs, and city councils elected by the people, or are they appointed by the Nazi leadership? Because directly vetting and assigning a mayor for every pissant little city in the US would require an enormous bureaucracy.

To be absolutely clear: I’m not suggesting that Wolfenstein II would be a better game if the writer explained all of this. I wouldn’t want a scene where BJ has to go through a bunch of anguish because he realizes he’s been gunning down conscripted Tennessee farm boys. Like Star Wars, a big appeal of this series – indeed, maybe the entire point – is to have an unambiguously evil force to oppose so that we can do our first-person manshoots without worrying that our main character has gone too far.

It’s hard to claim that you are actually exploring an issue when all you’re doing is taking an enemy that everyone thinks is bad and presenting them as such so that people won’t feel guilty about shooting them. This is pretty much the same sort of move that games that feature Middle Eastern terrorists make, or that games released during the Cold War made when they made the Soviets the bad guys. Philosophically, making this sort of move only confirms in people opinions they already have, and doesn’t encourage them to explore their own ideas, no matter where they fall on the topic.

Especially if the representatives of the enemy are strawmen:

From here he gets a motorcycle and rides to his home in Texas.

He’s here to pick up a ring his mother gave him as a child, which was shown in a flashback during the overlong introduction to the game. While you’re here, you can watch a few more childhood flashbacks, or you can move on to the house to get the ring. Inside, he’s confronted by his father.

The flashbacks make it clear that BJ’s father Rip Blazkowicz was a cruel, hateful, violent, narrow-minded man. He beat his wife. He beat his son. He killed his son’s dog as a punishment for BJ playing with a black girl. When the two meet again here in 1961, we learn that Rip gave up his Jewish wife to the Nazis. And now he’s planning to execute his son. Also: BJ doesn’t notice until the end of the scene, but Rip called the Nazis to the house, so if he doesn’t finish his son then they will.

I think that’s about as evil as you can possibly make this guy. He’s a complete cartoon. Even when faced with a legendary and world-famous Nazi killer who’s wearing a suit of armor and is bristling with guns, Rip is such a thick-headed moron that he thinks he can continue to bully his son.

I get it. He’s a strawman. He’s an exaggerated vessel of the worst aspects of human beings. He’s here so we can kill this embodiment of evil without guilt. My problem is that this story already has lots of characters that serve this exact purpose. We have the Nazi footsoldiers in general, and Frau Engel specifically. We get to do a lot of cathartic Nazi killing in this game. That’s arguably the reason the game exists. So why are we spending this entire character to simply repeat that same theme? Is this really the most interesting thing the writer could think to do with BJ’s father?

In a game about igniting an American revolution, this is the only American civilian we talk to. For story purposes, he should probably be representative of what has happened to this country. Maybe he started off as basically a sane man with some mild racist tendencies, but once the Nazis took over the fear and desperation overcame him. So then he gave up his wife, informed on his neighbors, disavowed his son, and accepted the rewards for doing so. Each time he thought this would be the last time. And now, he confesses, he’s given you up as well. Then the player can decide to kill him or walk away. (With him dying in the subsequent attack anyway.)

That would give us a new perspective, and would re-focus our anger on the Nazis for the soul-devouring police state they created. This would be a contrast to the Nazis.

As written, this scene feels pointless and self-indulgent. When presented with the opportunity to show what kind of man raised BJ, the writer built up this twisted strawman and let the player kill him with an axe. We get to kill a lot of dudes with axes in this game. BJ’s father should be something more than a lame mook.

BJ’s father is simply a racist. He’s always been a racist. Not only has he always been a racist, he’s always been a terrible, abusive person. All this does is characterize racists as being simply terrible people, and as Shamus points out there are no other white civilians shown to cast any doubt on Grace’s assessment that white America is too far gone to save. Extra Creditz makes a rather blatant implication that we need explorations like this in this current political climate, even saying that the game strongly indicts us for “trading democracy for race-hate”. But the game doesn’t do that. The game doesn’t show that the people actually did that, that they decided that the racism outweighed their democracy in a similar way to what is purportedly happening now. And, of course, to say it like that strikes many people as being a strawman of the existing situation anyway. If you try to beat people over the head with a strawman, people will get annoyed by that, even if they don’t align with the philosophy you are strawmanning. Shamus is neither a racist nor a fascist nor even really a conservative, but he gets annoyed by the strawman because he knows people who hold the views that are being strawmanned and knows they don’t really think that way. The only people who won’t notice the strawman are the people who think that the strawman is actually accurate. To explore an issue as at least Extra Creditz seem to think the current situation is, you’d need to show how mostly “normal” people can be fooled into accepting racist arguments and fascism as the solution to those non-existent racial issues. As it is, all the game does is create evocative scenes that are only evocative to people who agree with the ham-fisted political philosophy espoused by the game.

Like the scene mentioned in the video about encountering Hitler:

Wolfenstein II is a pretty silly game, but it’s not quite cartoonish enough to pull off Mecha-Hitler without dissolving into comedy. So instead of making him a physical threat, the writer makes him an object of audience ridicule. We see Hitler as an old man[2]. He’s a disgusting senile beast who shuffles around in his bathrobe and pukes and pisses all over the room. He spits when he talks, his mood oscillates all over the place, and he casually executes people for trivial slights, real or imagined. Normally I dislike taking historical figures and turning them into grotesque caricatures for ridicule, but I figure once you’ve perpetrated a Holocaust you’re fair game.

People like to pretend Hitler was some sort of mutant instead of just a regular human being with very bad ideas because it helps us feel better about ourselves, and maybe this sort of mockery isn’t always the most nuanced or mature way to engage with this topic. But screw it. If there’s anywhere it’s appropriate to trade in slanderously exaggerated depictions of Hitler, it’s in a Wolfenstein game. This might not be the best place to learn about the complexities of historical figures or the fragility of human nature, but that’s not why we’re here.

Having said that, I really do have a problem with this scene.

While I agree that this is a great idea for a scene in a Wolfenstein game, you still need to integrate the scene with the rest of the story. We introduce five new characters in this scene: The casting director, three other actors, and Hitler himself. These characters exist only in this scene. Nothing that happens here has any bearing on the rest of the game. BJ doesn’t attain his goal or even move any closer to it. This isn’t a lead-up to a confrontation with Hitler, who we never see again. This scene is thirteen and a half minutes long, and you could excise the entire thing from the game and the player wouldn’t even know there was anything missing. You could cut from the moment BJ gets off the ship to the moment he unpacks his bags in his room and it would feel completely seamless.

There’s no real gameplay, so this doesn’t work as part of a videogame. And the plot doesn’t move forward so it doesn’t work as part of a movie. Again, this is just self-indulgent on the part of the writer.

The scene is not there to explore Nazism, fascism or racism. It’s simply there to let the writers mock Hitler and for the player to be able to vicariously mock Hitler right along with them. Now, it’s pretty safe to mock Hitler as, well, almost everyone isn’t going to like the guy. As Shamus points out, once you’ve perpetrated a Holocaust that’s probably the least you can expect. But as he also said, that’s the only purpose the scene serves. If we take Extra Creditz’s take on what games should be doing, we could expect them to want to do that sort of thing for all sorts of other political issues that they happen to think correct, but that other people think at least questionable. If a game mocks Trump in the same sort of way, it will annoy and offend some people. And not only the people who are Trump supporters, but also people who don’t support Trump but who think that he isn’t that bad. The only people who will accept and like the presentation are those who actually believe it to be the case, which means that no one else will be encouraged to reconsider their position or change their minds. It’s hard to say that you can have anything that even looks like a real exploration of a topic when there’s almost no chance anyone will even have their minds opened even the slightest by that exploration.

And that might be the actual reason that “Call of Duty” shies away from doing this. It might not be the case that they are merely timid, but rather that these details are too tangential to the game that they really want to make to put the time and effort into doing it right, and doing it wrong will just detract from the game that they really want to make. “The New Colossus”, on the other hand, is utterly unconcerned about doing it right, but instead in doing it in a way that’s over-the-top and lets them pontificate on their own positions without having to insert any kind of nuance or shades of gray into the mix. I’m not saying that’s something that games ought not do. If a game wants to do that, more power to them. I am saying that that is in no way an exploration of any kind of philosophical question that has any complexity to it whatsover, and Extra Creditz are wrong to portray it as such.

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