One of the biggest video games of the year has stumbled onto the third rail of American politics.
Video games and first person shooters in particular have always reveled in the act of murdering Nazis. They're great cannon fodder because there's no moral ambiguity to them. They're just genocidal, iconically evil comic book villains. The real crimes against humanity they committed make them foreign to us, Other—so unlike us in their evil ways they are barely human—which perhaps explains the subgenre of Nazi-zombie video games. It is easy to kill what you don't understand.
Of all the Nazi-shooting video games, none is more iconic than the Wolfenstein series. Id Software's 1992 Wolfenstein 3D largely defined the first person shooter (before that team moved on to make Doom), forever tying the genre to the act of murdering Nazis. In many ways, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is just another Wolfenstein game (there have been 11 in total but this one is a direct sequel to the 2014 reboot of the series), a big budget game publisher returning to the well because video games is a risky business and a known quantity is a safer bet.
But the world has changed a lot since the last time a Wolfenstein game came out, and so Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus finds itself under a brighter spotlight. It has stumbled onto the third rail of American politics, and just so happens to carry a message that its audience needs to hear: that those Nazis we've been shooting for decades are not that alien after all.
The first worrying sign is that a video game about Nazis taking over America seems relevant to what's happening in the news at all. In August, white supremacists marched down the streets of Charlottesville, VA with lit tiki torches chanting "Jews will not replace us." After being met with opposition in the streets by anti-fascist protestors, and after a white supremacist drove into a crowd and killed one of the anti-Nazi protesters with his car, the president of the United States said that "both sides" shared responsibility for the violence.
Earlier this month, Bethesda put out a new ad bearing the slogan "Make America Nazi-Free Again," a riff on Donald Trump's campaign slogan "Make America Great Again." Last week, Bethesda put out a new ad in support of punching Nazis. The debate about whether one should punch Nazis or not started after Richard Spencer, who helped organize that white supremacist march in Charlottesville, was sucker punched during Trump's inauguration.
Worse yet is that some gamers are openly objecting to Bethesda's ad campaign and the violence towards Nazis in Wolfenstein II in general because they think it's racist to white people.
Developing a big budget shooter like Wolfenstein II takes years, and as Bethesda's head of public relations Pete Hines told me in an email, there was no way the company could have predicted our current political climate. That hasn't stopped it from leaning into the moment.
"We've used some of the President's phrasing because they are unfortunately illustrative of the game world echoing real world events," Hines said. "We have actual Nazis marching openly on the streets of The United States of America in 2017. Just think about how crazy that sounds."
But is it really that crazy? Wolfenstein II, surprisingly, makes a compelling case that it is not. This is evident from the opening moments of the game, which delve into meathead protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz's past. As a child in early 20th century Texas, we learn, Blazkowicz was raised by a Jewish immigrant mother and a racist, white American father.
We know he is racist because he punishes Blazkowicz when he learns he's been getting too friendly with an African American girl, who he calls the n-word two times only 10 minutes into the game. It is very jarring, but maybe what's necessary to paint a picture of this man, who blames his failed business on his wife's Jewishness, his son palling around with people of a different race—everyone but himself.
From the very beginning, Wolfenstein II is telling players they might not like it, but the racism they are fighting against is also literally part of their character.
This also sets the stage for later, when Wolfenstein II implies that the Third Reich was able to take over America in part because its ideals already aligned with those of many Americans. (For more on the real history of what the Third Reich learned from America's codified racism in the 1930s, this Atlantic article about James Q. Whitman's book Hitler's American Model is a good place to start).
Blazkowicz didn't take after his father. Rather, he grew up to be a Nazi killing machine and, after the events of the previous game, a symbol of hope for those who dare oppose Nazi world domination. But his past is not forgotten. In Wolfenstein II, When Blazkowicz asks for help from Grace Walker, an African American leader of an American insurgency against the Nazis modeled after the real Black Panther Party, she doesn't hold back. She tells him that white America isn't fighting the Nazis like she is. That when they took over, they let the Ku Klax Klan govern the South.
"Monsters did this," Blazkowicz tells Grace in her hideout at the top of a delipidated Empire State Building, overlooking a New York City destroyed by a nuclear bomb, discussing what Nazis have done to America.
"Not monsters. Men," she corrects him.
Men like Blazkowicz's father. Men like those who marched with torches in Charlottesville. That's what's truly scary about Nazis: They're not just video game villains like aliens or zombies. They're something we can become when we're not paying attention. It is something that is already in our society.
It is also worth saying that, yes, in every other way Wolfenstein II is exactly what I expected it to be. It is a grotesquely over-the-top shooter where I blew up Nazis' skulls, melted them with lasers, and chopped their legs off with an axe before putting that axe in their face while maintaining eye contact. I'm going to leave it to the experts to argue about whether this is healthy or not, but it felt good. It felt really, really good. There has never been a more cathartic time to play a video game where you mercilessly kill Nazis, and in my opinion there has never been a better Wolfenstein game, so it works out.
That it also has something pertinent to say about what is happening in the world easily makes it one of the most important games of the year.