'The New Colossus' is excellent at subverting expectations, but one sequence in particular stands out.
Image courtesy of Bethesda Softworks
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is an absurd game, but like its predecessor, The New Order, it skillfully navigates being touching, upsetting, subversive, and hilarious, depending on what’s most appropriate. The tonal whiplash is part of Wolfenstein’s charm, and the game constantly takes advantage of your cynical expectations.
Warning: This article contains spoilers for The New Colossus. If you want to watch this entire scene play out, you can watch it in a video from MKIceAndFire.
No moment was more surprising than when the game’s hero, B.J. Blaskowicz, is finally captured by the Nazis, and his friends try to break him out.
Blaskowicz’ Nazi killing attitude (and duel wielded shotguns) usually gets him out of trouble, but after an unexpected confrontation with his fascist-embracing, Nazi-sympathizing father, Blaskowicz is caught off guard—it’s still his father, after all. This provides a window for the Nazis to use their flying fortress to ensnare Blaskowicz into a floating trap he can’t escape.
When Blaskwowicz wakes up, he’s being paraded in front of the cameras, proof any remnants of the "resistance" have been squashed. He's been with the Nazis for who knows how long. Days? Weeks? Months? There’s a hood on his face, and the sound of someone yelling about his right to a lawyer. Naturally, that “lawyer” turns out to be one of your buddies, who reveals your execution is only weeks away, so it’s time to make a run for it. It’s what you’d expect from a bombastic action movie, video game or not: break out of the prison, guns blazing.
“It’s kind of the only play we got,” says your friend.
To generate a credible distraction, your buddy slams his face into the table, breaking his nose and making it seem like Blaskowicz attacked him. Screaming and shouting for help, a guard arrives. It’s all a ruse, of course; with a knife safely tucked behind his back, this Nazi will be dead in no time. If there’s any constant to The New Colossus, it’s dead Nazis.
It was all a ruse, though. As the knife appears, Frau Irene Engel, the Nazi bastard that’s been hounding you over both games, casually shoots your “escape plan” in the back. Withering on the floor, blood pouring out, another bullet flies into his skull. The Nazis knew who your friend was, the Nazis knew it was a means to break you out. The only reason they allowed them to come anywhere close to Blaskowicz was to learn where everyone else was.
“You hear that?” mutters Engel. “It’s my attack force moving in on your friends in the garage.”
The hood is placed back on Blaskowicz’s head, and time passes in a blur.
“Got me praying for the end,” he mutters.
The next scene shows Blaskowicz at his trial, awaiting death at the hands of his captors. It’s a common storytelling technique to pull a bait-and-switch on the viewer, allowing hopes to rise before crushing them again. It’s meant to induce confusion on when true hope will arrive.
As the sentence is handed down, as the soldier cocks his weapon, a prompt appears. Suddenly, miraculously, it’s possible for Blaskowicz to break his bonds and begin doing what he does best: killing Nazis. It’s a little weird that Blaskowicz waited until this exact moment, when he’s surrounded, to make a break, but who are we to argue? Plus, it’s all the more dramatic to clear out the first wave of enemies, waltz up to the judge who pronounced your execution, and watch his Nazi body limp to the ground.
There is not a harder fight in the entirety of The New Colossus. It took me a dozen tries (and abusing the save system) to make it out. The game overwhelms, suffocating the player’s attempt at survival, and leaving little space for error. There’s not enough health, weapons, and ammunition to feel comfortable. You will die over and over and over . That’s the point. You’re not supposed to feel victory is around the corner or even possible. Just after you’ve stacked the bodies to the ceiling, another dozen show up.
It’s a fight that exists in microcosm to Blaskowicz’ larger pushback against the Nazis. For every Nazi you kill, there’s another one to take its place. It feels pointless.
Still, it’s a chance at escape, an opportunity to fight again. Maybe tomorrow will be different.
When the bloodshed is finally, finally over, players enter a room, but inside is not escape. Your friends are not waiting with a helicopter to take you away. There’s not a giant mech to walk around in, stomping on the endless parade of Nazis trying to put you back in a cage. No, it’s your mother, a Jewish woman sold out by your white father, simply so he could survive.
“I thought I lost you, mama,” says Blaskowicz. “I thought I’d never see you again.”
The two share a moment of tenderness, exchanging of emotions and regrets spanning a lifetime, the kind of conversation every child wants to have with a parent but often never does. The framing, the music, the writing, the voice acting—the drama is as overwhelming as the dozens of Nazis you just fought. It’s impossible to look away, as the menace known as Terror Billy is reduced to a sobbing mama’s boy.
“I don’t wanna go back out there,” he says. “I can’t do this anymore.”
It’s one of several moments, in this scene and others, that suggest Blaskowicz wishes he would be struck down by a stray bullet. It never happens, and though both games have shown us a character who’s more than a warrior, what he’s truly best at is fighting.
In the moment, all I could do was try to stop myself from tearing up, even as a growing suspicion began to scratch at the back of my head. What’s his mother doing here? Why would she be in a room outside of the court house? How come no one’s come running?
“We will be together,” she says. “Soon. You just have one more hardship to get through.”
The game cuts to Blaskowicz waking up in the same courtroom he’d just bloodied up, as if nothing had happened. That’s because nothing had happened. Twice, he’s been presented with opportunities to escape, and twice he’s been denied. One was real, but both were illusions. Twice, the game pulled the rug out from under the player. Poof.
It’s at this point Blaskowicz is wheeled to the steps of the Lincoln memorial, the Washington Monument off in the distance. Tens of thousands have showed to his execution, with hundreds of millions watching at home. The game remains in first-person, and doesn’t revert to a cutscene. You’re seeing it through Blaskowicz’ eyes the whole time.
“This is the moment when a helicopter storms through and saves me,” I thought.
Then, Engel grabbed a sword and with a series of swings, Blaskowicz’ head falls off. As the screen fades to black, she picks up his head, a crowning achievement.
I was speechless the entire time. Games don’t kill their main characters! I thought I’d read they were making a trilogy? How’s that going to happen if Blaskowicz isn’t around to kill Hitler?
Of course, Blaskowicz isn’t dead. Moments later, it becomes clear your friends were preparing for this eventuality, and had—hold on, let me get this straight, because it's a whole lot—prepared a drone to catch your head as it falls, so it could be quickly rushed to a secret location, where the head would be attached to a bunch of mysterious tubes to keep the head alive, before the head was ultimately attached to a “super soldier” body that’d been developed by the Nazis, thus fully repairing the broken body Blaskowicz had been dealing with the first half of the game.
The New Colossus is a good video game.
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