'The New Colossus' Switches Tones So Often, The Game Undercuts Its Message
'Wolfenstein' pointedly inserts itself into today's fraught politics, only to crack jokes and change the subject again and again.
Screenshots courtesy of Bethesda
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus aims for a lot of different tones. This might be an understatement, and some readers might think that I should have phrased as a “tone problem,” but it's undeniable that TNC asks players to oscillate between a very serious, somber experience and a wild, wacky one. The game opens with a violent exploration of domestic abuse, and as Danielle wrote, it does not fuck around. It also has a poop joke that dominates not one but two separate scenes of character development. As Chris Franklin explained in his video on the game, that tone-flipping quality undermines the game’s points as often as it underlines them, but I would also note that it helps make a point that this world is as absurd and strange as our real one.
I didn’t think much about my experience of The New Colossus’s tonal changes when I was playing the game. I thought the game was just fine, but it's not changing the world. There just weren't any stakes to how the game treated its tone. What does it matter, I thought, that the game doesn’t seem to know if it wants to be funny or serious from one moment to the next? Why does tone matter in this kind of experience? And I went on my merry way.
I had that feeling until earlier this week when I went to watch a screening of the David Lynch classic Wild at Heart. Released in 1990, Wild at Heart was Lynch’s first feature film after 1986’s violent noir Blue Velvet. To summarize it briefly, it is a film about gender and culture in America in the 1980s. It follows young adults Sailor and Lula as they flee Lula’s possessive mother, hired assassins, and a cavalcade of other nefarious forces. And, like The New Colossus, it flips wildly in tone.
Some of the scenes are funny. Sailor repeatedly says that he wears a snakeskin jacket as a sign of his individuality. Lula’s mother laughs, screams, and cries without any pause between them, working as a kind of melodrama machine that only produces ridiculous scenarios. A man whose hand has been shot off with a shotgun crawls around on the ground while his friend tells him that the doctors reattach it. The film cuts to a dog running away with it, as if it’s a Laurel and Hardy routine. There are moments that are ridiculous, and they’re funny, and it’s impossible not to laugh at the absurdity of it.
At the same time, Wild at Heart is not a comedy. At the bottom, it is about how the world is a bear trap for women. It takes great care to show how the expectations that men have of Lula force her into dollish, sexualized roles, and it (graphically and violently) shows us the double-bind of sex and love in America during the back half of the 20th century. It is a movie that implicates the structures that men (even well-intentioned men) enforce and embody all of the time. Everyone, regardless of intent, is implicated in Wild at Heart; the best men are merely shades of the worst men, on a line of tendency that ends in the worst cases.
This is all just to give you some context for how puzzled I was when the audience around me started laughing and cackling like we were at a midnight showing of The Room. Everything that Sailor did evoked a room-shaking guffaw; Lula couldn’t read a line without a woman in the first row audibly, and with great gusto, screaming “haw haw haw.”
I was confused and surprised. Wild at Heart is not subtle. It has clear and obvious contempt for the structures of American life in the post-Reagan years. But, and this is critical, I don’t think it is the people’s fault. I don’t think this was a case of the audience not getting it, because I think it’s nearly impossible not to “get” the serious, monstrous things that Wild at Heart is putting in front of us.
Wild at Heart’s use of comedy and ridiculous situations to tell a serious story is uncannily similar to the way that The New Colossus uses unbelievably violent gameplay and silly poop jokes to tell a serious story about racism, fascism, and American history. Javy Gwaltney wrote about this in terms of a game embracing its legacy as a goofy, Nazi-killing game; for him, it’s a meta-move that has to be tackled head-on lest the whole enterprise fall in on our heads.
The methods are the same, but the stakes are different. David Lynch famously has very little to say about what his works mean, and if you watch it and laugh and come away talking about how zany it is then, well, you might have missed something, but ultimately he doesn’t much care one way or the other. Wild at Heart isn’t meant to change the world, and it makes no claims about its ability to.
The New Colossus, on the other hand, does. It used the 2016 election and the growing wide acceptance of white supremacy and nationalism in the United States as a marketing tool. The New Colossus pushed itself as a political game that advocated for punching Nazis and criticizing journalists who normalize dapper white nationalists. It is a game that wants to sell itself based on what it believes and how it communicates those beliefs to players. It is directly and explicitly lining itself up with the real world in order to show the connections between Nazi ideology and our real-world political scenarios.
The stakes of shifting tones, then, are much different. The audience in Wild at Heart, eagerly laughing, only missed that it was their very tendency to laugh at these characters that was being critiqued in the film.
The audience of The New Colossus that mistakes it for a comedy, a laugh-em-up, or a game that fundamentally believes nothing can come away thinking that these real-life alignments, these supposed critical reflections on our contemporary world, mean as little as a poop joke. At the end of the game, our protagonist puts an axe in the head of his antagonist. He gets close to her and whispers something about wolves, a typical badass movie line, and I laughed.
Article continues below
I laughed because it’s ridiculous. It’s as over the top as the topless machine gun scene that took place five minutes before, and the poop joke from earlier, and the anti-Communist monologuing a couple hours before. The game never gave me a baseline, a mode of seriousness or comedy, that I could depend on. There is no sustained throughline of inquiry or criticism. I mean, my god, BJ his kills his abusive father and is immediately attacked by a giant, tentacle-operating, monologuing Nazi airship. The mind reels at trying to line it all up.
When the people laughed at Wild at Heart, I was confused because the tone issues serve some greater purpose. They are meant to make you laugh, then cringe, then wonder why you might have laughed. Sadly, I don’t think many in the audience got to the last part. But when I laugh at The New Colossus, I don’t know where I am supposed to go. I’m clearly not meant to be reflecting. At best, it seems, the tonal shifts are meant to keep me from becoming incredibly depressed at how similar the policies of fictional Nazis and real-world American politicians are.
In the end, both experiences make me wonder about the ends of the comedic-yet-critical experience. The New Colossus, or at least its marketing, wants to pump us full of justifiable outrage at the world we live in. At the same time, comedy always functions as a release valve; we laugh it off. And the end effect, I think, is that The New Colossus doesn’t leave much that sticks. Instead, it feels like something blew through me, a mighty wind of change that I chuckled right back out again.
You can follow Cameron on Twitter.