In 2017, Video Games Can't Be Afraid of Taking Sides
How 'Wolfenstein' and 'Detroit: Become Human' take two very different approaches to violence, oppression, and resistance.
Wolfenstein: The New Colossus screenshot courtesy of Bethesda
Violence is always political. World War II was political. Shooting Nazis was always political. But for a time, it became blasé, an inoffensive theme to gives some justification and context for games' mechanical combat. By the time Wolfenstein: The New Order came out in 2014, players had been looking through William "BJ" Blazkowicz's eyes for over twenty years, and had long since stopped seeing meaning in the act of shooting Nazis.
The most famous of its ancestors was Wolfenstein 3D, a first person shooter that helped define what we call "first person shooters." It was an elaborate maze-game, featuring BJ armed to the teeth and striking fear into the Nazi denizens of Castle Wolfenstein. It was a smash hit, and led to, among other things, gaming's storied history of World War II depictions.
The New Order managed something remarkable, and not just with its sci-fi, alternate history, what-if-Nazis-won backdrop: There was a concrete understanding, communicated through the game, that the furious violence of the oppressed resistance was not equivalent to the violence of their oppressors. The game was thorough and nuanced in spending time developing a cast of characters, each with their own reasons for devoting their lives to killing Nazis and trying to destroy their regime.
The violence depicted in The New Order was gruesome, yes, but it was also pointedly imbalanced. The Nazi war machine had the nearly infinite resources of the state at their disposal. The resistance, on the other hand, was worn down after decades of attempted revolution. Stolen weaponry, hijacked vehicles, repurposed equipment—it was a scrappy and makeshift David against a fascist Goliath.
The game never judged the player for using violence against the Nazis, because it knew that the violence of the underclass could never—morally or materially—match the horrors of what was already being enacted. The conflicts in The New Order were not equal-sided, and even in the most powerful moments, were not shown as anything other than a glancing blow against the roving monstrosity that was Nazi world rule. The violent acts of both sides were both shown as political, but not shown as equivalent.
This is refreshing in world where big-budget games are often at pains to downplay or avoid their own politics. The assumption is that in order to reach large sales figures, one must avoid making any stances that could turn off a segment of your possible audience. But that's at odds with those games' desire to make players the heroes of resonant, contemporary conflicts. Take, for example, upcoming title Detroit: Become Human.
In an early demo of Detroit, players are shown a binary scale on screen indicating progress in moving a scene toward a violent or nonviolent outcome. The judgement inherent in this is plain to the player: nonviolence is a moral good, violence a chaotic outcome. Tagging a bench with a sign of the android uprising nudges the bar toward violence, overturning a car even more so.
Violence, in this Detroit sequence, is seen as an end, not a means. Either a character's actions push them toward violence, or toward pacifism, a simple binary choice. Director David Cage stressed, in an interview with Waypoint in June, that the scene wasn't indicative of the entire game. Nonetheless, it seems to undercut Cage's other quote about the game, that he "didn't want to deliver a message to mankind with this game. I just want to ask questions."
The thing is, framing violence in this way doesn't ask a question about violence, it answers it.
Cage's statement that Detroit is a game that "doesn't want to deliver a message" will inevitably come into conflict with what the game ends up actually saying through its mechanics and narrative. Whether or not Detroit succeeds or fails at making its points, the fact remains that it is trying to make some sort of gesture toward androids being a stand-in for African-American oppression—this much is clear in the framing of the game in trailers and pre-release footage.
The fact that Cage is downplaying or denying this in interviews is not only frustrating, but untrue. Games, like any other medium, say things. Detroit is saying something. If it didn't, there wouldn't be much reason to play it.
Wolfenstein: The New Colossus is set to release on October 27th. It's a direct sequel to The New Order, and presumably will pick up the narrative and gameplay tone of its predecessor. It changes focus from Europe to the Americas, and early trailers focus on the people of the United States post-Nazi takeover. As well as, of course, a plethora of violent implements to be used by BJ against the Nazis.
The difference between Wolfenstein: The New Colossus' interpretation of violence and Detroit's could not be more different. While Detroit seems content with merely adopting the visual imagery of oppression in order to further an 'apolitical' message, The New Colossus (at least from trailers and estimations based on The New Order) uses parallels to real-world atrocities to directly advance a specific anti-oppression narrative, violence included.
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MachineGames' interpretations of Wolfenstein are as in-your-face as they can get about their messages. Wolfenstein is not coy. All Nazis must die. It's not playing moral shell games about equivalence. It shows injustice and proposes actions to stop it. Violent, political actions.
Other games, like Detroit, mentioned above, or similar high-budget AAA releases like Bioshock: Infinite in 2013, actively avoid trying to emphasize their violence as having a point. It's just part of the story, and at the end of it, both sides are shown as being, more or less, equally culpable.
Wolfenstein, on the other hand, is unafraid to take its stance: interpersonal, pointed, direct violence against a structure of power that wields that power against the marginalized and the underprivileged is not only excusable, but necessary. Wolfenstein is upfront about who the bad guys are (Nazis) and what you should do about them (kill them).
But even with such a direct stance, the game's overt message is downplayed by industry representatives. Pete Hines, vice president of public relations at The New Colossus' publisher Bethesda, said in an interview with GamesIndustry.biz that "Bethesda doesn't develop games to make specific statements or incite political discussions," but that "When it comes to Nazis, you can put us down in the 'against' column." This comes in contrast to developers in promotional videos for the game saying that "At the end of [ The New Colossus], I think you will be ready to go out onto the streets and start a revolution."
Hines is obviously correct in stating that there never was any grand plan to coincide the release of Colossus with a period of increased awareness of neo-Nazi activities in the United States. Game development is a long and slow process, whereas marketing works comparably much faster—it's understandable that a marketing team would see an opportunity to slip in modern references to their ad campaigns.
Still, it's disappointing to see the publishing side of the industry continue to act as if what they are creating lacks a cohesive political message. A cursory overview of The New Order reveals its leanings, it's reasonable to assume Colossus will follow suit. It could, by all rights, mangle this concept into a bland, jingoistic mess, but the success of The New Order argues against this.
It's hard to shake the feeling that if The New Colossus had been made with foreknowledge of this particularly tumultuous moment, it would have ended up looking a lot more like Detroit: equivocating and two-sides-ing its own arguments until they crumble against themselves. It's not hard to find examples of this, a scant four years ago Bioshock: Infinite put forth that the oppressed minorities of Colombia would be no better at ruling it than the jingoistic, racist upperclass. It's a look that was bad at the time and worse in retrospect.
Only time will tell if The New Colossus lives up to the brazen fury of its preceding advertising campaign. Similarly, Detroit might turn out to be the nuanced and smart take on racism that it's trying desperately to be in trailers. There's always this window of possibility before games are released. David Cage's words hang in the air around any politically charged AAA games, which too often aspire to having absolutely nothing to say.