In the waning hours of Tuesday, November 8th, 2016, when the absurd and unlikely became the real and inevitable, when half the nation stared at their screens in somber disbelief and half in ravenous vindication, I went to the desk in the corner of our family room and gathered a few items to store away. They were as follows: an honorable discharge certificate from the United States Marine Corps for active duty service between 2005 and 2010; two Joint Service Achievement Medal certificates for meritorious service at the National Security Agency; a Military Performer of the Quarter award certificate for the same; and a small magnetic plaque with my name, rank, and two black corporal’s chevron pins pushed into either side.
The election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States is one of the most baffling and disturbing events in my living memory, second only to the events of September 11th, 2001. It was an apocalyptic moment in the truest sense of the word, an event which rent the veil between my perception of America and it’s frightening, alien reality—a nation where the cancer of racial resentment was not slowly healing but metastasizing at a pace beyond imagining or control. That a documented fraudster—whose cynical manipulations of the electorate’s most selfish fears and basest hatreds were obvious to any independent observer—could ride a wave of xenophobic and anti-immigrant populism all the way to the White House beggared belief. This was not the America I served. This is not an America I recognize.
So I am not without empathy for B.J. Blazkowicz, the protagonist of 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order and its new follow-up, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. After a failed raid on a Nazi compound at the start of The New Order, Blazkowicz suffers grave injuries and falls into a coma. He awakes, fourteen years later, to a nightmarish world where the Nazis have defeated the Allies and conquered the world. It is a world beyond recognition. It is a world beyond belief.
Where The New Order’s narrative centered on assassinating the global Nazi regime’s leaders in Europe, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus brings Blazkowicz and his eccentric band of resistance fighters home to American shores to stoke the fires of revolution. Equal parts Quentin Tarantino and Philip K. Dick (with more than a little Jorge Luis Borges thrown in for good measure), The New Colossus is a stylish and gruesome revenge fantasy rooted in both the “what if?” hypothetical of The Man in the High Castle and the maddening reality of contemporary American politics.
Against such racism and authoritarianism, fictional and real, The New Colossus prescribes an unending supply of bullets and shrapnel. It is a game where you shoot Nazis, a lot of them, over and over, for hours on end, and bathe in their blood. The end result is one continuous primal scream of a videogame, a ten-hour exercise of violent catharsis offering the gruesome mass-killing of Nazis as a reprieve, if only for a moment, from the afflictions brought upon by the rise of Donald Trump and the emboldening of his white supremacist supporters. It is a game whose very soul is that video of someone punching white supremacist Richard Spencer in the face times infinity plus one.
It is also a game infected by its own madness. By the time the credits roll, a number of themes and side stories have been abandoned, the plot being subordinated to the clangorous crescendo of rage that builds throughout the game and culminates in Blazkowicz prying open the skull of a Nazi leader with a hatchet on live television. I was taken with the underlying threads of faith, family, and generational sin that knitted the story together in its opening hours, as well as Blazkowicz’s poetic and melancholy inner monologues on mortality. These serious ideas, however, are exchanged for increasingly absurd feats of violence and forgotten entirely by the end. The game clings to the ostensible theme of creating a better world for our children—a world that apparently must be brought about by righteous fire and bloodshed. This is impressed upon the player directly by a character speaking into a television camera (and therefore to the player), calling for armed revolution. The credits then play, a montage of violent anti-fascist imagery flashing as a heavy metal cover of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” howls through your speakers. The message for the audience, both within the game and without, is clear: it’s time to punch some Nazis in the face and take back your country.
The New Colossus begs comparison with another historical revenge fantasy: Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. Here too the seething rage of a persecuted people finds its catharsis in the imagined brutal killing of the architect of their misery. Yet in Tarantino’s film, that seething rage reaches its peak in an inferno that consumes villains and avengers alike. The heroes are destroyed in their own act of destruction as the site of their revenge burns down around them while they spray bullets into a crowd of helpless Nazis. There is a warning here that even righteous vengeance ends in self-destruction.
This is a warning The New Colossus seems not to have heard. Instead, it prescribes fire to douse flames. Is its diagnosis of America’s ills correct? Yes, unfortunately, or at least more correct than many of us might have cared to admit once upon a time. The acquiescence of the white majority to an authoritarian regime was not, is not, a flight of fancy or a historical counterfactual. It’s the plain record of events. But the game’s thirst for vengeance, and its desire to spur the player to action in the real world, must be doubted. That it brazenly displays the hammer and sickle in its anti-Nazi montage is proof enough; in the post-war era, Communist regimes murdered more than five times the number of Nazi victims. What future cruelty shall we pave the way for on our warpath to victory?
Perhaps it’s all just a game, and I’m not to take its exhortations to revolution seriously—or literally. Perhaps. In that case, I must be equally inclined not to take its examinations of race, faith, and gender seriously, either. Therein lies either the shame or the horror of Wolfenstein II. I must either laugh all of it away, or be frightened by its implications and demands. For now, I shall do neither. Into the drawer it goes, along with the other objects that cry out for a reckoning from me. Into the drawer it goes, where it is silent, and I am comfortable again.