Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Defeat, exhaustion in Wolfenstein: The New Order

Wolfenstein: The New Order is a game about struggle and fatigue. It comes possibly from the studio culture at developer MachineGames, specifically creative director Jens Matthies, who quit his job at Starbreeze to set-up the company and was on the brink of having to sell his house when the game's publication deal finally came through. Matthies and Machine had to fight, hard, to get Wolfenstein made. That experience with strain bleeds into the game's narrative.

It's set up from the beginning. First you're told it's 1946 and the Nazi war machine is expanding at "an astonishing rate." Straight away, something is terribly wrong. The war has lasted a year longer than it's supposed to and, rather than flummox itself on the Russian front, the German army has clearly got its shit together - it's winning, big time. Then you take control and the weapon you have, this American-made sub-machine gun, is puny and quiet. By the time you get to shooting the first bad guys you've seen their super-fast fighter jets, their armoured attack dogs, their giant, stomping robots. You feel instantly outclassed. The German infantry rifle is black and heavy - it fills your vision. The US one is light. It's this clattering pop gun made of wood and tin.

Your commanding officer even instructs you to pilfer any Nazi ordnance. "It's bound to be better than ours," he says. From the go you're on the weaker side, the losing team. Like Matthies, trying to build his studio and stave off bankruptcy, you're in an uphill battle.

B.J. Blazkowicz is a tired character. It's in his eyes when Anya tells him the US has surrendered, in the way he whispers all his threats, barely flinches at physical pain. This guy has been through it all, twice, and he's just running on fumes the whole game. By the climax, when he tells his pals to go ahead and bomb the complex he's infiltrated, with him still inside, you get the impression that he just wants to die. He's crawling, covered in blood, severely wounded, ready to fucking go. He's like Max in Max Payne 3 - he wants to be dead, but he can't commit suicide. The best he can hope for is a glorious end, to go out swinging. He just wants to settle his scores and get his house in order before finally keeling over. Why else would he keep going on these suicide missions?

His comrades are equally exhausted. Look at Fergus, the aforementioned CO. When you meet him again in 1960, he's thin and covered in scars. The first thing he does when he's freed from a Nazi prison is collapse onto his bed, telling B.J. to fuck off, he needs some sleep. He sits in his room, agonising over his age, about being past his best. These aren't valiant, unbending heroes. They're reluctant. They're tired. They're here purely out of obligation and they want it to end.

The sex scenes are great. There is passion between B.J. and Anya, but they also fuck because they need to - they need something to stave off reality. "Sometimes Christmas," says B.J., "sometimes birthdays. Sometimes mayhem, suffering and death. Sometimes you just need to feel something good." It's tragic, that all this mess has seeped into something as joyful as screwing. But those sex scenes aren't anything close to erotic. They're melancholic, desperate. They're just another part of the B.J.'s defiance of Nazi rule.

And there are Tekla and J, two supporting characters who have been defeated by the Nazis in very different ways. J is supposed to be Jimi Hendrix, and he's so completely given up, to the point where he can't even acknowledge there's a war going on. He sits around the resistance HQ dropping acid and playing guitar into some headphones. He's distant, distracted - he's opted out of this struggle because he just can't face it. The bandanna he wears over his face, to cover scars presumably obtained when the Nazis bombed America, is a perfect symbol. He's hiding from the world, from himself, hiding the fact that all this is even going on. He's retreated inside his own head. He talks like it's free-love, liberation, a kind of righteous pacifism, but this is a world where the hippy movement never happened, where the anti-Nazi organisations need all the fighters they can get, and his dialogue comes over like defeatist self-delusion. He makes it sound like he won't fight on moral grounds, but he's just beaten.

Tekla is similar. She talks about fighting as if it's below her, as if her maths and calculations and philosophising about the nature of reality are more important. But you get the sense that she's just trying to find a way to rationalise all this evil. She doesn't sleep - she has these strange ticks and eccentricities. In the game's most saddening scene, she wakes up B.J. to discuss her theory about consciousness and the human spirit, and it all sounds kind of bright and interesting, in a college sort of way. But she keeps going on, rambling and rambling, and you start to feel like she's broken - like her mind has snapped. All her equations, her endless pages of numbers and notes on the predictable nature of reality, seem like a coping mechanism, as if she's trying to decipher some kind of rational, scientific reason behind the Nazi's senseless evil. She can't accept that anything happens randomly, that people do things just because. You get the sense that she's exhausted and baffled by the casual violence of the Nazi regime, that she can't live with the idea that people are just bad, that terrible things happen on a whim. All her ruminating is a way of putting the war into context, of distancing it, saying it's part of some grand scheme that had to happen and eventually will come good. She's trying to nullify the threat - if all these people die, including her, then at least it was for a reason. But she's just going around in circles. She never finds her answers. It's all talk and no result. The painful truth is that the cosmos is not coming to save her.

All this emotion is consolidated into the music on the main menu screen, written by Michael John Gordon. Just listen to it. It's a moaning, distressed, heavy track, oppressive and terrifying and drawn out. It exemplifies the themes of exhaustion and misery that run through both the story of Wolfenstein and its development. Fucking perfect:

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