Why The New Colossus’ portrayal of modern Nazism needs a reality check
Bethesda’s marketing campaign for Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus has enthusiastically embraced the notion of the game’s topicality. Trailers quoting Trump draw a line between The New Colossus’ Nazis-in-America theme and the resurgence of white-supremacist movements in the US. This is an uncomfortable fit for a game that will have been in production long before last year’s election: it is a demonstration of corporate allyhood at best, opportunistic marketing at worst, and likely a little of both. Yet the ways in which the game does not match the expectations established for it are worth unpacking: they speak to the ways in which The New Colossus struggles to fully realise the ideas it entertains.
Set in 1961, the game depicts an America that has been under Nazi occupation for more than a decade. New York is a wasteland. New Orleans is a walled-off ghetto for dissidents, and Washington has been rebuilt in brutalist Nazi concrete. Despite America’s submission to Nazi rule, however, fascism is depicted throughout the game as an invading force. Nazi dominance is maintained from the top down, relying heavily on a handful of cruel ideologues at the top of the pyramid. Their technological dominance is crucial, too: Nazis came to rule America first through the use of the atom bomb, and then through the roaming threat of a huge, heavily armed flying fortress.
Although plenty of Americans are depicted as coexisting with the Nazis, every single person wearing a Nazi uniform in The New Colossus is German: and not just German, but stereotypically, theatrically German. Nazism is presented as a specifically national phenomenon, a condition viciously imposed upon Americans that can be levered off with sufficient force. All of this – the narrow cadre of leaders, the technology, the sense of a revolution waiting to happen – suits The New Colossus’ aims as a videogame and a cathartic fantasy story. All of them, however, align Wolfenstein’s Nazis more closely with Half-Life 2’ s alien Combine than with the reality of white-supremacist movements.
The game does go some way, however, towards establishing that while Nazism is German, prejudice is not. A plot point establishes that much of the southern United States is governed by the Ku Klux Klan, who happily coexist with the invaders. Americans are shown to have sold out their neighbours, and a few collectible documents make further references to homegrown prejudice. These include a specific allusion to the media’s initially coy treatment of the alt-right movement last year, which suggests that MachineGames’ writers were able to be more reactive in the game’s flavour text than they were with its broader plot.
In practical terms, however, these themes don’t quite stick. Klan members are enemies in certain side missions and are, elsewhere, presented as ridiculous and submissive to Nazi power. BJ’s abusive father is the game’s other vector for the expression of American racism, but even he is larger than life. An angry Texan salesman who dresses like a rancher, he is strikingly presented but his behaviour is extreme in every regard. The New Colossus’ message – and the ultimate flaw in the notion that it stands up as a ‘game for our times’ – is that fascism wears a uniform, whether that’s a swastika, a bedsheet, or a bolo tie. It brutally depicts the extremity of human evil but neglects its banality.
It is to the game’s credit that it engages with these themes at all, of course, and moments where it articulately touches on other themes, such as America’s own relationship with militarism, or the gendered language used to describe courage, are welcome and worthy of further exploration. Yet there’s a sense that games, and particularly this type of game, struggle to do more than touch on these ideas before thundering on down the next corridor.
It’s technology that allows TheNew Colossus’ Nazis to win the war: with mech suits, mind, not Twitter blue ticks