Post Script

Why The New Colos­sus’ por­trayal of mod­ern Nazism needs a re­al­ity check

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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

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