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How Wolfenstein: The New Colossus takes the white dudebro hero apart

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Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a shooter that often feels at odds with its own protagonist, the worn-out vanilla action hero who is somehow the heart of a neurodiverse, multi-ethnic cast of socialist firebrands, civil rights campaigners, pacifists, lapsed jazz maestros and rabid UFO chasers. At first glance, it has a lot to say in spite of BJ Blazkowicz rather than through him, its levels and intermissions thick with references to feminist activism and race rights movements that risk being swallowed up in the bloodshed. Many of the allusions are very timely, for all the retro silliness of Wolfenstein’s Nazis – it’s hard not to draw a line between in-game propaganda about the “cancerous” press and Donald Trump’s frequent denunciations of the US media, for example.

MachineGames has downplayed these parallels in conversation, but Bethesda’s marketing teams have latched onto them rather opportunistically, going so far as to parody Trump’s infamous #MakeAmericaGreatAgain slogan on social media and subtweet his defence of rightwing marchers following the murder of Heather Heyer. Ultimately, however, The New Colossus offers no straightforward rejection of the bigotry Trump and his followers have tacitly and not-so-tacitly endorsed. Rather, the game’s achievement is to show how BJ’s story of white heroism risks echoing that chauvinism, and how it and toxic social archetypes at large may become instruments of resistance. With spoilers right up to the final moments, let’s look at how all that holds together.

Wolfenstein’s social commentary is pervasive, extending from bonkers plot points such as the concluding talk show scene to the nooks and crannies of the levels and incidental writing. It offers up a world of sly or stagey asides on recent political upheavals, a world in which dear old Blazko often seems a stranger – the character is, of course, literally a man out of time, having spent a decade in a coma during The New Order.

Buried in one chapter you’ll discover a Baltimore Sun excerpt from the 1920s that has been doing the rounds on Twitter lately, care of Trump’s opponents: as it savagely concludes, “on some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” While roaming the tunnels beneath Roswell, you might overhear a chat between stormtroopers which echoes the well-known online gag about over-sensitive right-wing punditry: “so much for the tolerant Left”.

To place a man like BJ at the centre of such a shifty, incendiary fiction, a fiction that regards the centrality of burly white dudes with considerable rancour, may seem at best a missed opportunity and at worst, deeply perverse. But The New Colossus is more an exercise in deconstructing than celebrating the character, tracing his stoical demeanour to a history of paternal abuse, and lingering on the links between his disdain for bolsheviks and pacifists and National Socialism’s love of martial supermen. Throughout the game you are constantly reminded that he embodies many of the ideals his opponents prize – those Aryan features, that boundless capacity for violence – a running theme that peaks when BJ’s head is grafted onto the body of a bio-engineered Nazi supersoldier following his capture and execution, unlocking a batch of new abilities in the process.

Experienced in first-person, BJ’s decapitation comes across as pure B-movie sensation and a crude resetting of the gauges, but there’s a lot more to the sequence than gore and upgrades. For one thing, it’s a franchise in-joke: BJ began his career as a bodiless head back in Wolfenstein 3D, squinting at the player from his snug receptacle below your crosshairs. It’s also a remarkably grisly ludo-narrative gag, drawing the line between who characters are on paper and how they function in the player’s hands right across BJ’s muscular neck. Most importantly of all, it speaks to BJ’s function within the Wolfenstein universe as a transferable signifier, his square-jawed persona a form of cultural capital that is too valuable to abandon, even as the man himself withers and disintegrates under the punishment.

BJ might be the centre of the plot, and the character who enjoys emotional development at the expense of other, equally travelled and arresting personalities like Grace Walker, black panther and the survivor of a nuclear attack. But in being killed and reassembled, he is exposed for an object, a mechanism freighted with enduring symbolic power that may be upgraded and reconfigured as necessary to achieve the rebellion’s objectives.

In this light, it is rather sinister that BJ’s romantic interest Anya expresses barely any qualms about his brand new vat-grown Nazi flesh, cuddling up to him on his sickbed as though he’d just stepped out of the shower. The implication is that BJ’s bodily existence is less important than what he represents: even to those who love him, he is on some level nothing more than a head in a jar. The same callous reasoning naturally applies to how MachineGames has resurrected the character, transforming this mute cartoon gunslinger into a man creaking with injury and regret, even as it continues to rely on BJ’s overclocked whiteness and virility for “mass market” appeal.

If The New Colossus is yet another variation on the journey of the hulking white avenger, in other words, it is also a lurid exploration of how such tales are wielded for political advantage – by or against their authors. As a political document, its greatest lesson is that grizzled “everymen” totems such as BJ are not, in fact, timeless norms that must be granted their place, but constructs available to abduction and reinvention.

This lesson is hammered home during your encounter with Hitler, now an addled and incontinent old man, tottering around a space station over Venus in a soiled dressing gown. By this point in the story the Fuhrer believes his enemy dead but, much like your allies in the Kreisau Circle, he is unable to let BJ go: “Terror-Billy” is too perfect and irresistible a nemesis, a man of Jewish ancestry who nonetheless passes as Aryan and whose strength and courage cannot be waved away. The episode in question sees an undercover BJ auditioning for a part in a film Hitler has written about him. In the process, you’ll see various slick and pompous actors, including a youthful Ronald Reagan, offer up their own interpretations of your legend.

The game’s interrogation of its own protagonist is mirrored by the evolution of Eva’s Hammer, the prototype U-boat that serves as your mission hub and a repository of optional story interactions. Prised from Engel’s fingers at the close of Wolfenstein: The New Order, the submarine is essentially one giant monument to hate, but it’s a monument that has been colonised and reworked by waves of resistance recruits and survivors from across Europe and America – its once-forbidding steel and scarlet overtaken by fairy lights, psychedelic crayon murals, Persian rugs, dartboards and Soviet flags.

There’s even a pinball machine that is rather tragically adorned with Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan, “yes we can”. Like BJ’s new body, Eva’s Hammer is a figure that has been productively wrenched from its original purpose, and also like BJ’s new body, it still harbours something of the worldview that created it. As you discover, there are Nazis lurking deep inside the vessel, a legacy of malevolence that must be engaged head-on. That legacy extends to Sigrun, General Engels’ estranged daughter, who at one stage chokes out Grace Walker one-handed after being branded a Nazi: a deranged performance of the outrage expressed by many white people at being reminded of how they may have benefited from racism.

All told, Wolfenstein: The New Colossus stands not as a breezy account of heroism in the face of tyranny, but a story about the fluidity of political representations and the difficulty of escaping complicity. Power, according to the philosopher Michel Foucault, isn’t concentrated in people or organisations but dispersed throughout the knowable world and its systems – a regime of thought that doesn’t merely oppress but actively generates its own resistance, creating and shaping opposition in order to preserve its fundamental logic. To take up arms against a regime is therefore to risk perpetuating that logic, as MachineGames’ portrayal of BJ as a latent fascist acknowledges.

If Bethesda’s jabs at Nazi apologists online ring hollow, the game itself is successful in tracking the continuum of concepts and tactics that joins fascism to those who fight it. As a basis and provocation for political activism, it is cause for both optimism and despair.

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Edwin Evans-Thirlwell

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Writer, critic and academic, based in London. Fond of Overwatch, trifle and experimental poetics, usually not at the same time. From Yorkshire originally but sounds like he's from Rivendell.

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