Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Wolfenstein: The New Order, a Discussion with Tracy Barnett

This morning I got into a conversation with +Tracy Barnett on twitter about the difficulty screen from Wolfenstein: The New Order which he felt was problematic. After a brief exchange on twitter I asked if he would mind writing out his position on Google+ since twitter is absolutely the worst place to have a discussion about anything more complex than 140 characters can convey (which you can read here). I'd like to take this opportunity to respond to him and to expand upon some points that he raises.

B.J. Blazkowicz from Wolfenstein: the New Order
"Let's start with the picture of the main character first. Square-jawed, blonde-haired, looks muscular. In short, everything a "real man" is supposed to be. That kind of image implicitly tells you that this is the kind of man you want doing your shooting for you. It denies the possibility that any other kind of man could do that. It's an assumption that you can't choose another image for your protagonist, so this is your man. He's an ideal, both in terms of looks, and of action. His face says "I'm strong and I'm violent."

(As an aside, he also looks really Aryan, which in a Nazi-shooting game is problematic in and of itself. But as that's not what this article is about, we move on.)" - Tracy Barnett

Arnold, B.J. Blazkowicz from Wolfenstein 3D, and B.J. Blazkowicz from Wolfenstein: the New Order
Actually B.J. Blazkowicz, the main character in most Wolfenstein games and in this one in particular, is clearly designed to look like an action movie star (most likely Arnold Schwarzenegger) from the late 1980s - early 1990s. The popularity of the action genre was at its height during this time with movies like Commando (1985), Predator (1987), Terminator (1984), and Terminator II (1991) coming out and dominating the box office, each with Arnold in the main role. So there is little surprise that when Wolfenstien 3D came out in 1992 that the main character in this series of games has a similar look (as did the main character in Doom and the countless clones that would come after) to the biggest action movie star of the time.  
Not to pick apart your analysis of the character but I must take issue with the idea that the long established image of B.J. ". . . denies the possibility that any other kind of man could do that." While B.J. is the main character of the game there are soldiers of a variety of body shapes and characteristics throughout the game who not only fight the Nazis and survive, but that save your life on multiple occasions. Yes you do look like the same character who has been the center of the franchise for over twenty years; but that shouldn't be any more a problem than Sonic, Mario, Link, or any other series of games using the same main character in each iteration of the series. 

Let's move on to what really seemed to bother Tracy about the difficulty screen: the names of the difficulty settings. In this version of the game ZeniMax Media chose to pay homage to the breakthrough Wolfenstein 3D, which launched the entire genre of first person shooters along with their cheesy catchphrases and over the top violence. The menu items in this version are nearly identical with Wolfenstein 3D with one additional term, Uber.

As you can see from the grouping of difficulty screens the Wolfenstein 3D had all the same settings except for Uber and contained the same sort of pictures to express the difficulty level of each setting - including the bonnet and pacifier that graces the current Can I Play, Daddy? setting. For Tracy these titles and their accompanying pictures express a larger cultural narrative around what it means to be a Man which he goes on about at some length. However I don't see that being expressed in the titles. Rather it continues on a long tradition in first person shooter games, which Wolfenstein 3D started, where the game is challenging the player's skill on every level from level select where the mind games begin to the actual game where the player's skills are put to the test.

The other thing that we discussed on twitter was the violence associated with this sort of game. For Tracy, and I don't think I'm putting words into his mouth here, that violence as the only way to deal with Nazis is a problem. Now Tracy didn't have the benefit of having played the game or even of having watched a play through of the game to give him a greater understanding of what's happening in the game and why killing Nazis in this context is a good and necessary thing. He didn't realize that the Nazis in this alternative timeline are still portrayed as the sort of people who attempted to exterminate Jews from the planet and that rape and murdered their way across the world. He wasn't aware that the Nazis murder a whole hospital of mentally deficients early in the story. He didn't know that the game builds a relationship between you and a diverse group of characters who the Nazis are constantly trying to kill (and in some cases succeed). But still, they're fucking Nazis.

Nazis are not good people who were defending their homeland from an aggressive force allied against them. They invaded other countries, murdered millions of civilians, performed grotesque human experiments (which are mirrored in the game), and in general behaved in the worst way possible for human beings to act. They are portrayed accurately in the game with people being forced into the party and soldiers gleefully murdering anyone not of the right racial stock. So is killing them the only way to deal with Nazis?


If you'd like to watch some of the actual game, which is a lot of fun if you're into first person shooters, then click on the video below by +Jesse Cox. Jesse's play through of the game is enjoyable and he has a fantastic personality that keeps you coming back through each of the videos in the series. He's done a lot of great play throughs since he started his channel and I cannot recommend him highly enough as he's a clever player with a quick wit.


  1. This shit is completely idiotic. I guess "problematic" is the new euphemism for "the thought police disprove".

    1. Problematic is definitely a buzz word right now that people use for anything they don't approve of. I've seen it used in relation to Iggy Azalea, Wolfenstein's difficulty page, and just about everything in between.

    2. Nuthin Problematic about Iggy Azalea.
      Just sayin.

  2. Charles, your recent posts have been very weird. Even for you.

    Still, great to see you back to blogging regularly.

    Happy New Year man!

  3. I'm having a hard time not ranting about this! :)

    We're not just talking about disapproving of a thing. That's kosher.

    We're talking about *wielding political correctness* to silence a thing you disapprove of. The implication is always that it's some sort of... I guess a "hate crime", something in the same family as racism. It tends to auto-wins arguments and can be applied to almost anything (eg: this guy's jaw).

    At the risk of sounding hyperbolic: I feel like it's fair to characterize this as actual creeping fascism. (Consider the situation of Sony caving to Kim Jong-Un. Why, for the love of Crom, would they do that? Answer: they've learned they have to cave when someone objects. Policing the thoughts of others is dictator behavior; people only started to remember that when it came from an actual dictator!)

    1. While he was definitely critical of the game he never actually came out and said that the game shouldn't be sold or made. It was more that he felt like the game crossed a bunch of lines that, to me at least, were only in his head. A lot of what he wrote was a projection of his own issues both with how he thought society expected men to behave and how he felt that pressure was being put on them through these cultural pressure points (my words, not his).

      Similar things are being brought up time, and time again without any real reason other than people think they're offended by something - often when nothing they're offended by is actually present. It's a strange world we live in.

    2. Indeed. This is part of a larger ideological (In my opinion) trend that is currently ripping through the video games community. While calls for actual censorship is few and far between (the upcoming game Hatred was however "victim" of a censorship campaign recently), the consequences of the infatuation with calling out and railing against "problematic" content is self-censorship as a vocal activist minority keeps going all out to present anything the find to be offensive as a problem society needs to deal with. In some sense, this has become something of an industry in itself with large groups of supporters rallying around a few voices that seem to take issue with just about anything that does not live up to their impossible standards. It is a kind of authoritarianism that have the potential to actually do harm to several creative fields, including but not limited to, video games and tabletop RPG's. Time will tell I guess.

    3. I hope that time errs on the side of liberty.

  4. >>While he was definitely critical of the game he never actually came out and said that the game shouldn't be sold or made.

    That's the implication. Consider: who's this "problematic" for? Just for him? A little personal problem that has nothing to do with the rest of the world and him just not playing the game is the solution? No, it's a social problem. Something that should be dealt with, fixed, not tolerated.

    Calling someone racist, sexist or something similar in the real world is like calling someone a traitor in Paranoia. You don't have to say "is a traitor and should be executed", just "traitor" will suffice; the witch hunt knows what to do with traitors already.

    1. Yeah. I can see your point, but I think it still goes further than is really implied.

  5. Ever play "Rise of the Triad" ? In this one the bad guys were an international crime syndicate and sometimes after being wounded the bad guys would crawl around begging for their lives, mentioning they had kids or something like that, it changed up blazing away at faceless goons but I'd still usually pop a digital cap in their digital craniums.

    Anyone who thinks pretending to shoot pretend nazi's in a castle full of pretend SS officers and pretend mad scientists is a bad thing probably shouldn't bother playing shooters of any sort.

    1. I've never played Rise of the Triad. Was it a good overall game that I should spend some time looking for?

      "Anyone who thinks pretending to shoot pretend nazi's in a castle full of pretend SS officers and pretend mad scientists is a bad thing probably shouldn't bother playing shooters of any sort."

      True story, sir. True story.


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