Behind the bloodshed, Wolfenstein II depicts the quiet rise of real-world fascism

Wolfenstein II is set in 1961, and never, and right now.

Alternate history and post-social narratives bear the burden of creating two worlds. There’s the innocent, de facto state in which the world “should” exist, which is often based on our own. Then there’s the one in which the world “could” exist -- ravaged by war, reclaimed by nature, or subsumed by technology. In games, these stylized, ultimately playable worlds mark a clear distinction between the “before” and the “after;” they highlight the disparities between The Way Things Were and How They Are Now.

If this paradigm shift isn’t due to the folly of man (like unchecked hubris or societal ignorance), it’s due to the motivations of an innately evil Other (like the Chimera, primary antagonist of the Resistance series). Regardless of its origin, that central event creates a lens through which players can easily contextualize the differences between the two states of the world, tracing effect back to cause. Dystopia in games becomes a narrative structure built to move a story forward instead of interrogating the factors that led to the New Now.

Post-apocalyptic narratives help us envision other possible worlds that could be ours in the wake of some terrible thing that changes the course of history. But with Wolfenstein II, MachineGames tells us that terrible thing has already happened. By using the backdrop of a Nazi victory in America, Wolfenstein II unmasks the pretensions of modern American political discourse to reveal a society not destroyed by fascism but drawing on its own deeply prejudiced roots to actively transition to it.

Manhattan commuter John hasn’t been sleeping well since the Nazi occupation. He logs his days in a private journal, one of Wolfenstein II’s many collectibles. In Monday morning’s log, he’s unhappy at home: “Jenny burned the lunch.” On Wednesday, he’s critical of his overbearing German supervisors: “Overslept. Boss will be pissed again. You’re not a real American, buddy.” But by Friday morning at 6:57, sitting on the train after a particularly sleepless night, John can maybe see where the Nazis are coming from: “Asshole behind me yaps in Spanish. Just you wait.”

These colorful vignettes do more than set the stage of alt-history. They parrot a legacy of American attitudes.

In the South, part of primary antagonist General Irene Engel’s strategy for subjugating the white population involves enlisting the Ku Klux Klan to mediate relations with American citizens. As the African-American Civil Rights Movement never had a chance to mature after Wolfenstein’s version of World War II, the KKK – a home-grown hate group – is used to repackage similar Nazi concepts under the banner of patriotism. The PR move is, of course, a success; two women in Roswell, evoking all but the accent of the antebellum South, casually discuss the value of their slaves while giddily anticipating an upcoming wedding.

Curtis Everton, a former pop author working with the resistance, summarizes America’s growing comfort with fascism in a conversation with a crew member aboard Eva’s Hammer. Remembering the postwar suppression of the arts, he quips, “The Nazis love their book burning rallies. Many of my fellow Americans went along with their lies.” He adds that their contentment didn’t surprise him: “Business as usual.”

For Wolfenstein II, these colorful vignettes do more than set the stage of alt-history. They parrot a legacy of American attitudes – including xenophobia, ethnocentrism, and whitewashing – to indict the systems and complacency that enable real-world fascism.

That’s the heart of Wolfenstein II’s effectiveness as commentary: Because they find comfort in the basic tenets of Nazi ideals, Wolfenstein II’s white Americans become culpable for the rise of fascism. Far from victimized, they exhibit a half-hearted incredulity that gives way to numb hopelessness that in turn becomes comfort. Distinguished by their apathy-come-acceptance, the characters and stories that saturate this America document the slow creep of fascism in direct opposition to the clearly defined dichotomy at the heart of most post-social fiction.

Fascism in America couldn't just happen. From its colonialist origins through centuries of legal slavery into the twentieth century’s capitalist-driven Business Plot and beyond, fascist ideology is inseparable from America’s international identity. Because of this enduring reality, any depiction of Americans as victims of fascism is obliged to address both how close these attitudes are to the heart of the nation. The fact that MachineGames is comprised of a largely Swedish team likely allowed it a certain critical distance from the subject matter as well.

For these messages to connect, audiences don’t need academic “I’m-just-saying” question-posing (looking straight at you, BioShock Infinite) – they just need to be able to recognize the sociopolitical systems upon which a society is built enough to interrogate their real-life parallels. Without the awareness that American fascism is already a thing, any message about the effects of fascism on American society becomes inert.

This is especially true of games (Far Cry 5 in particular seems to have fallen into this trap with its American antagonists that are more analogous than attentive), which are usually too interested in creating a world familiar enough to be recognizable – and playable – but distinct enough as to not risk laying the blame for the world's demise at the feet of American identity. Wolfenstein II is arguably one of the best attempts to reverse this trope in the AAA space. It recognizes a villain that is transparently reflective of the worst elements of American society rather than obliquely inspired by them.

Wolfenstein’s solution to Nazi fascism relies on “putting the fighting spirit back in the American people” – physically ousting ethnocentrists and their rhetoric – while acknowledging the problematic nature of the American spirit through a narrative that actually picks a side. The game’s marketing originally leant into this but backed off when far-right gamers cried foul, with Bethesda’s Pete Hines hedging the game’s messaging as general commentary rather than the surprisingly deft critique it actually is. (Despite Hines’s comments, the Wolfenstein brand’s official Twitter continues to share arguments for the game’s cultural relevance.)

Wolfenstein's solution to Nazi fascism relies on "putting the fighting spirit back in the American people" -- physically ousting ethnocentrists and their rhetoric.

No AAA game bearing undertones so critical of American attitudes releases amid one of the most socially-divisive eras in the country’s history by accident. The insinuation that the game’s marketing misrepresented its content only creates space for players to further distance their own beliefs and attitudes from those portrayed in the game. Game fandoms, which have a history of exclusionary and exceptionalist attitudes, also became part of political discourse surrounding the formalization of the so-called “alt-right,” meaning that a game’s outward messaging – especially when that messaging is politically divisive – becomes nearly as important as its content.

This is why, though set in a retrofuturist 1961, Wolfenstein II’s implications are particularly resonant in today’s America: The systems they represent are the same ones that reacted with the nation’s deep-seated racial resentments to realize our current sociopolitical climate. America in 2017 is a country where the most hateful organized groups feel not just enabled but emboldened by a government that remains at best silently tolerant of their beliefs and at worst vocally supportive of their actions; where media, hoping to answer the question of how “normal” Americans become radicalized, instead risks creating a platform for the normalization of racial prejudice.

For all of its bloody bombast, Wolfenstein II manages to be one of the few stories in videogames with both the desire and ability to approach American fascism with a sense of self-awareness. It’s set in 1961, and never, and right now: It uses a fictional dystopian structure not to distance itself from reality, but to demonstrate how two worlds – “before” and “after” – can be connected by the reality of the society upon which they’re based.

Wolfenstein II’s narrative and world-building elements highlight this parallel of modern American complacency like few other games have dared, showing us that the evil that Nazis symbolize – both factual and fictional – is made real by the concessions of the majority.