Remember a few years ago, when the success of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor had developers hoping that other developers would copy its Nemesis system?
Well now that I'm about 3/4ths through Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, I'm hoping developers choose to copy the way it gets political.
As we discussed on the Gamasutra Twitch channel last week, The New Colossus comes out swinging for the fences on some big and heavy ideas. It makes explicit connections between domestic abuse and the seeds of white supremacy. It mulls over how characters can pursue religious and artistic pursuits in times of darkness. And as the game goes on, it takes a close look at the very thin line that separates hero B.J. Blazkowicz from the Nazis he's hunting down.
Those are big ideas for any game, let alone an expensive triple-A one to make. If done wrong, MachineGames could alienate players or just spike their own narrative design. But so far, they've not only stuck the landing, they've used these ideas to tell a bigger, better story.
Our own Katherine Cross frequently argues that the systems and underlying assumptions that go into a game are political, but The New Colossus makes a strong case for making the textual context of a game political as well. Here are a few key techniques developers should pay close attention to if they decide to go on a Nazi-killing shotgun spree.
Characters have clear points of view and argue constantly
The charismatic cast of Wolfenstein: The New Order is joined by a new set of principal characters this time around, including the Black revolutionary Grace Walker, bohemian bootlegger Horton Boone, and Nazi turncoat Sigrun Engel. Throughout the game, both in cutscenes and in-engine dialogue sequences, the player gets the chance to hear these characters argue with each other about everything from their mission of Resistance to the mundanities of everyday life. While cutscenes tend to involve B.J. interjecting with his own point of view, the casual conversations around the captured U-boat shine a light on the different realities that affect these characters' lives.
It's a mechanic that The New Order embraced with its unique non-playable charcaters like Caroline and Set Roth, but The New Colossus expands on this idea by including a cohort of more generic NPCs that follow these unique ones on board. For instance, Black revolutionaries, who've suffered their own trauma in America and in the war, frequently converse with European resistance fighters who can only empathize with their experiences, not understand them. All of these different viewpoints give a broad, human perspective of certain issues, and since the player isn't giving orders, these NPCs have more agency to not just assuage the player perspective.
Even the stars-and-stripes-enamored B.J. gets in on the action, getting into shouting matches with Grace and Horton about the nature of American identity and who bears responsibiltiy for the America that welcomed Nazi occupation with open arms. Even as he and Horton slam back shots of moonshine, they scream at each other with arguments about patriotism, bankers, and soldiers that probably sounded familiar to those living in America in the actual 1960s.
In these conversations, the game lets dramatic staging and character reactions decide who's "right," while making clear everyone involved still agrees about one key fact: White Supremacy has poisoned America, and its two proponents, the Nazis and the newly-empowered Ku Klux Klan, must be stopped at all costs.
The player doesn't get to judge other characters (except in their own mind)
A lot of games that invoke "politics" want to be about choice and agency. But sometimes this means a game's themes will boil down to "the choices you make will define you," which fails to capture the essence of individual choices. The New Colossus, a game that's mechanically driven by gunplay, largely dodges this narrative design trap on a surface level, but also makes it clear that the player has no in-game option to inject their personal values in the world.
This works to serve two thematic purposes. First, it lets B.J. (and his own worldview) exist as a fully-embodied character, and second, it lets the aforementioned NPCs have their moment in the spotlight without the player shouting them down. Games like Fallout, BioShock, and Dishonored help players make in-game decisions by setting up NPC personalities as something to be acted on. People can be killed or spared depending on the player's personal views, which are only partly informed by the events of the game.
That isn't to say The New Colossus doesn't want players to have opinions about the game's characters, or is somehow saying their voice doesn't matter. But like B.J. the player is essentially present in this world to become an efficient Nazi-killing machine. They come, eager to tear apart Nazis, but if they want to serve that role, they have to play witness to these other characters' lives.
Something worth thinking about: There's only one major instance of player agency that exists outside of gunplay in MachineGames' Wolfenstein titles: the choice of whether Fergus or Wyatt survives the first encounter with Deathshead. It's a choice that's so powerful it impacts which characters show up in both games, which arguably informs the conversations NPCs can have without casting judgment on them.
Real-life symbolism gets repurposed for narrative design
There's a common theme in Nazi ideology that Western writers use to characterize just how evil a given Nazi is. It's the idea that Jews, people of color, and LGBTQ people are "rats" scurrying about society who need to be stamped out. In our real world, this imagery even showed up in Nazi propaganda.
As a Jewish player and film-goer, it's almost easy to shrug off by this point how these uniformed, cartoonishly evil villains will talk about this, but it was a real thing! The New Colossus successfuly repurposes that propaganda for a key bit of recurring symbolism in B.J.'s life. In one flashback, we see how his friend Billie (a young African-American girl his father tells him not to befriend) berates him for drowning a rat in a bucket, driving B.J to save it.
Later, B.J. is asked by a crew member of the captured U-Boat to deal with a large rat that's snuck into the ammo stores. If the player chooses to do this, B.J. frees the rat, saying it's "not your fault you were born a rat."
Thus, a subtle jab at the common "kill X rats for me" quest of role-playing game fame manages to become both a mark of character development for B.J. and meaningful symbolism about White Supremacist cruelty.
Now the rat isn't just a symbol for Nazis to monologue about, it's a meaningful creature for B.J. relate to and interact with...but only because the developers of The New Colossus chose to explore B.J.'s childhood in this way.
It's been a long time since the BioShock games taught developers how to use real-world symbolism to dress up its villains. The New Colossus now presents a blueprint for how that symbolism can be repurposed to characterize not just a game's villains, but its heroes as well.
Ultimately, we still have a few weeks to find out if the game's evocative anti-Nazi marketing campaign has given it any marketing boost, and if its more politcally-bent narrative will impact its game sales at all. But if game makers are ready to explore different ideas and worldviews in their games, it's definitely got a few tools they can steal for the job.