Not So Dystopian

This week I began replaying one of my favorite narrative driven shooters, Wolfenstein: The New Order. With Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus releasing in October, I wanted to refresh my memory of the games events. For those unfamiliar with the game, Wolfenstein: The New Order, takes place in an alternate history. In this version of history the Nazi’s developed technology at an incredibly fast pace, which leads to them winning World War II. You play as BJ Blazkowicz, a soldier who has awaken from a coma, in the year 1960. From there you begin to trek across Europe building a resistance to stop the Nazi regime. It’s not the first piece of fiction to have this set up, but I still found myself invested in the games narrative. Developer, Machine Games, does not shy away from the brutality and grotesque nature of the Nazi’s, or what their regime would look like. But it also does not depict a typical, good versus evil, story. And given the context (psst, it’s Nazi’s) it would have been easy to do so. A lot of speculative fiction tends to forget that the world is already imperfect, even before whichever calamity, or uprising they introduce in order to tell their story. For many people, the world we live in is already threatening, and uninviting. And confronting those uncomfortable truths is something I hope is expanded on in, The New Colossus.

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Last night I found myself thinking about Wolfenstein’s main protagonist, BJ Blazkowicz. He really hates Nazi’s, as any reasonable person should. But his rage towards them is what informs the gameplay and the violent acts you commit. The message is clear, this is a violent revolt to free the people. In the trailer for, The New Colossus, we see Blazkowicz pleading with a resistance leader to join his cause. He has kids on the way and he does not want them growing up in a world ruled by Nazi scum. Uprising is already a compelling, and attractive theme in stories like this. And it is something we as audiences always romanticize. We want the oppressed to rise up and fight tyranny. In fiction at least. But what if his character had existed in the actual timeline we live in today? The New Colossus will take place in 1961. There’s a resistance  and a fight for freedom in BJ’s timeline, but the actual reality we experienced was not all, peace and love. In, The New Order, the player, depending on a decision made earlier in the game, can meet a character named J. Sidebar, J is Jimi Hendrix, they never actually say it out loud but it is definitely Jimi Hendrix. Anyway, there is a scene with him that does address the sins of America, sins that happened in an America unaffected by the Nazi’s. American’s introduced their own tyrannical hell all by themselves. And J calls out BJ’s whiteness, and how the fight for freedom isn’t freedom for all, and how there were ‘Nazi’s’ in the USA far before the conflict that would lead to World War 2 even began.

I remember my first time playing through Wolfenstein: The New Order. I was already impressed with the game’s narrative at that point in the game. But I was still very surprised that the conversation between J and BJ happened at all. And the interaction is not cleanly resolved. BJ is visibly uncomfortable, angry, and even violent at the thought of being compared to the Nazi’s. But he does not have a good answer. All he can do is try to distance himself from the bigotry J has faced. Up until that point in the game, the player has been empowered, you are stabbing Nazi’s in the throat, and making progress to stop the Nazi regime. And in an instant, reality sets in. The conversation between BJ and J ends with the two dropping acid, their differences still intact, but with both characters having a slightly clearer understanding of each other. It’s not perfect, it’s not clean, but J got to express his grievance, and BJ maybe learned a thing or two. The New Order, depicts a world run by Nazi’s, filled with cruelty. But it is not used as a substitute for bigotry and inequality that already exists. It adds to it, it is one more layer of truth. The version of America we currently experience, or that J experienced, is not painted as a paradise. In a world rule by Nazi’s, or any form of totalitarian government, what does freedom look like to a white man, or a black woman? What does fairness look like to them? A white rebel and a black rebel will have different experiences. And the black rebel will have certainly been fighting for freedom a lot longer than their white counterpart. Those questions enrich the fiction, and it is what made the narrative, The New Order, tells more compelling. These real questions exist, and it does not shy away from them. It doesn’t pretend to have all the answers either. And I appreciated the game for bothering to raise them at all.

The challenge for Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, is to address these realities on a deeper level. Judging from the announcement trailer there will certainly be more characters who are marginalized that the player will be interacting with. In some of the features Bethesda has released about the sequel, the developers spoke about the new setting. The sequel takes place in America versus, The New Order, which took place in Europe. They spoke about the notion of freedom and American patriotism and how inverting those concepts was an interesting challenge for them. Freedom is a part of the American narrative, so warping that presents a lot of potential. This is a good setup but it does worry me. I am a black man, so concepts of freedom as they actually exist in America mean nothing to me. To me, they are already lies. But I do think there is an opportunity to use that unease, and to have marginalized characters fight back against the notion of freedom, whether it is being framed by Patriotic Americans or the Nazi’s.  I want to see how characters of color view that framing.

It would feel like a missed opportunity if these themes are not explored. Especially since the game takes place in 1961. This is a time period in the United States that is particularly tumultuous. In 1961 there was Jim Crow and lynchings. These dystopian themes exist in our actual reality. The Nazi’s didn’t introduce Jim Crow, so how will the game approach this?  BJ Blazkowicz is a white man. Nazi characters in, The New Order and in the trailer for, The New Colossus, even comment on his, “Aryan,” features. Our protagonist fits the Aryan ideal, exactly! One of the resistance leaders in the trailer is a black woman, will there be any conflict between the two of them? I hope there is a conversation at least. In the trailer there is a brief moment where we see Ku Klux Klan members speaking with a Nazi patrol officer, the Nazi asks the KKK members in a friendly tone, “Have you been practicing your German?” It’s a chilling interaction, so I am curious to see how the existing bigotry that has shaped America’s history will play into the game’s overall narrative. More importantly, I hope the bigotry of America is not loaded onto the KKK exclusively.

I know it seems like my expectations for the narrative in, The New Colossus, seems high, but I think anything less would be a waste of potential. Anyone can look at the alternate reality of a Nazi controlled world and see it as evil. But that is too easy. Speculative fiction should not make its reader feel comfortable. It should shine a light on the imperfections of the world, and serve as a warning that things can become even more dire. If current realities aren’t challenged, there is no move to actually change anything. It becomes a story that only says, “what if this bad thing happened, good thing it won’t.” And the reader gets to leave, feeling satisfied and safe. It’s why I (and many others) have a huge issue with depicting fictional civil rights conflicts. Often, we get stories where a fictional group is discriminated against, but real instances of sexism, racism, and homophobia no longer exist. It’s like the X-Men films (I won’t speak for the comics since I haven’t read them) , no one is racist, unless you’re a mutant. Black mutant, white mutant, doesn’t matter. They just hate mutants. Although, they do give one mutant motivation rooted in their identity outside of being a mutant. Magneto, who is a holocaust survivor. But for the most part it is ignored, with the civil rights being made palatable, and entertaining for a wide audience.

In Quantic Dream’s upcoming title, Detroit: Become Human, android’s are rising up, revolting, and fighting back against humans. That is what was presented in the most recent trailer anyway. Android’s are depicted as second class citizens. Because they are androids, and built to do that. The analogue on its face is already problematic. Depicting a disposable, synthetic work force as slaves is wrong. Since androids are created, and actual slaves are humans who are enslaved. But whatever, that is the setup in, Detroit: Become Human. If the game discusses issues of race, class, and gender, honestly, it could be compelling and affecting. The games director, David Cage was asked about the levels of intersectionality players should expect in the full game, and Cage promised some nuance in the narrative. In an answer he gave to Waypoint’s editor in chief, Austin Walker, he stated that, “There is really a social background to the game. That was really a point of focus in the writing, and in how we want to present the world. This is not just a fantasy. The work we’re trying to do is to imagine, for real, the world 20 years from now.” As an answer it is slightly encouraging, pretending that the game exists in a vacuum where there is no bigotry does not add anything. How is a black Android’s experience different from a white Android? How is a black human’s experience different from a white Android? A failure to at least address these nuances would hurt the game. How can you operate in a realistic setting if you cannot address very real realties actual humans are facing?  I cannot find your android uprising story compelling if you’re too scared to go even further.

 

The trap that a lot of speculative dystopian fiction falls into is that it makes everyone oppressed. It’s color blind, everyone gets beaten by the evil police, or The Hunger Games, Peacekeepers. Everyone gets to beg for food. Everyone gets to get beaten for disobeying orders. Everyone gets to give a rousing speech, or sing a negro spiritual, or suffer quietly. Even white people! And don’t worry, everyone gets to be an oppressor too. Hooray!  Trust me, there is nothing compelling about that. It is dishonest and it doesn’t provide commentary on anything, since it is already whitewashing so much historical context.  I am excited for Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, but I hope it does not romanticize America or concepts of freedom too heavily. I do remain hopeful, since The New Order makes it a point to remind its audience that the world was far from peaceful before the Nazi’s reign began. That reminder needs to be constant.

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“What would the world look like if the Nazi’s had won?,” should not be the question that drives you through Wolfenstein. What if white people were oppressed, should not be the question that drives your speculative science fiction novel. The actual question is a little more obvious. What if the Nazi’s lost? That answer seems obvious, since that is what actually happened. But when you begin to think about the freedom being fought for by the resistance in these stories ask yourself what is the ideal alternative to that struggle? Because it is not the history that actually played out. I hope the New Colossus engages with  these uncomfortable ideas, on some level at least. I’m excited for the game, but I am keeping my expectations in check. But I remain hopeful. As J pointed out in, The New Order, for some groups of people, the Nazi’s were already in control. Having to go in through the “Colored Entrance,” was already like living under a Nazi regime.  That framing creates a narrative worth sharing, because it doesn’t make the privileged less privileged. It just creates a new context for that privilege, and it makes the dystopia marginalized people experience, that much more terrifying. If Wolfenstein II does not deliver on that, I’ll at least get to stab a few Nazi’s along the way anyway, but still, I’m hoping they don’t shy away from the real. It’s already plenty ugly.

 

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