Put Away Your Wings: Masculine Identity and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

*Spoilers*

Action games are fascinated with violent men. Even at their most contemplative, they encourage gendered power, exemplified by male first-person heroes like Master Chief or Doom Guy. These are sullen, no nonsense bodies that can power through anything thrown at them. Their games portray violent, patriarchal power with an uncritical eye. Despite its progressive trappings, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is no exception. Although the game’s margins express radical, intersectional politics, its core affirms the “need” for masculine violence.

The game sets up much of its emotional conflict from the start: B. J. Blascowitz, our hero, solider against an omnipresent Nazi threat, and unstoppable killing machine since his first appearance, is gravely wounded. He fears his imminent death. His warrior self has been cut down and he must scramble to fight. In the game’s opening act, B.J. must slide around in a wheelchair as he defends his resistance group’s submarine base from Nazi invasion. Movement is awkward and inhibited; B.J. is unable to crouch or dodge. In one memorable moment, a Nazi solider activates a conveyor belt. B.J. falls out of his wheelchair and must attempt to survive with little control of his movement as he slides down. This aptly encompasses B.J.’s experience throughout the first half of the game. He is afloat. His body has compromised his masculine power. Formerly one of the most able people imaginable, he has been marked by war.

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The first half of the game concerns itself with this problem. B.J.’s body is “useless” to the resistance. He is only able to fight because of a suit of power armor, inherited from his similarly disabled leader, Caroline. B.J. prays to her, asking for her wings to carry him. On the surface, this is a subversion of FPS tropes. In Halo, Master Chief’s power armor is a sign of physical prowess and elite military status. In Wolfenstein, power armor is a sign of weakness. B.J.’s internal monologue wishes for strength from a feminine figure, showing B.J. to be sensitive and contemplative, in contrast to the purely male stoicism of traditional FPS heroes. In addition, there are no female characters who are simply rescued. Rather, characters of different genders help and rescue each other. B.J. does not turn his allies into objects.

However, given the broader context of the game, its criticism or complication of masculine power is toothless. B.J. simply undergoes a midlife masculinity crisis. He feels his worth has been compromised through his wounds. He asks, how can I be of help, if I can’t walk? If I am going to die? Despite the complexity of the question, the game’s only answer is “by being what you has always been.” If the power of men is hard and unchanging, then a differently gendered power must be fluid and shifting. B.J. never changes. The New Colossus plays much the same, if inferior, to the last game. Its light stealth touches are refreshing, but it still deals in the unflinching, overpowering fantasy of Halo or Doom. Although the resistance takes on allies of different colors and creeds, their contributions to the war effort are more invisible than B.J.’s. This is emphasized by how little happens when B.J. is not around. There are months of space when B.J. is absent: from the beginning of the game, when he is in a coma, to its midpoint, when he is waiting for his execution. The characters do not refer to major moments of resistance that occur outside of B.J.’s perspective. He must be present for things to happen. His kind of resistance, that violence, follows. Furthermore, Caroline is killed to allow B.J. to take her armor. The game robs a differently gendered body’s ability to speak. Why couldn’t we play as Caroline? Why couldn’t we explore a different kind of body and its different power? Because the player’s perspective must never be separated from the masculine.

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This is exemplified by the game’s midpoint twist. In brief, B.J. is captured by the villain, Frau Engel. After a failed escape attempt, B.J. is beheaded and the audience watches in horror as Engel holds his head for a blood-ravenous crowd. But, B.J. isn’t dead. Engel drops his head into the waiting drone arms of one his allies’s contraptions. They preserve his head in a jar and then reattach it to a genetically engineered Nazi body.

No matter how bonkers and surprising this turn of events is, it maintains a status quo. The solution to B.J.’s problem is not changing his methods or adjusting to a new body, but regaining the old one. The complexities of age and being a veteran are flattened into an empty power fantasy. For all of B.J.’s pleading with Caroline he finally says, “You can put away your wings, I don’t need them anymore.” Even B.J.’s appeal to femininity is drowned out by the return to power. Unlike the earlier sections of the game, B.J.’s body is refocused to emphasize his strength. Your health jumps from 50 to 100. You gain new powers that let you access previously forbidden areas, primarily through extensions of your body like getting through tight spaces or busting through walls. The problem of B.J.’s usefulness is gone and the rest of the game is violent indulgence.

To be clear, the problem is not so much The New Colossus’s violence, but rather the mode of that violence. The game’s first level is about survival, not domination. B.J.’s internal and external resources are limited and so he must make what he can out of them. Although exaggerated, it is scrappy, frantic and human. The rest of the game, particularly after its twist, is about being more than human. Even early on, Nazi soldiers swap legends of “Terror Billy,” the horrifyingly powerful man. In diary entries, Nazis refer to having nightmares about him. It all serves to gas the player up, to make them powerful and resonant in their toy world. It does so through a overbearing, violent masculinity.

It is the game’s daring moments that make the regressive course of its primary narrative disappointing. The New Colossus’s strongest moments are within its the margins of its world. A former Nazi asserting their place in the resistance. A piece of art from a surprising source inspiring awe. Condemnations of American white supremacy from African-American resistance groups. Moments of doubt in letters by Nazi command. Like its predecessor, this game has the whiff of a real world, despite all the silliness. It takes its gonzo sci-fi premise seriously and often finds real humanity in it.

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The result is a game of constant contradictions. It celebrates the intersectional power of resistance: bringing Communists, ex-Nazis, and Black Panthers together. It also centers the entirety of its narrative and perspective on the most privileged person in the room. It cherishes quiet moments of resistance, in how Max Hass (a disabled adult, who is only able to say his own name) creates astonishing art in the corners of several scenes. However, it most visibly celebrates B.J.’s bombast. The game is split between its need to be a first person destruction playground and its want to be an affecting story of resistance. The encounter with Hitler embodies this. This scene splits itself between a glaring takedown of Nazi ideology and an celebration of the masculine power which enables it.

In brief, B.J. and crew need to obtain the codes to a powerful Nazi war machine, which are only held, you guessed it, on Venus. Auditions for the role of B.J. in an upcoming propaganda film are being held there. So he kidnaps one of the actors, impersonates him, and auditions to play himself. And who is running the audition? The Führer. Brilliantly, Hitler is feeble and childish. He speaks incoherently, takes credit for things he is not capable of doing, and condemns the weakness of Jews and degenerates. He claims that he can smell them from anywhere. The irony is that B.J. Blascowitz is in the room. Jewish, smart, strong and proud, his existence is a direct condemnation of everything Hitler stands for. It’s a smart juxtaposition that says a lot without outright stating much.

In the same scene, the game hides a daring political statement. One of the other actors auditioning is none other than Ronald Reagan. The game refers to his home state of Arizona, and obscures a few relevant letters on his chair. The notion that Reagan would be perfectly fine with living among Nazis, even being reverential to Hitler himself is daring and biting. However, as illustrated by the way it side steps directly mentioning the actor’s real identity, the game chooses to be coy about its politics. The game places this to the side of a moment that is primarily about B.J.’s strength.

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The other actors who audition are seen as weak, even effeminate. In one part of the audition, the actors are asked to fight one of the Nazi guards to show their physical prowess. One actor volunteers to go first. He stretches, gets into a fighting stance, and gets his nose broken. Complaining and whining, he is then shot by Hitler. In contrast, B.J. kills the solider in a sign of masculine strength, winning the part in the process. It’s a moment of resistance, but also one of naked empowerment. B.J. triumphs because he is a true man, unlike the other, weak actor. The scene is made more uncomfortable when you realize that B.J.’s body was genetically engineered by Nazis. B.J. wins the day partially because of a masculine construction created by his enemy.

Perhaps, the game intends this as a subversion. B.J. does use the tools of the Nazis to fight against them and Nazis ironically remark on his Aryan features. However, B.J. is in awe of his new body. He feels like himself in it. As soon as he gets it, he wonders aloud if he is now in heaven. The game is completely uncritical about why that might be. Despite the story’s interest in B.J.’s body and physiology, it does not let him change or evolve. A story about a violent person coming to terms with letting that violence end could be compelling, but the game cannot separate itself from the canonical perspective of its principle character.

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The previous game, The New Order, recognized B.J.’s familiarity with war as monstrous. The violence he commits is necessary, empowering, and cathartic. But he longs for a world in which he would no longer kill. The game often flashes to a dream where he is a father and husband, distant from war. However, he believes that he cannot escape conflict. Violence has left his mark on him and it is a mark he cannot outrun. There is a particularly moving moment, when B.J. says goodbye to his lover, Anya. She says, “I believe there are still places on earth where people can go and live happy.” He replies, “I believe so too, but not for me and for you.”

In this line, B.J. sees that he cannot bring in the new world, but he can help those who can. He sees that his violence is a means to an end and that it cannot be the end. If he continues to be what he is, a world without Nazis won’t need him. Keeping this in mind, he stares down his own death, passing the torch of resistance to Anya. In contrast, The New Colossus is much more gleeful. The retconning of B.J.’s broken body emphasizes the need for his violence. The game ends not in the promise of peace, but in the promise of war. B.J. must not change, because he is forever needed.

There is no doubt that The New Colossus is attacking the right targets, it is what it attacks with, that disturbs. The New Order is almost a game that acknowledges more aspects of resistance, that does not wave off violence because it has the right targets or is for a righteous cause. The New Colossus steps back. Despite all the life in its world-building, its little moments of beauty and truth, it chooses to center the story in a violent masculinity. The moment in which Wolfenstein II came out, in which fascists and racists are emboldened, in which hatred and violence are given room to breathe, deserves a radical, thoughtful game. This is not it.

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