Only in 2017 can a video game advertisement proclaiming, “Make America Nazi-Free Again” provoke controversy.
Only now could a new game from a decades-old series spark a backlash for the celebration of what it has always been: a Nazi murder simulator. World War II fell out of fashion as the setting for first-person shooters ever since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare set its sights on the present day, and that was largely because it seemed like the Nazi-fighting thing was all played out. This was for the best, since Nazis in video games are generally just lazy shorthand for “bad guys.” You don’t need to develop your antagonists if they’re Nazis because everyone knows they’re evil. Eventually, players realized how uninteresting this was, and the Third Reich disappeared from the mainstream for about a decade. But then Nazis came back in the real world and have been pushing to make themselves mainstream, so it’s fitting that they are now, again, digital enemy No. 1.
Wolfenstein II and Call of Duty: WWII are the latest installments in storied franchises. Wolfenstein 3D popularized the first-person shooter genre, and Call of Duty has largely defined the genre as it exists today. Released within a week of each other, these games come saddled with political context that neither developer could have foreseen. I will admit that, while America is having conversations about whether it’s OK to punch a Nazi in the face, it’s nice to have new games that let me punch them in the face with bullets.
The two are about as different as first-person shooters can be. Call of Duty is historical fiction, more or less following actual battles across Europe; Wolfenstein takes place in an alternate 1960s where Nazis not only won World War II but have since taken over the United States. One documents a platoon of men who storm the beaches of Normandy, and the other follows a man who single-handedly brings a nuclear bomb into a Texan Nazi base and detonates it. Over the past few years, Call of Duty has gone in some crazy directions, culminating in last year’s space-set Infinite Warfare, and those games look more like Wolfenstein than they do this new back-to-basics Call of Duty. It’s a conflicting change, though, because while it was probably necessary to tone some of the craziness down, WWII goes too far in the other direction. In trying to hark back to the old days, the game arrives staid. And by featuring violence that feels sanitized compared to recent entries, WWII does little to portray the real evils of the Third Reich.
Earlier this year, Call of Duty: WWII’s senior creative director, Mike Robbins, said the game would not ignore the Holocaust. This is false. It absolutely ignores the Holocaust, and despite the promised acknowledgement of the racism that pervaded the era, there aren’t more than a handful of token lines. A corporal you meet late in the game who is African American makes one of the other characters uncomfortable, a fact you know because of an awkward, poorly written exchange. But this has no bearing whatsoever on the story itself. There is no moment where someone ignores his orders because they look down on him. There is no scene where he is derided for the color of his skin. There is nothing. It is thrown out there and then just gets “resolved.”
I imagine that the script of Call of Duty: WWII was written in a different time, one long before a white supremacist plowed his car into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, and before the president of the United States said there were “some very fine people on both sides” of that incident. I like to imagine that someone looked back on the script after Charlottesville and cringed when they remembered the line “They’re not all bad.” Your character says it after driving by a group of dead Nazis. Someone makes a joke, and you cut them off to give the dead Nazis some credit. Because… what? Why? Maybe there could be something interesting there, were someone daring enough to dig into it, but it’s just thrown out there, everyone sort of agrees, and then we get on with it. What a pull quote: “Nazis. They’re not all bad” —Call of Duty: WWII.
In Wolfenstein, on the other hand, the earliest moments feature the half-Jewish protagonist’s not-Jewish father attacking him for playing with an African-American girl. He is a monster. So are the Klansmen who openly and eagerly wear their hoods around the Nazi-occupied American towns. So is the Nazi official who kills someone trying to help you while you’re tied up, forces a gun into your mouth, and asks how the gunpowder that killed your friend tastes. In Wolfenstein, they are the same. No subtlety. No shades of gray. It’s so over-the-top that it stops being funny and starts being disturbing again. And that’s what it should be. It should be uncomfortable to watch awful things; to pretend that they don’t exist is worse.
So, we return to Call of Duty, which shies away each time it hints at the true horrors of Nazism. A mission titled “Death Factory” might lead one to believe that it takes place in a concentration camp but instead, it’s just a forest. I continued to hold out the slightest bit of hope that Robbins hadn’t misled us all. After hours of waiting, the liberation came. Here, I thought, it must be time. But alas, no. Over a digital map and a few small images, you hear the same bad voice-acting you’ve been dealing with all game: “I thought I knew what cruelty was.” That’s all he could come up with. In the epilogue, you do see a camp, but it’s deserted. It’s been set on fire. “They wanted to hide whatever happened here,” someone says. But “they” aren’t the Nazis; “they” are WWII’s developers. They chose to use a POW labor camp, where there are implications of atrocities aimed at soldiers, not civilians. They chose to depict a World War II without gas chambers.
So why depict World War II at all? I get the impression someone involved in the production really liked Band of Brothers and said, “Let’s just do exactly that” (minus that Dachau scene). Unfortunately for them, making something that reminds people of another, better thing is always a bad idea, and Call of Duty: WWII is certainly no Band of Brothers. It may put more focus on the unit where more recent games have been focused on the individual, but that doesn’t mean much in the face of such poorly written dialogue even more poorly performed. But even a few more drafts of the script wouldn’t have fixed the issue at the core: This game does not need to take place in 1944 and so should not take place in 1944. Nearly everything about this game could be transplanted to 1914 or 2014 or 2044 and stay just the same. It’s a timeless, bland story that does nothing with its setting. And by doing nothing, it does a disservice to itself and its audience.
Games can and should confront us with difficult subject matter in the same way that every other media does. At some point, a game set in World War II will need to make its Nazi shooting gallery mean something. It had sounded like the latest Call of Duty might have been it, but sadly we will have to wait. Killing digital Nazis in 2017 should be cathartic. Only Wolfenstein II makes it so.