Friday, November 14, 2014

“Make Me A Real, Live Boy”: Artificial Gravity In Wolfenstein: The New Order

When last we — well, I, at any rate — saw William B.J. “Blaz” Blazkovicz, he looked like this:

Blaz was the “P” a player FPSed through Castle Wolfenstein 3D, stabbing/shooting/Gatling down pixelated Nazis and their dogs by the hundreds, before getting to this guy:

Castle Wolfenstein 3D was goofy, violent, and very satisfying fun — a completely addictive time-waster and a godsend to a single guy in his mid-20s who'd finally outgrown the video arcade (although the original cabinet Simpsons game still enticed on occasion). Wolfenstein was the gateway to video games as we now know them. It capitalizes on A) a player's curiosity to see what unpleasant surprises lie beyond the next corner, B) the innate fun of innocently shootin' up bad guys real good, C) the darkly ironic sense of humour that ought to attend both those impulses.

When iD announced a 20-years-later reprise of Blaz and Castle Wolfenstein, I was juiced. Globally victorious Nazis taking over the fizzy pop zeitgeist of the '60s? Blaz to the rescue? Count me in!

I'd missed subsequent additions to Blaz's epic of pixelated blood-letting, so I had no idea what to expect from this latest chapter. Boy oh boy, was I in for a shock: Blaz has an emotional life.

And he looks like this -- all the time.
What does the emotional life of a man who's personally perforated thousands of Nazis, including a cyborged Fuhrer, look like? Why, nothing so much as that of your run-of-the-mill aggrieved heterosexual adolescent male, who thinks the mere fact of his existence entitles him to the sexual affections of the dishiest dame in the room.

This complicates a (seemingly) mature man's enjoyment of the game, to say the least. Taking Blaz seriously is seriously wrong — it requires the player to take Nazis seriously, an even greater story-board miscalculation. The entire exercise is akin to sending Indiana Jones to give Oskar Schindler a little help. And outfitting the camp commandant with some Robocops, just to make things interesting.

Which is not to say I abandoned the game in a state of high moral dudgeon. It's a short game, finally, with some amusing elements. Rocketing Blaz to the moon captured perfectly the deranged goofiness of the original game. For a moment I was surprised and delighted to see the game's physics replaced by the physics one expects on the lunar surface. Of course the physics revert the second Blaz steps through an air-lock — I guess the Nazis invented artificial gravity.

But then this entire game is built on artificial gravity. I can't imagine Blaz's “poor me/what a crazy, mixed-up woyeld” mutterings tugging at anyone's heartstrings, but I could be wrong — when I see the lads attempting to catch the attention of my daughters, I'm continually struck by the distance of perspective I have on my own adolescence.

If nothing else, iD's missteps highlight for me what I generally expect from a game. Diversion, first and foremost. Secondly, emotional bonds that are light and exclusive to the world as rendered in the game — evocative, but not too evocative, of actual reality.

And really, by now the bottom line for game developers couldn't be clearer: aggrieved adolescent hetero males — no matter what their age — don't want to be reminded of their miserable plight. Easy-peasy . . . right?

Elsewhere: AV Club asks, Is it okay for Wolfenstein to turn Nazis into cartoons?


paul bowman said...

Re. ‘continually struck by the distance of perspective I have on my own adolescence,’ I feel I ought to be able to say the same. I'm sure I can say the same, when I stop and think about it, but what comes a good deal more easily for me at 44 is sense of long conflict — false, but really felt — between the wish to get free of adolescence, all the eagerness to ‘put away childish things’ and assert my readiness for the world, and the receding horizon of realized community in everyday responsibility among my peers. I stopped thinking of games as time-worthy (though I was interested in their construction) pretty early. (Wasn't particularly good at them either, but that's another matter.) On the other hand, what I thought of as preparing to be a dad — a lot of babysitting & Sunday-school teaching, among other things — I didn't hesitate to make time for even as a teenager. (Not that I didn't genuinely enjoy it.) Other guys played games and went ahead and became dads, both, of course, while I hung around the margins of their lives. The margin isn't a bad place to be, in fact: I guess that awareness is part of the distance of perspective in my case. Still, nothing like what comes with seeing your own kids approach this set of problems.

Darrell Reimer said...

We had a friend down from Germany -- "East" Germany, no less -- and took him to Niagara Falls at his request.

We'd enjoyed a pleasant night of reminiscence, during which he spoke of cutting class to take the train to Berlin, where Checkpoint Charlie was suddenly out-of-commission. He and his high-school buddy had fantasized about what they would do when they finally "retired" from the State, and were eligible to defect. Now he was there, and struck by the colourfulness of the West German side of Berlin. But also struck by the relentless commercialism. When he returned to class the next day his teacher gave him the gears for skipping.

At Niagara Falls he was utterly appalled to see the "House of Dracula" "Frankenstein Burger King" stuff on the main drag (in fact, the Canadian Side is leagues more tacky than the US American side). He settled down the closer we got to the falls. But when we returned to our car, I made a point of snapping him on the main drag. "I can see my kids liking this," he admitted. "But I'm not sure I'm happy about that."

Darrell Reimer said...

I should maybe add that he and his family live in East Africa. Happily. Happily marginal.