On The Level examines one small part of a larger game.
Wolfenstein: The New Order (2014)—Camp Belica
Video games love Nazis. (The old-fashioned kind, that is, not the ones so recently empowered by unpleasant shifts in the American political landscape.) And it’s easy to see why: The Third Reich were bad guys who seemed to know they were bad guys, dressing up in black leather, goose-stepping across international borders, and committing acts of wanton evil and cruelty. And yet, for all of the games that have been set during World War II, few of them ever acknowledge the true depths of that depravity. Games love Nazis, but they never talk about the Holocaust.
It’s understandable. Artists have struggled for 70 years to grasp or express even a portion of the horror inherent in the systematic imprisonment and execution of millions of human beings. There’s a reason the few games to directly tackle the subject, like Luc Bernard’s long-in-the-works Imagination Is The Only Escape, do so with complete focus. The Final Solution is too big a topic to pay lip service to. It eclipses everything it touches. Instead, most games leave the atrocities in the margins, assuming players know why it’s okay to mow down SS soldiers with carefree, murderous glee.
In the annals of virtual Nazi slaughter, few games stand up to Wolfenstein. Grimacing, crew-cut protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz has probably killed more German soldiers than any other video game hero, from low-ranking grunts all the way up to a robot-suit-clad Adolf Hitler himself. But for most of the series’ history, especially the pivotal Wolfenstein 3D, its Nazi villains were little more than placeholders, with nothing distinguishing them from Doom’s rampaging demons but the occasional “Heil Hitler” barking out of a PC’s internal speaker. The series’ later games, 2001’s Return To Castle Wolfenstein and 2009’s Wolfenstein, were a little more grounded, but tended to gloss over their villains’ more mundane evils in favor of mad science and supernatural threats. It wasn’t until the most recent entry, 2014’s The New Order, that Wolfenstein tried to wrestle with the Nazi horror on something closer to realistic terms.
But that “realism” is a loose, loaded idea where The New Order is concerned. This is a game where the protagonist will wearily bemoan his combat-inflicted PTSD one moment, and then blast off to infiltrate a Nazi moon base the next. And nowhere is the cognitive whiplash between The New Order’s obsession with real Nazi evil and being a satisfying power fantasy more pronounced than in “Camp Belica,” its fascinating, misguided, thrilling, and ultimately superficial attempt to craft a video game version of the concentration-camp experience.
It’s clear from the opening moments of the subsequent level exactly what kind of place Belica is. (Later, Blazkowicz’s world-weary narration calls out Auschwitz and Buchenwald by name.) But there’s still something audacious about these opening moments, as hundreds of prisoners march, broken, toward an unseen fate. Blazkowicz lucks out of his place in this long, shambling line of humanity and gets selected for a work detail; the game restrains itself from elaborating on what happens to his less-fortunate cohorts. The player’s first action in the level is to stick their arm (after some prodding from a guard) into an automatic tattoo machine. Seconds later, Blazkowicz is branded in a disturbingly familiar way:
After a quick puzzle sequence, which briefly undercuts Belica’s building sense of oppression by depicting the Nazis as easily bamboozled buffoons, the level piles the dread back on as you pass under a curved “Belica” arch—reminiscent of the “Arbeit macht frei” that prisoners entering Auschwitz were forced to walk beneath—and wander into the camp’s crowded barracks. Prisoners stand around idle, hunched over and weak. Nazi propaganda (“You are fortunate to have ended up here. You are a cancer on society.”) blares from the loudspeakers. The only unreal note is a giant robot wandering the yard, and even that bears an ominous furnace flickering in its mouth.
Filthy, depressing, and oppressive, the barracks are an amazing depiction of human misery, even if the pain seems scaled far down from the vastness of the actual thing. It’s here that Blazkowicz makes contact with the man he’s been sent to find, Set Roth, the last remaining member of Da’at Yichud, an ancient cabal of Jewish science-wizards whose advanced technology could turn the tide of war. Roth agrees to aid Blazkowicz and his resistance group in exchange for help in breaking out.
It’s worth noting that Roth—played by Israeli actor Mark Ivanir—is the only openly Jewish character in The New Order. (According to the game’s developers, Blazkowicz is Jewish on his mother’s side, but it’s never mentioned in the game.) Even as it forces players into a Nazi labor camp, The New Order follows in other games’ footsteps and elides the Final Solution, not to mention the likely fate of the Jewish people in a reality where Germany won World War II. Like the prisoners who weren’t selected for work detail at the level’s start, they’ve simply vanished into an uncomfortable and unexamined silence. And yet, a feeling of vengeance—not wholly earned—still informs and empowers Blazkowicz’s and Roth’s inevitable escape.
But first, more horror, as Blazkowicz is quickly captured after being sent on a clandestine mission by Roth. Walking through a doorway, your control is suddenly wrested away as a German officer attacks, disabling Blazkowicz and dragging him into a torture chamber. It’s the second (of three) times Camp Belica will render the player powerless, forcing them to watch as the guard cuts away at their character’s flesh. Finished toying with his prey, “The Knife” dumps Blazkowicz’s body on a cart alongside several other corpses, and loads him into a furnace to burn.
This moment—invoking with clear intent the symbolism of the Holocaust—is the apex of Belica’s horror, the last point where Wolfenstein’s concessions as a game don’t get in the way of its attempts to convey the utter helplessness of the people trapped in the camps. It’s tense. It’s ugly. It’s powerful. But as the flames flicker to life, the illusion is shattered by the simplest of modern gaming tropes: the refilling of Blazkowicz’s health bar. Reminded that this is just a video game, the player is prompted to grab the knife with which they’d been sliced and climb right out of that furnace. Now, the much more conventional portion of Camp Belica begins.
Ironically, this level is one of the safest in the entire game. Neither the player nor the Nazis have guns, so it’s all about creeping up on inattentive guards and casually stabbing them in the neck. Even if you fail at that, health and armor pick-ups are generous, and there’s never more than one or two enemies at a time. The upshot is death is pretty much an impossibility, making the entire sequence a breather from The New Order’s frenetic gunplay. Armed and back in his rightful role as an invincible video game hero, Blazkowicz easily saunters through this Disneyland version of a concentration camp.
It’s not until he reaches his goal—a battery Roth needs for his escape plan—that Camp Belica remembers it’s supposed to be frightening and disempowering, too. The battery is booby-trapped and you get captured yet again. This time, you wake up tied to a stake, next to Roth and a number of other prisoners, while the camp’s leader, Frau Engel, rants about German superiority and the prisoners’ impending deaths. Unfortunately for her, surviving is a simple matter of tossing Roth the battery, allowing him to seize control of Engel’s resident murder-bot and use it to smash in her face.
There’s probably a parallel to be drawn here between the mecha suit Roth and Blazkowicz commandeer—powered by stolen Da’at Yichud technology—and the Jewish myth of the golem, a clay man that destroys persecutors with unstoppable vengeance. But as the game’s heavy metal soundtrack kicks in and the camp suddenly fills with gun-toting guards for players to mow down with rocket launchers and machine guns from inside their mobile fortress, the connection that leaps more readily to mind is Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. After all, that film ends with a revisionist bloodbath, too. But instead of Jewish soldiers gunning down Hitler in a theater, Wolfenstein allows the player to use quasi-magical Jewish technology to stage a concentration-camp breakout. Nazis explode. Walls collapse. Prisoners flee. Frau Engel pops back up, like Inspector Gadget’s Doctor Claw, to cackle and declare she’ll get you next time, Blazkowicz. And, with a few final explosions and a fond farewell for your robot friend, you and your crew are finally free.
After a level of imprisonment, fear, and weakness, the giant robot sequence is an incredible moment of catharsis. Your guns rip through enemies like tissue paper, your rockets are unlimited, and you’re functionally invincible. But like so much of Camp Belica, the escape demands a question: Is this a topic where video game catharsis should even be allowed to apply?
The camps happened. Even those without extermination as their explicit goal—Buchenwald, for instance—had death counts in the hundreds of thousands. In these places, human beings suffered in such numbers and with such intensity that the modern mind boggles and revolts against the notion. It’s not inherently inappropriate for a video game to attempt to express that horror, even if failure seems like the most likely outcome of such an exercise.
But The New Order isn’t just trying to capture the existential terror of a place like Camp Belica. It’s not even that the game’s own incessant need to let the player “have fun”—chomping down dog food, seeking Nazi gold, and shanking Germans like a drawling Brad Pitt—consistently undercuts those efforts. No, it’s Camp Belica’s attempts to transform its fictional concentration camp into a triumph, allowing players to casually sneak past danger or smash, in a moment, walls that took years of real-world sacrifice to break that ultimately rings false. There’s something especially ugly in the idea that Blazkowicz enters and engineers his own escape from Belica in the space of a single afternoon. Repeatedly invoking the symbolism of one of the most monstrous events in human history, the level is a power fantasy that flies in the face of those who were rendered powerless, and for all the admiration its boldness engenders and all the thrills it provokes, the end result is a feeling of hollow unease. Maybe there’s a good reason this is something most games avoid.