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Wolfenstein

(Activision; US: 18 Aug 2009)

Two of the weirder obsessions of the children of the 1980s consisted of an open fascination for Satanism and black magic, which the media of the time period reflects in the form of heavy metal bands, role playing games, and horror movies. To an extent, Generation X openly expressed—if not a collective adoration for, then a common obsession with—ideologies and imagery of evil.


The packaged entertainment of the era often displayed a bold knowledge and presentation of the mechanics of dark, angry, and violent conceptual subjects. For example, in the earliest Dungeons and Dragons material, Gary Gygax and his cohorts used detailed presentations of demonology. The names of demons, devils, and others in the rouges gallery of black magic folklore were innocently packaged in the form of a mere game. Kids devoured this imagery, embracing it because of its rebellious embrace of things that were just “bad.”  Taken with Satanism’s ideological partner in crime, Nazism, this generation also witnessed a widespread creation of a practicable form of Nazi ideology in the phenomenon of Skinhead gangs, which donning Doc Martin boots and shaved heads, roamed the suburban landscape of postmodern America. Openly accepting the insanity of Nazi dogma, which they were conditioned to do sitting in front of the idiot box hour after hour, the skinheads are Gen X’s claim to generational violence and allowed a rebellious embrace of the historically taboo concepts of Satanism and Nazism.  That the history of World War II gave rise to all kinds of whispered rumors of direct links between Hitler and his Third Reich and underground, organized lodges and covens, only made the connection between these two sinister agendas more fertile in kids’ imaginations.


Indeed Generation X was privileged to witness the release of a movie by Steven Spielberg that brought to life these fears and paranoid assumptions. Raiders of the Lost Ark made no bones about the connection between the Nazis and the occult. This film gave a young impressionable audience a mythos that gave a degree of life (and thus, plausibility) to the rumors of World War II as the battleground between the forces of good and evil.


It is not surprising then that 30- and 40-somethings who grew up in the atmosphere of that era are the developers of contemporary media and would churn out something along the lines of the Wolfenstein series. As the technology of the medium of the video game grew in its applicability and ability to more clearly represent realism, the expression of the symbolic imagery of evil that Generation X readily recognized was given life.  The demons and devils of Gary Gygax’s Dungeons and Dragons were brought to life in games such as the Doom series in the early 1990s and Diablo a few years later. 


The “millennial” generation pays less heed to or holds less fascination with Satanic and Nazi images and ideology, and yet this has not stopped the market from producing media products which delve into the subject of evil. No longer does Satan present fascination as an abstracting and overarching evil, games such as Grand Theft Auto package evil as more directly linked to day to day reality. Heavy Metal is no longer a mainstream vehicle of expression, presenting themes of black magic, witches’ covens, and Satanic fury, but hip hop presents the reality of evil with guns and gangs, which is why the persistence of the Wolfenstein series is surprising.  The continuing presence of Wolfenstein (as well as Doom) may indeed be targeted, not at the millennial generation but at the very same demographic that made the original creators of these games rich in the first place – a generation bred on a more romaniticized and mysterious sense of evil.


Like the previous games in the series, Wolfenstein features the face of American simplicity, efficiency, and (maybe even) ignorance in the form of protagonist “B.J” Blazkowicz, who possesses an artifact full of powers that he does not understand. Despite his lack of European old world cultural sophistication, Blazkowicz is pitted against the Third Reich regime’s relentless pursuit of harnessing the forces of the supernatural to achieve victory and world domination.  At first glance, this idea of Wolfenstien featuring an alternate version of World War ll and the Nazis practicing black magic seems like the same good, pulpy fun of earlier versions. Further, given the nature of Gen X media in this regard, the idea of Nazi involvement with the occult taken to the extremes of actually performing ritual black magic and the successful summoning of demonic entities to help fulfill their agenda is additionally appealing. The world of Wolfenstien casually couples the reality of Nazi occupied Europe with easily accessible alternate, occult planes of existence that are populated with demons, SS zombies, and Cthulhu-like monsters, placing them on nearly every street corner.


Unlike Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, which only gives the viewer the actual experience of witnessing the paranormal in the last ten minutes of the movie, though, Wolfenstein gives the player easy access to the spiritual realm through the majority of the game, draining the abstract world of the occult of some of its mysteries.  The ongoing plot device for the game centers on a medallion of supernatural origins that is able to give its possessor powers and abilities; in other words, you already have super powers. The medallion, which gives access to a dimension called the Veil, endows Blazkowicz with amazing powers of true sight, astral shields, time distortion, and enhanced weapons damage. Of course, leaving godlike powers in the form of a crystal powered medallion in the hands of the good guy alone would not make for much of challenge in any large scale good versus evil conflict, so naturally, the Nazis have several and numerous weapons in their own demonic arsenal. Blazkowicz regularly encounters demons and monsters that would even make the most hardened inhabitant of Middle-Earth raise his arms in exasperation and cry out to his television, “How is this possible?” Burning undead garbed in SS officer’s uniforms, huge lizard monsters of a Lovecraft variety, Nazi sorcerers, and of course, plain, old German infantry grunts populate in excess the world of Wolfenstein. At nearly every turn in this game, a new, and frankly more ridiculous, demon, or devil appears to shoot, stab, or eat you. The sheer quantity of supernatural horror really does throw the game down a few notches in playability. Nothing can possibly be left to the imagination when it is well known that a Nazi Zombie or vampire is waiting behind the next door. Wolfenstein simply has too much and too many: too many demons, too easy access to supernatural and superhuman powers, and too many make you jump “surprises” around every corner.  In that, it is again drained of the richness of the mystery of the unknown.  Nazis and Satanic power are something to be dreaded because you don’t understand them, not something that you have grown accustomed to.


The creative purpose behind the game seems to be lacking in unity. Wolfenstein has trouble finding its voice and expressing it in any consistent manner. At points, it displays a sense of humor (at least I hope it is trying to make me laugh). At others times, it presents itself as a commentary on the kind of Nazi group insanity that gave license for its adherents to indulge in all manner of eccentric whims and fancies (the game expresses this licentiousness through scenes such as an infiltration of the headquarters of the SS that is chalk full of images of sexual license and depravity).  Still at other times, Wolfenstein seems to present itself as a game interested in exploring how the supernatural coexists with everyday reality , which has been attempted and lamely executed by other FPS games before—Clive Barker’s Undying comes to mind.  This mix of ideas gives no coherent tone to the story.


With the regular exposure to and use of occult phenomenon throughout most of the game, the new addition to the Wolfenstein series pushes the potentially creepy and attractive mythos of the Satanic/Nazi connection in an unfocused and almost hum drum direction. This is not to say that farfetched or even silly first person shooters games with demonic, occult themes lack merit. Games such as Serious Sam provided a pulp expression to a fantastic demonology in a light hearted manner that leaves many players full and happy. What Wolfenstien fails to do is suspend any disbelief, evoke laughter, or produce the heebie jeebies, though it is obvious that it intended to do so.


That is not to say that the latest Wolfenstein is not without merit. If anyone should care, the vividness of the acts of violence push the envelope in vividness and graphic presentation to an interesting level.  Nazis can be shot to pieces, sniped with accuracy to produce the effect of a sort of scalping, or even bayoneted in the throat with the accompanying sounds of the gargling death rattle of an SS thug drowning in his own blood.  The weapons that produce the carnage are varied and comfortably span the range of actual World War II issued rifles and machine guns to high tech devices that were completely impossible within the technological limits of the time period. The flamethrower is a particularly novel and satisfying weapon at the player’s disposal.


The latest Wolfenstein had the potential to give full range and expression to the obsessive ideal and imagery of evil that art, books, movies, and other video games have more often than not attempted to evoke for the last half of the twentieth century. Video games in the Doom or Diablo series vividly expressed the images of demonic forces and black magic that took a collective hold on the minds of many of the Dungeon and Dragons generation, but while Wolfenstein could have taken the appetite for such interest in the Nazi/occult connection that was whetted by Spielberg and given a satisfying meal, it remains rather empty.

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