The New Colossus at Five

2017: I’ve just shot my Dad. Don’t feel bad though, he was a racist prick. Even got dear ol’ Mom sent off to a death camp. And if all that weren’t bad enough, he shot my dog! Told you he was a son of a bitch.

So yeah, I just shot my Dad and I feel pretty good about it.

But of course what did the bastard do before dying but rat me out to the New Order. Which probably explains why a giant, God-damned floating Nazi base has just snatched up me and my entire childhood home like one of those god damned claw machines. All of which would be manageable really, if there also weren’t a bazillion God-damned Nazi robots trying to blast my ass as my house slowly disintegrates high above the Texas countryside.

So naturally I do what any self-respecting red-blooded American would in this situation: I shoot the Nazis robots, then blast those treacherous Nazi claws until they release, sending me, fragments of my childhood home, and all those dead robo-nazis hurtling towards the ground far below. Just another day in America.

“Yes, just another day in America”, I thought to myself as I watched all this play out on my screen almost five years ago. Seems like an eternity now. Thank God the world has been free of fascism ever since!

And yet it does say something that five years on I am still thinking about this big dumb game. Oh how fondly I remember my nights with BJ and the gang as we crushed evil underfoot striding across alt-1960s Nazi ruled America. “Give me your Panzerhund, your ÜberSoldaten”, I would shout in a deep, ultra-manly voice as I sat at my PC, “Send these to me, so that I may lift my arm to enlighten… with a shotgun to the face.” Some people find the sublime in the works of Wagner or Goethe. I found it storming Area 52 and flying to Venus to meet a demented Hitler who fancied himself more of a Great Director than a Great Dictator. And, my dearest reader, I must confess that when the main female villain shot my compatriot in the head and then rammed her very large pistol right into my mouth with a sadistic gusto that would make even dearest Ilsa blush, my spirit left my body.

But the heart likes what the heart likes, and my heart was won over by the swaggering self-confidence with which Machine Games elevated Wolfenstein—that classic meat-headed darling of the self professed PC master race—into a pulpy masterpiece. And sure all the Nazi blasting was good wholesome fun, but it was the storytelling that I truly fell in love with. Soon I found myself racing through firefights just to see what absurd new set-piece or plot twist BJ would find himself in next. The New Colossus is a loving homage to pulpy exploration aesthetics of the 60s and 70s and 80s. This could have easily been played for cheep, self-aware laughs, but instead the result fells remarkably authentic, all the more so for a big budget game published by a billion dollar entertainment behemoth. Even more impressively, the team then created memorable characters that at times feel surprisingly human despite their absurd situation. The New Colossus is far, far better than it has any right to be.

The New Colossus is also a quintessentially American experience. More than just the title and setting. I mean its entire sensibility. Only in America could you use the greatest human calamity of the twenty century as the foundation for irreverent AAA romp. Only in America could you market your entertainment product with an ad that features a Nazi flag and then flashes the words “NOT MY AMERICA.” Only in America could this all make perfect sense. It’s the sort of hyper-Americanness that could only have been captured by a Swedish game developer.

For the full New Colossus experience though, you really had to play The New Colossus back in late 2017. You needed the splitscreen of American authoritarianism and ethno-nationalism on the march all while milkshake Nazi waxes poetic about his beloved strawberry milkshakes. You need to be hatcheting Klansmen in Roswell, all while the ugly spectacle of the United Right still is seared into your brain. “The Jews will not replace us”, they shouted. “Woah! What the hell?!?,” BJ retorts, “[The Nazis] got rocket trains now?” This is my America. Can’t fool me.

But there’s another reason I’ve been thinking about it so much recently: something about it left me deeply unfulfilled. That feeling has only grown since. Yes, despite singlehandedly defeating the Nazis and kickstarting the second American revolution. Ha! Remember back in 2017 when the phrase “Second American Revolution” didn’t call to mind a bunch of sweaty dudes in Hawaiian shirts going all clown-car on an igloo for the “zesty lemon dinger” or whatever the hell they are calling it these days?

Just accept that everything I’m saying makes perfect sense.

I guess it sounds kind of absurd to expect more from a first person shooter where you visit a Nazi base on Venus. Scratch that. It is absurd. The New Colossus was a fun ride, does it need to be anything more? Can it be? Should it be?

I was all aboard too until the end. It should have been a moment of triumph. After all, America was finally free! All that capitulating and high saluting was in the past now, and all it took was shooting my way through miles and miles of corridors and blasting thousands of Nazis to literal bits.

And let me tell you: all that Nazi blasting really gets the adrenaline pumping too, so you had better believe that when the credits started up and a punk rendition of “We’re not gonna take it” kicked in to a stylish montage of revolutionary violence, I was just about in heaven (albeit a heaven built on a big old steaming pile of dead fascists.)

But as my adrenaline slowly faded and the montage continued, it all started to feel just a little too… easy. The song’s message of rebellion and fighting authority increasingly rang hollow. I began to question: was this little adventure really something to get all puffed up over? Even by the standards of fictional game worlds—worlds expressly engineered to make you feel like an all powerful hero—something about this was deeply unfulfilling. I don’t even think I made it to the end of the song. By then I almost felt embarrassed by the whole situation I found myself in.

Plenty of games fail to stick their landing. This was different. I was all in with New Colossus until suddenly I wasn’t. At that point, I suddenly realized that I wanted something from the game that it was never going to provide. I should have known better really, but after spending ten plus hours shooting fascists and racists in the face, and after watching cutscenes where BJ and a diverse crew defeat these twin evils with aplomb, some part of me couldn’t help but feel that the experience had been disquietingly relevant and, I dare say, even had some degree of “political” heft. Then it all came crashing back to earth. I realized behind the game’s bombast and self-congratulatory yells of, “bash the fasc”, it was just as empty as one of those, “In this house we believe…” signs. This was all the more disappointing because I could see what could have been. As the songs says though, “If that’s your best, your best won’t do.”

Ten hours of brainless Nazi blasting would have been far easier to dismiss. That’s not the game they made though. While in many ways I’m thankful for it, it also makes its failings all the more difficult to overlook. Some of these failings were obvious even as I was playing. I remember searching newspaper clippings and listening to found audio tapes, expecting to stumble across some sly commentary on then current events. This largely never materialized. Then there were flashbacks to BJ’s childhood in which we see him befriending Billie (a little Black girl) against his father’s wishes. The self-seriousness of these flashbacks felt out-of-step with the rest of the plot. This would have been bad enough if the flashbacks weren’t also so cliche. BJ and Billie bump into each other. BJ is hesitant at first because his father is a horrible racist who told him to stay away from black children. Soon enough though, BJ learns that friendship is more than skin deep and the two become fast friends. How heartwarming. Spoiler alert: BJ then grows up in to your dear uncle who “doesn’t see color”.

Soon enough though, I was even questioning what had at first seemed like bold choices. For example, The New Colossus at first suggests that the great American Silent Majority largely accepted Nazi rule because it protected their existing place in society. Certainly not the most subtle argument, but it did feel exciting to see a big mainstream game like this play around with the idea that the Joneses would embrace fascism if it meant maintaining their suburban lifestyle dream.

Yet this idea is largely negated when we learn later that the poor Joneses were actually being cruelly oppressed by a cabal of Nazi collaborators and Klansmen. Yes, In the New Colossus’s telling, the literal KKK has been put in charge of literal Nazi America. You’d be hard pressed to come up with two less sympathetic groups, or two groups that are easier for the average American to dismiss as an ugly other. Hell, you don’t see the Joneses wearing Swastikas or burning crosses do you? The Joneses only care about protecting the “character” of their neighborhood and a little “law and order”. What could be wrong with that?

But the end of The New Colossus goes even further in torpedoing this commentary when the game reveals that the Silent Majority was actually seething with revolutionary zeal the whole time. All it took was a little kick start from BJ for the great American people to rise up as one. Men, women; black, white; they all come together to kick the fascists out. And despite being the underdogs, and despite facing almost insurmountable odds, they win! Good prevails!! Evil is vanquished!!! Damn, gives me a red, white, and blue hard-on just thinking about it.

It’s quite telling that for a game set in a Nazi occupied United States, you only face a handful of recognizably American enemies in the game. Where are all the Americans fighting to maintain the new status quo that we initially hear about? The New Colossus makes plenty of halfhearted gestures but can never bring itself to implicate anyone other than robe wearing Klansmen and Nazis.

This is all the more jarring when you considered that as BJ and crew were stomping their way across fictional 1961 America, back in real 1961 Freedom Riders were being brutalized by violent white mobs. Jim Crow was still on the books! But you’re going to tell me it was all just a few bad apples? That it could never happen here?

And maybe it couldn’t have. Maybe it can’t. Maybe not like that anyways. Maybe the fascists won’t come marching in on jackboots bedecked in Swastikas. Maybe there won’t be hooded Klansmen governing over us.

But then again, the exceptionalness of America has proven time and again to be exceptional beyond parody. Remember that just a year before Wolfenstein 3D came out (1992), David Duke got almost 40% of the gubernatorial vote in Louisiana. Yes 40% voted for an avowed Klansman and Nazi! And what did that game have to say about this? Jack. Sure they toyed with including a certain “David Puke” Easter egg, but even that weak-ass, third grade-level insult’s grasp at getting all “political” got scraped. What, were they afraid they’d lose the Klan market?

Ugh, feels like I’m just descending further and further into some kind of self-parody now by bitching about how a thirty year old game featuring Mecha-Hilter isn’t “woke” enough. I mean just imagine the tongue lashing big daddy Tucker would lay on: “Why do you hate America, son?!?” he’d boom, nipples standing as erect as little Washington Monuments, “Are you calling our country racist? Are calling our dear friends the Joneses Nazis?” “Oh please Tucker,”, I’d pled between liberal tears, “I’ll do anything for you! Just don’t hit me with your majestic words of Truth, Justice, and the 1776 American Way again, especially not there…!!!” And that’s when the camera would cut to show the ruddy red glow of the left cheek of my pinko ass for Mr. and Mrs. America at home to hate on.

Hey now, don’t yuck their yum.

Yet what foxy ol’ elites like Mr. Carlson publicly pretend very hard not to understand is that criticism is not the same as condemnation. Why, the whole reason I’ve worked myself into such a tizzy is not because I hate The New Colossus, but because I loved it! That’s what also made its disappointment sting all the more. I saw what the game could have been. They were so close to actually saying something, both about the past yet but also about the present moment. So close to truly condemning fascism and hate, not just in its most extreme forms but everywhere it is found. So close to sneaking an interesting examination of America into a big dumb game series about blasting Nazis into gibs. I wanted The New Colossus to be better, just as I want America to be better.

Five years ago I could almost will myself to overlook The New Colossus’s failings. I can’t anymore. The gulf between how the game presents itself and what it actually says is just too great. There’s something uniquely pernicious about media like this that presents itself as transgressive but ultimately reinforces the status-quo. This is what bothered me about 2019’s Watchmen TV series too. Consuming media like this can make you feel like you are one of the good guys. It can even make you believe that you are doing something important just by watching or playing. Hell, media like this even pisses off the right people! In the end though, this sort of media never asks anything of you. It never asks you to confront yourself, it never calls for substantive change, and most of all it never asks for meaningful action on your part.

The New Colossus presents fascism and racism as historical curiosities perpetrated by inhuman monsters. Doing so puts these twin evils at a safe remove. Never do we have to consider how an entire nation could willfully descend into genocidal hate, or how the nation that saved the world from this evil would itself decades to even begin seriously addressing its own unique prejudices. Not only does this leave us misunderstanding our own history, it also makes us unprepared for the present moment. When our feeds are suddenly inundated with images of a torch bearing mob marching through the streets shouting about “white replacement”, we treat it as some shocking aberration instead of understanding it as just a highly visible symptom of an ugly legacy of ethno-nationalism that still haunted us back in 2017 and only seems to have metastasized over the past five years.

Yet here I too am starting to fall into the same trap The New Colossus did: focusing on extremists. Never underestimate costume wearing extremists, but we also can’t pin everything on them. While it’s easy to hate the Klan it is more difficult and more uncomfortable to get all worked up over legislation and systems designed to enforce the existing racial cast systems. These policies were only possible because large swaths of the community demanded them and helped impose them. These were not hood wearing monsters but Americans. The New Colossus does it’s best not to acknowledge this ugly truth. Instead it wants you to feel like the good guy for joining the crowd in condemning easy targets.

All things considered, The New Colossus feels stuck in the past. No where is this more obvious than its inability to move beyond World War Two. Yes even though the game is set in the 1960s, we’re still just fighting Nazis. Eighty years on and we’re still fighting God-damned Nazis. If anything, the New Colossus is like all the greatest hits from the Last Good War, now ramped up to 11 to make America’s inevitable victory all the more impressive. Why does The New Colossus seem incapable of acknowledging that America really did win the war? Why does so little media seem capable of this? After all, it was America who went on to rule the world, not Nazi Germany. In the 60s, people everywhere were Surfin’ USA, not going Weltraumsurfen. The New Colossus makes little attempt to grapple with America’s very real power and influence, instead turning 1960s America into a scrappy underdog struggling against a globe spanning, technically advanced superpower. Ugh, someone at Machine Games must have a very dark and ironic sense in humor.

For The New Colossus to overlook all this and then tell me, “in your veins runs the blood of revolutionaries”, well it was simply too much. Sitting there at my PC, as that cover of Twisted Sister played, I could not have felt less like the hero the game wanted me to fancy myself. Instead I felt like a chump.

I tried to tell myself that I had never really believed, that it had all just been fun and games. It wasn’t true. I’d been lulled into feeling that blasting virtual Nazis in the comfort of my home was progressive. I was almost even convinced that more Americans needed to experience The New Colossus because it had something big and important to say. I thought maybe together we could defeat fascism once and for all. Maybe together we could finally shoot our racist Dad! I mean what could be more American than that?

Such fantasies. They felt that way back in 2017 and they feel even more so today.

Over these past five years I guess I’ve come to understand that The New Colossus was never going to give me what I wanted it to . It wasn’t interested in doing so. The developers succeeded in what they were after: making a solid game with a pulpy anesthetic. But there’s still that sense of what could have been. How just with a slightly more deft hand, they could have made some more substantives about our present moment. Sure there will always be the vocal idiots who get off tweeting about “politics in games”, but what a joke. The New Colossus is already a deeply political game, both by what it explicitly says and even more so what it implicitly doesn’t say. The problem is that The New Colossus’s politics ultimately end up being so wishy-washy that the game ends up conveying a message that’s antithetical to how it presents itself. There’s only so many times you can get a rise shooting virtual Nazis. Eventually you need stronger stuff. This doesn’t have to be all dry and forced feeling either. I believe you can explore big important subjects and get people thinking, while still featuring Nazi super soldiers and Area 52.

There’s always the hope that Wolf 3 will be different. Maybe Wolf 3 will be a full on satire, with BJ storming across rice paddies and through dusty villages, bringing freedom to locals the American way (aka a pair of laser guided, rapid fire missile launchers). Hey if they do it right, some folks may even take it seriously! I can even offer a name suggestion: “Wolfenstein III: The End of All Evil

Or maybe Wolf 3 will flash forward in time to a world in which BJ has defeated the Nazis, only to gradually descend into authoritarianism himself. Now decades later, you—playing as Billie J, (a young Black woman)—must fight your way through the American new new order to reach the top of a golden tower on Mars where an out-of-touch and increasingly paranoid President BJ menaces the people of a climate change devastated earth over their failure to buy enough copies of BJ’s autobiography in which he recounts how he single-handedly saved the world.

No chance this will ever happen, but that doesn’t mean I can’t dream.

It’s difficult to stay mad at a game where you can placekick Hitler’s kopf though. I tried but the New Colossus is just too damn stupid and too damn fun. I love it even with all it’s flaws. The key is that you’ve got to enjoy the ride and remember the highs, but you’ve got to know its limitations too and recognize everything that it leaves unsaid. You’ve got to find your own meaning in all the nonsense, even when it lets you down over and over again. And more than anything, you’ve got to not only expect better but then also get up and do something to make it happen. Or in other words: it’s all just another day in America.