NEW YORK — Space Invaders… Asteroids… the SS? A new iteration of the “Castle Wolfenstein” videogame series just launched, and joystickers who wanna shoot Nazis have another opportunity to do so with the latest in bleeding edge graphics.
This new version, called “Wolfenstein: The New Order,” is a next-generation experience in more ways than one. Like most large modern games (e.g. games not played on your phone, but on your PC, Sony Playstation or Microsoft Xbox) it is an interactive experience, mixing animated story segments (called cut scenes) in between sequences where you solve little puzzles or blow bad guys into bloody digital bits.
“Wolfenstein: The New Order” is set in an alternate reality version of the 1960s in which the Nazis won World War II. You play as an Allied Special Forces operative named B.J. Blazkowicz, newly awakened from a lengthy coma, now ready to try overcome the Reich. To do so, there are many missions, one of which involves freeing a Jewish scientist from a concentration camp.
In a twelve minute video of how a typical gaming session may go (embedded below) you can see some of the individualized action as well as pre-determined cut scenes. Images of cattle cars, yanked infants, a Mengele-esque medical facility, bodies in crematoria and ash emerging from chimneys are part of the game’s play.
Concentration camp imagery in art and entertainment is nothing new. Most agree that Sidney Lumet’s “The Pawnbroker” or Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” would lose their impact without the blunt force of visual representation. Other titles, like Spielberg’s own Indiana Jones pictures, use Nazi iconography in a more comic book fashion. (The recent “Captain America” films present an alternate history with a Fascist regime called HYDRA, divorcing Nazism from the specifics of anti-Semitism and genocide for a much looser, less troubling kid-friendly experience.)
Where the line of decency is drawn is somewhat dependent on whether you consider video games art, storytelling or a braindead way to kill time, blasting pixels in increasingly gross ways while memorizing movement patterns. (The late critic Roger Ebert wrote quite passionately in 2010 that video games can never be art.)
“Wolfenstein: The New Order” is published by Bethesda Softworks, and was developed by a Swedish subsidiary known as MachineGames. Both organizations are owned by parent company ZeniMax Media, a private company based in Maryland with over 600 employees. The game retails from somewhere between $50 and $60 on Amazon depending on your console. Sales figures are difficult to come by, but according to games website Gamespot it was the second biggest launch in 2014 in the United Kingdom making up a full fourth of all games sold during the initial week of release.
The Times of Israel spoke with Pete Hines, VP of PR and Marketing for Bethesda Games via telephone. Below is a transcript of that conversation edited for length.
To people who don’t know videogames, there’s a connotation they are done fly-by-night by kids in the garage, but Bethesda is a large organization, correct?
Well, they are still made by kids in the garage, as games comes in many shapes and sizes, but we are not one of those companies. We are a large multinational company with offices all over the world working with game developers all over the world.
The game is part of a series of quasi-related games – not quite sequels – but the intellectual property of “Castle Wolfenstein” has existed since the 1980s.
Correct, “Wolfenstein 3D” is considered to be the first FPS or First-person shooter ever made, in which you view the game through the eyes of the person you are playing. You only see your own hands. Then there were three or four sequels over the years, all basic First-person shooters. We have the original up for free on our website to celebrate the 20th anniversary.
This game is from a new studio based in Upsalla, Sweden called MachineGames. They wanted to create a different type of game evolved from the old one, which was straightforward of “doors open, there are Nazis, you shoot them.” This is something that blends drama and storytelling and narrative.
It is a modern game in every sense – you aren’t just shooting invaders from space. You do a task, you are led through chambers, there are cut scenes that bring you to action.
Yes, cut scenes was not something “Wolf” was known for before.
When you are playing the game, you can skip past the cut scenes if you want, yes?
Yes. But they aren’t very long. But most people find them interesting.
Okay, so, at some point along the way was there a meeting at your organization when somebody said, “y’know, we’re making a video game set at a concentration camp, this may rub some people the wrong way”?
No. Not, really.
It was never discussed?
We discussed it much larger than that. The concentration camp setting, or whatever you want to call it, is one part of a lot of things. This is a sensitive subject. It involves Nazis. There are a couple of sex scenes. So there are a lot of things we discussed overall. But, this just wasn’t a hot button that anyone would react to. It is an alternate universe, and an alternate reality.
‘It is an alternate universe, and an alternate reality’
You’re talking about a game with robot dogs and giant mechs that roam the cities, where it is the 1960s where the Nazis have taken over the world, they got to the moon first and all of these other things. It’s pretty clear what you are doing in the game doesn’t have much basis in reality. Although, to your point, it does touch on a subject that does have some connective tissue to things that happened in the past.
Well, in the video I watched the character, as you are manipulating him, mutters under his breath things like “I’ve seen things like this at Auschwitz, I’ve seen things like this at Buchenwald,” which are the names of two major concentration camps.
There’s a scene of getting out of the cattle car, and people are shoving and Nazis shouting in German and there’s an infant being grabbed by a Nazi.
Yes, Frau Engel grabs it out of the….
Yeah, so… everybody just thought this was cool for a video game? There was never a “QA” moment where concerns were voiced that “maybe we’re pushing the line”?
Not in my experience.
Past “Wolfenstein” games have been banned in Germany because Nazi imagery is illegal, correct?
It is not, because in Germany all reference to constitutionally banned symbols have been removed from the game. It’s important to note that videogames in Germany are treated differently than books or films or television. They are not considered art. So you can take “Inglorious Basterds” and release it in Germany and it is fine. But a videogame with the exact same symbols or the exact same story — you cannot release it that way.
‘We are considered a quote unquote toy’
We are considered a quote unquote toy. As a result, the Nazis aren’t considered Nazis, they are considered “the Regime.” All of the symbols are replaced with a generic symbol. Instead of a Swastika there is a logo that is a “W.” If you watch our trailers there aren’t any Nazi symbols in those videos, because we take that from the quote unquote safe version – the German version – and we use that everywhere.
So, internally you have shorthand code for “safe version.”
Well, German version and “rest of the world” version. It means we don’t have to worry about where that content gets viewed. So “safe” just means we don’t have to worry about who sees this.
Was there ever a discussion among the developers where they said, “hey, we’re doing this version with the ‘W’ anyhow, why not just make the ‘W’ version worldwide?”
No. If we were going to do that, we would just make a different game. This is specifically a game about Nazis taking over the world, and you are the hero to lead the fight to overthrow.
In the scene that I saw the scene is looking for a doctor, Dr. Roth, he uses Yiddish, he’s a Jewish character, and he is a member of a group called “Da’at Yichud.” Are there other explicitly Jewish moments in the game? There’s a moment where he says “gey avek!” which means “go away!” Are there other moments like this?
I don’t know, I’ll make a note to get back to you. [Note: I never heard back.]
What percentage of the game is cut scenes vs. straight action and shooting?
The vast majority is the game. The cut scenes are connective tissue. Less than 10%. Basically, the scenes appear at different points in the story. You get to Berlin, you get to a secret base, and that’s your hub. So you come back to the base and you interact with folks and that’s where you get a scene each time you return, then you go out on missions or explore – even side missions to the game.
The game is already out. Have you released the sales figures?
‘Champagne was uncorked on release day’
We’re a privately held company so we rarely give out numbers. But, yes, champagne was uncorked on release day. Actually, we’re having another happy hour here at the headquarters. We’ve had a crazy couple of weeks. This has been not just a financial success. The fans are happy, the critical reception has been high. People are talking about how this game is trying to do something intelligent.
Do you rely on The Times of Israel for accurate and insightful news on Israel and the Jewish world? If so, please join The Times of Israel Community. For as little as $6/month, you will:
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we started the Times of Israel ten years ago - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.
David Horovitz, Founding Editor of The Times of Israel