Dr Deathshead: or how I learned to stop worrying and love ludo-narrative dissonance

As Iron Sky proved, Nazis on the moon are instantly funny
As Iron Sky proved, Nazis on the moon are instantly funny

One of the biggest surprises this year has been the quality of Wolfenstein: The New Order. The classic game of Nazi-shooting mayhem that laid the groundwork for the first person shooter genre ahead of even Doom could never have been said to be much more than dumb, cartoonish fun, but Machine Games have not only attempted to tell an poignant story in their re-imagining of the game, but have done so by remaining firmly tethered to the franchise and all the expectation that entails, by releasing it as a direct sequel rather than a Tomb Raider style reboot.

Unlike Duke Nukem, another classic era one-note shooter protagonist recently, and unsuccessfully, rebooted for a modern audience, Machine Games have taken on the Herculean task of recrafting protagonist BJ Blazkowicz, a man who is repeatedly told that he was “born to kill Nazis”, into a believable human being. The studio have a pedigree of telling meaningful stories within an action movie milieu, being former Star Breeze members, a studio responsible for titles such as The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, but they certainly set their bar high here.

The moment in which you're forced at gunpoint to undergo a test to prove your purity is a genuinely unsettling narrative high point
The moment in which you’re forced at gunpoint to undergo a test to prove your purity is a genuinely unsettling narrative high point

Wolfenstein begins with our square-jawed, all-American action hero involved in a last ditch effort to kill Deathshead, an immoral scientist who has bolstered the Nazi war effort with mechs. Their failure loses the allies the war and Blazkowicz the next 14 years as he convalesces in an asylum. The elegantly cinematic cutscene that time lapses through those years from our hero’s barely conscious state, introducing a flurry of emotions, is a strong example of Machine Games’ ambitions. The fact that Blazkowicz then immediately turns back into a killing machine without a hint of muscle atrophy, has led to our friend ludo-narrative dissonance raising its head once again.

Embedding an emotional sucker punch just after a absurd moment forces you into a more active interpretive state because you have to mentally process the unexpected input you’re being given.

Ludo-narrative dissonance as a stumbling block to strong storytelling has been well explored within games such as Bioshock and Tomb Raider that attempt to tease powerful human stories centred around fallible characters out of genres that require you to kill thousands of enemies with superhuman ease. Machine Games’ response to this problem is not to excuse this dissonance, but to fully embrace it; making it a part of the fabric of the game. Rather than tone down the action, The New Order is about as high octane and ridiculous as you’d expect, and rather than off set that with self serious cutscenes that plumb emotional depths, it manages to fluctuate between the ridiculous and the sublime both in and out of combat.

The cover of The President's Last Bang attests to it's irreverent humour
The cover of The President’s Last Bang attests to it’s irreverent humour

The fact is that rather than simply being jarring, such shifts in tonal register can be incredibly effective for catching the player off guard. Embedding an emotional sucker punch just after a absurd moment (there’s a whole level set on a Nazi moon base) forces you into a more active interpretive state because you have to mentally process the unexpected input you’re being given. There’s a comparison to be made here to South Korean cinema, which exploded in a kaleidoscope of genre mash ups and crazy tonal shifts in the nineties following years of censorship. The best examples of these films used such shifts to destabilise the viewer’s comfortable self-assurance. For instance The President’s Last Bang largely occupied the ‘serious’ genre of the historical biopic, but explored the assassination of Park Chung-hee with gleefully absurd flourishes of slapstick humour that subverted not only the conventions of the genre but the audience’s expectations, significantly muddying any easy moral classification.

This subversive process also occurs in Wolfenstein and is a valuable one given the subject matter. The Nazis have long become a kind of simplistic, pantomime villain in our culture, and a sure fire way to derail any forum debate. By being an easy antagonist, they have started to turn into clichés. The German film Downfall (which many internet meme hunters will know from the long running series of ‘Hitler reaction’ videos) is an important film because of its portrayal of the Nazi leadership as flawed human beings rather than the embodiment of the ultimate evil, thanks in no small part to actor Bruno Ganz’s nuanced portrayal of Hitler. By injecting something of the human back into these formerly two-dimensional figures and making them unfamiliar to us once more, we are forced to confront them as real people.

Wolfenstein is in good company as there is a rich history of films successfully using seemingly inappropriate humour to reinvest audiences emotionally and ethically in this subject. For instance Tarantino’s subversive revenge drama Inglourious Basterds, which was a clear touch stone for Wolfenstein, or the Roberto Benigni Oscar winning tragi-comedy Life is Beautiful, in which a Jewish man uses humour to shield his infant son (and the audience), from the horrors of the concentration camps, only for those horrors to be all the more unsettling when they inevitably shine through the cracks. Chaplin even used humour to directly mock and undermine Hitler in his film The Great Dictator.

Roberto Benigni stars in and directs the tragi-comic Life is Beautiful
Roberto Benigni stars in and directs the tragi-comic Life is Beautiful

Perhaps Wolfenstein doesn’t sustain its narrative assault as well as it should, abandoning character development in the later half for a series of increasingly ludicrous fetch quests seeing you stealing various pieces of military hardware for the resistance, but in certain moments, especially in its opening act, it’s surprisingly effective in being an action game that allows you to unexpectedly feel something. And sometimes it’s the pearls found in the most unlikely places that shine the brightest.

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