In the upcoming, ass-kicking video game Wolfenstein: The New Order, the Polish protagonist B. J. Blazkowicz encounters a gray-haired Nazi officer named Engel. Blazkowicz is undercover, posing as a Nazi underling. The officer compliments Blazkowicz on his Aryan features and then puts him to the test. She says she wants to be sure he has pure blood.
Engel shows Blazkowicz some pictures and asks him some strange questions. He answers. She lays a pistol on the table between them. She waits.
Blazkowicz doesn't go for the gun, and the officer lets him walk away. The test was just a meaningless game, she cackles. His answers didn't matter.
In other moments in Wolfenstein, Blazkowicz certainly does go for the gun and doesn't let Nazis laugh in his face. He's the star of this first-person shooter, after all. He uses the heaviest machine guns imaginable to kill Nazi after Nazi. He shoots Nazi robots, too.
In one level, Blazkowicz discovers some Nazi plans. He looks over some documents. They're written in Hebrew. He's able to translate.
The hints are there that B.J. Blazkowicz, video game killer of Nazis since his debut in 1992's Wolfenstein 3D, is Jewish.
If only it was that clear. The new game's creators simply won't say.
"It's never explicitly stated in the game," a spokesperson for the game's U.S.-based publisher Bethesda told me, saying the game's creators at the Swedish development studio Machine Games decided to keep things vague. "They leave it up to the player to interpret."
This feels typical of video games, a purportedly brash medium that seems forever more timid than movies, books and other forms of entertainment. Why not be explicit? Why not say that we're playing as a Jewish killer of Nazis instead of just hinting at it? Why not animate the action of the game with that strong added motivational push?
Consider that video games have long been filled with Nazis, yet they haven't included many Jewish characters. More to the point, games have recreated battle after battle from World War II, but good luck finding a major World War II game that mentions the Holocaust, let alone identifies the Nazis as the genocidal perpetrators of that horror.
The evil of the video game Nazi is usually taken as a given or presented as a generic awfulness. In The Saboteur, a 2009 game featuring an Irish freedom fighter in occupied France, Nazis are simply cruel to everyone in Paris who isn't German. In the more realistic Brothers in Arms games, Nazis are the powerfully-equipped enemy force that poses a strategic challenge to a small crew of American fighting men. There are no concentration camp liberations in Call of Duty.
Let's check in with Hollywood, shall we? The Oscar-nominated film Inglourious Basterds features Jewish Americans killing Nazis. It mentions that the Nazis killed Jews. It has a guy nicknamed the Bear Jew bludgeoning a Nazi with a baseball bat.
And what of video games?
The first of the progressive BioShock games includes a Jewish supporting character, Brigid Tenenbaum, who had been imprisoned in Auschwitz, though the game never refers to the notorious concentration camp by name.
A controversial independent game proposed to give players a chance to violently liberate a concentration camp.
The protagonist of Grand Theft Auto: The Lost and Damned is Jewish. Here's a game called The Shivah. And... surely I'm short a few examples. Pray tell, what are they?
It's curious what's holding games back, though a look at how infrequently major video games touch on sensitive issues such as racism or sexism suggests a general reticence to make their audience uncomfortable.
It's also, perhaps, hard to figure out how to explore unpleasant topics while making a game fun, and "fun" is what so many game creators and game players expect. The result is curious: we're wracking our brains to think of major video games that mention that Nazis killed Jews and we're struggling to come up with any.
There may also be legal and content concerns. Games sell well in Germany, yet depictions of Nazi symbols are outlawed in that country. When Wolfenstein's publisher Bethesda distributed screenshots of their new game, they warned that some shots should not be shown in certain countries:
The images in this folder are not allowed to be used in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. It can contain elements which are strictly illegal and which can be fined with jail. Please use officially approved materials in the GSA folder.
When the publisher announced the game, which involves Blazkowicz fighting against Nazis in a fictional future in which the Reich won World War II, it included this proviso:
Wolfenstein: The New Order is a fictional story set in an alternate universe in the 1960’s. Names, characters, organizations, locations and events are either imaginary or depicted in a fictionalized manner. The story and contents of this game are not intended to and should not be construed in any way to condone, glorify or endorse the beliefs, ideologies, events, actions, persons or behavior of the Nazi regime or to trivialize its war crimes, genocide, and other crimes against humanity.
I asked Tom Hall about B.J. Blazkowicz. As lead designer of Wolfenstein 3D, he created the character. He could at least tell me if Blazkowicz was supposed to be Jewish, I figured. There'd been rumors that he was Jewish and of Polish descent.
"That was never specified or intended at the time, though I intended him to be of Polish descent," Hall said over e-mail.
Hall noted that Commander Keen, another video game character, was Blazkowicz's grandson and "was based on my childhood." Hall is not Jewish. "But they are characters and not me," he added, "so...we shall see how B.J.'s story is told over time!"
We'll see. We'll see which stories video game creators can tell and, more importantly, which they're are willing to tell.
And what if Blazkowicz is Jewish? "An interesting angle," Hall remarked. "[It] deepens the meaning of his actions and struggle!"