To liberate the United States, BJ needs to hijack the Ausmerzer. To do that, he needs the control codes. To get them, he needs to go to VenusWait, so NOBODY on Earth has the control codes? Doesn’t anyone on Earth need the control codes to, you know, control it?. To get to Venus, he needs to disguise himself as an actor.
See, the Nazis are making a propaganda movie about the capture and execution of Terror Billy and the auditions for the title role are being held on Venus. So BJ poses as an actor and goes to Venus to audition to play himself. While there, he can steal the MacGuffin codes. This means we have to meet the film producer, who turns out to be Der Führer himself, Adolf Hitler.
The Wolfenstein games have always had a weird relationship with Hitler. This is an action story, and action stories are generally a build-up to some final showdown between our hero and the ultimate embodiment of evil. This works really well in a story like Star Wars where the villain isn’t just the mastermind, but also a formidable foe for the protagonist to face off against. We can take the entire conflict of the two sides and boil it down to a fight between two people. This can take a large, abstract conflict and make it deeply personal. The problem is that this doesn’t work nearly as well when you’re making a story based on historical events, because the most powerful leader is rarely the most fearsome warrior.
Having BJ kill Hitler wouldn’t be particularly cathartic because in combat he’s just an old politician with a dumb mustache. On the other hand, it feels really strange to leave him out. Everyone’s first question will be, “So what about Adolf Hitler?” He might not be a good boss fight, but this series is built around the desire for lowbrow wish fulfillment / power fantasy, and bringing justice to one of the most hated figures of the 20th century fits right in with that sort of thing. On the other, other hand, we want to kill our villain at the end of the story for maximum emotional and thematic payoff, but the audience already understands that killing Hitler doesn’t magically stop the Nazi war machine or end the slaughter. Basically, the audience will naturally desire – and perhaps even expect – something which is going to be both implausible and unfulfilling as an end to the story.
Wolfenstein 3D handled this by putting Hitler inside a Mecha-suit to make him a more interesting threat, and his fight appeared at the end of the third chapter in a six-part story. The Hitler confrontation was a climax, but not the climax.
Wolfenstein II is a pretty silly game, but it’s not quite cartoonish enough to pull off Mecha-Hitler without dissolving into comedy. So instead of making him a physical threat, the writer makes him an object of audience ridicule. We see Hitler as an old manHe’d be 72 by this point.. He’s a disgusting senile beast who shuffles around in his bathrobe and pukes and pisses all over the room. He spits when he talks, his mood oscillates all over the place, and he casually executes people for trivial slights, real or imagined. Normally I dislike taking historical figures and turning them into grotesque caricatures for ridicule, but I figure once you’ve perpetrated a Holocaust you’re fair game.
People like to pretend Hitler was some sort of mutant instead of just a regular human being with very bad ideas because it helps us feel better about ourselves, and maybe this sort of mockery isn’t always the most nuanced or mature way to engage with this topic. But screw it. If there’s anywhere it’s appropriate to trade in slanderously exaggerated depictions of Hitler, it’s in a Wolfenstein game. This might not be the best place to learn about the complexities of historical figures or the fragility of human nature, but that’s not why we’re here.
Having said that, I really do have a problem with this scene.
A Pointless Scene
While I agree that this is a great idea for a scene in a Wolfenstein game, you still need to integrate the scene with the rest of the story. We introduce five new characters in this scene: The casting director, three other actors, and Hitler himself. These characters exist only in this scene. Nothing that happens here has any bearing on the rest of the game. BJ doesn’t attain his goal or even move any closer to it. This isn’t a lead-up to a confrontation with Hitler, who we never see again. This scene is thirteen and a half minutes long, and you could excise the entire thing from the game and the player wouldn’t even know there was anything missing. You could cut from the moment BJ gets off the ship to the moment he unpacks his bags in his room and it would feel completely seamless.
There’s no real gameplay, so this doesn’t work as part of a videogame. And the plot doesn’t move forward so it doesn’t work as part of a movie. Again, this is just self-indulgent on the part of the writer.
To be fair, there’s actually a tiny bit of gameplay and a bit of tension in the scene. There’s a gag where you have to memorize your lines and recite them accurately using a Telltale-style dialog selector. I think this would work better if there was more fear of being outed. BJ feels like such a force of nature at this point that it’s hard to be scared of the guards in the room, even if they’re armed and BJ isn’t. If you were here with some allies and you needed to keep from raising any alarms while they were sneaking around the station doing their part, then you might have something to be uneasy about. Also, this scenario could involve some of the people we’ve been recruiting, thus making them more obviously useful.
Once the audition is over, BJ goes back to his room, gets his gun, and goes on a massive murder-spree across the base to get the control codes of the Ausmerzer.
This means it’s a good time to talk about:
The level design in this game does not flow. I can’t tell you how many times I wound up in the middle of a battle with music swelling and Nazis shouting in the distance while I wandered around trying to figure out where the next batch of murders were. The shouting makes me think I need to go east, but the east passage is a dead end, but if I go north and crawl through a random vent it will take me to the next bit.
It’s true that not all games need to hold your hand through the levels. Exploration-focused games like Deus Ex, Thief, and System Shock often expect you to look around and find your own route through the environment. The thing is, this isn’t that kind of game. This is supposedly a fast paced shooter that has confusing layouts that kill the pacing and flow.
As I’ve belabored in the past, Half-Life 2 is the gold standard for this sort of thing. The level designers have an entire language they use to help you understand the world around you. At a glance you can tell a real door from a fake one. Item pickups are placed on the other side of obstacles as a way of getting the player’s attention and letting them know they’re supposed to find a way around. Lights are used to draw your eye so you know where to go next. Dead ends are left dim so you don’t blunder into them and get confused. Interactive features like switches and levers have distinctive colors that pop against the background so you can see them from far away. The areas are lit to facilitate play rather than frustrate or confuse.
This is not because players are dum-dums. It’s because in an action game you want to preserve the sense of urgency, and confused backtracking kills the pacing. It’s easy to get turned around or confused in a hectic firefight, and sucks the fun out of the experience if the player realizes they just spent two minutes backtracking and now need to turn around and walk for two more minutes to get back to the action.
A good environment does the Half-Life 2 thing and leads you down one clear path while tricking you into thinking you’re choosing one of many. A lesser environment is obviously linear, but still leads you from one area to the next. The worst environment is both completely linear but also completely muddled so that you have no sense of where you’re going, how to get there, or how the place fits together. This is how the levels of New Colossus work. I had the same problem with Batman: Arkham Origins.
I lost track of the number of times I arrived at a room and had no idea where I was supposed to go next. Where am I headed? Which direction? Am I looking for a switch? A vent? Is this big control room just a detour and my real goal was a side-door in the last hallway? There are lots of large rooms that are symmetrical on both axes, so that once you put down the Nazis you can’t tell which of the four doors you entered through and which one is the way forward.
This is exacerbated by the occasional copy / paste rooms. Sometimes you’ll enter a room that’s an identical copy of a room you went through ten minutes ago. Have I come full circle, or is this an identical room in a different location? Did I get turned around and backtrack? Yes, in the real world it’s pretty common to have repeating patterns. Change floors in a school, hotel, hospital, or apartment building and you’ll find the same layout used again and again. But since we’re on the planet Venus fighting space Nazis, I don’t think you can defend this sort of thing with the excuse of “realism”. And even in the real world, there are often decorative features to differentiate places. Move the furniture aroundRight after you add furniture. Do Nazis not sit down?. Change the lighting color. Put some posters up. Make one area greasy and cluttered and another area tidy and clean.
Yes, there’s a waypoint system to help guide you through the level. It has the following problems:
- This is a brute-force solution. The fact that this is needed at all indicates the level design has a problem. Most corridor shooters get along just fine without this.
- The markers are actually hard to see. It’s a tiny white square that appears for a few seconds when you hit a button. If you’re in a bright room the little bugger is almost invisible against all the bloom lighting.
- Sometimes the marker makes the problem worse! I’ve had it lead me astray. In the very first level during the wheelchair tutorial section, I had the waypoint telling me to go upstairs, where I just came from. You can’t even climb stairs in the wheelchair. Other times it will show your goal as far off, but you won’t have any idea how to get there. You walk towards it and find yourself at a dead end.
“Shamus, maybe you’re just dumb and bad at videogames?”
Maybe. But it’s funny how I’m only dumb and bad when I’m playing Wolfenstein II. I don’t seem to have any of these problems with other shooters.
Even ignoring the navigation problems, the level design is pretty disappointing. Often I’d find myself shooting at guys in black armor who were standing in front of a black background. Levels have a lot of vertical travel, but for some reason not a lot of vertical combat. Even in multi-level rooms, most of the fight took place at eye level. Guys rarely ambushed from above. A lot of the spaces look very generic. Yes, there’s tons of texture detail and high-resolution shadows, but the game is rendering a box hallway with some crates in it that leads to a generic open room with Nazi flags and more crates. I’d gladly sacrifice a generation or two of graphical fidelity in exchange for some details to make this space look useful and lived-in.
The layouts are also frequently nonsensical. Here on Venus we have this spot:
We’re supposed to get to the “control room”. You might think this big circular central room is the control room. But no, the control room is a smaller room beside this one. There’s a door on both sides of it. So you’ll walk around to one door and see it’s locked. Then you navigate all the way around to the other side and try the other one, but that’s locked too. Are you looking for a switch? A key? A vent in the wall? Next you’ll try shooting the glass, but of course that doesn’t work because all the environments in this game are completely static.
Finally you give up and ask the game to show you the waypoint so you know where to go. It turns out you’re supposed to blow up that giant planet display in the middle of the not-the-control-room, and underneath that is a vent that leads into the control room.
Yes, New Order had one or two spots where I got turned around and I thought the way forward seemed a little obtuse. But here in New Colossus the level design is less interesting and the flow is much worse.
No, these moments don’t ruin New Colossus. These are just occasional annoyances along the way and they usually last less than a minute. But my point is that once again, New Order did it so much better.
Once BJ gets the access codes from the Venus base he jumps in a little ship and zips back to Earth like he’s taking a taxi. No worrying about timing or launch windows or guidance. No need for a copilot. He doesn’t even need a booster to get off the planet. The ship just takes off from the surface of Venus and carries him all the way to the surface of Earth. Apparently you can make the entire Venusian round-trip in just a couple of days. (We know it can’t be longer than that since BJ’s hair and beard don’t grow out and when we get back Anya’s pregnancy hasn’t advanced.)
I’m not saying Wolfenstein needs to be based on hard science. I’m just warning you that if you’ve ever played Kerbal Space Program then this cutscene will probably make you a little crazy. You might need to bite down on something to get through it. On the other hand if you think the trip from Venus can be done in a couple of hours then don’t worry about it. It’s all good.
 Wait, so NOBODY on Earth has the control codes? Doesn’t anyone on Earth need the control codes to, you know, control it?
 He’d be 72 by this point.
 Right after you add furniture. Do Nazis not sit down?
Quakecon 2012 Annotated
An interesting but technically dense talk about gaming technology. I translate it for the non-coders.
The Best of 2013
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2013.
Game at the Bottom
Why spend millions on visuals that are just a distraction from the REAL game of hotbar-watching?
C++ is a wonderful language for making horrible code.
The Gradient of Plot Holes
Most stories have plot holes. The failure isn't that they exist, it's when you notice them while immersed in the story.