Wolfenstein: The New Order Explores the War Against Trauma

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You know what I remember most about Wolfenstein: The New Order? The first thing that comes to mind? It’s not laser guns, towering boss fights, or bombastic explosions. It’s a conversation between protagonist William “BJ” Blazkowicz and his ally Caroline Becker. You see, The New Order is something of a sequel to 2009’s Wolfenstein, and that entry ended with Caroline thrown seemingly to her death. When you’re reunited almost a decade later in an alt-history 1960s dominated by a Nazis-ruled world, trauma has changed them both.

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It’s not a question of faltering resolve, but William’s got several chunks of debris lodged in his head and Caroline’s paralyzed from the legs down. Each is world-wary, bearing the scars of fighting a relentless war against the Reich that would see them exterminated for such ailments. That alone makes William and Caroline’s fight instantly understandable, but there’s a difference between justification and what it means for them.

Caroline’s been relegated to a wheelchair for years, and she needs your help liberating several experimental helicopters for the resistance. Once tucked inside the cockpit, the two finally catch up on what happened between Wolfenstein and The New Order. Caroline recalls the painful memories of her back breaking and the surgeries to save her life. She suffered greatly for the cause to stop the Nazis, and her reward is to struggle even harder. Yet when William apologizes for the loss of her legs, Caroline responds quickly, “Don’t be. I’ve learned how to fly,” as the helicopter bursts into the sky, an early triumph in their renewed war against the Reich.

This moment is the thesis of The New Order. No matter how relentlessly cruel the world may be, we can overcome it. For every door shut, there’s another way. You have to strive for hope, and in doing so, become a beacon to others. William’s return is certainly handy for all his Nazi-stomping capabilities, but at the end of the day, it’s how he heartens the resistance that ensures victory.

It’s through aiding him that Anya finds purpose, and their burgeoning love inspires her to believe that there is a chance for something better. Before they met, she’d been fighting all on her own, striking back at the Nazis as she could but still unable to save her parents. The rest of the resistance fits inside a single house, each member pulling triple duty, but a lone helping hand eases their struggles. Multiple quick sidequests dive deeper into each character’s backstory and their current struggles, whether it’s returning toys to a mentally handicapped member’s bedside or crossing generational lines to reach a frustrated younger member of the team.

Whichever of the two allies you chose to save at the opening of the game is at the end of their rope in particular, leaning on William while grappling with survivor’s guilt after all these years. At the same time the guilt of failing to stop General Deathshead weighs heavily on William, filling his internal monologue along the way. William lost so much time and can’t begin to process all the lives he could’ve saved — but there’s nothing he can do about that. All that can be done is to rise up and pick up the fight.

Wolfenstein: The New Order Explores the War Against Trauma with the disabled and Nazis Bethesda Machine Games

Worst of all is the lot of Set Roth, a Jewish inventor you discover in the game’s shockingly not-in-bad-taste concentration camp level. Set and William debate whether God is testing the world, to which Set bitterly chuckles, “If God is testing us, then we are failing gloriously.” Yet, he never stops working to heal his fellow inmates, nor does he flinch in the face of death. Like all your allies, Set Roth is a man who has overcome the fear of death and all the pain that the Nazis have dealt him. He doesn’t deny the horrific state of the world. He doesn’t deny the odds for himself and the resistance, but he keeps fighting anyway.

By contrast, the Nazis that hound you aren’t downcast or dour. Deathshead insists, “I don’t like that name. I’m a happy man, see?” with a crooked grin. General Engel and her boy toy traipse through the plot like honeymooners, threatening you with a test while you’re undercover to see if you’re a pure-blooded Aryan or a degenerate only to then laugh and say it’s all a joke. These horrible people gaslight you, condemn you, take nothing but the uttermost joy in ensuring your suffering. They sow trauma with every step, not even because it’s necessary but because they can.

Wolfenstein: The New Order Explores the War Against Trauma with the disabled and Nazis Bethesda Machine Games

This is what makes Wolfenstein: The New Order such a departure from most World War II games. It’s not simply about fighting the Nazis because they’re an easy villain to slap into an FPS, but instead it’s about what they represent. A cold, heartless machine that bruises, abuses, and crushes all those in its way. The war William faces isn’t against a faceless enemy but of creatures so twisted and devoid of empathy that they feel utterly inhuman.

That’s why every action you take is to dismantle that machine and save any you can. When you escape the concentration camp, William tears through cell block after cell block. Each little favor you do for your allies grants a moment of relief to your fellow survivors. For however much destruction William unleashes, it’s always in service to protect and liberate, not oppress. Everyone he and the resistance struggles for just wants to survive, to exist, free of fear of someone stomping down on them for being who they are. So that they have a chance to fly, and be free of this pain.

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Elijah Beahm
Elijah’s your Guy Friday for all things strange and awesome in gaming. You can catch his latest discoveries on Twitter @UnabridgedGamer, Boss Level Gamer, Unwinnable, and his YouTube channel The Unabridged Gamer.