I’ve been spending some time this week trying to put together a list of my favorite games of the year, both for Isometric and just for my own purposes. As I’m doing that, I’m realizing that I’m kind of putting off what I really need to talk about, which is what has been my game of the year for most of the year, and may still be, which is Wolfenstein: The New Order. I go back-and-forth with this, because I realize that as far as the gameplay is concerned, Wolfenstein is nothing special. It’s a standard first person shooter, which is actually kind of bucking a trend by going back to the old school first person shooter mechanics, with a numerical health bar that doesn’t regenerate when you let your shields charge up after not taking it for a period of time. In fact, I felt like some of the boss battles were even borderline unfair at times, and the difficulty curve spiked a little bit too much for my liking. But my reasons for feeling so strongly about Wolfenstein really have nothing to do with the mechanics, and are almost in spite of them to some degree, because I don’t really like first person shooter games as a rule. In fact, I love this game despite the fact that it’s a first person shooter, not because of it.
No, the reason I decided to take a chance on Wolfenstein was an article that I had read right before the game came out that had implied that the main character, BJ Blazkowicz, was Jewish. It turns out that if that is the case, it was only hinted at in the design documents, and that detail never actually made it into the game. However, what actually did make it into the team was a far better depiction of Judaism than I have ever seen in the 30 years that I have been playing video games, and, as a Jew, this game touched me in a way that no other game I can think of.
Before I get into the specifics of Wolfenstein, I think a little bit of background of what it’s like to be a consumer of games in particular, and of media in general, as a Jew, is in order. The general caricature of a Jew in media is the nerd, or the nebbishy guy who is socially awkward, and is generally not portrayed in a great life. There are some exceptions, of course; Seinfeld is a big one that did a really great job of depicting what it’s like to actually be a modern Jew in America, which is to say that it’s just like being anybody else in American society most of the time, with a few differences here and there. Typically, though, when there’s a Jewish person in media, it’s as the butt of the joke or the wimpy, helpless guy, and not someone who’s a strong character or strong because of their Judaism. (A perfect example right now is the character of Howard on The Big Bang Theory; even among the four main characters he’s the only one who lives with his mother, and anything Jewish is typically just pointed out as one more reason why he’s weird. In fact, in the early seasons he was portrayed as outright creepy, as opposed to just goofy and socially awkward like the other three main characters.)
However bad this is in media in general, it’s way, way worse in games. You can literally count the number of Jewish characters included across the history of video games on two hands, and they almost always are cast as negative stereotypes. Grand Theft Auto has the Jewish Mafia, for instance. South Park: The Stick of Truth has a playable class called simply “Jew”, with powers like the Sling of David, an attack dreidel and something called the Circum-scythe, just to give an idea of the level of sophistication that you’d expect from a South Park game. Some Jewish people can play that game and find it empowering, but I’m not one of them. This is, of course, not including some really terrible ideas that thankfully never saw the light of day.
And even when games try to do it right they tend to fall flat. The canonical “Jewish game” is called The Shivah. It’s a point and click murder mystery from 2006, and the main character is a rabbi. But it ultimately tries too hard; the cursor is literally a Jewish star, for crying out loud. I’ve tried to play it, but it didn’t speak to me, and I doubt I could give it to one of my non-Jewish friends and have it say something to them because that really isn’t my experience as a reform/secular Jew. In fact, when my wife saw the interface as I tried to play it, all she could say was, “Really?!” as she rolled her eyes.
So really, I’d given up on having a Jewish character in a game that I could relate to. I figured it just wasn’t going to happen, and I just kind of made my peace with that. Religion tends not to come up in games to begin with for good reason, so I just kind of accepted that it was something that was going to be a joke at best and leave it to the domain of the white whale. In any event, games have had a hard enough time with female characters, especially protagonists, and women make up more than 50% of population; what chance does a group with a tiny fraction of that level of representation in society have?
Warning: major spoilers for Wolfenstein: The New Order lie ahead. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t want to see those before you play the game, go ahead and do that and then come back to this post when you’re done.
Then came Wolfenstein: The New Order. As some background, the game takes place in an alternate history circa 1960, after the Allies lost World War II to the Nazis. Blazkowicz was part of a raid on a Nazi stronghold, but was captured and tortured to the point where he was mentally incapacitated and placed into an asylum where he lives out the next fifteen years in a vegetative state. He wakes up as the Nazis are shutting down the asylum despite his doctors’ resistance, and escapes with the nurse who was caring for him. He eventually links up with the tiny remains of the anti-Nazi resistance within Germany and starts working to get revenge. From that perspective it’s a fairly standard bro shooter, though they do a good job of making the characters feel like real people and not just vessels for guns.
Where things get interesting, though, is about halfway through the game where they find a flaw in the concrete-like material that the Nazis have used to build up all of their fortresses since winning the war. They track down an engineer named Set Roth who has the knowledge to be able to exploit the flaws in the Nazis’ technology and hopefully bring the regime down with it. However, Roth is Jewish, which means that Blazkowicz will need to infiltrate a concentration camp in order to rescue him.
This is the point where I got really nervous. First person shooters are not typically known for their sensitive treatment of material like the Holocaust in general and concentration camps in particular. That said, Wolfenstein actually did a good job of being respectful of the location and what it means, and it showed the terrible conditions within without going overboard for the sake of going overboard. (There are scenes with furnaces used to incinerate bodies elsewhere in the game, I should note, but never within the concentration camp scene.) In fact, I welled up a bit as Blazkowicz, upon entering the camp, was subjected to receiving the infamous tattoo that all Jews were branded with during the Holocaust. [Update: It’s been pointed out to me that tattooing only happened at Auschwitz, and this concentration camp was located in Croatia. The scene was still powerful despite the historical inaccuracy, though.]
What was even more impressive than the treatment of the concentration camp was the character of Roth himself, though. Rather than being the shy and nebbishy character I’ve come to expect, Roth is whip smart and tough as nails. This is also the first time I can remember ever hearing Hebrew or Yiddush spoken, and spoken correctly, in a video game. Roth welcomes Blazkowicz back from one of his missions to take down the camp with “Yasher Koach”, which is a traditional Hebrew phrase of congratulations that’s usually used after someone receives an honor during services at the synagogue.
A tiny detail that really showed me that the developers cared about portraying Roth correctly as a Jew was that he speaks Hebrew with an Ashkenazi (Eastern European) accent. This is something I grew up hearing from older people in the synagogues I belong to but which isn’t taught anymore; when I learned Hebrew I was taught with the modern accent that Israeli Hebrew is spoken in. For someone who lived in Eastern Europe at that time, though, it was completely appropriate for Roth to speak with that accent and it actually surprised me that they paid attention to the degree that they picked up the correct accent for that character.
The kicker, though, is the revelation in the last third of the game that all the technology that the Nazis have used to win the war and subsequently rule the world was stolen from an ancient Jewish mystical society called Da’at Yichud, of which Roth is one of the last surviving members. This society has cracked the code of science and gotten access to technology hundreds of years ahead of its time; while stealing this technology is what gave the Nazis the edge, it’s Roth and Da’at Yichud’s remaining technology that is instrumental in turning the tide and winning the war. This simple plot decision takes the Jews in this story from being the victim and lets them be the hero, albeit indirectly. It let me be the hero in a way I’ve never felt before. And it did it all without ever addressing Blazkowicz’s background.
Ultimately, my issue isn’t a lack of Jewish representation in games; I may be Jewish, but I’m also a straight white male, so it’s not like I can’t find representation in gaming easily enough. My issue is that when games attempt to include Jewish characters they often do it so poorly that I end up wishing they hadn’t tried in the first place. Wolfenstein: The New Order is one of the first (possibly the only) game I’ve played that took the time to include a Jewish character and elements of Judiasm as a whole without devolving into lazy, offensive stereotypes, and that’s something that I truly appreciate. Wolfenstein: The New Order may not be the best game to come out this year, but it will always have a special place in my heart for taking my religion and treating it with respect where it so often is either ignored or outright ridiculed.
That’s something to say yasher koach to.