Thematic Leaps in Video Game Writing

Consider for a moment what would happen if a filmmaker tried to make a big-budget action flick about the Holocaust. That film would be problematic for a whole bunch of reasons. We wouldn’t expect that movie to be met with positive reviews, if not shunned out of development all together.

Yet somehow, a video game called “Wolfenstein: The New Order,” a first-person shooter set in an alternate-history timeline where the Nazis develop superweapons and win WWII in 1946. A level in the game involves the protagonist—a Jewish-American army commando named William Blazkowitz—sneaking into a concentration camp to steal schematics for a device that can liberate the concentration camp and rescue an engineer that can develop a weapon to defeat the Nazis.

In the level, you sneak into the camp as a political prisoner that is placed in a specific cell block for Jews. You sneak through the camp, quietly eliminating the guards while sneaking past security systems. You find the device and break out by hijacking a giant Nazi guard robot with machine guns. The final shootout is gratuitously violent. The level features a lot of what the rest of the game is: shooting Nazis with laser guns and other high-tech weapons.

Somehow, “Wolfenstein” gets a free pass in its depiction of the holocaust, where a film that had the same plot and degree of violence would not. Issues of censorship aside, why do film audiences more quickly criticize the portrayal of real-life atrocities for entertainment value than gamers?

Films and video games both have industry-set standards of decency. There are certain things both films and video games simply will not do. Sexualizing rape, showing children dying in action sequences and unnecessary profanity, are all subject matter that filmmakers and videogame developers tend to avoid (with exceptions).

When it comes to difficult themes and portrayal of sensitive topics, audiences hold films to a higher standard than they do to video games. Why would it be unacceptable for a film to portray the holocaust in an action film when a video game that does the same becomes one of the bestselling, most lauded games of 2014?

There are a whole bunch of reasons why I think this is so. The demographic differences between film and game audiences, the levels placed in the larger narrative of the game and the novel decision to portray the Holocaust all shielded “Wolfenstein” from criticism that its film analogue would probably receive.

However, the largest reason is because video games have only recently began to incorporate smarter, deeper and more difficult themes in their games. Games like “The Stanley Parable,” “This War of Mine” and “Spec Ops: The Line” have been lauded for placing more emphasis on their thematic and narrative content than the quality of the gameplay itself. So, games that try to be deep automatically generate buzz because of their novelty, whether they are genuinely smart pieces of art or not. As video games explore smarter content, videogame audiences slowly develop a more mature palate as well.

I am not outraged at the developer’s choice. If anything, I think the level in the concentration camp was an attempt to acknowledge the atrocities the real-life Nazis committed. With Nazi lasers, Nazi robot dogs, Nazi nuclear submarines and a Nazi moon base, it is easy to forget what the real life Nazis did.

However, I think the developers could have taken a more sensitive approach to the level. The game features several levels that have no action sequences and only develop the narrative and characters. The concentration camp level could have been a non-violent, plot-advancing level, too, and would not have detracted from all the other great parts of the game.

Additionally, carefully designed visual cues such as lighting, the appearance of the non-player computer characters and dialogue could have helped give a more honest depiction of a fictional Holocaust.

Rather than shy away from difficult topics and themes, game audiences should continue to encourage game developers to make smarter, more stimulating video games. Rather than simply include hard topics to try and be “deep”, game developers should carefully consider how visual, interactive and narrative cues explore those topics and themes.

I don’t agree with the developer’s depiction of the holocaust. However, I do applaud the developers for trying to incorporate difficult topics into their product and hope that “Wolfenstein” sets a precedent for games in the future.