A burnt, scarred hand holds a quickly disintegrating cigarette. The hand is attached to an African American woman breast-feeding her child, as she describes her history and hatred of the current Nazi regime. Her name is Grace, and she is flat-out tired of your bullshit.
(Spoiler Alert for Wolfenstein II and multiple Tyler Perry movies)
The image sticks with you more than her story, though. A woman giving sustenance to an infant via the miracle of the human body while simultaneously destroying her own body via one of humanity’s most insidious inventions is so effed up, you can’t forget it. It’s also one of many provocative, powerful, lasting images in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus that stick with you long after you’re done playing.
Weeks removed from the ‘beating’ the game, the game’s plot has grown fuzzy, but many moments, like the one above, remain crystal clear – including one that turns Grace’s own prejudices and belief structure on its head.
In the aftermath and analysis of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, it’s been common to see the game compared to Quentin Tarantino’s style, due to Tarantino and Wolfenstein’s fondness for juxtaposing pugnacious violence with startling moments of humility and humanity; and of course painfully obvious Inglorious Basterds comparisons.
But Tarantino isn’t really the most apt comparison – believe it or not Tarantino is far, far more grounded in reality. The men you should be thanking is Hideo Kojima….And Tyler Perry, both of whom are shockingly similar in their approach to drama, even if their subject matter, and competence, vary wildly. By combining them, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus becomes something entirely unique.
Confused? Read on to learn more.
1. Tyler Perry’s The Family That
Preys Kills Nazis
Hideo Kojima and Tyler Perry are over-the-top auteurs that deliver provocative and memorable images and content – even if you can’t call all of them them explicitly ‘good’. Kojima took his Metal Gear Solid universe in bizarre directions involving possessed arms, honest-to-god vampires, a dash of not-quite-incest, and some sickeningly sexualized enemies in MGS4 that, like Grace from above, stick with you, even if you’re not sure why.
Similarly, Tyler Perry is a man who juxtaposes serious issues of abuse, racism, and black culture with the insanity of his most popular character – Madea – slapping people around for comic relief.
For example: 2008’s The Family That Preys, like a lot of Tyler Perry movies, is wildly uneven, moving from serious relationship questions regarding infidelity, implicit racism, and financial security to a feel-good road trip involving secret cancer and a baptism, to just about the most over-the-top slap in Cinema history…which is curiously not on YouTube.
Wolfenstein, brilliantly, rides this line that Perry sometimes struggles with. The ethnicity of its characters are played up in a way that could be considered offensive if not for the fact all the characters are played that way. Grace, and her crew of African American resistance fighters, all seem to sport afros and Huey P. Newton style gear, and talk with ‘urban’ slang and accents…riding a line between authenticity, stereotype, and absurdist caricature that could get a game developer in a lot of trouble…if not for the fact all the characters are presented in a similarly absurd way.
Set Roth is a German Scientist who also seems to speak and act in a stereotypically ‘Jewish’ and ‘eccentric’ way, dropping words and phrases in the Jewish vernacular of Yiddish. Sigrun Engel is the spitting image of a a modern-day German stereotype, down to her rolly-poly nature, and wearing almost the exact same outfit as Unter, the German exchange student from The Simpsons. Probst Wyatt III is an archetype of a disillusioned returning vet, who finds himself challenged by the world and the war and turns to drugs for the answer. BJ is your typical American cowboy killing machine; uncharacteristically sensitive sure, but he is on the ship and in the game for one reason – he’s good at killin’ Nazis.
What Wolfenstein II does that’s Perry-sian (Perrisian?) is give largely two-dimensional characters ‘flavor’ by playing up their cultural specificity across the board in a way that makes them likable and identifiable; so their interpersonal conflicts feel human and real – even at the ‘culture clash’ level – Grace may hate Sigrun, but we like them both, so we hope they learn to respect one another.
Tyler Perry typically brings things together by having women and men of color from various backgrounds and economic spheres collide and rage in chaotic fashion before ultimately unifying under the banner of their heritage or family or womanhood or God, often via a speech demanding solidarity.
Wolfenstein has them unite under the banner of freedom:
Narratively speaking, Perry’s best film, ‘For Colored Girls’ – which is hard to call *good* – features brutally powerful scenes of women in despair and triumph, with problems varying wildly from infidelity, to sexual assault, to literally an Alcoholic Iraq War veteran dangling his school-aged kids out of an apartment window during a PTSD flashback. There’s also poetry, healing, prayer, HIV, men hiding their sexuality, and speeches about empowerment, and…lots, lots, lots, more. Though the tonal shifts are less insane (Madea does *not* show up to dole our corporal enlightenment), the over-the-top nature of these happenings ring true to Tyler Perry’s particular brand of emotionally powerfully but painfully uneven film making.
Between Thandie Newton’s screeching self-destruction, Loretta Devine’s heart-tugging lonliness, and Janet Jackson’s entire arc, it’s hard to forget ‘For Colored Girls’ simply because you’ve never seen these sorts of moments in this particular way before.
Wolfenstein features a pig you need to feed, LSD, an interracial submarine hookup, free milkshakes, a hint of an alien invasion, a movie audition, Adolf Hitler, a friendly punching content, and a man absolutely thrilled to use an actual working toilet.
Tyler Perry’s films, outside of the subjective nature of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ do what art, and arguably entertainment, is designed to do – garner a reaction. How that reaction is garnered depends on the creator or director. Perry seems to enjoy the three-ring circus approach, throwing everything in the proverbial pot figuring at least something will stick with you, even if you’re not the film’s target audience.
Whether or not Wolfenstein’s II characterization and major story beats appeal to you is almost beside the point – they’ll stick with you regardless due to their provocative and unique nature. I promise you’ve never seen a bare-chested pregnant woman covered in blood dual-wielding assault rifles shooting at a giant Nazi dog before – as I’m sure you’ve never seen a 6’5 tall black man in drag playing an elderly woman shooting up her own house with a machine gun, just as you haven’t seen a German woman violently choke a Black woman, demanding she be treated as a human being – and be (mostly) in the right.
I promise you’ve never had your character’s head cut completely off and expected them to live on to the next mission – and shockingly have it *work* in the context of the world’s characters, setting, and storyline.
…Which brings us to Mr. Hideo Kojima.
3. War Has Changed…
If Wolfenstein II’s characterization and themes feel like a refined, quality of version of what Tyler Perry’s been up to, Wolfenstein’s world, pacing, and not-at-all-subtle sci-fi-itizaiton of our history owes Mr. Kojima a thank you.
Metal Gear Solid started out as a somewhat grounded in reality franchise, and morphed from using terms like DARPA and getting specific about various geopolitical organizations, to being about outlandish things like semi-sentient human arms, cowboy-obsessed Russian agents, whatever the heck Psycho Mantis and Vamp are, and the dangers of how too much information can ultimately ruin the notion of ‘facts’ for everyone.
Aside from your opinion of the franchise’s steadily escalating march toward sci-fi insanity, it’s important to note Metal Gear Solid wouldn’t be where it is today had Kojima not handled this stuff nearly perfectly in the first game; something Wolfenstein has done well, too.
Within the first few moments of Wolfenstein: The New Order, there’s a giant robot in the distance and you’re fighting cyborg dogs, setting the stage and letting players know the world is not as it seems. So when the game jumps into the future, introduces modifiable tech-based body armor, mech suits, flying drones, and finds you journeying to Venus and The Moon…you can accept it.
But what Wolfenstein and Kojima have most in common is their command of the language of cinema; something most games struggle with. Even an excellent game like The Witcher 3, with its massive world and endless quests and incredible gameplay largely relies on characters standing and talking to one-another at a completely flat angle. Skyrim as well. And Assassin’s Creed too…and three..and…Black Flag….and so on. Very little in these games communicated explicitly through visuals – being massive games, it’s probably a requirement due to resources.
Meanwhile, Metal Gear Solid while often…overly chatty, changed the world of gaming by utilizing creative angles, appropriately somber music during somber moments, close ups for emotion and wide-angles for wonder – it made you feel because of what you saw. Silly moments like Otacon peeing himself, or tragic ones like Sniper Wolf shivering as her wolves come to her send her off, and perhaps most poignant, Psycho Mantis relaying how…nice it feels to help someone stick in your brain.
They also blew the doors off of anything we’d ever seen. Words like sad, poignant, and scary entered the mainstream vernacular at a level unseen before. We’d had these sorts of moments in RPGs, but this was the first time a game had this level of production value.
Which makes sense, since Kojima watched a lot of movies, and it showed. You could see Metal Gear Solid’s influences on its sleeve. In the same way Metroid happily borrowed its aesthetics from Alien, and Halo 2 happily borrowed the whole ‘space marines’ thing from Aliens, Metal Gear Solid borrowed a heck of a lot from Michael Bay’s The Rock and from John Carpenter’s Escape from LA.
But it’s what Kojima borrowed that changed the game. Metroid took concepts, the equipment, the art-design, and the notion of your heroine ending up in her skivvies by the end of the story. Kojima borrowed tone, pacing, music, and melodrama. It was just about the first time a phrase like ‘Interactive Movie’ could be uttered and not laughed out of the building.
I’m not saying Wolfenstein II ‘got its ideas’ from Tyler Perry or Hideo Kojima. The writer and primary visionary behind the game, Jens Matthies has actually cited Inglorious Basterds (along with Robocop and District 9) as influences in print.
Rather, I’m saying Wolfenstein II: The New Colossuses, feels like the next iterative step from Kojima. Sure, there are influences, but they’re harder to pick out. If Metroid borrowed the ‘look’ of Alien, and Metal Gear Solid borrowed the ‘vibe’ of Michael Bay, Wolfenstein II borrows the essence…of, well, a lot of things you can’t quite pinpoint – it’s a melting pot, not a homage.
Wolfenstein II isn’t an obvious take on ‘Inglorious Basterds’ or ‘Saving Private Ryan’ in the same way Metroid ripped of Alien or Metal Gear Solid ripped off ‘The Rock’ or Grand Theft Auto: Vice City ripped off ‘Scarface’.
For some inexplicable reason Wolfenstein II’s characterization made me think of Tyler Perry, and its futuristic, techno-focused future (and linear structure) reminded me of Hideo Kojima. What Wolfenstein II does, and this is ‘the magic’ and why it’s a GOTY contender – is invite comparison across mediums because it’s so uniquely its own thing.
It reminded me of Kojima’s world-building and Tyler Perry’s proclivities – in fact surpassing them in many ways. Perry’s problem is he often goes over-the-top too often, treating his characters as cartoon characters or actual people depending on the scene, especially Madea. Kojima often treats the world as we know it as a cartoon, playing with history and available technology for a given time-period – as if he’s making it up as he goes along.
By giving us the over-the-top characters and melding them with an over-the-top world, Wolfenstein II comes out ahead in a big, bad way. It’s a whole ‘new’ thing. I’m not saying other games haven’t had unique and fresh stories, I’m just saying Wolfenstein II feels like the apex, Machine Games in total command of story, character, tone, and gameplay.
It feels like the kind of game movies should be ripping off any day now.