Killing Nazis, fighting religious fanaticism the focus of upcoming video games

As the U.S. grapples with white nationalists rallying in the streets and the violence that followed the protests in Charlottesville, Va., several soon-to-be-released video games are feeling disturbingly timely for some gamers.

Games take on new relevance in the current political climate

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, set for release on October 27, shows an alternate reality in which the Nazis won the Second World War and have taken over the U.S. (Machine Games/Bethesda Softworks)

As the U.S. grapples with white nationalists rallying in the streets and the violence that followed the protests in Charlottesville, Va., a couple of soon-to-be-released video games are feeling disturbingly timely for some gamers.

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, created by the Swedish-based Machine Games, is the hotly anticipated latest instalment in the widely popular series that lets gamers annihilate Nazis — which the game's website calls "everybody's favourite pastime."

So what's new about Nazis as bad guys? The fact that they're in 1960s America, and the Nazi flag is proudly draped along the city's streets — streets where men in Nazi uniforms are fraternizing with robed members of the Ku Klux Klan.

It's a world away from the more traditional Second World War background, where fighting the racist villains takes place on the beaches of Normandy. It's also hitting close to home for some gamers.

"The fact that there is an overlap between Wolfenstein II and reality is absolutely horrifying to me, especially as a Jewish person," said Eric Weiss, a Toronto-based video games editor for pop culture site Dork Shelf.

A 'necessary reminder'

Wolfenstein II, due out in October, is not the only upcoming video game to ring true.

Weiss also points to Ubisoft's Far Cry 5, scheduled to launch in February, which depicts a rural Montana town under the control of a religious doomsday cult. Players will meet and team up with the town's disenfranchised, some of whom feel abandoned by their leaders — a theme that permeated last year's U.S. election.

Ubisoft's Far Cry 5 forgoes the franchise's usual far-flung location in favour of setting the game in Montana, where a religious cult has taken hold of a rural town. (Ubisoft)

Basing the action in an American state is particularly striking since previous versions in the Far Cry franchise have been set on fictional tropical islands or in mountainous regions under the control of anonymous dictators.

According to Weiss, the game sends a message: "We have radicals and extremists right here at home, and right now they're marching in the streets, trying to exert control over small-town America."

But for video games to engage in such charged political themes at all — even those that depict the villains as outlandish caricatures — is "a good thing, because it's something we have to deal with right now," Weiss said, calling it a "necessary reminder."

'The most timely'

The online world was buzzing about both games in the days following the violent protests in Charlottesville, Va. Some gamers conflated images and themes from the "Unite the Right" rally with references to the games.

Comedic actor Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley, The Big Sick), citing the previous edition of the game, alluded to U.S. President Donald Trump's incorrect claim that the anti-fascism counter-protesters did not have a permit while the white nationalists did: "Replaying Wolfenstein & apologizing to all the people I killed because they had a permit to be there," he wrote on Twitter.

A producer for video game website GameSpot noted the timing: "In 2017, we've had games about the drugs wars, mental illnesses, and social revolutions, and a WOLFENSTEIN GAME IS BECOMING THE MOST TIMELY."

'We create escapism'

Despite the game resonating for many, those behind Wolfenstein II say the parallels with the rising voice of white nationalists in the U.S. were not intentional.

"The franchise has never been about trying to portray modern events or make a statement about current political events," said Pete Hines, VP of marketing and PR at Bethesda Softworks, the game's publisher.

"It is entirely this alternate universe where a heroic soldier named B.J. Blazkowicz is fighting against Nazis," Hines said.

Bethesda Softworks' VP of marketing said the plot of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus was part of a creative story arc and was never intended to 'make a statement about current political events.' (Machine Games/Bethesda Softworks)

"We recognize who we are and what we do: we're a video game company, we create entertainment. We create, for lack of a better word, escapism," he added.

Despite that, the company is aware the game's premise, and its trailer, is striking a chord with people.

Hines said Bethesda Softworks delayed last Monday's planned release of a promotional gameplay video for Wolfenstein II by a day, so it wouldn't immediately follow the violence in Charlottesville. 

One strawberry milkshake, please

In a striking scene in the game's dissonant, eight-minute-long trailer, a Nazi Kommandant strolls into a diner of what looks to be any Main Street of 1960s America.

He orders a strawberry milkshake, which he calls "perhaps [his] favourite American thing," while noting that the rest of the menu could stand to be more German.

The commander then turns to the camera, meeting your gaze, comments on your Aryan features, and asks you to show your identification papers.

Warning: video contains mature content.

Fans will have to wait until October 27 to see the full game and whether there will be more scenes as chilling. 

For Weiss, the trailer alone makes a strong point in a charged political climate, whether that was the intent or not. 

"Wolfenstein will likely end up being more frivolous than other treatments [on the issue] because it is supposed to be an entertaining video game, but when the message is that Nazis are bad, I don't think there's a wrong way to send that message." 


Salimah Shivji


Salimah Shivji is CBC's India correspondent, based in Mumbai. She has been a senior reporter with CBC's Parliamentary Bureau and has covered everything from climate change to corruption across Canada.

With files from CBC's Jonathan Ore