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In this post, Pieter Van den Heede reflects on how video games about World War II offer repetitive and sometimes troublesome perspectives on the war. He also thinks about new ideas for future games.

Pieter Van den Heede, Blogger

November 24, 2015

7 Min Read

The Nazis are alive and kicking. Or better: they still are after seventy years. And just like during the war period, they effortlessly make the headlines. Not only does a reference to the Führer or the death camps seem obligatory to a political debate; the jackboots also dominate popular culture, and video games in particular.


Zombie Army Trilogy Launch Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RGJsOWnbIZA


Take two of the biggest World War II-games released this year. One the one hand there’s the Nazi Zombie Trilogy, in which you can mow down loads of undead with a sniper rifle, and watch how their heads explode through a bloody x-ray kill cam. One the other, there’s Bethesda’s Wolfenstein The Old Blood: a good old shoot ‘em up-fest in which you obtain your goals by maiming SS soldiers, dogs and robots alike.

The tagline from Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds‘we’re into the killing-Nazi business’ – doesn’t only apply to both games; it seemingly originates from the Wolfenstein-series, since the first part of the FPS-franchise was already published in 1992.


And exactly that premise grows a little bit tired.


Don’t get me wrong. Most of these games, like the recent Wolfenstein-titles, are actually really good. The gunplay is solid, the visuals are stunning and the characters are properly fleshed-out, in contrast to earlier iterations of the series.

And surprisingly, Wolfenstein: The New Order openly tackles some of the war crimes committed by the Nazi-regime, by letting players infiltrate a concentration camp. And even though that segment is, apart from ethical issues, not nuanced and thus problematic in terms of presentation – simply read KL: a history of the Nazi Concentration Camps by Nikolaus Wachsmann – the game offers an alternate history set in the nineteen sixties, in which the Nazis have taken over the world. In other words: not really an attempt to truthfully depict historical events, right?


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Wolfenstein: The New Order Review: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/may/20/wolfenstein-the-new-order-review-schlock-horror-hijinks


So what is wrong with the premise of these games, then? Well, simply put: they once again repeat a limited set of themes so many World War II-games have shown us before.

For starters: just like most titles on the market, they are military-centred. Yes, there’s the camp-segment. And yes, in The New Order, Blazkowicz is basically a resistance fighter. But all this is still in line with the game mechanics found in other World War II-shooters.

More generally, the gameplay in World War II-titles can, at first glance, be summed up as follows: you either strategically order troops around in, say, Company of Heroes, gun down enemies in Rising Storm, the older Call of Duty-games or the hilarious Dino D-Day, or mimic tank battles and dog fights in MMO’s like War Thunder. Stealthy games like Death to Spies by 1C Company, Velvet Assassin, or EA's The Saboteur offer some variety, but actually stay close to the theme of a secret agent infiltrating enemy locations – which was the idea behind most of the original Medal of Honor-games, and still includes a lot of ‘shooting, stabbing, strangling Nazis’. It’s all in line with the premises of the (AAA-) industry, but that doesn’t make it less repetitive, anyhow.


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The Saboteur- E3 09: Launch Trailer (HD 720p): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WdEo4bjn8ME


In addition, games about the Nazi-regime – which are omnipresent, even though the Pacific war has received a significant amount of attention in recent years – are generally pretty straightforward. Nazis are bad, and there’s no room for nuance; you shoot them before they kill you, or worse.

It only makes the existing image of the Nazis more troubled. Members of the Nazi party were first and foremost human, and equating them to zombies and mechanized dogs makes them appear alien, and thus easier to push aside. The most frightening aspect of the regime isn’t their army of robotic guards, however: it is the fact that they, as a group of human beings adhering to an overtly racist ideology, could rise to power in a democratic society – resulting in the oppression and murder of significant parts of the European population, without any large-scale civilian resistance. And again: Wolfenstein and the Nazi Zombie-games aren't portraying actual historical events. But they do portray Nazism. And that is fundamentally a historical phenomenon.


To conclude: a lot of the World War II-titles available today are amazing – except for Dino D-Day, maybe. At the same time, they offer repetitive and sometimes troublesome perspectives on the war. Therefore, my argument isn’t about getting rid of these games or refuting them, because I love to play them myself, and games don’t have be serious, obviously. It is about getting creative, though: there are so many ways to tackle this conflict, but somehow only certain ideas about the war seem to make it to the table.

Therefore, I gladly amplify the argument Thomas Mahler, CEO of the studio behind Ori and the Blind Forest, made a few months ago in relation to his new World War II project: games about the war should be more about the (non-military) history of the period and the psychology of the people involved, to offer more variety.


This War of Mine – gaming’s sombre antidote to Call of Duty: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/oct/10/this-war-of-mine-gamings-sombre-antidote-to-call-of-duty


And to be sure, there are promising (indie) examples to start from, even when they concern other conflicts. This War of Mine by 11bit Studios is an obvious one: you play as a group of civilians trying to survive in between the rubble of a torn-out city.

But there are other innovative games as well. 1979 Revolution by iNK Studios, a game in development which was Greenlit on Steam and centres on the Iranian uprising, will use Telltale-like storytelling to dive into the choices people made during that period, and thus essentially focuses on character development. And the non-digital game Train by Brenda Romero is probably one of the best examples of how history can be conveyed through a set of game rules. In other words: the ideas are there, we simply need to elaborate on them and make a great game out of it, with a fresh take on World War II.


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The Last of Us – E3 Extended Demo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GApCMW1F7a0


Like a version of The Last of Us set in a city under siege, in which civilians try to survive by gathering food while facing both German and Allied soldiers instead of mutants. Or a Papers Please-like game in which you are a clerk dealing with Gestapo paperwork. Or something like that.

In any case: a game that shows World War II as the devastating and fundamentally complex conflict it really was. And to be clear: that doesn’t mean all games should be as layered as Paradox Interactive’s Hearts of Iron, Gary Grigsby’s War in the East, or simulators like IL-2 Sturmovik – even though those games are truly impressive. It simply means that new titles should be more diverse in their portrayal of this pivotal historical period, by tackling it from wide range of perspectives.


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Hearts of Iron IV – Teaser Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YAAXM1IbclA


That being said: really looking forward to the full release of that new Swedish flight simulator, Flying Tigers: Shadows over China, everyone. Piloting a P40 ‘Warhawk’ with shark-paint all over its nose, it just gives you that awesome feeling.

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