Wolfenstein 3D (1992)

First, a very unprofessional confession: I did not want to like this game. A dismissive attitude is the worst, ugliest approach to any new experience, and it’s an even bigger no-no if you’re examining something with a critical eye. A half-decent critic should be constructive, embrace his fellow man, and keep the hope alive that every early ’90s Nazi-annihilation simulator can be a life-altering piece of software. But I sit at a computer for several hours a day, and much of that time is spent reading about video games, so I had a fair share of preconceived notions about Wolfenstein 3D before I fired a single bullet at a Gestapo officer. This was obviously one of those brainless, blood-soaked shoot-a-thons that we like to pretend our medium has grown so far beyond, but are still the rule and not the exception. I was certain this review would all but write itself: Rail against Wolfenstein’s idiocy and the heinous precedent its unthinking ultra-violence set for all of game-dom to come, but hesitantly praise its technological innovations and unprecedented ability to insert a player into the first-person perspective. A piece of cake, a short space-filler until I finish something more meaty and we can all sniff cognac and delve into a rousing symposium on the transportive majesty of Another World or Planescape: Torment.

And on one hand, I was right; by today’s standards, Wolfenstein 3D is not a very good game. It’s a disorienting, monotonous dirge with very little to do and even fewer objectives worth that investment. Yet I can’t hate it, because it doesn’t hate me. Wolfenstein 3D just wants me to hang out with it, chillax and not take things so seriously, even this whole World War II bummer. It’s less the creepy, scowling loner in a trenchcoat that I expected it to be (the same developers would edge toward this persona in Doom) and more the class clown who gets sent to the principal’s office for drawing uzis and boners all over his History exam. You know that guy’s kind of an idiot, and his behavior isn’t going to get him very far, but he’s just trying to lighten the mood. At his worst, he starts to grate, but at best, he actually takes the stuffed shirts down a notch, and who doesn’t like that?

Here’s a game in love with messing with you, tussling your hair and giving you wet willies. It openly mocks you for selecting the easy difficulty settings or for daring to log off for the evening. Its best maps are the ones after a status quo has been established (shoot Nazis, loot treasure, find keys, look for the exit, repeat), where it starts tossing in enemies at unexpected, unfair locations, behind pillars and doors you never would have thought to check. It’s a dirty trick, but one that shakes the otherwise wearying repetition out of its funk with the half-laughing, half-screaming shock of a good haunted house. Wolfenstein‘s approach to its historical setting is strictly in line with this frat-boy joshing. These are not the Nazis who were deeply misguided human beings swayed to do evil by a strong leader and his fascist rhetoric. These are cartoonishly sinister oafs, filtered through decades of The Producers and Hogan’s Heroes and everything else that has rendered the Nazis comic book supervillains, gargling the most cliche angry German sentiments as a machine gun drowns them in their own blood. And really, if you’re going to make a completely balls-out shooter title, why not make it against the Nazis? They were one of few forces on this Earth that committed such atrocities and were so completely warped in their philosophy that I really do feel less empathy mowing down their pixelated alter egos than I do combating the demon hordes of Doom. (Their guard dogs, however, are another matter. I flinched every time the game made me plug a German shepherd, and it honestly made the whole experience a little queasier for me.) Wolfenstein posits Hitler as “the ultimate incarnation of evil,” and while it’s certainly being a tad tongue in cheek, the sentiment is hardly ironic.

Perhaps this is why parents were so concerned these early titles would turn their children into psychopathic murder machines. It’s not so much that games featured death and violence, but that their portrayal of them was so glib and offhand. Murder is treated as something absolutely hilarious in Wolfenstein 3D; it dares you not to giggle maniacally as it replays a boss’ death in gruesome slow motion. (The famous level loading screen commands players to “Get Psyched!” that they are about to lodge bullets into dozens of digital men.) But in 1992, what else was a game supposed to do? How could Wolfenstein take death truly seriously when the player could just restart a level at any moment, his Nazi nemeses immediately flickering back into existence? It would be disingenuous for a game like Wolfenstein to portray death dramatically because it exists in a world where mortality is impermanent, where you can off a brown-suited soldier and an identical duplicate will take his place seconds later. Am I glad that any current game worth its salt is messing with our expectations for death in video games, twisting and subverting a trope that has been under-explored for far too long? Absolutely, but there is such a strong appeal in the wink, the fake-out that games like Wolfenstein purport to be death. As long as you press “continue,” you’re immortal.

If only more of that free spirit and gleeful abandon had made it into the actual game! What a dry, nearly unplayable slog this is twenty years on. I will very rarely say something like this as I think such direct comparisons are incredibly reductive, so hear me when I say that there is no reason to play Wolfenstein while there are still copies of Doom left in the world. I actually like Doom quite a bit less tonally; it takes Wolfenstein‘s devil-may-care adolescent schtick and dials up the nihilism to an unbearable degree, but it is doubtlessly a better game. Both involve walking clumsily through maze-like corridors, shooting at things with progressively bigger guns and looking for secrets and an exit. But where Wolfenstein‘s Easter Eggs force you to bang on the walls until you find a passageway to some completely inconsequential treasure, Doom‘s are organically built into the game world and their rewards actually affect gameplay. Where Wolfenstein‘s environments are endlessly repetitive, universally boring, headache-baiting texture packs, Doom‘s are at least somewhat believable and varied in context. Where Wolfenstein‘s protagonist, William “B.J.” Blazkowicz, controls like a caffeinated bull let loose in a Spanish villa, “Doomguy” is a comparatively nuanced navigator. Really, if you’re not writing a backwards-looking video game blog for your own amusement, should you bother with either of these games at this point? Probably not, but if you’re really itching for a taste of pre-Half-Life first person shooters, take my (and probably the rest of the world’s) advice: Just start with Doom.

But hey, if you play Wolfenstein like I did, you get to kill Hitler, seventeen years before Tarantino did it. Not all revisionist histories are created equal, though, and I have to give Quentin the edge on this one. Tarantino has the Inglorious Basterds succeed in offing Hitler as a comment on how media affects our view of history. It’s about how in our minds – and in entertainment like Wolfenstein 3D – we really did parachute into the heart of Europe and whoop Hitler’s ass. It’s about the power of film and, conversely, the danger of trusting its portrayal of events too fully. Wolfenstein 3D‘s ending is about, “Wouldn’t it be cool if you got to fire a machine gun at Hitler? And wouldn’t it be even cooler if he was, like, a robot Hitler!?” And yes, that is cool. It’s big and stupid and funny like a particularly memorable, particularly juvenile Mad Magazine cover. Wolfenstein 3D helped me remember I should never get too worked up over some good-hearted romp when it’s in the name of fun. Is it a game that has stood the test of time? Certainly not. Did it help create the negative image of video games that has haunted the medium to this day? Probably, actually. But why bother taking something more seriously than it takes itself? Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a glass of cognac and a copy of Myst to attend to.

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6 thoughts on “Wolfenstein 3D (1992)

  1. Game Delver says:

    Wolfenstein 3D will always rank above DOOM for me since I got to it first. As you point out, it’s just such a charming game despite being rather monotonous and tiresome. Still, it taught me how to swear like a German. What kid can’t appreciate that?

    • For sure! “Charm” was sort of the last thing I expected from it but it was really, really endearing in a weird way. And I’m sure if I had grown up with the game I’d probably forgive it some of that monotony. (And to be fair, there are far more arduous tasks than stealing Nazi gold!)

  2. ryath says:

    Aw, you didn’t mention the magical Hitler ghosts. That always seemed like the game at its goofiest. The sequel, Spear of Destiny ends with BJ descending into Hell to fight the Angel of Death, though, so I think that takes the cake.

    I played Wolf3D when I was a little tot, and maybe that’s why I love it so much, but I still think it holds up. There’s absolutely no depth to it, but I played through both games a year or two ago and had a blast. The sequel’s not as great, though, since it focuses more on the gunplay, which is not the engine’s strength. Really, I’ve thought of the original more as a maze game with Nazis to shoot along the way than a first-person shooter with maze-like levels.

    I’m glad you liked it more than you expected. We’ve just got to work at it a bit more and I’m sure we’ll turn you into an id fanboy.

    • Oh, I love the Hitler ghosts! So incredibly silly, they reminded me of something that would be on The Venture Bros. The other thing I really dug that I couldn’t find a place to mention is the hyper-American song medley that plays whenever you go up against a boss. Stuff like that reminded me of those games Bart would play in early Simpsons episodes, but in the best way. (And I love their obsession with sending players to hell, it’s pretty much the epitome of their aesthetic philosophy.)

      You’re totally right about the draw being more in the mazes themselves than the shooter mechanics. There’s one level (I believe it’s in the third campaign?) where they pretty much give you the elevator escape right away, but I definitely still wanted to explore and attempt to find some of the secrets. I thought that was really clever, and sort of invalidated my complaints about the game, since I was obviously digging it enough to keep playing even when I didn’t have to. There’s an id fanboy in here somewhere, I’m sure of it.

  3. Wolfenstein was my first FPS, so my memories will always be a littel rose-coloured. Nonetheless, I have to agree with you about the actual merits of the game. Besides being the first to do a lot of things, the game was pretty charmless–even as a ten-year-old it was more work than fun to play. A great read, as always.

    • Thanks! It’s always a little tough approaching these games that haven’t aged perfectly, because, 1.) it feels a bit petty to rag on a FPS from 1991 for not being the most nuanced thing out there, and, 2.) as you mentioned, people tend to have fond memories of the games from their pasts, and I have no interest in stepping all over something people just really enjoy. But I feel I did get something from playing this, and was often amused/entertained by it, so I hope I struck the right balance.

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