Autumn in Hieron, Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor, and the Game Beyond the Player

Link is too damn important. The hero of time, of wind, of Hyrule itself is always the center of the era he is born in. He explores a world designed for him to pick apart, unlock, and leave behind. Even Breath of the Wild, which leans into a frantic, shifting world, feels built for a player to consume and never ask the player to examine that consumption. Common narratives imply that games can only be this player focused. They rely on input from a player and thus they center their focus on that player. However, every medium does this to some extent. Even works which defy easy readability still provoke a reaction from their reader. That response is not always focused on the reader’s pleasure. There are thousands of reasons people read and write books, and only one of them is a rush of power. The artificiality of games does not make them empower the player, just as much as books or film do not have to be about empowering the reader or viewer. A game’s input can be about smallness and quiet as well as greatness and bombast.

Screen Shot 2017-01-15 at 2.27.45 PM

No game I’ve played communicates this like Diaries of A Spaceport Janitor. A RPG from studio Sundae Month, its title communicates the game’s premise. You wander a spaceport, picking up junk, trying to sell or incinerate enough to survive. In addition, you’ve been cursed. A floating skull taunts you every day. To be rid of it, you must complete a bundle of tasks. The pressure is high, but the stakes, at least by video game standards, are low. It is just one life that you must care for. The game world takes every turn to make that life untenable. Cops will harass you and steal your money without provocation. Most food costs more than you can afford and the cheap stuff can make you sick. Sometimes, gender dysphoria hits, and you have to spend money on pills to adjust. Most days, you only make enough money to survive the next day, and that’s if you don’t get robbed on the way home.

All this makes a game about asserting your own meaning. The world is filled with heroes of other games. The spaceport is flooded with spell casting equipment and weapons meant for paladins, wizards, and fighters. This is a world that doesn’t care about your presence. It only benefits from your service and moves on. To survive and free yourself from your curse, you must care and take time for yourself. The primary way this is communicated is through worship. You pray by leaving offerings at shrines to one of nine goddesses. The idols are not signposted, so you must seek them out yourself. Furthermore, it is a quiet act, as these shrines are not tied to institutions. There are no ecclesiastical leaders. The loss of those oppressive structures makes a simple act of giving and prayer an assertion of worth to an indifferent universe. By praying, you are saying “Something must care, and if it doesn’t, I will make it.”

In Diaries, you are far too small to change the world. The spaceport will always move on without you. But you can change yourself, offer your worth up, and find joy in small beauty. This is a very different kind of power than your typical RPG would offer. A silent, practical grace that could lead any one of us along in dreary circumstances. The game asks you to write in a diary at the end of every in-game day. The oppression of an outside world forces the player to examine their internal one.

Screen Shot 2017-01-15 at 7.57.09 PM.png

However, an emphasis on player power can also cause self-examination. That power must be placed in the context of a broader world. In the first season of Friends at the Table, a role-playing podcast, they play a game called Dungeon World. In this Dungeons and Dragons adjacent title, every character is the only one of their kind. The paladin, Hadrian, is the only paladin in the world. Hella, the only fighter and so on. This gives every player a historical importance. Almost like they are the axis on which the world turns.

Still, that world exists beyond them and is not tailored to them. There’s a moment in episode nine, when one group of characters chooses between saving their friend or completing their mission. Austin, the player in charge of running the game world, emphasizes that the outside forces will continue on. He says, “Whatever’s happening down there will happen and the clock will tick one hour further, closer to midnight.” Indeed, these players never revisit their previous mission and the world shifts accordingly. 

The flexibility of tabletop role-playing and a strong, intimate focus lend this first season, titled Autumn in Hieron, a dynamic permanence. Things happen outside of the player’s control, and they cannot always avoid consequences with a dice roll or a clever move. The impact the players have on the world is still massive, but it has a cost. Even choosing not to engage will see the world move anew. The power that is usually so gratifying in DnD becomes terrible. The world’s axis may turn on these special individuals, but they are only one point on a map. Their actions ripple out in waves and come back a hurricane. Those consequences act as a tragic mirror of the characters, their hubris and ambition cursing them.

Screen Shot 2018-06-04 at 6.04.41 PM.png

The open world games that have become the de facto AAA genre are clear examples of the opposite effect. One can waste time forever in Assassin’s Creed: Origin’s Egypt or Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule. The world is unchanging until you move it. Much of the rhetoric surrounding game relies on them staying the same, forever pledging themselves to male empowerment. In the broad strokes, this might be true. The biggest AAA titles shown on stages at press conferences are often about reaffirming the way games have always been. This is not permanent. Games are ultimately a small space and there are far more than one would think who try to present a new way of making them. Most of us are not important enough to be a Hadrian or a Hella (heaven forbid), but we are strong enough to be a Spaceport Janitor. To make and show off games that complicate player agency, to show the terrible hollowness of power fantasy, and to assert our own quiet worth.

Both of these games show us new ways of expressing and experiencing player power. They move in opposite directions, but both value and prioritize a game beyond the player. That outside movement forces us to look inward. To examine our own ways of experiencing power, our own selves. Just as games that indulge our fantasies let us disappear, games that question and re-contextualize our dreams let us see ourselves.


Metro 2033, “Goodness,” and Systems of Morality


I want to be good.

No, I want to be seen as good. I want some father or god to pat me on the head, tell me I have done the work, and send me waltzing through pearly gates. I want my goodness to be rewarded with noise and applause. Why I want this is a question outside the scope of this article. But I theorize that it is because I find it difficult to live with myself. I believe that an external validation will alleviate the pressure inside me.

Games are adapt at external validation. Positive feedback and rewards for the bare minimum are laced through typical big budget experiences. Throughout my youth, I played Knights of the Old Republic four times and never wavered from the light-side. The game applauded me with blue halos, heroic music, and a classic Star Wars redemption arc.

Now that I’m older, I like to think that my tastes have matured. My favorite games of recent memory include The Witcher 3, with its complex moral universe that subverts player power, and Anodyne, which interrogates why we indulge fantasies of destiny and goodness. Still, far more often than I would like to admit, this insecure side of me creeps out. I have to know if I am good.


The last game that awoke this cycle in me was Metro 2033. Based on the Russian post-apocalypse novel of the same name, it tells the story of Artyom, one of thousands of Moscow citizens who fled to the metro tunnels and survived a nuclear holocaust. He grows up among the mutants, outcasts, and predators of the metro. When a new kind of mutant appears, one with terrifying physic powers, he must leave his home station to end this threat.

Metro is a game about violence and survival. The world is hostile to you, either infected with nuclear fallout, infested with mutants or both. It tasks you to explore every nook and cranny to find filters for your gas mask, ammo and parts for your weapons, and first aid kits. Whereas most modern FPSs are about god-like power, Metro is about a kind of fragility. Instead of regenerating health, it has limited health packs. Ammo is rare and special rounds are the primary form of currency. Thus, your violence has a real financial cost. It’s a world that feels tangible and physical. Even its simple shooting is draped with cause and effect, even its morality system.

Unlike Knights of the old Republic’s light/dark system, Metro’s morality is obtuse. Though the result is fairly binary, get enough “good” points and you get the “good” ending, it never explains itself. The activities that award you points range from the obvious (sparing lives, being generous) to the strange and mundane (playing an instrument, finding a hidden room). Which means that, without a guide, the outcome of these games is unpredictable. They either end with an act of mercy, or one of incredible violence.


The game asks you to pay attention to prevent that violence. In the Metro, kindness and generosity are radical acts. Unlike other games of its ilk, which reward quick reflexes and fast thinking, Metro 2033 asks you to linger. Several levels are extended vignettes of towns and stations. Violence is always present, but it often takes a backseat as you stop and ponder its results. 

This creates a simple, but profound, message about atrocity: there is no big moment. In Knight of the Old Republic, you can flip sides at anytime. Be a big jerk until the last possible second and then show your true colors. But in Metro, evil is not a costume. If you are just following orders, doing what you are supposed to, you will stumble into it. You won’t even know that you are evil. Atrocities are built out of small decisions that crescendo into massive violence. Artyom has grown up in a world defined by hostility. This world was born in a fire that never went away. His heroes, the rangers, are an organization that thrives on the killing of the other. A ranger spurs him on his quest and its end goal is the extermination of a new life form, the aforementioned physic threat. At the end of Metro 2033, if you don’t have enough “good points,” you drop a nuclear bomb on millions of innocent beings. What’s worse, if you weren’t paying attention, you wouldn’t even know they were innocent. This thesis, meant as shock to player power, struck me as a test. Could I play the game consciously enough to be good?

As I played, I would tell myself I was going to just play the game, but often, I would find myself looking at a wiki, making sure I was making the “right choice.” Even at the end, I was tensing up, waiting, uncertain of what would come. Would I be good enough to see this game through?It turns out, the first time through at least, I wasn’t. My insistence on not using a guide and my occasional indulgence of one had worked together to insure my failure.


I want to be rewarded, not tested. So, in my second playthrough of Metro 2033 and in my subsequent playing of its sequel, Last Light, I made sure to get the good ending. I checked guides with regular frequency. I managed it both times, though I felt a serious dread every time I reached the end. Did I pass the test? Will I be rewarded?

What I discovered, though I enjoyed both Metro games and consider them among my favorite things I’ve played this year, was that this is a truly soul sucking way to play. By treating Metro as a test that I could not fail, I only managed to cheat myself. I could not relax and enjoy these games or critically engage with their portrayal of morality. I was too worried about the test.

This is perhaps a problem with the binaries of games. At its most basic, the morality system of Metro is just a scavenger hunt. If you’ve collected enough eggs at the end, you get to enter the good door. Implicitly, this gating judges you. But more fundamentally, it reveals almost nothing about me as a person. I could have been writing this game for review, only had a little time to play, or could have been picking it up after weeks of inactivity. The game never shows what it is doing through tutorial. There are a multitude of reasons why I could have gotten the bad ending, none of them to do with my objective goodness.

This is not a total condemnation. Within the internal logic of its world, Artyom’s quickness is certainly a vice. The ‘bad’ ending feels like a gut punch because it puts control in the player’s hands. I’m merely pointing out that this game says nothing about me. Despite the way I treated it, Metro never asked anything profound of me, beyond understanding the constraints of its system. It never demanded that I learn anything about myself. Despite all my frantic testing, this was just another way of escaping, of alleviating pressure. I never considered this a true test. If I did, I might not have cheated to get my way. Time and time again, I fall into the same cycles and play games for the same reasons.


Metro is also interested in cycles. The violence of the nuclear apocalypse lives on in you, unless you choose to end it. The good endings of the Metro games are about trying to see a future beyond the apocalypse, one where peace could reign for the first time. It’s a vision that the games themselves can’t reach to. Despite their unique ponderousness, the primary verb is still ‘kill.’ Furthermore the games offer little practical way out of destruction, besides platitudes of acceptance.

Still, they are about imagining a way forward, pushing through violence, disaster, and blind hatred to make a new world. Although troublesome binaries have implanted themselves in their code and their morality, it dreams of something outside. Thus, Metro helps me imagine a self unfettered from hatred and the need for external recognition. We need more games that help us imagine ourselves anew. At least for a moment, Metro lets us imagine.

In Where the Water Tastes Like Wine’s America, We Can Only Celebrate Each Other

Screen Shot 2018-06-25 at 8.07.37 PM

In Utah summers, the grass is brittle and dry. Most of the green on the mountains is from the trees. Otherwise, they are awash with a pale, brown yellow. The fireworks start fires. People still light them. They celebrate, even with the tangible cost of it before their eyes. This is the 4th of July. A celebration of American myths that does active harm to its land and peoples. Especially now, when our president interns immigrants and summons task forces to export citizens and as we creep closer to overt fascism. People are suffering, even dying, because of our belief in empty fables and institutions. The fires are burning, yet we still let the fireworks free.

Where The Water Tastes Like Wine (hereafter WTWTLW) does not indulge such celebration. The foundational myths of America, the rising up of oppressed colonies, barely make a blip in the game’s patchwork United States. Instead, WTWTLW’s myths are small. A gay couple dwells in a lighthouse. A blues singer’s deal with the devil makes her musical legacy both remain and vanish. A farmer laments leaving his home for California. These moments ripple, drops in a vast vision of a nation. 

The game’s mission is to spread those stories. The player travels the United States, swapping tales with other travelers. A Johnny Appleseed who plants myths. They watch as the stories grow and distort, become both more and less truthful. In all this travel, there is no throughline. The stories share some themes, sure. But they vary in tone, in purpose, and in perspective. By my count, 24 writers worked on this game. There will be varying visions. That is the point. For WTWTLW, there is no grand myth of America, there is only us. There are only people trying to make their way free and survive.

We often make the mistake of saying that the US is fundamentally good, that there is some truth beyond our failures and atrocities. Some proper order will be restored, once we impeach traitor presidents or reach true equality. The truth is that the United States has always been broken. It has always failed to provide for its people. Its institutions have only ever been as good as the people in power. Its soul only ever as good as we were. So while we cannot celebrate the myth of America, we can choose to celebrate each other. There is nothing wrong with getting together on these days, where most of us are free from labor. As long as we are together, surviving, and telling each other true stories. Just as long as we remind ourselves of what is real and what is illusion. Just as long as we love each other, over creed and country.

Streaming Update

As many of you know, I’ve been streaming a bit for the past month or so. As I did, I struggled to find a proper voice. I’m not interested in staying current or in exclusively playing a particular game. I don’t have the time or will to play for hours consistently. However, I also didn’t (and don’t) have a large audience, nor any unifying ethos to build my streams around. So, I took a step back. With some distance and thought, I’ve come to the following conclusions.

  1. I should be telling stories

My primary role in the games space is as a writer. Even writing reviews or analysis of games is a way of telling stories. My streams should be attempting to do the same. This could take the form of explaining critical analysis and playing games I’ve written about, which I will likely do sporadically. However, I’m more interested in how games tell stories in and of themselves. From now on, the stream will be focused on story-based games, with variable choices and/or character building components. As I play, I’ll be trying to get inside the player character’s head, talk through their internal world, and their decisions. I’m fascinated by the way games create spaces where players can fill in the blanks and I’m interested in exploring that process live with an audience. 

  1. I should archive the streams on YouTube

Part of the problem with how things were going earlier was that often I was streaming alone. However, I still felt the need to be entertaining, because people could drop by the stream anytime. If I upload the streams to YouTube and try to tell stories, I’ll always have a good reason to be grounded while I play. Knowing that I’ll be speaking to an audience outside of just the stream itself will make a big difference. Also, even if you miss the stream, you’ll be able to enjoy it in a separate venue.

  1. I should stream less, but make it richer.

I’ll be streaming every Sunday at 2 pm for an hour or two, starting this Sunday, the 17th of June. I might stream otherwise during the week if I feel like it, but this Sunday stream will be consistent. I want to give this project the time and space it deserves. All other streams will be one-offs or separate from the main game I’m playing on Sundays.

  1. This is all subject to change

Maybe this format will be better for let’s plays rather than streams, or maybe these stories won’t be compelling beyond what’s already in the game. I want this project to be experimental and willing to change, especially if things don’t work out as expected.

With all that out of the way, I’m excited! I think this will be a format that will go beyond watching someone play video games and be emotionally and critically resonant. I hope you will tune in.

The Witching Hour: Intro

There are moments from The Witcher that sit in the back of my mind. A man kisses his ghostly lover, as her spectral, decrepit form transforms to warmth and youth. Our Witcher, “inhuman” monster hunter, looks back at those who find him monstrous with pity and sadness. A daughter stands before her father and declares that this is her story, not his. These moments linger by the fireplace. Occasionally warming their hands, they chat amongst themselves. I sometimes join them and watch as the fire grows in their eyes. They do not address me, but they allow me to sit among them, to come and go as I please.

All fiction stays with us to some extent; whether consciously or buried in some cave of dreams and half-remembered memories. But The Witcher has burrowed into my brain, so pervasively that I’m now writing a series of articles about its 7 books and 3 games. Whatever space these stories have already taken up, they will now take up even more. I will speak with those moments, letting my voice ring by the fireplace. Why?

There are a few superficial answers to that question. The Witcher is a fantasy of freedom and power. The title character, Geralt, is genetically different from humans, he lives longer and is stronger than the average person. Its influences, medieval literature and Slavic folk tales, play outside the usual fantasy gene pool. The Witcher games are, in some ways, the personification of games I wished for as a child. Open worlds with complex moral choices and a multitude of outcomes. The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt is what I wanted Fable or Dragon Age to be. While these certainly explain my interest, they do not explain The Witcher’s permanence in my mind.

These stories are important, not because they are essential reading or playing, but because they awaken. They are stories that can trouble our slumber. This is why they so often resemble fairy tales. For the author Andrzej Sapkowski, fairy tales expose the wounds of the world. For us, in a post-Disney culture, such stories often seem clean and easy to digest. The Witcher’s tales resemble their Grimm forebears, twisted and dark. Not because these stories needed blood and sex to become “real,” but because they already are real. We might skip over the darkness in them, the ways in which their monsters resemble our own, but Geralt never will. He knows that that sanitation is for our comfort and not our good. He even says,“People… like to invent monsters and monstrosities. Then they seem less monstrous themselves.” The not-so-monstrous monsters Geralt fights and helps are created by oppression and pain. They lay bare the damage we have caused, and what more we might do. Despite their typical fantasy trappings, these stories force us to examine the way we make the human monstrous, and the evil mundane.

I chose the name The Witching Hour for this series because I thought it was clever, but its thematic significance strikes me now. The Witching Hour is a time when darkness and light, the earthly and unearthly, life and death are closer together. From the first short story to the final moments of The Wild Hunt, these stories force us to consider that space. Geralt himself is neither monster nor man. He represents the problem of convergence. He troubles the binaries that humans set up. Despite these binaries being cloaked in metaphor, their disturbance troubles us too. We make monsters of humans; the Witcher makes them human again.

Furthermore it asks us to act. Geralt often questions his role in the world. His power as a monster hunter grants him some distance from common people, but he also relies on them. He could insist that the common troubles of peasants are not his problem. He could take no time to care for those who hire him. Often he is so callous to ignore. These stories show that callousness as hollow. Geralt pays for choosing distance, and so does the world. The Witcher stories do not only ask us to contemplate injustice, but to act, to make something more out of a fractured world.

So come in. Sit by the fire. Listen to us talk of monsters and men, of peasants and kings, of witches and priests. Then go forth into our world – awakened, disturbed, and refreshed.

Welcome to the Witching Hour.

Special thanks to Andi Boswell for the editing help.

Glitches and Speaking Through The Machine

It was a normal match of Titanfall 2. We were losing, but not by much. If I could have kept my kill rate just a bit further above my death rate, victory would be within our grasp. After a quick death, I re-spawned by a window and began firing at a mech in the distance. And then…


Thunder and blood was turned into silence. It was serene, almost like the moment before death. I could not move, but had a moment to appreciate the beauty of the landscape. The world around me removed from the noise it was there for. Then, there was no re-spawn, the game quit. I never saw what happened next. It’s easy to extrapolate that this was some final moment. My mech pilot envisioned an end to war that she would not live to truly see.

In film or painting there is always evidence. Thick splatters of paint. Or the shadow of a boom mike. Even the most brilliantly made films or the most painstakingly rendered paintings have these moments of humanity. Games can seem to be distant from that. The mechanical perfection of a Mario or even the punchy gunplay of something like Titanfall can obscure the humans who created it. Our need for the “complete game” makes us feel that a masterpiece is created by some kind of mechanical process. Eventually we’ll create the perfect thing and all other games will cease. Still, video games break. Characters fall through the landscape. AI characters walk into walls and shout random barks over and over again. Code brings something else to life, unanticipated by those who wrote it. Video games are alive and they can never quite be contained. They can never really fit in ideas of masterpieces and 10/10s.

Walter Benjamin describes “[The film actor’s] performance is by no means a unified whole, but is assembled from many individual performances.” When we are with someone, whether on a stage or more casually, we feel their presence, their rippling weight. Films and games defuse the presence of images and people. Sure, big budget games try to compensate with high fidelity and ever skyrocketing team sizes and polygon counts. But the human presence of paint or sweat can never really be captured. Yet, yet… The broken chaos of the world gets through. A voice speaks through the machine. We look at an actors eyes and feel our own weight. We find a moment of peace in a space defined by conflict. Because presence is lost we can find ourselves in what we see. Just as Benjamin said that anyone can be filmed, anyone can play, and anyone can witness the breaking of the game.

Video games aren’t special, but they are real. They are human. As broken and beautiful as anything we create.

Put Away Your Wings: Masculine Identity and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus


Action games are fascinated with violent men. Even at their most contemplative, they encourage gendered power, exemplified by male first-person heroes like Master Chief or Doom Guy. These are sullen, no nonsense bodies that can power through anything thrown at them. Their games portray violent, patriarchal power with an uncritical eye. Despite its progressive trappings, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is no exception. Although the game’s margins express radical, intersectional politics, its core affirms the “need” for masculine violence.

The game sets up much of its emotional conflict from the start: B. J. Blascowitz, our hero, solider against an omnipresent Nazi threat, and unstoppable killing machine since his first appearance, is gravely wounded. He fears his imminent death. His warrior self has been cut down and he must scramble to fight. In the game’s opening act, B.J. must slide around in a wheelchair as he defends his resistance group’s submarine base from Nazi invasion. Movement is awkward and inhibited; B.J. is unable to crouch or dodge. In one memorable moment, a Nazi solider activates a conveyor belt. B.J. falls out of his wheelchair and must attempt to survive with little control of his movement as he slides down. This aptly encompasses B.J.’s experience throughout the first half of the game. He is afloat. His body has compromised his masculine power. Formerly one of the most able people imaginable, he has been marked by war.

Screen Shot 2018-05-19 at 8.27.41 PM

The first half of the game concerns itself with this problem. B.J.’s body is “useless” to the resistance. He is only able to fight because of a suit of power armor, inherited from his similarly disabled leader, Caroline. B.J. prays to her, asking for her wings to carry him. On the surface, this is a subversion of FPS tropes. In Halo, Master Chief’s power armor is a sign of physical prowess and elite military status. In Wolfenstein, power armor is a sign of weakness. B.J.’s internal monologue wishes for strength from a feminine figure, showing B.J. to be sensitive and contemplative, in contrast to the purely male stoicism of traditional FPS heroes. In addition, there are no female characters who are simply rescued. Rather, characters of different genders help and rescue each other. B.J. does not turn his allies into objects.

However, given the broader context of the game, its criticism or complication of masculine power is toothless. B.J. simply undergoes a midlife masculinity crisis. He feels his worth has been compromised through his wounds. He asks, how can I be of help, if I can’t walk? If I am going to die? Despite the complexity of the question, the game’s only answer is “by being what you has always been.” If the power of men is hard and unchanging, then a differently gendered power must be fluid and shifting. B.J. never changes. The New Colossus plays much the same, if inferior, to the last game. Its light stealth touches are refreshing, but it still deals in the unflinching, overpowering fantasy of Halo or Doom. Although the resistance takes on allies of different colors and creeds, their contributions to the war effort are more invisible than B.J.’s. This is emphasized by how little happens when B.J. is not around. There are months of space when B.J. is absent: from the beginning of the game, when he is in a coma, to its midpoint, when he is waiting for his execution. The characters do not refer to major moments of resistance that occur outside of B.J.’s perspective. He must be present for things to happen. His kind of resistance, that violence, follows. Furthermore, Caroline is killed to allow B.J. to take her armor. The game robs a differently gendered body’s ability to speak. Why couldn’t we play as Caroline? Why couldn’t we explore a different kind of body and its different power? Because the player’s perspective must never be separated from the masculine.

Screen Shot 2018-05-19 at 8.27.59 PM

This is exemplified by the game’s midpoint twist. In brief, B.J. is captured by the villain, Frau Engel. After a failed escape attempt, B.J. is beheaded and the audience watches in horror as Engel holds his head for a blood-ravenous crowd. But, B.J. isn’t dead. Engel drops his head into the waiting drone arms of one his allies’s contraptions. They preserve his head in a jar and then reattach it to a genetically engineered Nazi body.

No matter how bonkers and surprising this turn of events is, it maintains a status quo. The solution to B.J.’s problem is not changing his methods or adjusting to a new body, but regaining the old one. The complexities of age and being a veteran are flattened into an empty power fantasy. For all of B.J.’s pleading with Caroline he finally says, “You can put away your wings, I don’t need them anymore.” Even B.J.’s appeal to femininity is drowned out by the return to power. Unlike the earlier sections of the game, B.J.’s body is refocused to emphasize his strength. Your health jumps from 50 to 100. You gain new powers that let you access previously forbidden areas, primarily through extensions of your body like getting through tight spaces or busting through walls. The problem of B.J.’s usefulness is gone and the rest of the game is violent indulgence.

To be clear, the problem is not so much The New Colossus’s violence, but rather the mode of that violence. The game’s first level is about survival, not domination. B.J.’s internal and external resources are limited and so he must make what he can out of them. Although exaggerated, it is scrappy, frantic and human. The rest of the game, particularly after its twist, is about being more than human. Even early on, Nazi soldiers swap legends of “Terror Billy,” the horrifyingly powerful man. In diary entries, Nazis refer to having nightmares about him. It all serves to gas the player up, to make them powerful and resonant in their toy world. It does so through a overbearing, violent masculinity.

It is the game’s daring moments that make the regressive course of its primary narrative disappointing. The New Colossus’s strongest moments are within its the margins of its world. A former Nazi asserting their place in the resistance. A piece of art from a surprising source inspiring awe. Condemnations of American white supremacy from African-American resistance groups. Moments of doubt in letters by Nazi command. Like its predecessor, this game has the whiff of a real world, despite all the silliness. It takes its gonzo sci-fi premise seriously and often finds real humanity in it.

Screen Shot 2018-05-19 at 8.28.55 PM

The result is a game of constant contradictions. It celebrates the intersectional power of resistance: bringing Communists, ex-Nazis, and Black Panthers together. It also centers the entirety of its narrative and perspective on the most privileged person in the room. It cherishes quiet moments of resistance, in how Max Hass (a disabled adult, who is only able to say his own name) creates astonishing art in the corners of several scenes. However, it most visibly celebrates B.J.’s bombast. The game is split between its need to be a first person destruction playground and its want to be an affecting story of resistance. The encounter with Hitler embodies this. This scene splits itself between a glaring takedown of Nazi ideology and an celebration of the masculine power which enables it.

In brief, B.J. and crew need to obtain the codes to a powerful Nazi war machine, which are only held, you guessed it, on Venus. Auditions for the role of B.J. in an upcoming propaganda film are being held there. So he kidnaps one of the actors, impersonates him, and auditions to play himself. And who is running the audition? The Führer. Brilliantly, Hitler is feeble and childish. He speaks incoherently, takes credit for things he is not capable of doing, and condemns the weakness of Jews and degenerates. He claims that he can smell them from anywhere. The irony is that B.J. Blascowitz is in the room. Jewish, smart, strong and proud, his existence is a direct condemnation of everything Hitler stands for. It’s a smart juxtaposition that says a lot without outright stating much.

In the same scene, the game hides a daring political statement. One of the other actors auditioning is none other than Ronald Reagan. The game refers to his home state of Arizona, and obscures a few relevant letters on his chair. The notion that Reagan would be perfectly fine with living among Nazis, even being reverential to Hitler himself is daring and biting. However, as illustrated by the way it side steps directly mentioning the actor’s real identity, the game chooses to be coy about its politics. The game places this to the side of a moment that is primarily about B.J.’s strength.

Screen Shot 2018-05-19 at 8.35.27 PM

The other actors who audition are seen as weak, even effeminate. In one part of the audition, the actors are asked to fight one of the Nazi guards to show their physical prowess. One actor volunteers to go first. He stretches, gets into a fighting stance, and gets his nose broken. Complaining and whining, he is then shot by Hitler. In contrast, B.J. kills the solider in a sign of masculine strength, winning the part in the process. It’s a moment of resistance, but also one of naked empowerment. B.J. triumphs because he is a true man, unlike the other, weak actor. The scene is made more uncomfortable when you realize that B.J.’s body was genetically engineered by Nazis. B.J. wins the day partially because of a masculine construction created by his enemy.

Perhaps, the game intends this as a subversion. B.J. does use the tools of the Nazis to fight against them and Nazis ironically remark on his Aryan features. However, B.J. is in awe of his new body. He feels like himself in it. As soon as he gets it, he wonders aloud if he is now in heaven. The game is completely uncritical about why that might be. Despite the story’s interest in B.J.’s body and physiology, it does not let him change or evolve. A story about a violent person coming to terms with letting that violence end could be compelling, but the game cannot separate itself from the canonical perspective of its principle character.

Screen Shot 2018-05-19 at 8.28.15 PM.png

The previous game, The New Order, recognized B.J.’s familiarity with war as monstrous. The violence he commits is necessary, empowering, and cathartic. But he longs for a world in which he would no longer kill. The game often flashes to a dream where he is a father and husband, distant from war. However, he believes that he cannot escape conflict. Violence has left his mark on him and it is a mark he cannot outrun. There is a particularly moving moment, when B.J. says goodbye to his lover, Anya. She says, “I believe there are still places on earth where people can go and live happy.” He replies, “I believe so too, but not for me and for you.”

In this line, B.J. sees that he cannot bring in the new world, but he can help those who can. He sees that his violence is a means to an end and that it cannot be the end. If he continues to be what he is, a world without Nazis won’t need him. Keeping this in mind, he stares down his own death, passing the torch of resistance to Anya. In contrast, The New Colossus is much more gleeful. The retconning of B.J.’s broken body emphasizes the need for his violence. The game ends not in the promise of peace, but in the promise of war. B.J. must not change, because he is forever needed.

There is no doubt that The New Colossus is attacking the right targets, it is what it attacks with, that disturbs. The New Order is almost a game that acknowledges more aspects of resistance, that does not wave off violence because it has the right targets or is for a righteous cause. The New Colossus steps back. Despite all the life in its world-building, its little moments of beauty and truth, it chooses to center the story in a violent masculinity. The moment in which Wolfenstein II came out, in which fascists and racists are emboldened, in which hatred and violence are given room to breathe, deserves a radical, thoughtful game. This is not it.