'The New Colossus' Switches Tones So Often, The Game Undercuts Its Message

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/mb9g4q/the-new-colossus-switches-tones-so-often-the-game-undercuts-its-message

Chris Franklin’s video essay that was linked in this piece hit on several of my core complaints with the game. Cameron already covers the tone issues, but the other one was the really frustrating level of difficulty. I had a thread on here around its release asking why it seemed so unreasonably difficult, and on a recent Bombcast the crew were unanimous in their recommendation to select one of the easier difficulty settings.

I don’t know if it stems from thoughtlessness, like how the player has no invincibility when knocked down leading to situations where you’re taking damage while totally stunned; or from a misguided belief that it needs to be punishingly hard, so enemies have very little lead time to start shooting and a very high accuracy level.

The marketing for the game sold a cathartic experience to vent fatigue about modern political turmoil, the actual experience was often an absolute slog to get through.

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The knockdown stuff is brutal and I don’t think I remember it ever happening to me in the first game.

You legitimately have to just play TNC like you’re Batman if you’re on the normal difficulty or above. If you fail at stealthing your way through and taking out the commanders before they start ringing their bell the level turns into a Nazi clown car and the fun disappears pretty quickly.

It definitely feels like a shooter that came out before Destiny and Doom in terms of shooting things.

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Tonal whiplash was in The New Order too, so I felt a little more prepared for it this go around. I’m still surprised the “holocaust” level from TNO didn’t get more criticized in the media, because it felt…pretty twisted. TNC, at least, moves fast enough that you’re not really left with a chance to collect your jaw off of the floor before the game whisks you to the next setting.

The game starts, your father has power over you, your mother lays on the floor from a single blow, you are forced to kill a dog. You wake up, bound in a wheelchair. Everything seems to indicate the tarantinesque form of suffering porn that makes the pay-off even sweeter. You end up killing nazis on a wheelchair, it’s fun, it’s the kind of irony that you want. A wheelchair (not the man on it, the wheelchair) versus the whole might of the Reich. But BJ is still broken. In The New Order, he woke up from his lethargic state, stood up and walked after 14 years of no physical effort through sheer force of will. His boundless hatred of Nazis makes him do things that no one could do. But this time, his body gave out. The payoff isn’t there. The power fantasy never came. BJ is still broken.

Merit rules video game. You have to work to get something you want and feel rewarded for it. TNC should have done so a thousand times over. You should feel good about what you do, you should enjoy your victories. You want to see BJ having his revenge but he doesn’t get them. His body is never going to come back, his victories are meaningless, his nazi-killing prowess is an automatic reaction of what his video game role has been about for decades, but deep down he knows that he doesn’t have enough time to see the end of this fight. It’s a challenge without the reward. An arduous process of fighting your way through increasingly difficult battles that goes against any of the philosophy that has been ruling modern games. It is frustrating, and it is merely a peek of what BJ has been going through. It is absurd and it doesn’t give any of the enjoyment that any of us sought in an era of political turmoil, in this need of an outlet to vent our hatred of neo-nazis. The tone is everywhere, everytime I seek something that can rouse me, it is killed in the bud by something else, most often a joke. What does it all mean ? Where does it try to go ? Who knows.

There is this very popular Korean movie called Memories of Murder. The stories of cops trying to solve the real unsolved serial murders case in Hwaseong during the time it happened. This movie has a lot of funny moments with lots of smart comedic timing that makes you laugh almost as a surefire reaction. But, the movie itself isn’t funny. It chronicles the story of mostly corrupted cops who were unable to solve this case because of the systemic corruption and incompetence of a police system that isn’t there to protect citizens in a time of civil unrest and undemocratic process (considerably because of US meddling, might I add) going on at that time. One of them is a rural cop who is wildly incompetent but incredibly funny and ultimately well-meaning. Yet his behaviour led to the avoidable death of a mentally ill man. But it doesn’t work against the character, he is still this well-meaning bloke who gives efforts to solve a case. All of this because his funniness is something that any audience would want to seek first and foremost, he drives the movie with his rapturous performance.

Just like TNC, Memories of Murder is funny, but also tragic. Just like TNC, the reward of the movie isn’t there, and to this day, there still isn’t. The killer has never been found, and it will still be the criminal case that shook the core of South Korea as a society. All if left is something absurd that cannot be processed. The only thing left is trying to say something by sprinkling jokes all around to muddle the message of the indictment of the government who failed on all counts to protect its people, or rather how it worked against its people.

Are the people who laughed heartily at it means they didn’t understand what it tries to say ? That something is lost on the viewer ? I think that they did understand. Every laugh is meant to drive the message home even further. In MoM just like in TNC, the laughs are made because it is easy to do so for the person who interacts with it. Every laugh understands that the joke lives in the terrible context they live in, but they don’t have to know it. The disparity between what’s funny and what isn’t is what makes a good portion of the joke a funny one. Laughing at it means an acute understanding of how and from where the joke is made. It is always one step closer to what the piece of entertainment they consumed has to say. And every step is making someone closer to understand the disparity, the tone, the message that it tries to convey.

Super Spesh making a poop joke is a timing that defuses the embarrassing nature of a dispute between a couple that we are a witness to. It’s funny because its absurdist nature is the rope that has been given to the viewer to escape a situation they don’t have to answer to a dispute that cannot be solved. The audience can’t always be asked to have answers, but it can be asked to have questions. This single spark is crucial because the work isn’t meant to be the cornerstone, but the launching pad. Memories of Murder can’t fit the narrative of a monument managing to agitate the masses in pushing the government accountable, in understanding that the worst of the people who enabled this gruesome show are still alive and well. It can only push this spark that pushes a movement, and it did. Memories of Murder influenced countless movies in the formula of a deeply corrupted government that acts against the needs of the common folk. It solidified this absurdist movement of aiming to make government failures an entertaining affair, so devoid of meaning that it makes sense by sheer act of repetition. The absurd is this thing that we shouldn’t have to deal with, it highlights a dysfunction. This dysfunction is important, and this is why this little poop joke is not the barrier that is between the player and the message, it is one of the many catalysts that makes it seam into a greater understanding of what the game tries to convey in regards to politics.

So here is TNC, in the absolute need to be this wild ride of punching, and killing nazis in power armors designed to tear off nazi armies with dual-wielding shotguns actually starts with a wheelchair, and continues as a glass cannon who has to hide every two seconds lest you become trounced. It’s frustrating, it’s weird and it ultimately is the point. Wolfenstein cannot stand on its power fantasy because it cannot expect itself to solve its woes from it. The plight of BJ is unsolvable, unmanageable. It’s a frustration. BJ kills his own father and goes to the next phase much more quickly than we are able to process. That’s because TNC doesn’t want you to do that. The son freeing himself from the shackles of his father is already understood by the player, but it cannot be felt as a victory as it is utterly meaningless in BJ’s view. His suffering is in life, he only needs one more step for it to end.

The courtroom battle is the only part that indulges in this fantasy with BJ managing to break free and fight back with his own body in a pumping and rousing music in the only part where you really feel like this is what you worked all the way for. Even then, the nagging feeling that BJ managed to stand up when he shouldn’t dampens this feeling. It feels wrong, too easy, even as the fight is incredibly challenging and acts as the final push that you have to make in order to turn things around. At its height, Wolfenstein still reminds the player that this fantasy they seek is nothing more than that. In Memories of Murder, the movie still reminds the spectator that this answer they seek will not come. Park Doo-man turns his face to the camera as he has been given the description as an ordinary man for the real killer. Who is it ? Is it one of us ? Is this person in the audience ? It is besides the point. Doo-man distilled the frustration through everyone, just like TNC did, because the immediate lack of answer is one step that the ordinary people needs to assimilate in order to find a way to know what was even the question.

Wolfenstein 2 doesn’t thrive in the absurdity of its meaningless violence that Nazis thrives in. It’s a by-product of the frustration it elicits in the player in a way that is far more meaningful than the distinctly left-leaning self-masturbatory outlook of the country’s situation in order to reassure their ego (ex: talk shows). This, has always been far more damaging than the mere act of laughing at a joke. The release valve finds himself in the context that allows us to laugh, not in the act of laughing. If the context only serves to reassure your ego, it goes off.

But when the context is assimilated, the sum of Wolfenstein 2 doesn’t find itself in the grindhouse and its scatological jokes, but in what accompanies them, in terms of identity, freedom, difference and unity for this overly-patriotic, anti-communist soldier who still clings on some ideals that are false or dated. It’s also in breaking the conventions that are so contrary to its origins and also the modern game philosophy that makes it effective. The violence of Nazis doesn’t become the reason to fight back, but the deep ideological difference that draws the line before that.

And this is where I can’t seem to understand this constant flow of criticism that is levied against the game for not offering this fantasy it advertised, and this especially when we claim that a joke is enough to be a release valve for people to not assimilate a message. This expectation will always feel from the same cloth as the ego-boosting behaviour that has utterly failed to protect the most marginalized people of America. We hide in the things that sells the fantasy we want, and we act against the ones that frantically refuses to engage in this farce. And I feel Wolfenstein 2 acts as an interesting compass as its timeliness forces everyone to say something that doesn’t have the comfort of the insight or the retrospect that older pieces of entertainment in the same vein can have.


I almost hate to do this, because Cameron is great, and I have no doubt that he has more education and practice with critical theory than I do, but there were some things in this piece that really bugged me.

Before I get started, let me just get out of the way: of course it’s OK if the tonal shifts didn’t fit for you. If you found them offensive or they took you out of the story, that’s completely valid. I liked the tonal shifts quite a bit, personally. Instead of taking me out of the world, I thought it made it feel more real. Life isn’t always dour, or funny, or scary, or absurd. It’s all of those things at different times. Sometimes it’s all of those things at the same time. Anyway, that’s not really relevant to my problems with the article. It came down to two sections -

There is an attitude among The Left that the only art that is allowed to Say Something is independent, non-profit seeking art. As if the folks at Machine Games and Bethesda can’t have legitimate views on current social issues because, since they want to make money, they must only care about making money (if the only thing they cared about was making money, they wouldn’t have made a freaking Wolfenstein game, or at least not this one). It’s elitist nonsense, and also flies in the face of the way art has worked since basically forever. Look, I’d love to see the means of production in the hands of the laborers as much as the next guy, but that is not the way the world works right now. Also, nobody dismisses the social commentary of books, music, TV or movies just because they happen to have a marketing budget. If anything, people try to attach social commentary that may not be intended. Why is it a strike against one of the few AAA games that is clearly trying to say something.


I’m not up on current comedic theory. Is this really something that people believe now? Dr. Strangelove would like to have a word with these people.


Singling out the courthouse sequence as one of the sole moments of Wolf2 empowering the player doesn’t work because the sequence is still just as punishingly difficult as any other moment of the game up until then. The context of this scene is BJ seeking cathartic escapism so that he doesn’t have to think about the fact that he’s lost and his friends may be dead.

But even in this circumstance where failure would not make any sense in the context of the narrative, the combat designers just cannot let their foot off the pedal and make the player not feel absurdly fragile. It’s bizarre (in a bad way) to die 10 times in this short firefight sequence, and then find out it was a dream sequence. Was the point that, even in his dreams of empowerment, BJ can’t escape the fear of failure? That’s not something communicated via the narrative.

If we’re going by the notion that Wolf2 is going for an intentional juxtaposition between the desired empowerment of a crippled BJ vs the cold reality of how firefights would realistically go for someone in his position, then that breaks down the moment that he gets his new Ubermensch body because he is still just as fragile in any combat sequence, but with a 50 health buffer and a power-up ability that’s way too situational to be useful.

The first half’s narrative of “a broken man tries to seek an impossible empowerment” isn’t even necessary via (what is implied as) intentionally frustrating combat design, the narrative already does this by kicking out BJ’s mecha-suit crutches from under him and having him suffer both a loss and complete public humiliation.

It’s far less likely that every player death from an unreasonable expectation of performance is intentionally trying to create an atmosphere of defeatism, and more likely that, while the narrative (and entire marketing surrounding the game) is trying to sell a vibe of an Inglorious Basterds grindhouse romp, the combat designers are not in sync with that vision and have their headspace in tune with an archaic era of first-person gaming. One where the difficulty screen emasculating the player for wanting an easier experience is considered “normal”.

And this isn’t even getting into the more troubling dichotomy of the game pitching itself against the kinds of exclusionary gamer crowd that have adopted politics of racial and gender animus to intellectually barricade themselves against criticism of the art form, while also being a game ostensibly geared towards the expectations of that audience from a “skill first” school of design.

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I got weirdly lucky in that I slogged through the first half of the game on “Normal” (whatever the equivalent is in Wolf speak) and then when I died a dozen times at the courthouse I bumped the game down to “Easy”. And tonally, it ended up working super well. Just as the narrative (from BJ’s perspective) switched from a dirge to a triumphant symphony, the drop in difficulty allowed the gameplay to match the shift in tone. I think the developers would have been well served by keeping the punishing difficulty for the first half and then making the second half a joyous Nazi murder-spree, but at least they gave me the option to indirectly do just that.

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First off, I played the entire game on Easy difficulty. After TNO, I learned my lesson on the difficulty spikes in these games.

I completely understand people not enjoying the rapid tonal shifts this game has. It worked for me in a lot of instances though. I read a lot of the humor in this game as the resistance movement trying to find hope/joy/relief from the reality they faced in any way they could. Some of the jokes were bad (the poop joke during BJ & Anya’s conversation about BJ’s health and their relationship sucked, but I understood why they were there.

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This was such a great read. I just watched Memories of Murder a couple of weeks ago and your analysis is spot on. It’s actually available free to stream on Youtube.

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thank you! I really love this movie so I’m glad I can reference it whenever I can