Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is an Incendiary Masterpiece

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a game that I did not think would exist. At the end of the previous game, 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order, I was pretty sure the game’s hero, William Joseph Blazkowicz, known to most of his friends as BJ, was dead. The announcement of the Wolfenstein II earlier this year took me completely by surprise, and I was thrilled at the chance to play another fun Nazi-blasting adventure, but I was possibly even more excited to discover that BJ had survived.

Image: Bethesda

This level of attachment to a video-game protagonist is rare for me. Wolfenstein: The New Order surprised me by how well-written it was, by how well the characters were developed and how fully-realized the game’s world was. For a game that featured a level set aboard a Nazi moon base, The New Order was shockingly good at getting the player to care about its characters. Even without the likable characters and strong world-building, The New Order still would have been a fun adventure. But the game’s creators went the extra mile in expanding on the characters and lore of the game’s universe, which made for a much richer experience.

Wolfenstein II takes all of that and dials it up to eleven. Right from the start of the new game, I was deeply invested in the story, and I cared a lot about BJ and his relationships. At the end of The New Order, BJ defeated the hideously evil Nazi General Wilhelm “Deathshead” Strasse, but was grievously injured in the process. So badly injured that, as I stated above, I thought he was toast. Wolfenstein II opens with BJ being found by his allies and stitched back together. BJ awakens months later after having been in a coma, and at first, he can’t even walk. For the first section of the game, the player controls BJ in a wheelchair.

From the very beginning, the game emphasizes BJ’s vulnerability. He’s not the same man he was in The New Order. His body is broken, and he can only walk at the start of the game once he gets a set of badass power armor. Even then, the game reminds the player how vulnerable BJ is by setting his max health at 50, half of what is usually is. The message is clear: BJ is in trouble.

This is made all the more clear once it is revealed that Anya, BJ’s girlfriend from The New Order, is pregnant with twins. For the first half of the game, BJ doesn’t want to spend time with her, since he knows how broken his body is and doesn’t have the heart to tell Anya that she’ll have to raise their kids by herself, since he’s sure he’s going to die.

Image: Bethesda

That’s heartbreaking. If you’ve never played a Wolfenstein game before, I really need to emphasize how remarkable all of this is because everything else in these games is absolutely ludicrous. The New Order and The New Colossus take place in the 1960’s after the Nazis won World War II. They were able to do this by using technology invented by the Da’at Yichud, an ancient organization of, basically, Jewish science magicians. This technology enabled the Nazis to create energy weapons, computer AI’s, and advanced armor and robots that the Allies could not defeat. The irony that, in the game’s universe, the Nazis won the war using reverse-engineered Jewish technology is very apparent. The games are full of giant Nazi robots, spaceships, and robot dogs. They’re utterly ridiculous.

So it is quite extraordinary that the games put so much effort into getting the player to care about its characters. It also helps that BJ is voiced by an actor named Brian Bloom, who gives one of the best vocal performances I’ve ever heard in a video game. He’s soulful and introspective, while still being a stone-cold badass. BJ looks quite a bit like the Houston Texans’ JJ Watt, or perhaps the New England Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski. BJ’s first appearance was in Wolfenstein 3D in 1992, in which he was simply a vehicle for killing Nazis. Part of this is due to the limited technology available to game developers at the time, but it is still nothing short of amazing that the new series of Wolfenstein games are able to turn him into a flesh-and-blood human being.

We learn a lot more about BJ’s past in Wolfenstein II. It turns out that his mother was Jewish and his father was abusive and racist. There’s a flashback sequence early in the game in which BJ’s mother hides him in the closet when his father gets home and his father angrily berates her because BJ befriended a black girl. BJ’s father hits his mother and takes BJ to the basement, where he explains his belief that other inferior races need the white man to save them. He then ties BJ’s hands to a sawhorse and forces him to shoot his dog with a shotgun.

This happens within minutes of starting the game. Wolfenstein II is not messing around. BJ encounters his father again in the present, where he learns that his mother was sent to a concentration camp because she was Jewish. BJ’s father is unrepentant and states his intention to turn BJ over to the Nazis, and BJ kills him. Wolfenstein II is a game in which the player character kills his own father, and it feels like an incredibly cathartic moment.

The relationship between BJ and his pregnant girlfriend Anya is extraordinary. Anya loves BJ and is the only person in the game who calls him William. I’ve played a lot of video games, and Wolfenstein II might be the only one in which I felt like two characters actually loved each other. I cared so much about BJ and Anya. There’s a scene late in the game in which Anya, heavily pregnant and already covered in Nazi blood, blasts more Nazis with a machine gun in each hand while BJ watches on in amazement, and I thought, these kids are meant for each other. BJ proposes to Anya at the end of the game, and one of the many reasons I hope there’s a Wolfenstein III in a few years is to see them get together.

The game’s villain is thoroughly despicable. Her name is Frau Engel, and she already has a bone to pick with BJ after the events of The New Order. She’s sadistic and vicious, at one point beheading one of BJ’s friends and dangling the severed head in front of his face while making kissing noises. She also has a chubby daughter named Sigrun, who does not follow her mother’s evil ways. Sigrun is kind and ends up joining BJ’s side and helping the rebels fight the Nazis.

Image: Bethesda

One would think that fighting to free America from Nazi control would unequivocally be a good thing, and it is, but Wolfenstein II also takes pains to show that the situation is not black and white. At one point while I was playing, after killing a few enemies in one area, going somewhere else, and then returning to the original area, I encountered more Nazis. They were talking, and before I started blasting them I stopped to listen to their conversation. One of them was expressing his shock that one of his friends had recently been killed (presumably by me), because he was just about to get married. “How am I going to tell his fiancée?” the Nazi exclaimed. This actually made me feel bad about killing Nazis in a video game. I have killed many Nazis in many video games, and not once have I ever felt bad about it. Not until Wolfenstein II.

If it wasn’t already clear, Wolfenstein II is a game with balls. It is not afraid to go to places most video games wouldn’t and I’m not just talking about the story and the characters. The entire game is politically charged, and almost frighteningly relevant to the current political climate. Most games shy away from this sort of thing, but Wolfenstein II charges into it with a full head of steam. In one level, BJ is on an undercover mission on the streets of Roswell, New Mexico, and there are fully-hooded Klansmen walking around in the street. You’re probably getting tired of hearing me say stuff like this, but I have never seen this in a game before. Later on, some of the enemies you fight are Klansmen, and Wolfenstein II is the only game I have ever played that lets you plant an axe in a Klansman’s neck.

Image: Bethesda

Later on, the player encounters Adolf Hitler himself. Hitler is an old man at this point, and he’s clearly more than a little senile. He waves a gun around and shoots people at random, pisses in a bucket and at one point collapses into the fetal position and cries for his mother. It’s a provocative scene, made even more so by how plausible it is. At the time period in which the game takes place, Hitler has had absolute power for decades, and he has become a coddled dictator who is used to getting whatever he wants. He’s well on his way to being insane (if he’s not there already) and everyone has to act like he’s infallible for fear of being shot in the face. By the way, the entire Hitler scene takes place on a Nazi base on the planet Venus, and it is incredible that the fact the Hitler scene takes place on Venus is not the craziest thing about it.

Image: Bethesda

“When you take freedom away from the American people, you are playing with fire,” BJ says to a fellow revolutionary. “And I intend to pour gasoline all over that fire.” A game like Wolfenstein II takes 2-3 years to make, so it’s not like the game’s developers saw what was happening in the news over the past couple months regarding Nazis and white supremacists and decided to put all of this politically-charged stuff in the game. It was already there to begin with. The developers have stated that the game was not intended to be a commentary on current events, but the fact that it feels like one is a testament to the strength of the game’s writing. Also, the development company that made Wolfenstein II is Swedish. Think about that.

It’s so refreshing in this era of political correctness to encounter something that does not give a damn about being politically correct. Wolfenstein II’s primary advertising tagline was “Make America Nazi-Free Again.” I love how the game’s marketing was so brazenly unconcerned about not pissing people off. And the game has drawn criticism from alt-right whackos who say it unfairly associates them with Nazis, but the game’s creators did not care and nothing about the game or its marketing was changed, which makes me love it all the more. The game’s story ends with BJ and his friends executing the evil Frau Engel on live TV, and the end credits play with the accompaniment of a metal version of the Twisted Sister song “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”

Image: Bethesda

I love Wolfenstein II. It’s bold and brazen and oh-so-satisfying. It’s also loads of fun to actually play, and isn’t so concerned with character development that it forgets to deliver on the core gameplay. The Nazi-killing action is fun, furious, and gory as hell, which is everything it should be. Please let there be a Wolfenstein III.

Recently Taylor Sheridan, the writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water, made his directorial debut with Wind River, a thriller that follows the investigation of a murdered young woman at a Native American reservation in Wyoming. It’s a chilling and excellent film, and we’ll be talking about it next week.

Technoid Goes Down Again

Hey, guess what? Technoid escaped again. Let’s see if supercop Tom Kick can get him again…

Technoid Goes Down Again

VROOOM! VROOOM! Went Technoid’s motorcycle as it sped down the streets. Weeoo! Weeoo! Went the siren on Officer Kick’s police car as it sped down the streets after him. SCREEECH! Went the tires as they zoomed down the city streets. Suddenly, Technoid screeched into a parking lot and turned around. Now he was chasing Officer Kick! “Two can play at that game!” grinned Officer Kick as he did the same thing Technoid had done. Now Technoid was being chased again! You see, Technoid had just recently escaped from prison, and Officer Kick was trying to catch him again. Then, Technoid pushed a small button on his motorcycle, and a compartment in the back opened and an assault rifle popped out! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! It went as it fired. But Officer Kick dodged each bullet until the gun was out. “My turn!” grinned Officer Kick. Then, he rolled down his window and started to fire his own gun at Technoid. BLAM! A bullet smacked into a tire on Technoid’s motorcycle. SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEECHHHH! Went Technoid’s motorcycle as it buzzed out of control. SKWA-WHOOM!!!!!!!!! Technoid’s motorcycle exploded in a huge ball of fire. He was in prison, once more.

THE END

In this one I skip the ludicrous prison escape and cut right to the chase, so to speak. This is the shortest and simplest Technoid tale, being nothing more than a short car chase.

Still, there are questions that must be asked. The most pressing relate to Technoid’s motorcycle. How exactly did he manage to conceal one of his beloved assault rifles in a motorcycle? Motorcycles aren’t that big, is he driving the Batpod from The Dark Knight?

And if Technoid had just recently escaped from prison, how the hell did he get to his bike so quickly? Did he have it stashed somewhere close to the prison in case he needed a quick getaway vehicle?

I also didn’t think much about the actual logistics of a car chase when I wrote this all those years ago. If Technoid turned around, wouldn’t he and Officer Kick be headed straight towards each other? I guess I must have figured that Technoid turned into a parking lot and then waited for Officer Kick to go by before giving chase. But why would Technoid bother chasing Officer Kick? Why not just turn the other way and put some distance between them? Again we see that for all of his pertinacity Technoid’s decision-making process leaves quite a lot to be desired.

There’s also quite a big leap at the very end of this story. How does it go from “Technoid’s bike exploded” to “Technoid was in jail” so quickly? I clearly forgot to mention the part where Technoid fell or jumped off his bike, since if he hadn’t done that he would have been toast. Like, literal toast.

Lastly, I would like to point out that my dedication to 100% accurate transcriptions of these stories was so absolute that I even counted out the exact number of E’s in SCREEEEEEECH and the exact number of exclamation points in SKWA-WHOOM!!!!!!! I never thought I would be doing that roughly fifteen years after I wrote this little story. It’s funny how life works sometimes.

Anyway, that’s it for part three. I’ve got one more of these, and not to toot my own horn or anything, but I think it might be the best.

Technoid Returns

Here is part two in the ongoing saga of master villain Technoid. Please enjoy.

Technoid Returns

Chapter 1

It was a dark, stormy night at the Manhattan Jail. “Hmmmm,” Technoid thought. He looked through the barred window in the door. A guard! “Perfect!” exclaimed Technoid. “They never put that striped uniform on me, and they never searched me!” An evil plan was forming in his mind. “I think I have a small explosive in my pocket here. Good! I do!” he exclaimed. “Now, if I can throw my voice to make it sound like it’s coming from over there, I’ll bet I could get out of here! Help!” he threw his voice. “Let me out of here!” “Huh?!” said the guard. He walked away to try to find out what it was. Meanwhile, Technoid had lit the explosive and pushed it out the door. KABOOM! It exploded and blew the door down. The force of the explosion caused a huge chunk of rock to fall from the ceiling and crush the guard. “Har Har!” laughed Technoid. “Now I can get out of here!” he walked over to where the dead guard was and picked up his assault rifle. MEEP! MEEP! MEEP! He had set the alarm off. Guards were coming in from all directions. FFFFT! Went the guns as they fired. Finally, Technoid got out of the jail. “At last!” thought Technoid. “I’m home free!” He jumped into a police boat and sped off into the night.

Chapter 2

The next night a robbery was committed at the local bank. 1,000,000 dollars in cash were stolen. The day after that, every man who had a firearm was robbed of it. And it just kept going. Some thought Technoid could never be stopped.

Chapter 3

But don’t worry. Technoid COULD be stopped. By Officer Tom Kick. No villain escapes when he’s on the job. The Mad Bomber Felon didn’t escape, Gruzork the jewel thief didn’t escape. Even Technoid didn’t escape (the first time). One night, when Technoid was robbing a museum, the Mad Bomber Felon showed up. “What?!?” thought Technoid. “He’s in prison! I even saw him when I escaped. Ah ha! I know who you are! You’re Officer Kick!” “That I am,” said Officer Kick, taking off his costume. FFFFFT! Went the guns. Bang! The door came blasting down with a large THUD! As it hit the floor, Officer Kick and Technoid came rolling out. SWISH! Officer Kick had snatched Technoid’s gun. Suddenly, Technoid turned and ran.

2 guards were waiting for him. He laid both of them flat with one swift punch. But then, Officer Kick appeared. He fired his gun. BANG! It hit Technoid in the leg. He fell, stunned, by the shot. He tried to get up, but his wounded leg was just too much. He passed out. When he awoke, he was in prison. Officer Kick did it again.

THE END

Well that was the dumbest thing ever.

I’m pretty sure I managed to come up with the absolute stupidest prison escape of all time. For some reason, Technoid was never searched before being tossed in the slammer, and had an explosive on him the whole time. I don’t need to explain how ludicrous that is.

But moving past that, why the hell did Technoid wait to use his hidden explosive? If he had it on him the whole time, why not use it and bust out of there ASAP? Was he waiting for the appropriate dark and stormy night or did all the noise from that nine-day shootout in the previous story rattle his brains a little bit?

To be honest, when I was transcribing this story I was tempted to modify this part of the story somehow to make it slightly less outlandish, but I decided to leave it the way it was. The whole scenario of Technoid’s prison escape is so boneheaded I’m actually a little embarrassed by it.

But let’s ignore my shame and move on.

It’s interesting to me that in the first story, despite the nine-day shootout, no one seemed to have actually died. All of the wounded policemen were nursed back to health, but in this story, Technoid kills a guard right in the beginning and laughs about it. Clearly the big T is taking no prisoners this time around.

In my first story I never said much about why Technoid was in hiding in the first place, aside from being a super-dangerous criminal. Here we see that Technoid is a prolific thief, not only making off with a million bucks cash but also managing to break in to dozens if not hundreds of homes to steal people’s guns. How Technoid knew how to find gun owners is a mystery. Maybe he has like a gun radar or something, a gundar if you will.

And did Technoid manage to steal all of those guns in one night? Geez, the guy is like reverse Santa Claus, slipping into people’s homes and taking stuff instead of leaving presents.

Fortunately, the heroic Officer Tom Kick is on the job. He once again proves himself to be a master of disguise, taking the appearance of the infamous Mad Bomber Felon to once again get the drop on Technoid. I love the names Gruzork the Jewel Thief and the Mad Bomber Felon, they sound like villains from the 60’s Adam West Batman show. Wish I had included them as actual characters.

I spend a lot of time in these stories talking about how Technoid is virtually unstoppable, but as soon as Officer Kick shows up he goes down like a punk bitch. Officer Kick is like Technoid’s human kryptonite. I sure hope they searched Technoid before tossing him back in the clink, or the squirrely fellow might just escape again…

Introducing Technoid

When I was 10-12 years old, I wrote an absolutely ludicrous series of stories about a guy called Technoid. The stories are the product of a 10-12-year-old’s grasp of storytelling, which means that they make little to no sense. I recently rediscovered these stories in a folder in my room and thought it would be fun to go through them and add some commentary.

So without further ado, here is the introduction to the terror that the world will soon come to know as Technoid. Michael Bay, I await your phone call.

Technoid

“Ah!” exclaimed Technoid. “Home at last!” he looked at his tree house and climbed up the ladder. Technoid is a highly wanted super-dangerous criminal who lives in the African jungles where no policemen can find him.

He went into his weapons room, which had over 50 assault rifles (all were his, of course). He admired them for about 5 minutes or so, and then went down the hall into his room. When he got there, he walked over to his safe, which had a stolen half million dollars in it. Jewels were mixed in with the money, too.

“Boy, it is sure nice livin’ in the jungles of Africa with no policemen everywhere you turn.” Suddenly, he heard a noise outside. Going to his weapons room, he carefully selected a rifle and climbed down the ladder, outside he saw…..cannibals!

“Halt!” one of them said, which, by its looks, appeared to be the leader. They were all armed with spears, and a quiver bulging with arrows over their shoulders. A bow was hanging on each of their arms. Suddenly, one of them ripped off his feathers and tore off his straw belt, revealing a pistol in a holster. All of the others did the same.

“Officer Tom Kick!” exclaimed Technoid, as the policemen advanced on him. “Yes!” said the officer. “I have travelled all this way just to get you and claim my reward.” Technoid pulled out his gun and said, “Stop, or I’ll shoot!” “Sure you will,” grinned Officer Kick. “Now this is war!” yelled Technoid. Bang! Bam! You could hear the guns firing from miles around. And every now and then, an occasional “Unnngh!” Then and again, a policeman would come limping into the village and have to be nursed back to health. Finally, after 9 whole days, the shooting came to an end. And Officer Kick and Technoid came on stretchers back to the village, both badly wounded. Later that day, a plane took off from United Airlines to take Officer Kick and Technoid back to America so Officer Kick could claim his reward. And that concludes this tale of cops and robbers.

And there you have it! Wow, there was a lot of dumb stuff in that story.

First off, what’s with all the assault rifles? I actually do have a specific answer for this. I got the phrase “assault rifle” from GoldenEye for the Nintendo 64. I had no real concept of what an assault rifle actually was, but I thought it sounded like something a guy like Technoid would use.

t91-assault-rifle

GoldenEye 64 was released in August of 1997. I was born in September of 1988, so technically I was eight years old when the game was released. But since I never actually owned a Nintendo 64 myself (some of my friends did) I didn’t play the game until sometime after it was originally released, and didn’t start writing my goofy Technoid stories until after that, hence my estimation that my 10-12 years old at the time of the writing of these action-packed tales.

Clearly the concept of “show, don’t tell” was completely foreign to me at the time, since I have Technoid explain exactly what he’s doing in the jungles of Africa. There’s no subtlety whatsoever, I just come right out and say who Technoid is and what he’s doing there. I also like how I say that he is both highly wanted and super-dangerous, since it obviously never occurred to me that the former strongly implies the latter.

Technoid must have a gun fetish or something. Five minutes is kind of a long time to just sit there and stare at something. I like my Blu-ray collection quite a bit, but I don’t just sit in my chair staring at it for minutes at a time.

And of course there are the so-called cannibals. Obviously they’re not really cannibals, they’re police officers in disguise, but nothing about any of that makes a lick of sense. When I said “cannibals” in the story, I was thinking of grass-skirt wearing natives, like something out of Cannibal Holocaust or a particularly culturally-sensitive episode of Scooby-Doo (not that I had any idea what Cannibal Holocaust was when I was ten, so…yeah. Also, Cannibal Holocaust takes place in South America, not Africa, so it’s apparent that my sense of geography as a ten-year-old was a bit off).

2009-02-25-58-cannibal-popsicle

But the undercover officers disguising themselves as natives of some kind is asinine. Presumably they figured the disguise would enable them to get the drop on Technoid somehow, but they take no advantage whatsoever of whatever the element of surprise may have done for them, instead choosing to ditch the disguises immediately.

Said disguise-ditching begs another question: were the cops wearing clothes under their disguises? If so, it seems like it would be difficult to pull off the look they were going for. If not, they would make themselves extremely vulnerable during a gunfight.

And wow, what a gunfight! Nine whole days? Those cops must have brought tons of ammo with them in the clothes they may or may not have been wearing under their disguises. Maybe they used the bows and arrows.

It also makes no sense that it’s a bunch of cops who come after Technoid, as opposed to federal agents or something. What, did Officer Tom Kick round up a bunch of his beat cop buddies to go to Africa in search of the highly dangerous criminal mastermind?

Aside from all the nonsense in this story this little tale is intriguing to me looking back on it now because it shows that even from a young age I was fascinated with villains. The main character is Technoid, the bad guy, not Officer Kick, the good guy. Even when I was in grade school, the bad guy was more interesting to me on some level than the good guy.

Some things never change, I guess. It’s no coincidence my favorite superhero will always be the dark and brooding Batman instead of the all-around good guy Superman. All-around good guys are so boring.

I wrote four of these silly stories, so stay tuned for part two, because boy, it’s a doozy.

The Heart of Darkness

I recently played a video game called Spec Ops: The Line. The game has been out for a while and I picked it up for twenty bucks at my local Gamestop. At first glance, the game appears to be yet another cover-based third-person shooter, the mechanics of which will be immediately familiar to anyone who played the extremely popular Gears of War series.

And indeed, the gameplay is solid, if unspectacular. But I hesitate to call the game “fun.” This sounds odd to me, since if a game is not fun, it must not be a very good game, right? In most cases, yes. But that is not the case with Spec Ops: The Line. The game’s storyline is one of the darkest of any game I have ever played, and it made me question my desire to play video games in which you mow down countless bad guys. It made me question the very morality of what I was doing, which to me was quite extraordinary.

250px-Spec_Ops_The_Line_cover

The game takes place in Dubai, which has been ravaged by the worst sandstorms in recorded history. When the storms started getting really bad, Dubai’s politicians and wealthy citizens abandoned the city, leaving everyone else behind. A decorated but troubled military commander, Colonel John Konrad, volunteered his unit, the fictional Damned 33rd, to help the relief efforts, and then deserted when the 33rd was ordered to abandon the city.

Dubai became cut off from the world, and 6 months later a looped radio signal is broadcast, saying: “This is Colonel John Konrad, United States Army. Attempted evacuation of Dubai ended in complete failure. Death toll: too many.” Hearing this, the US military covertly sends in a three-man team of Delta Force operators: Captain Martin Walker (the player-controlled character), Lieutenant Alphonse Adams, and Staff Sergeant John Lugo. Their mission is to confirm the statuses of Konrad and any other survivors, and radio for extraction.

What starts out as a simple recon mission soon turns into a soul-shattering descent into madness. Given the setup, you’d think that maybe the 33rd was taken captive by some sinister group, you, the player, would rescue them, save the city, and everything would be fine, right?

Wrong.

Very, very wrong.

 Spec-Ops-The-Line-Art

It turns out that there’s a whole civil war going on in Dubai, being waged by various factions. Some of the 33rd is still loyal to Konrad, while some of them rebelled against him. There is also a group led by a handful of CIA agents, who don’t want the truth of what happened in Dubai to reach the rest of the world.

When you, the player, first encounter members of the 33rd, they think you’re with the CIA and attempt to kill you. This leads to the very unusual (for a video game) scenario of you having to fight and kill fellow American soldiers.

Wait, what? Aren’t you supposed to be killing the bad guys? The question the game asks is a familiar one, but relevant nonetheless: Who is the real bad guy? The answer, the game suggests, might surprise you.

As you progress through the game, you eventually come across an area heavily fortified by the 33rd. There’s a mortar nearby, and Walker decides to use it to clear the area with white phosphorus shells.

Now, white phosphorus is extremely nasty stuff. It causes deep second and third degree burns, and it sticks to the skin and can cause extensive damage to internal organs due to being absorbed by the body. If you really want to, you can go to Wikipedia for an image of the kinds of injuries it causes, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s an image I’m not going to post on my blog.

So, in the game, you use the white phosphorus mortar to clear the area of hostiles. As you move through the carnage afterward, you encounter a severely burned soldier, on the verge of death.

“Why?…” the soldier croaks.

“You brought this on yourself,” Walker replies.

“We were helping…” the injured soldier tries to say, but dies before he can finish.

“What?” Walker asks, confused. He looks around, and sees something. “Oh, no…” he says softly.

It turns out that the 33rd had been providing shelter for civilians, and you, the player, have burned them all to a crisp.

SpecOpsTheLine-2012-07-19-18-26-23-01

Here’s the scene on YouTube, if you can stomach it.

Walker is heavily traumatized by this turn of events, and Adams and Lugo begin to lose their faith in their commander. Walker vows revenge against the 33rd, blaming them for, as he sees it, forcing him to fire the white phosphorus.

A little later, you find a small radio through which Konrad begins communicating with Walker, and openly questioning the morality of Walker’s actions. Walker refuses to take any responsibility for what he has done, and blames Konrad for forcing his hand. Adams and Lugo grow more and more distrusting in their commanding officer, and begin to voice their distrust more openly.

Walker, Adams, and Lugo eventually team up with a CIA agent named Riggs, and help him hijack the tanker trucks carrying Dubai’s water supply. Riggs, however, intentionally crashes the trucks, intending to wipe out the entire remaining population of Dubai so that no one will know about the atrocities committed there. And so you, the player, are once again (at least partly) responsible for an atrocity: the inevitable death of Dubai’s entire remaining population.

 Walker before and after

This image is of Walker as the game progresses. The deterioration is pretty obvious.

Walker is beginning to hallucinate, and Konrad continues to question his judgment, as do Adams and Lugo. After a helicopter crash, Lugo is lynched by an angry mob, and the player is given the choice to either scare the crowd away by firing into the air, or gun them down in payback.

Let me reiterate this: you, the player, are given the option to fire into a crowd of civilians to pay them back for the death of your comrade. This is almost unprecedented. I almost can’t believe something like this made it into a widely-released video game.

Walker continues to hallucinate, and Adams clearly no longer trusts him. Walker informs Konrad that he is coming to kill him, and Walker and Adams make their way to the tower (which I think is supposed to be the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building) where Konrad is holed up.

After another fierce firefight, Walker barely makes it to the tower, while Adams goes down fighting the last of Konrad’s men. As Walker enters the tower, the last of the 33rd surrender to him and inform that Konrad is on the penthouse deck of the tower. Walker goes to confront him, and at first Konrad appears to be the man behind the atrocities, until Walker finds his decaying corpse.

Yep, Konrad committed suicide well before the game began, and Walker has been imagining everything Konrad said to him in an attempt to rationalize his actions, and to distance himself from his guilt over having caused the deaths of so many civilians and fellow American soldiers. Walker’s projection of Konrad tells him that he had many opportunities to leave Dubai, but didn’t and pushed recklessly ahead from a misplaced desire to be a hero, and only ended up causing more death and destruction in the process. The game ends with Walker’s projection of Konrad pointing a gun at him (which is of course Walker pointing a gun at himself) and beginning to count to five.

There are a couple of different endings to the game after this point, but I will again refer you to Wikipedia for the details since there are other things I want to discuss here.

Spec Ops: The Line is nightmarish in many ways. What starts as a recon mission becomes a massacre, with the player character starting the game looking like this…

 spec-ops-3 good

And ending it looking more like this:

 spec-ops-the-line-e3-2012-screenshots-1 bad

In this game, you objectively fail your mission. Not only do you fail, you fail spectacularly: you spend the majority of the game fighting and killing American soldiers, and are responsible for mass killings of civilians on more than one occasion. Your actions have helped lead to what will probably be the extinction of Dubai’s remaining population, which is pretty much the exact opposite of your mission going into the game.

For much of the game, Walker blames Konrad for what has happened. The twist that Konrad has been dead the whole time of course means that Walker himself was entirely responsible for everything that happened. Revenge against Konrad was just a smokescreen, and Walker’s attempted rationale for the atrocities he himself commits turns out to be meaningless.

All of this is very fourth-wall breaking. Walker’s actions throughout the game are also the player’s actions, and the player is therefore responsible for some truly horrific deeds.

In most games, when you die and the game reloads your last checkpoint, a hint appears on the loading screen to help you out. Spec Ops: The Line does this as well, until late in the game, when different sorts of messages begin to appear on the screen.

Messages like this:

Do you feel like a hero yet?

Can you even remember why you’re here?

The United States Military does not condone the killing of unarmed noncombatants. But this isn’t real, so why should you care?

Killing for yourself is murder. Killing for your government is heroic. Killing for entertainment is harmless.

And perhaps most devastatingly:

You’re still a good person.

Damn.

Spec Ops: The Line is a game that makes you question your desire to play violent video games, even as you are in the process of playing one. It makes you think about all those violent games you’ve played in the past, and how you were so proud of yourself for setting a new personal record for most kills in one round of Call of Duty. It makes you question all those achievements you’ve gotten for killing certain numbers of enemies with different weapons in game after game after game. It makes you question the choices you make. It makes you question why you are playing this particular game, even as you continue to play it, and why like Walker, you stick it out to the very bitter end. It’s a deconstruction of the entire shooter genre, and while it’s not exactly subtle, it deserves credit for the questions it raises.

The implications of these questions are ones I don’t really want to think about, but at the same time, I admire the creators of this game for having the stones to bring them up. I think I read somewhere that one of the main inspirations for the story was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the parallels to which are pretty clear in the game.

Also of note is the terrific vocal performance of the great voice actor Nolan North, who does a tremendous job of conveying the erosion of Walker’s sanity as the game progresses. At the beginning of the game, Walker sounds cool and composed, as you near the end, he sounds downright frantic. Even if the name Nolan North isn’t familiar to you, I can all but guarantee you’ve heard his voice if you’ve played just about any game over the past several years. Seriously, the guy’s IMDB page is about a mile long.

There’s not really any specific point I wanted to make with this post. I spent a good portion of this last weekend playing this game, and it affected me so much I just had to get my feelings out, since writing is such good therapy. I’m sorry this post was such a downer, if you read it to the end, thanks for hanging in there with me.

The next movie I’m going to write about will be The World’s End, the reunion of everyone’s favorite crazy British actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost with everyone’s favorite crazy British director Edgar Wright. I’m really looking forward to it.

But until then, I need to go lie down.

I Miss the 90’s

When I was a freshman in college, one of the common curriculum classes I had to take had this final project that was very open-ended. The class itself was pretty informal, and the final project was to get in groups and do a presentation on…well, pretty much anything you wanted, as long as there was an interactive element to it. One group did finger-painting, my group did T-shirts, and there were a couple others. Like I said, pretty open-ended.

One of the groups I remember the most was this group of easygoing folks who got up and talked about how awesome the 90’s were. Classic Disney movies, Third Eye Blind, GoldenEye on Nintendo 64…good times. In addition to being a fun, lighthearted project and a nice bit of relief during the stress of finals week, it was a great reminder of how the 90’s were just a great decade to be a kid in.

I was born in 1988, (also the same year Die Hard came out, though I was of course ignorant of this at the time, having just been born) but as this group pointed out, I am not a child of the 80’s, I am a child of the 90’s. I was born late September of 1988 anyway, so I was only around for less than two years’ worth of the 80’s. I am a product of the 90’s, through and through.

And I gotta say, I have a lot of fond memories of the 90’s. One of my earliest moviegoing memories is of seeing Aladdin in the theater, which is still a great movie.

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I watched it a while ago and busted a gut for like five minutes laughing at this. Crazy Hakim’s Discount Fertilizer is totally on Facebook by the way. Seriously, Google that.

Beauty and The Beast in 1991, Aladdin in ’92, Lion King in ’94, Pocahontas in ’95, Hunchback of Notre Dame in ’96, Hercules in ’97 and Mulan in ’98…Disney doesn’t make ‘em like that anymore. Did you know that Disney’s upcoming Lone Ranger movie starring Johnny Depp with a bird on his head has a budget of $200 million-plus? Unbelievable. Probably won’t have one-tenth of what made Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Lion King and Mulan so magical.

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SERIOUSLY. There’s a BIRD on his HEAD. Even Depp looks like he isn’t quite sure how it got there. And why is his face white? Did the bird poop on him?

But getting back to the 90’s, they were awesome (Hell, people forget that The Matrix came out in 1999, even). Everything these days is so messed up, it always seems like we’re only a few days away from the next political scandal or school shooting or natural disaster. In the 90’s, things were simpler. Things seemed more…hopeful, somehow. Nowadays it’s all doom and gloom. The economy’s in the toilet, war, famine, disease, disaster, etc. etc. etc. The 00’s (oughts?) and the 10’s (teens? I don’t really know the proper abbreviation for the last few decades) are just so damn depressing in comparison.

Now, take all of what I’m saying here with a grain of salt. I was a kid in the 90’s, things are always easier when you’re a kid (at least in hindsight). So I think it’s safe to say that my outlook in my formative years was perhaps a bit more rosy than it is now. I mean sure, people who know me would tell you that I’m not always a ray of sunshine, I get depressed and uncommunicative sometimes (sorry, Mom). But when I’m in a good mood I like to think that I’m a decently fun guy to be around. I know the 90’s had its fair share of political turmoil and natural disasters and whatnot (like Columbine in 1999) but my point is nothing more profound than that it was just a good time to be a kid.

In a way, I feel kinda bad for kids these days. I can’t imagine the 00’s are anywhere near as much fun to grow up in as the good ol’ 90’s were. I could very well be wrong, I don’t have kids or anything (that I know of…JUST KIDDING MOM. Really). I had a great childhood, and the easygoing, fun-loving spirit of the 90’s was a big part of that. The facts that I had (and still have) a wonderful family and a great home and went to a good school all helped too of course. But the 90’s just had this…quality to them. After all, how could you not love a decade that produced such awesome TV series like The Pirates of Dark Water…

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THIS SHOW WAS AWESOME. And Amazon tells me it is now available on DVD. I must buy it immediately. Damn shame they never finished it.

Or Gargoyles…

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Seriously, this title card is so badass it could be the cover of a DragonForce album.

Or what I still consider to be the Greatest Animated Television Series of All Time, Batman: The Animated Series?

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Also one of the greatest versions of Batman in any media, and you can even see its influence in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films. There’s even an episode where Batman has to stop Scarecrow from poisoning the Gotham water supply with fear toxin…sound familiar anyone? Mr. Nolan did his homework.

But what got me thinking about the 90’s anyway? Well, the party most directly responsible is a band called Nine Days and an album called The Madding Crowd, which just for fun I popped into my CD player in my car (yes, I still listen to CDs while I drive, call me old-fashioned) while on my way home from an appointment yesterday and promptly fell in love with all over again.

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The title of the album is a reference to a novel called Far From the Madding Crowd by an English novelist named Thomas Hardy, whom I know nothing about but apparently had a brilliant mustache:

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JUST LOOK AT THAT ‘STACHE. Magnificent.

Anyway, someone please tell me I’m not the only one out there who remembers this Nine Days album. The actual CD is out of print but I’m pretty sure you can still find it on iTunes. There are just so many great damn songs on this album. Who could forget the song “Absolutely (Story of a Girl)”, a chart-topper from 2000? Yes, the album did technically come out in 2000, but in encapsulates that fun-loving spirit of the 90’s so well that I will always associate it with the 90’s. “Absolutely (Story of a Girl)” is one of the songs that got me started listening to music in the first place, along with Semi-Charmed Life by Third Eye Blind, an anthem of the 90’s if ever there was one (people say it’s a drug song but who cares? Just try not to tap your foot to that beat).

What I love about “Absolutely (Story of a Girl)” in particular is that it is a song about love. “This is the story of a girl/ who cried a river and drowned the whole world/ and while she looks so sad in photographs/ I absolutely love her/ when she smiles.” I love these lyrics. They’re open to interpretation, sure, but to me this is a song about love, about hanging in there when things are tough.

And the thing is, people don’t write lyrics like this anymore. These days it’s all a bunch of rappers going on and on about how they make more money that you and get more girls than you and all this other crap which is all utterly meaningless, and these people make millions, and I just don’t understand it. in the 90’s (okay early 00’s, Mr. Nitpicker) you had other songs from Nine Days like “If I Am”, another wonderfully hopeful song. “You should never let the sun set on tomorrow/ before the sun rises today.” Beautiful. Now you can’t even watch the video for “If I Am” on YouTube without an ad for Rihanna staring at you from the side of the screen.

Sigh. Sometimes I feel like I was born in the wrong era, but then I listen to songs like “If I Am” and think that maybe I wasn’t after all.

“The answers we find/ are never what we had in mind/ so we make them up as we go along.” So true, Nine Days.

So true.

RIP Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert died yesterday at the age of 70, after a decade-long battle with thyroid cancer.

He was unquestionably the most well-known film critic in the world, but his legacy and his influence go much deeper. I’ve referenced Ebert a few times in other posts I’ve written on this blog (at least I’m pretty sure I have), and I know I’m far from being the only person who was influenced by him.

I feel like it’s somewhat self-aggrandizing of me to say that Ebert was an influence on me. I’m just some Podunk blogger who likes zombies, Batman, and Bruce Willis movies, yet here I am saying that the most influential and widely respected film critic to probably ever exist was an influence on me.

But it’s true, and I feel like Ebert was the sort of person who would have appreciated that.

In a truly extraordinary essay, Ebert wrote about how he did not fear death. I won’t summarize the essay, because you really should read it yourself. (here’s the link: http://www.salon.com/2011/09/15/roger_ebert/) There is one paragraph in particular that really stood out to me, and I hope I won’t get in trouble for copyright infringement or anything for reprinting it here:

“’Kindness’ covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”

That’s just…amazing. That is the effect Ebert had on people. He contributed joy to the world. He helped make people happy. That is the effect he had on me, and so I’m pretty sure he would have been pleased with me citing him as an influence, as he would have with the many, many other people whose lives he touched. And that’s really what I’m trying to do with this blog, to make people happy, and maybe make them think a little bit, too. If I have succeeded with that with even one person, then I am happy.

But it wasn’t just his outlook that I liked about Ebert. It was his style. He wrote about movies in a way that made them accessible and appealing to all sorts of people. He embraced everybody’s opinions, and embraced all kinds of movies. His reviews were always written in a welcoming, conversational style, one that I like to think I have attempted to emulate here.

He made movies fun, while also acknowledging when they moved him on a personal level. He wasn’t afraid to talk about how a movie made him feel, which I think is really something of a lost art. He didn’t let popular opinion really faze him either, if he liked a movie no one else did or disliked a movie everyone else seemed to like he would stick to his guns and not back down from his opinions, while still being aware that not everyone would feel the same way he did.

And on top of all that, the man was simply a great writer. He always found a way to hook you with every review, which isn’t easy to do once, let alone thousands of times. His reviews were funny, thoughtful, intelligent, and often moving, sometimes all at once.

He didn’t even let the loss of his voice slow him down. If anything, it had the opposite effect, since he became very active with his blog and on Twitter and still cranked out those wonderful, oh-so-readable reviews. He punched cancer in the face for ten years without letting it get him down. His work ethic and his integrity were truly remarkable.

He was also a man who just loved movies. He devoted his life to the art of film, and in so doing he made it fun and accessible for generations of fellow film-lovers. I didn’t always agree with his reviews, but I always, always enjoyed reading them. He was a man of great integrity, strength, intelligence, and wit, and he is already sorely missed.