(Content warning: Nazis, genocide.)
Wolfenstein is one of the longest-standing names in video games, typically trading off positions on Wikipedia’s ranked list with Mario depending on which had the latest release. It has a much stranger path there than anything in that top tier other than arguably The Oregon Trail . The series lays pretty fallow for near a decade at a stretch, each time being resurrected with what I’m comfortable calling cash-legitimized fangames. This is a series that survives less off corporate inertia and ports like Space Invaders  but off passionate love cascading through entire generations boldly mutating the game’s basic DNA to suit themselves. Despite being the root of such enduring love, Castle Wolfenstein  is primarily treated as prologue, overshadowed by the love people have for the later entries with larger install bases, especially Wolfenstein 3-D . Lucky me, then, that I’m taking things chronologically and I’ve never played any other Wolfenstein game.
Castle Wolfenstein  is not about killing Nazis. It’s a perfectly understandable to think it is, though: Later licensed fangames bearing its name are very much about killing Nazis, and in Castle Wolfenstein you do, in fact, kill Nazis. But that’s not what it’s about. In Castle Wolfenstein, murder is simply an expedient.
In previous violent games I’ve covered, killing is the point. Literally, it’s the thing you usually get points for, not to mention often fundamentally the sole verb available (even when the game gives you a smorgasbord of options, as in Rogue .) Even solving an adventure game murder mystery resolves to a choice of single or double homicide. The action game Berzerk , which epitomizes a video game consisting entirely of move and kill kill kill, is the quite recognizable blueprint of Castle Wolfenstein.
Veteran game designer Silas Warner was not simply here to port an arcade experience onto home consoles: it’s a complete remix that indulges the creative impulse to flip the script. Castle Wolfenstein exploits the possibilities Berzerk left on the table, like the worldbuilding potential of speech synthesis, or the simple decoupling of murder and movement to create what some call the first twin-stick shooter, or emphasizing fleeing over extermination, and explores the implications of what it means to take an arcade game completely out of the material pressures of rapid quarter take. Castle Wolfenstein’s easily-derided lockpicking mechanic, where you simply have to wait, doing nothing for up to two real life minutes, is key to its aesthetic insight here: Perversely, making things feel slow is most possible in the same ways you make things feel fast. A turn-based game like Zork  goes at your pace; to occupy real time, you have to play in real time, and thus far with few exceptions, that’s been synonymous with tuned white-knuckle go-go action. Castle Wolfenstein makes, instead, waiting for things to happen its core pillar. This is an inaction game. It’s an odd, unique rhythm to get used to at first… but it works well.
You hang back in a safe spot and evaluate the situation, leveraging the capabilities of the omnipotent gods-eye-view in a way nothing else yet has, waiting for the moment where things align to make your move. The enemy AI is just smart enough to anthropomorphize, plenty stupid enough to predict, and just random enough that sometimes you can’t. The game is committed to exploring Adventure  style emergent behavior of AI & player character actors in randomized environments within a broad cluster of game systems that all intersect over Adventure  style systems of strict lock-and-key progression. It’s not exactly Deus Ex , but it’s recognizably a stealth game with a simulationist streak. Its odd rhythm is methodical, and at its best, tense. You end up in thrilling little situations where you’ve got a SS soldier surrendering at the barrel of your unloaded gun, and you’re just praying that you can pickpocket some of their bullets off of them to shoot them with.
The lethal entanglements in this game are sudden and quick. It’s a scramble, a foil erupting and rupturing the slow with haste. This is accentuated by the control scheme, which is certainly workable, but not quite easy. If you get in a jam you haven’t prepared for, you’re liable to hit the wrong key or forget that your avatar has separate start and stop walking buttons, creating an effect like panicked fumbling for your weapon that I assume goes away with practiced skill, but is nevertheless very compelling to be bad at, which is no small thing in a game. Particularly punishing (and scary) is how bumping into anything makes the computer scream at you with flashing colors behind which you can just make out that your avatar has temporarily lost their limbs as it freezes for a couple seconds and comes back to life with gun holstered, which could easily be the difference between getting got or not.
The basic goal of the game is the same as The Prisoner : escape from the prison, a castle, into which you have been abducted. For Castle Wolfenstein, though, this is understood to be straightforwardly possible and in no metaphysical way, whereas in The Prisoner leaving the Castle is merely step 1. As the title indicates, this is not about the interiority of the anonymous subject but the interior of The Castle. Castles are an emblem of European antiquity and military hierarchy. Any given castle predates the Nazis, but the tight rhetorical association here between the two gesture at an uneasy knot of nostalgia, both because World War II was the last European war (that blinkered American pop culture cares about) and thus the last time they were of use for their original purpose, and because of the suggestion that the final heirs and terminators of romantic Old Western Europe were the Nazis. The Castle’s architecture is not as fixed as would be tidy, though, due to the randomization, which urges us to consider the Castle as a half-real assemblage inheriting the nightmare qualities of Berzerk. If it still is a place, it is one that is understood as a set of features, the chests against the brick walls, the doors, and the soldiers patrolling the halls. The Castle here is the belly of the beast, a microcosmic sketch of a society gone full Nazi — albeit, a depiction of Nazis that doesn’t extend far beyond goosestepping and an “Achtung!” brought to you from the vocal cords of Silas Warner.
These Nazis are Wolfenstein’s gremlins, their acceptable casualties. It inaugurates a video game tradition, but ignoring medium, it’s a link in an old chain: its paper-thin caricature of Nazis stretches back to wartime propaganda. It’s always been and always going to be convenient to paint your war opposition as approaching the very definition of evil, who it is good to kill, and the fact that that was really true this time meant it stuck around even after the fighting ended, reiterating as now not a call to action but a triumphant reaffirmation that those of us not in an Axis country were the good guys. It’s rarely reaffirmation of positive shared democratic values, though, but a reaffirmation that evil has already been destroyed, and was located elsewhere anyway. What’s crucial is that this haunted house introduced with death is understood as foreign, that this terrible place has nothing to do with you.
The truth is though that the same as Castle Wolfenstein is not about Nazi slaughter, the Allies did not war with Germany as an ideological moral crusade but because of the practical threat of aggressive military expansionism. Otherwise, maybe Franco would have been a target as well, instead of recuperating high-ranking Nazis with Operation Paperclip and positions as powerful bureaucrats in the new NATO-oriented world. In media set on the Western Front in particular, it’s common for the Nazis to be understood as needing vanquished only insomuch as they were our foes, even to the level of camaraderie across battle lines perpetuating the idea of the Clean Wehrmacht of jobbing soldiers detached from the Nazi state and ideology even as they enact it. At worst, to be a Nazi is understood only on the level of aesthetics. In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with blood-spilling war stories that avert their gaze from the mood-killing dark horrors of fascism, but it’s empty calories, not a diet by itself. By the 1970s, Nazism took on a bad-boy shock-your-parents charm for some in the Anglosphere, and there were concerns raised about the institution of rock celebrity being inherently fascist, as if the core of fascism was charisma and popularity itself and not the horrible things it advocated for. This mystified confusion over fascism as an ideology with tenets was and is a great opportunity for (proto-)fascists. Sure, you “can’t call everyone you disagree with a Nazi” like The Dead Kennedy’s California Uber Alles  does, but calling Reagan a fascist in their We’ve Got A Bigger Problem Now  or in the above-linked song seems, with 2020 vision, less like alarmist overshooting the mark than like being way ahead of the curve.
Silas Warner was inspired to make Castle Wolfenstein not just by Berzerk, but also by the classic Hollywood World War 2 epics that were about 20 years equidistant both from the war and from the 1980s. The game is likewise awkwardly halfway between a real historical war and the pulpy trappings of Spacewar ‘s The Skylark Of Space. To name names, the premise of a POW escaping is right out of The Great Escape , but the mechanisms by which the escape is manifested are lifted from cited inspiration The Guns Of Navarone . (It’s very funny to me when the first Nazi in that movie shows up and acts precisely like a stealth game guard, falling for the old “throw something over there and then club him over the back of the head when he goes to investigate.”) That movie is set during the Dodecanese campaign in 1943, and more precisely, the Battle of Leros. Both of those were Allied defeats. 18 years later, it is rewritten as a triumph, in the old Roman sense even (although the very first point the movie makes is to center not castles but Grecian antiquity and ruins, like Zork.) The Guns Of Navarone is nevertheless fairly gritty pulp: its thesis, voiced by Gregory Peck’s Mallory, is “The only way to win a war is to be just as nasty as the enemy. One thing that worries me is we’re liable to wake up one morning and find out we’re even nastier than they are.”
The most important item in the game is an SS uniform, which you can find and don. After that, the low-ranking guards (though not the actual SS) will consider you their brethren and leave you be, which can make the game a walk in the park. This concept is directly drawn from the plot of The Guns Of Navarone, and imports with it its thematic play on the line of Nazi and Not. This isn’t all that provocative or frightening in practice, though, I think precisely because there’s an understanding that being a Nazi is actually more than the clothes you wear. (According to Silas Warner’s obituary, he participated in a small pro-Salvador Allende play as the voice of the villainous Richard Nixon, which indicates some left-wing convictions and a tendency to voice-act the bad guys.) Scaled up from the personal to the political, it suggests that we sometimes need to go along to get along even in the most disagreeable of societies, at least on a temporary and tactical basis. You’re fundamentally different from your opponents, bound fast to their patrol paths as they are. To have to draw a hard line between the American computer game player putting their POW avatar in a Nazi uniform for purely strategic reasons and a historical Nazi seems like an indication of severe breakdown in trust in the player’s real life moral compass and discernment, akin to having to strenuously decry wanton infanticide or vehicular homicide.
There’s an idiomatic phrase that’s in vogue right now, “existential threat.” There’s seemingly two meanings to it, in how I’ve heard it used in my life: The first is more like an abstract threat, it’s kinda like a threat to the soul, like that you might be a possible Nazi or close to it, like could be implied by the costume switch. The second is a literal threat to your existence, like if you have to deal with Nazis and you’re someone Nazis want to kill. The player character does not fall into the first group despite their ability to pass in a pinch, but they do into the second, which is made clear by the second sentence of the game’s introductory text, where you are told that the Nazis are going to kill you if you do not escape. This wasn’t typical treatment for prisoners of the Wehrmacht on the Western Front, not an easy life, but famous more for camaraderie and putting on plays and escapes, from the aforementioned Great Escape to Hogan’s Heroes [1965-71] to the real Castle Colditz. The Western Front is where Castle Wolfenstein self-evidently takes place simply by being a castle and not, say, a big empty field with a fence around it like on the Eastern Front where they did kill most POWs as part of their genocidal program, which suggests that our unnamed proto-BJ Blazkowicz might already be Jewish.
If you hold a Nazi at gunpoint, they’ll surrender. Perfidy is mandatory, though. You don’t have handcuffs or rope or a billy club or anything. If you respect their surrender, they will immediately go back to trying to kill you the second the pressure is off. It’s essentially the wily Nazi double-standard political approach to weaponizing other’s adherence to societal norms, scaled down to the personal level. It’s kill or be killed, no surrender.
At time of publication, there’s an Antifa Game Jam with 7 days left on it.