Damnit, Wolfenstein, You Have to Earn a Moral Dilemma!

Ok, so I’m still playing Wolfenstein: New Order from time to time. In previous blog, I mentioned enjoying killing Nazis, due to the lack of moral ambiguity. Of course, I simply assumed the lack of ambiguity. A recent post by the makers of the game, which said “Make America Nazi-Free Again” apparently upset people who see a game about killing Nazis as a political statement against the alt-right. That’s funny. But also, sad. In any case, I don’t find it very interesting that literal Nazis are upset for being called Nazis.

Instead, I’m going to write about an issue I have in New Order. Overall, it’s a great game, and I’m really enjoying it. I like the premise, where Nazis won WW2, and I was basically ‘knocked out’ for 20 years while they ruled the world, only to arise and join the resistance. Pretty neat stuff!

However, there is a scene, fairly early in the game, that annoys me as an ethicist…and perhaps just as a decent person (if you are willing to concede that to me!). WARNING: What follows will be a spoiler of the end of the first level of the game. If you want to play the game, and avoid the spoiler, DO NOT READ FURTHER!

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Still here? OK, in the scene in question, you have to choose between two hostages that the enemy has taken. The Big Bad Guy is going to kill one of the two men, who are squad mates on your team. He forces you to choose which one. This is meant to be a classic moral dilemma, a Sophie’s Choice moment, where you must choose between two beloved people (yeah, I just spoiled that book for you, too!).

There are bonuses to you for the rest of the game, depending on which choice you make. One gives you more hitpoints, and the other gives you more armor, basically. They also change gameplay by a small amount, with one giving you the ability to hotwire certain things, and the other the ability to pick locks.

Whatever. The idea of having a choice that unlocks different bonuses is pretty cool, but the choice itself is not. There are at least three problems with it.

First, you really don’t know either of these people. I’m sure they played roles in the mission somehow, but I’ll be honest. I didn’t remember either name or face when I was suddenly confronted with having to choose between them. After realizing the second problem (which I’ll get to in a second), I based my choice on purely utilitarian reasons. You see, I teach the Trolley Problem, and I know the proper solution. Once you rule out the deontological solution, you go with utility. One guy looked older than the other. So I chose to let the older guy die, figuring the other had a longer life ahead. I didn’t know the bonuses, and thus had no way of basing my choice on that. I guess I could have reloaded, but I already had to that once because you see….

The second problem is that you can’t bow out of the choice. My first instinct was to refuse. “No way, Bad Guy! I won’t do it! I’m a good person, and will not be an accessory to murder! Bite me, Nazi Scum!” Only that didn’t work. We all died, and I had to reload. Not choosing was not a legit choice. Oh, in the real world, it would be. But the game wanted to make a point. It wanted me to feel some guilt; it wanted pathos. But that leads to the third, and biggest problem….

The game never earned this moment. Moral dilemmas aren’t a chance to be edgy. They are a tragic part of human life, very rare, and very damaging when we are forced to make them. Moral dilemmas hurt, especially when the cost is human life. This is a game about killing Nazis. I’m playing it to avoid moral dilemmas. I don’t mean that video games must avoid hard moral choices, but this particular game is so over the top with it’s bad guys that it’s not really a game about moral ambiguity at all. It’s killing Nazis. Contrary to what some stupid, young, white, male, Americans seem to think (and yes, they are ALL those things….well, not all are young, but they are mentally immature), there’s nothing cool about Nazis. There are no redeeming qualities. I don’t care that Hitler liked dogs or was a vegetarian. He was a monster. I apologize when I use Nazis as examples in ethics, because it’s too easy.

Wolfenstein: New Order blindsided me with this horrific choice, and I resent it. Yeah, I’m still playing it, but it marred an otherwise uniformly enjoyable game by faking some deep emotions. Games like Fallout earn it, but Wolfenstein didn’t!

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