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The fork in the road

In 1941 Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess set off from Germany in a Bf 110 aircraft. His mission was to negotiate peace with Britain. He flew alone and without Hitler’s acknowledgement under the false identity of “Alfred Horn.” He eventually parachuted out from his plane, landing with a broken foot in a farm in Scotland. Still tangled in his chute, he was found, captured and imprisoned. It’s a bizarre true story—one you’d be forgiven for thinking was completely made up.

In Christopher Priest’s alternate history novel The Separation, the story of Hitler’s Deputy is used to confuse and misdirect the reader, blurring the lines between real, recorded history and a fictional narrative involving fake identities, doppelgängers and doubles. In the novel, it seems likely that the crash-landed Hess is an imposter. Written in a first-person perspective, the book follows the eventful lives of twin brothers and culminates in a fictional armistice between Britain and Germany. It reads like a set of historical extracts; blurred snippets that leave you wondering what’s really genuine or authentic. It’s also filled with alternate identities—even Winston Churchill, fabled for his mix of alcohol and orating, is in part a fake due to his use of doubles as actors and decoys.

blurred snippets that leave you wondering what’s really genuine 

Alternate histories often draw on World War 2 as a diverging point in history. The trend goes as far back as Katherine Burdekin’s dystopian Swastika Night, a prescient feminist novel written in 1937 and set in the seventh century of the “Hitlerian era.” In Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Nazi Germany dominates Europe while the Japanese Empire has made a puppet-state out of North America’s Pacific coast. But it’s not just novels that explore these themes. The pulpy sci-fi video game series Wolfenstein is another text that imagines a world in which Hitler won.

Wolfenstein: The Old Blood and last year’s The New Order have you play American spy B.J. Blazkowicz. Between wielding an assault rifle in each hand and snapping the necks of countless cyborg Alsatians, it’s easy to forget that B.J. is a spy at all. A prequel expansion to The New Order, The Old Blood is set in a version of 1946 where Nazi technology has advanced considerably and the Allies are almost defeated. As B.J. you must infiltrate Castle Wolfenstein to steal secret documents. This is one of several undercover segments featured in the latest Wolfenstein games, and it’s interesting how well these slower and more thoughtful sections play out alongside the alternate history narrative.

Undercover missions in World War 2 games aren’t new. In the level “Scuttling the U-529” from Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, you had to steal a Nazi uniform in order to bluff your way past guards and plant a bomb aboard a submarine. Instead of shooting soldiers you had the option to flash your counterfeit passport and waltz by. The Old Blood begins with you driving up to a front gate in a similarly stolen uniform, along with the identity of an SS officer from Frankfurt. “Papers, please,” the guard at the checkpoint asks. There’s an infiltration level in Medal of Honor that plays out identically.

Wolfenstein’s disguises, fake German language and forged passports neatly parallel the series’ larger interest in alternate history. In his The History of Science Fiction, novelist and critic Adam Roberts makes a point about the postmodern uncertainty we now have in regards to history and the future. Roberts briefly considers Isaac Asimov’s novel Foundation, in which the future can be accurately predicted and planned through the science of “psychohistory.” This positivist, pre-chaos theory conception of history, although interesting, conflicts with the premise of alternate histories. “We just can’t know for sure” is the jumping off point of so much science fiction. Just as important to fiction exploring postmodern conditions—of “what if” and radical alternatives—is fragmentation and playfulness around identity and character. These are themes which videogames and Wolfenstein in particular continually broach.

History branches, identity multiplies 

Before you can get the cable car up to Castle Wolfenstein you have to have your papers inspected at the front desk. Here there’s an awkwardly tense exchange between yourself and the superiorly muscled lieutenant Rudi Jäger. Asking whether you’re a Frankfurter, B.J. mumbles “Ja… Ah…Ein… Hot Dog.” Laughter between you ensues, and Rudi, thinking that you were impersonating a “stupid American,” lets you pass. The joke is that you’re an imposter bullshitting your way by and that your German imitation has been mistaken for a sharp and authentic sense of humour. The moment is symbolic of another kind of game: a language game. Leaps of faith are often required in order for one subject to convey meaning to another. It just so happens that on this occasion an impersonator blowing his cover has been read in an alternative context. Or perhaps hotdog is just an amusing word.

Infiltrating Castle Wolfenstein isn’t the only time you play a double in The Old Blood. After your cover has been inevitably blown and you’ve dealt with Rudi Jäger, you escape the castle via a re-enactment of the cable car set-piece from Where Eagles Dare. It’s then that you travel to a nearby village in search of the game’s primary antagonist, the Nazi archaeologist Helga Von Schabbs, who’s in possession of those secret documents mentioned earlier. In order to get close to Von Schabbs you must once again pretend to be someone you’re not—an act that all game players will be accustomed to. This time B.J. dresses up as a German waiter in order to infiltrate the nearby Tavern/”Gasthaus” where Von Schabbs is staying.

With your apron tied tightly, you carry wine past drunk and jovial soldiers and up to Helga’s room. It’s another deceptive encounter where you’re unsure whether or not you’ll be caught out or exposed. B.J.’s doubling is, throughout the Wolfenstein series, an interesting aside to all of the violence and shooting. Subterfuge may not be his strong point, but he nevertheless continues to play the pretender. In last year’s The New Order there were several more levels and sections that involved deception and alternate identities. These include the infiltration of a concentration camp by posing as a vulnerable prisoner, as well as bluffing your way through customs at the Nazi Lunar Base.

These are all memorable events that not only build up to the explosions of violence and shoot-outs with Nazis, but effectively construct thematic context. Just as history diverges and fractures, identity does too. Wolfenstein is interesting for its use of the double. Blazkowicz seems intent on the idea of donning someone else’s uniform and speaking another language (as players of games, who are we to judge?). The effects range from the surreal and uncanny to, in the case of “hotdog,” the absurd. Christopher Priest is a novelist known for more than just his alternate realities. The Prestige (adapted into a film by Christopher Nolan) is focused almost entirely on theater and pretense. In the same way, Wolfenstein’s protagonist is more of a bundle of confused effects as opposed to a well-rounded character.

Blazkowicz hasn’t really got a stable identity; he swaps between masks and dips in and out of character. That’s not dissimilar from the way in which we explore Wolfenstein’s imagined world and are fascinated by its strange spaces and jumbled narrative. Alternate history isn’t just “what if” scenarios either; it’s also about possibilities and recasting history as potentially inauthentic and untrustworthy—like the SS officer with the funny accent. History branches, identity multiplies. One moment B.J. Blazkowicz is in a coma and unable to speak—the next he’s a vengeful doppelgänger with a double-barrelled shotgun.