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The year in Nazis

2017 - the year we did Nazi coming.

The reason we don't have annual "The Year In Nazis" articles is because not many years are like this one, in which fascist ideas have seeped and clawed their way back to a dreadful prominence that has transformed virtual Nazi killing from a leisure activity into a political one.

Ha! And I was going to try to keep this light.

Anyway let's look at some games from 2017 that had Nazis in.

Sniper Elite 4 arrived in February and it's useful because, a bit like that one lady who turned up to a Halloween party dressed as the Babadook, Sniper Elite 4 had no idea the rest of 2017 had more of a grown ups being hyper aware of rising fascism vibe. This is how things have traditionally been: we are a bland soldier with an excellent chin, whose acts of prolonged and extraordinary violence are given a pass because, eh, Nazis. Here National Socialism is a creased and comfortable shorthand for evil that allows the game's downright fetishistic approach to taking human life appear no more sinister than other precision pursuits like origami or mending clocks - this pleasingly spiralling round like an elegant paper crease, this pulverised testicle a perfectly meshed set of gears. It's hard, in other words, to ascribe any meaning to Sniper Elite 4's Nazis other than as receptacles for my carefully directed bits of metal. Even Hitler, who turns up in a piece of DLC, might not really be Hitler, which is about as good an analogy for the lack of significance in Sniper Elite's use of signs as I could have hoped for. Thank you, DLC, thank you.

In contrast, Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus is an act of extraordinary over-signification. Secure in the moral certitude of its central position, the game is a noisy celebration of violence against Nazis definitely being OK, which revels in its unplanned proximity to 2017's big political themes (marketing in the lead up to release included tweets playing on Trumpist rhetoric. "There is only one side" said one. "Make America Nazi-free again" said another).

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The New Colossus is scrappy and frequently ridiculous, but it's hard not to like a game that finds this many ways of saying "fuck you" to Nazis. It is comically, provocatively anti-fascist, in everything from its cartoon demonisation of Nazi commanders (actual Hitler turns up in this one, pissing, vomiting and visibly degenerating) to the fact that a large part of this virulently anti-Nazi game is based on the idea that there really is a secret global Jewish conspiracy, in the shape of the mystical, power-up granting Da'at Yichud. Haha! "You were sort of right! You're still dicks."

Beyond the big gestures and defiant crassness there's a line of unusually pointed commentary here, too. Early scenes revealing BJ's Jewish heritage and his racist, wife-beating father make connections between domestic violence, American white nationalism and Nazism, pinpointing their shared basis in hatred and control. The elder Blazkowicz's entitled self-pity ("You have no idea what it's like to suffer like I do") shows a clear-eyed understanding of the lure of victimhood so central to white supremacist thinking, and later scenes of a parade in small-town occupied America hit hard not so much because of the Klan members taking in the air, but thanks to the oblivious, ordinary white middle-class folk who have adapted so seamlessly to the new normal. The New Colossus is a game that doesn't just say "It's OK to shoot Nazis because they're bad". It says "We need to shoot Nazis because they're bad, and they're already here in ways you need to recognise."

Of course Wolfenstein has the advantage of being set in an unreal past that's easy to read as a reflection of our present. On the other hand Call Of Duty: WW2, the game that with Wolfenstein really forms gaming's accidental response to the shitshow of 2017, exists in a past that's encased in a deadening reverence.

Well - sort of. Call Of Duty is a strange compound of things these days, capable of leaving reality behind by degrees. Its new campaign shares Sniper Elite's creased and comfortable view of Nazis, who are bad in a way that doesn't merit any serious reflection (to the point where the antagonist for long stretches is not any of the Germans trying to shoot you, but a man who might hate Nazis too much). This is a closed and settled history - the game isn't interested in how the respect it's so keen to pay to the suffering and sacrifice of World War Two has, in the intervening years, twisted and fed the kind of aggressive patriotism that's contributing to shoots of a new fascism. It holds hard to the idea that the Nazis are bad because they just are, and we are good because we oppose them, sealing itself in a closed slice of history that ended with German surrender in 1945.

Sitting alongside this earnestness, though, and looking more incongruous than normal, is the series' regular undead jaunt, Nazi Zombies. In a way this exists in the same tradition as Wolfenstein, one which reaches to gruesome metaphor to best understand the barely fathomable atrocities of the Nazi regime. And if Nazi Zombies loosens the solemn grip of authenticity, then Call Of Duty's multiplayer mode, the third head of this tone-hopping hydra, leaves it behind completely, staging loot box openings against a backdrop of the Allied European invasion force on the beaches of Normandy. Because nothing says "solemn respect for the sacrifices of our fathers" like completing Major Howard's weekly contracts and bagging a supply drop featuring an animated candy bar that fires guns into the air while random onlookers slide around on their arses using an emote glitch. In Call Of Duty, reality bends for the purposes of monetisation, but rarely introspection.

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Speaking of flights from reality, I wanted to touch upon a couple of games that don't feature Nazis directly but play on source material that draws from World War 2, although I won't dwell too long because they're both pretty rubbish. It barely needs explaining that Star Wars' Galactic Empire is a fascist facsimile of the Third Reich's military dictatorship (George Lucas, who would fight subtext if it was a man, even refers to Imperial officers as "Nazis" on the commentary for The Empire Strikes Back). Extending George's own metaphor, Star Wars Battlefront 2 has you playing as Iden Versio, the commander of a Brandenburg-style special forces unit who realises that the Empire is bad after it continues to do the sort of thing it's been doing for ages. Her turn is not so much a deprogramming as a dramatic flicked switch, and as such ducks any accidental thoughts about why people sign up to or break from fascism (although, in the context of the game, I was much angrier about playing as Luke Skywalker fighting space insects with my lightsaber like it was the year two thousand and fucking four.)

Middle-earth, too, was shaped by conflict - imagined initially during the Great War, before The Lord Of The Rings' tale of a resurgent evil took shape as Hitler's armies marched across Europe. Taking its lead from Tolkien's writings, Middle-earth: Shadow Of War includes themes of slavery, militarism and power - fascism with a fantasy dressing - which it handles about as well as you'd expect, if you consider that this is the game that gave Shelob a pair of tits. "I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend" says Faramir in The Two Towers. The game's response, of course, is to make these upgradeable items in your new badass gear system.

So Shadow Of War is oblivious to the basic bedrock of ideas which form Middle-earth, and it's probably unfair of us to expect it to contribute anything useful about the fascism it wears like a shiny badge. But I think that Tolkien himself can, in the form of a truism that helps me to understand why, of all the games in 2017 that touched on Nazism, Wolfenstein is the only one that really emerges with any credit. Back in The Two Towers, Sam Gamgee sits on the edge of Mordor, coming to a realisation that the story of ancient stars he's been remembering for inspiration is one that hasn't ended, and now includes him, too.

"...why, sir, I never thought of that before! We've got - you've got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we're in the same tale still! It's going on."

There's magic in realising that we are part of the stories that form the fabric of our world, and a danger in pretending we aren't. For all Call Of Duty's cap-doffing, its sealed view of history is a vague platitude next to Wolfenstein's violent, insightful fantasies. We must remember, as we play all these reflections of our world, that they and the world are connected. As Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher, to cheer him as he prepared for war against Nazi Germany: "Keep up your hobbitry in heart, and think that all stories feel like that when you are in them. You are inside a very great story!"

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