Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of my free time shooting Nazis. This considering that I should be writing or unpacking or, let’s face it, doing any number of things that would be a more productive use of my time. I mean, it’s not like they’re real Nazis.
No, I’m talking about Wolfenstein 3-D, a nearly 20 year-old game now credited as the harbinger of first-person shooter games. In Wolf 3-D, as it’s affectionately known, you play as B.J. Blazkowicz, a WWII-era American POW forced to shoot his way through nine levels of a Nazi castle maze. Along the way, you stumble upon secret passages and pick up the occasional dinner platter or golden chalice, although how you are expected to lug around piles of that famed Nazi treasure while fighting off half the German army is never fully explained.
I still remember the cover of the box for Wolf 3-D: a shirtless, muscular man oozing sweat and machismo, sporting blue jeans (and, incongruously, a mullet) and wielding a big-ass machine gun as he casually dispatches with a couple of German soldiers. This is the American dream. (If I recall correctly, this masterpiece was painted by Julie Bell, who, with her husband Boris Vallejo, was well-known for her “realistic” and dramatic poses of fantasy or comic book figures.) What was revolutionary about the game—as opposed to commonplace today—is that the entire gameplay takes place from the perspective of B.J. himself, looking down the barrel of a gun. You see what he sees, and only that, so when you turn a corner to find an S.S. officer mowing you down with a machine gun, you can practically feel it. It was an action-packed game in a text-driven adventure world. More important, the perspective allowed the player to embody B.J. and thus take on the identity of the hero—with all the accompanying pain and glory. Needless to say, I was a bit too nervous as a kid to enjoy this, at least on any difficulty setting above Can I Play, Daddy?
Now, however, it’s a different story: playing is sort of a combination of discovery and rediscovery. Out of the six “missions,” the first definitely brings back the most memories, in part because of the maps my dad had once painstakingly drawn of each level, recording the route and secrets he’d found. It seemed perfectly natural to me at the time, though now it strikes me what a particular type of person you’d have to be to take the time for such a thing. Personally, I never had the patience for exploring or surveying; I just wanted to accomplish the task.
In most of the levels, though, I have to rely on my own wits. I’m more efficient about the controls these days, especially now that I’ve disabled the Hot Keys shortcut that inexplicably changed the orientation of the entire screen when I pressed a certain series of buttons together (odd combinations of button-pressing occurs frequently in such games). Even still, the unexpected chime of Spion!—announcing the presence of a bad guy—still makes me jump sometimes.
Reliving this game of my youth is great. Wolf 3-D is an engaging game, obsessively so at times, as you delve into the challenge of finishing faster, more perfectly, with each run. But there’s also comfort in its sameness, in shooting the same brown and blue and white uniforms over and over, something lulling in the repetitive action. It doesn’t present the uncertainty of trying something new, mastering new controls or rules or subscribing to some massive online campaign. I have little interest in modern games; they seem too complex for me, too engrossing, too dependent on my understanding a new world of social cues and complicated behavior. Not my idea of an escape. So I’ll stick with my Castle Wolfenstein, where I know Hitler will be waiting for me, armed to the teeth in his Mecha-Armor, ready for me to win the war one more time.