Friday, September 7, 2012

. . . Wolfenstein 3D

There are classics in the world of gaming, and among the classics there are important games that helped to make things change in that world. The Castle Wolfenstein games number among the latter, and one title in the series in particular, when it is grouped with id Software's Doom, actually helped to establish the first-person shooter as a genre.

Even the most casual of gamers will be aware that in 1993 the video game Doom set the world on fire, or at least gave gamers something to be excited about while at the same time providing loads of ammunition for the religious right to condemn games and video gaming in general...  Heck it had it all -- guns, violence, space marines, a colony on Mars that was infested with Demons from Hell (yes, THAT Hell)... To be fair you would think that Johnny Jesus Lover would be very excited about a game whose basic thrust was slaying demons, but not so!  It seems their minds sort of shut-down upon reaching the words guns, demons, and kill.  What you killed ceased to matter it seems.
The first-person view somehow was perceived as threatening by the right, but gamers saw it for what it really was, which was the chance to identify with their characters and a path towards rapid and complete immersion in their games.

Veteran gamers will no doubt be aware that Wolfenstein did not start out as an FPS game.  In fact and being kind the first games in the series (it arrived on the scene WAY before Doom did, with the first Wolfie title hitting floppy drive slots in 1981) is a sort of fusion between the top-down god's-eye-view sort of action-adventure platformer.  What it had going for it was you were killing Nazi's, bearing in mind that in 1981 Nazi's were still in vogue as bad guys...

While the original was basically a shooter, it was not an FPS game, and while it was an action-adventure title, it was not what you think of today as an action-adventure title.  In fact the huge -- no, strike that -- the Tremendously HUGE difference between game tech in 1981 and modern game tech is such that I am not shocked or surprised when younger gamers today get a look at the original titles in many of the very popular game series' and react by declaring that the games suck; that their little sister could code a better game (she probably could actually, since the game-making tools today are pretty amazing), and basically have negative reactions to the older 8-bit titles.

I get it.  They really do look like crap - but that is only true if you judge them by today's standards!  If you happened to have been alive and playing games in 1981 those games were not crap at all, they were pretty freaking awesome!
The Wofenstein Game Series in Total (data provided by id Software)
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Year -- Title -- Platforms
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
1981 -- Castle Wolfenstein -- Apple II, PC*, Atari 400/800, C=64.
1984 -- Beyond Castle Wolfenstein -- Apple II, PC*, Atari 400/800, C=64.
1992 -- Wolfenstein 3D -- PC*, Acorn, Mac, Apple IIGS, SNES, Jaguar, 3DO, GBA, PS3, iPhone.
1992 -- Spear of Destiny -- PC*, iPhone.
2001 -- Return to Castle Wolfenstein -- Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, PS2, Xbox.
2003 -- Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory -- Windows, Linux, Mac OS X.
2008 -- Wolfenstein the RPG -- Various mobile phones including the iPhone.
2009 -- Wolfenstein -- Windows, PS3, Xbox 360.

* = PC DOS, not Windows mind you, playing the game involved a C: prompt!

You probably noticed the C=64 and Apple II and IIGS listings in the platforms above for some of the games -- believe it or not those were important and dominant platforms at that time! The PC (at least during the DOS era) did not appear on the scene as the gaming powerhouse that it was destined to become, in fact it was often rather painful to play games on that platform, and even gamers who owned PC's also tended to own a C=64 (Commodore 64), or one of the Atari consoles... Just saying.

Hopefully it has not escaped your notice that while the original games in the Wolfenstein series were created by Muse Software, the later titles and in particular the FPS versions, were created by id Software -- that's right, the same geniuses that brought you Doom!
Remember this guy?  It was a game about this guy!

So where was I?  Oh!  Right!  When Doom was still being polished off and the decision was made to release it in two basic forms -- the full game that you had to pay for, and a shareware version (free in other words) that only included roughly the first third of the game.  Whoever it was who thought up that approach at id was a freaking genius!  You simply could not get to the end of the shareware release of the game and NOT need to buy a full version, because you had to finish it, you just had to

It is fair to say that until the release of Doom and Wolfenstein 3D, there really was no First-Person Shooter genre to speak of.  Up until that point the games -- especially the violent ones and any games that included guns -- were either top-down god's-eye view or they used some variation of third-person view.  I am really not sure why that is...  The fact that the use of a first-person perspective in both titles immediately resulted in opponents from the religious right declaring that they were little more than training aids for the insane (this was pretty much before school shootings became a popular extracurricular activity for the socially disenfranchised youth) so I would not be all that surprised to learn that the fear of that sort of accusation was behind the slow move to adopt the personalization of the game format.

It was a small difference, but an important one...

Ultimately though it was that PoV that finally did the trick.  Understand, up to that point you played the games, and the character or protagonist in the game had pretty much the same level of identity as the other characters in the game as far as immersion and the player identifying with the character goes, but when id created the FPS they basically pioneered the whole identity of player AS the character, and that made all the difference in the world, as small as that change was!

When gamers talked about their game play in Wolf and Doom they used descriptions that included the word "I" in place of "My Character" -- for example, I rounded the corner and the little bastard screamed Mein Leben! at me and I blew him away!

Let me tell you about Mein Leben...  It is German, and literally translated it means "My Life!" and it is basically the last words of an enemy character who has concluded that they are about to die.  In addition to being an amazing catch phrase to incorporate into a game -- so universally identified with Wolfenstein that even if a gamer has actually read any one of the autobiographical books by the likes of Hoffmann von Fallersleben, K√∂nigsberger, Nissel, Rasder, Seume, Wagner, or any one of the dozen or so other famous people and writers who chose that as the title to their very personal books, when the phrase is heard chances are that it is Wolfenstein that immediately pops into your head, and not a book. That still holds true even with books like the autobiography of Gunter Sachs (Bridgette Bardot's husband) and its salacious action!
Falwell did not just hate on games for their violence, though he did not think much of that at all, but also because the people who made them often including content that he found objectionable, from the way that they portrayed the Church and God to their including Lesbians, Gays, Trans-Gender and Bisexuals as anything less than depraved animals who were destined to  burn in hell...  The man knew how to hate and he wasn't afraid to do it!

Both Wolfenstein and Doom used the same basic game engine, and the fact that id basically begged players to be creative and build their own levels and their own content meant that for a while there it was the height of sarcasm and political expression to insert images of the person you hated the most in place of boss enemies in the game.  I remember a heavily modified version of Wolfenstein that featured a variety of generic hookers in place of the regular soldiers -- most of the hookers were armed with knives and no matter what difficulty you played it on there were a LOT of them, and they were pretty damn effective at using their knives so you did not want to let them get close to you!

The hookers would swarm you if there were more than a few in the area, and all of the boss mobs were a guy named Jerry Falwell, who you probably have no idea who he is, right?  Alternate versions of that same mod included Jack Thompson as the SS troopers...  Yeah, those were heady and interesting times when we were all convinced that jack-booted thugs from the Secret Service would one day come kicking down our doors to confiscate our game systems and games.
The blue-suited square-jawed blonde-haired and blue-eyed Nazi SS Officers were often the first target for modders when they  needed to select a mob to replace in the game with someone famous, or to make a point...

Wolfenstein 3D for Xbox 360
 All of this is fresh in my mind because I am playing my copy of Wolfenstein 3D from Xbox LIVE Arcade on my 360 -- a game that I only discovered was available this past August, and in spite of the relatively crude graphics compared to modern-day games, I am having a blast with this...  

The last time that I played this game (before this August) was during a hot and sweaty summer in 1992 when I was living in New Haven and we still entertained the dreams of the young (this was before we had kids mind you).  The third-story walk-up flat we lived in did not have air conditioning, but there as an Italian Deli on the ground floor that sold Italian Fruit Ice's and man, that summer we must have consumed our weight in those things while we sat around the PC in our underwear killing Nazi's and trying to pretend that the heat did not bother us.

I still play games in my underwear, but now that we are adults we have conveniences like air conditioning -- but I would kill for one of those Ice's right now.  Mein Leben!

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