When I first read Ian Kershaw’s biography of Adolf Hitler, I was astounded by how compelling it was as a narrative. When you get right down to it, Hitler’s story is perfectly split between a rags-to-riches rise that ends when he’s appointed Chancellor and a classical tragedy when he chases world war, and all the details between his birth and his death are as lurid as any pulp story – the scale of his atrocities, the absurdity of his aesthetic, and the clarity of his megalomania. More than anything, his aim was to become a myth, and he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. After I finished the book and processed it, I filtered some of my favourite old works through it. I’ve always known old video games have something of a fascist element to them; many of them romanticise struggle and conflict and the Manly Men who face or perform it with a clear-eyed nobility, many of them see the world/universe as inherently corrupt and evil with plots and conspiracies around every corner, many of them at least talk about a ‘Golden Age’ in Heroes were Lauded, and importantly many of them express contempt for bureaucrats and bureaucracy as any kind of a solution to a problem in favour of, you know, heroic and individual violence. But what really interests me is how many of them tried to create their own Hitler. I don’t mean that they created a heroic Nazi – quite the opposite in fact, in that these narratives all created villains evoking Hitler (consciously or otherwise) that our heroic protagonists are trying to take down.
I’m going to use three examples here to try and convey the pattern I’ve noticed, because these three match enough of the cliches I’ve seen to convey their nature and in some cases are more detailed and nuanced while still falling into some of the same pitfalls. The first one I want to talk about is Chairman Prescott from my beloved Gears Of War (with the original trilogy released in 2006, 2008, and 2011). Some basic lore here: the party that is essentially in charge of humanity in Gears is the Coalition of Ordered Governments, or COG; years before the events of the game, the discovery of the fuel ‘imulsion’ lead to a civil war from which the COG emerged as the sole victors, shortly before the Locust emerged from underground and started that war. Of all the works I’m going to discuss, Gears is the one that hits the most point on Umberto Eco’s fourteen points of fascism; obviously, for example, it enthusiastically embraces machismo and weaponry as its central guiding creative viewpoint (its biggest brilliant creative conceit is a gun with a chainsaw attached to it, which fucking rules). It has obsession with plots, hinting at conspiracies on both sides of the Locust War as well as a potential fusion between them. It has obsession with heroism and a nostalgia for a long-gone past; I’ve always been struck by a scene which the characters fight on top of a graveyard and the hero wistfully wishes some of the men buried there could be here now.
Something you may have noticed I have not gone into is the ideology or structure of the COG, and that’s because the games don’t either. The only civilians we meet are the Stranded, who choose to live outside COG society entirely. Obviously, this has some to do with the fact that our heroes are out on the front lines, but even Avatar: The Last Airbender managed to convey the sense of how, say, Aang’s home temple functioned and what his people believed in with limited time within a larger narrative. Chairman Prescott is the only civilian member of COG government we meet, with no indication that he has or answers to a broader bureaucracy or system. He is introduced giving an incoherent list of appeals to emotion devoid of any substance or facts and getting cheers in response. Interestingly, none of the characters we meet, heroic or otherwise, trust or like Prescott in the slightest; his main three actions in the story of the second game are to send the army out to the Locust stronghold, declassify a key piece of intel in order to support that attack, and approve the hero’s incredibly risky plan at the end, and for all three actions, the heroic characters (and even some of the less heroic characters) treat him with a mixture of suspicion, cynicism, and contempt.
I include Prescott as an archetypal example of a Hitler riff here specifically because what it gets right and wrong are fairly common in stories of its aims and calibre, especially in video games. Prescott riffs on the imagery of Hitler – mainly in terms of the firey and passionate speeches, as well as some of his long-term scheming – whilst missing out on both his ideology and what he actually represented in a more general sense. I think through this we can see that the most simplistic take on Hitler is fascination with how he directed crowds and appeared to wield power using only words. One of Kershaw’s points with his Hitler biography is that one can make the mistake of attributing all of Hitler’s power to his unique charisma or genius when he also benefited from a complex system of right-wing ideologues willing to lend him power; Gears of War 2 shows that kind of perspective that doesn’t understand that there are Systems out there, let alone their complexity. On the one hand, the appeal of playing out a Hitler archetype is in trying to figure out how to control people without having to gain or wield literal power; on the other, there’s the visceral thrill in having all your other characters booing and hissing at Hitler.
(In the third game, I think Prescott hits up against the lack of actual knowledge of Hitler and hatred of bureaucracy by descending into a caricature of corrupt politicians. We discover he created a decadent safe haven for the rich and powerful of the COG and was planning to escape there before the end of the war. Hitler’s actual decadence came from sleeping in til midday, avoiding banal work, and watching movies; his corruption came from overly rewarding incompetent cronies who idolised him and fed his megalomania. If anything, what killed Hitler so brutally was that he did the exact opposite of building a secret safe haven; conversely, Prescott has no system of allies to rely on or draw emotional support from even if he wanted to.)
Arcturus Mengsk from Starcraft (released in 1998) is simultaneously further from and closer to a Hitler archetype. His arc is essentially “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”, in that he begins by leading a revolution against the corrupt and oppressive Confederacy that has kept a tight grip on this sector of space; the Confederacy has committed crimes against humanity, openly brainwashing and torturing its citizens as well as occasionally abandoning them to terrible fates. One of the early twists is discovering that the Zerg that have been rampaging the galaxy were at least partially intentionally released by Confederate leaders as a method of controlling the population, something that outrages Mengsk and fuels his fight. The player and their allies later discover that Mengsk is willing to become a monster in the course of fighting one in order to seize his power; he too commits several war crimes in the process of the story, disgusting the player character and their allies enough to leave the rebellion. The human section of the game climaxes with Mengsk giving a generic speech about a New Era for Humanity that is tinged with the irony of what we’ve seen for him to make it.
But the thing about Mengsk is that, like Hitler, he is 100% sincere even as he’s megalomaniacal about his self-image. It’s helped by the strangely good acting for a video game from 1998 (he’s played by James Harper); it’s easy to believe he genuinely feels paternal warmth towards his allies, and when he sees confirmation of his beliefs (like the Confederate crime) he is neither bewildered nor unemotional – he simply puts his rage aside for now. In one move I particularly like, he deliberately makes an enemy into an ally when he convinces the player to save a Confederate general in order to bring him into the rebel fold (“He’s our snake now.”). It’s only when people question his motives or his actions that his rage slips out; anything he does is justified by his history and his goal. The aspects of the Hitler archetype are wrapped up in an “ends justify the means” archetype; he has a folksy charm that comes from his complete conviction that he needs to be the one in charge of everything.
Finally, there’s Saren Arterius of my beloved Mass Effect. I saved him for last because he is simultaneously the best-written of the lot of these but not only does he manage to miss the mark, he reveals much that’s interesting in why people keep trying. Fundamentally, the problem with Saren is your basic show-don’t-tell problem in that we’re told to the point of exhaustion that he is a charismatic individual who has charmed his way into the hearts of his followers when in practice he has the energy of a smug tax attorney. I can believe that Saren is shrewd, intelligent, and a savvy political operator, but I don’t take him at all for a cult leader. Oddly enough, he does have a coherent ideology and motivation; essentially, his reaction to the discovery that there is an army of terrifying Lovecraftian space squid cyborgs heading to this part of the universe to wipe out all civilisation is that allowing them to turn us all into mindless slaves to serve their will is ultimately less painful than fighting to the bitter end – one turn of phrase he uses that I always found memorable is “Is submission not preferable to extinction?”.
The problem is that, by the very structure of the story, this isn’t something he spreads around – I truly believe that his speech on it to Shepard is the first time he’s told anyone. The Doylist reason for this is that Mass Effect is a mystery story in which the revelation of the Reapers and their terrible plan drastically recontextualises the story and motivation. The in-universe effect is that the only reason I can come up with that explains why people follow Saren is that he has a lot of money and power from his position (not to mention the occasional brainwashing); compare to Hitler, where I can easily say his charisma came from the sincerity with which he believed in Germany and hated Jews and Bolshevism. Given that so much of what I love about Mass Effect is rooted in how it quantifies everything to the smallest detail, I theorise that its weakness here is in the way it understands that ‘charisma’ is an unquantifiable concept and tries to get there anyway through sheer stubbornness. Charisma isn’t something that can be controlled or learned or enforced, only allowed; the extremely charismatic character it develops for the second game gets there by being very open about his goals.
You’ll notice the one thing that all these characters share is the thing they lack – racism. Saren comes closest, as an alien who hates humans on principle, but even that abstracts ‘racism’ into an idea and decouples it from the ugly history it has in reality, and his racism is separate from his overall ideology. Part of this, I think, is a desire not to bring real-world politics into entertainment; all three of these games were released during a decade when race wasn’t at the forefront of consumer’s minds, and perhaps it might have been offputting. I also think it’s that racism just isn’t any fun. Being at the top of a conspiracy, wheeling-and-dealing, and committing horrific crimes against humanity in service of power feel awesome to do and feel awesome to fight, but hating a particular people is a boring, unpleasant, dispiriting thing to base one’s ideology around; these characters were an attempt, conscious or otherwise, to decouple the joy of yelling to a crowd from the horror of a vile outlook. If I’m right and these characters are an attempt to retell the story of Adolf Hitler, perhaps what I’m learning here is that people want to figure out how to access the power and charisma that Hitler had without having to be nearly as evil as him; nobody wants to be Martin Luthor King Jr, who was also charismatic as all hell but a) never achieved a position of power and b) got shot before he turned forty. Maybe there’s a way to extract what’s compelling in this narrative and use it for good.