Why Do We Keep Returning To Castle Wolfenstein?

23 years since the release of Wolfenstein 3D, Wolfenstein: The Old Blood takes us back to the Nazis' castle fortress. Why it still an exciting place to escape from?

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The first-person shooter genre was forged in the grey, stone halls of Castle Wolfenstein. This medieval monument turned Nazi fortress carries all manner of connotations for the series which bears its name. But what is it about these connotations that compels us to return to Wolfenstein's corridors? Why, after 23 years, is it still exciting to find secret walls and gun down Nazis in this cold and oppressive castle?

For me, Castle Wolfenstein has an almost mythological quality about it--as much as a mythology can form around a video game locale. It is where first-person shooters as we know them were born, and it was the first testing ground of the genre's required skillset. With that skillset, Castle Wolfenstein presented a straightforward but difficult challenge: "Escape me."

Everything you need to know about Wolfenstein is in this one screenshot.
Everything you need to know about Wolfenstein is in this one screenshot.

Wolfenstein 3D

The look and feel of Castle Wolfenstein was established in 1992 with the release of Wolfenstein 3D. Though later games render the location with new levels of fidelity, Wolfenstein as a place is always immediately identifiable as the same one from this game in particular. Its walls bear an imposing contrast between their grey stone and the warm reds of the swastika banners draped over them. As you blast your way to freedom, stern portraits of Nazi officials, or of the Fuhrer himself, watch wordlessly. The castle's decor doesn't hide its medieval origins, with ornate chandeliers stretching across ceilings, and hanging cages painting a grim visage of its lower dungeons.

Its walls bear an imposing contrast between their grey stone and the warm reds of the swastika banners draped over them.

These origins are also the source of its secret pushwalls: What were once escape passages for kings under siege now conceal Nazi gold and other treasures. But this version of Castle Wolfenstein didn't feel much like a real location, as its levels were designed more like a maze to puzzle your way through than as something approaching a real castle interior. Yet the narrative fantasy of your escape from capture still felt well-realised. You searched for keys to open locked doors, all the while surviving on scraps of prison dinners and dog food, scrounging weapons and ammunition from the bodies of fallen Nazis. After killing the castle's boss, a massive foe with even bigger guns, the camera spins around you as you triumphantly leap toward freedom. With that, the self-contained story that is your escape from Castle Wolfenstein concludes--appropriately enough, because it needed to stand alone as Wolfenstein 3D's freely available shareware release.

Return to Castle Wolfenstein

Now this is what I call a castle.
Now this is what I call a castle.

Just over ten years later, Return to Castle Wolfenstein brought us back to those grey stone walls and red banners. But this time, the game set out to establish Castle Wolfenstein as a believable location. No longer did its walls twist and turn in a 3D representation of a 2D maze, but they opened out into dining halls, sleeping quarters, and even outside onto spacious courtyards where you could divine the castle's location as being high in the mountains from the snowy vista beyond.

Grounding the iconic elements of Wolfenstein 3D in something closer to reality was fascinating because it attempted to create a concrete representation of the blanks your imagination filled in from the previous game. Secret pushwalls were reimagined as compartments behind loose bricks or maps mounted on walls, along with traditional sliding bookshelves and hidden anterooms--all of which hid now-expected Nazi gold. The narrative of your escape from the castle itself was also leant greater bombast and drama; rather than leaping toward freedom, you steal a cable car and make a precarious journey down the mountain range, with Castle Wolfenstein disappearing into the fog at your back.

We finally get to see Castle Wolfenstein from the outside.
We finally get to see Castle Wolfenstein from the outside.

Wolfenstein: The Old Blood

Which brings us to Wolfenstein: The Old Blood - our third trip through the eponymous Nazi stronghold. The Old Blood extends the narrative surrounding Castle Wolfenstein even further by showing your initial disguised infiltration and giving you time to wander the fortress unimpeded. But you are inevitably caught, and the familiar narrative begins again. The castle's history is also divulged in written notes, detailing a medieval king and his explorations of the occult. Much of this history is hidden behind this version of the castle's secret walls, so your reward for exploration is not points or Nazi treasure, but narrative context.

The castle's history is also divulged in written notes, detailing a medieval king and his explorations of the occult.

But those secret walls are rare in this version of Castle Wolfenstein, because The Old Blood presents this location as one that's being torn away from the inside by the Nazis in their occult explorations. Those iconic grey stone walls have literally been demolished and dug through, revealing crypts and catacombs that hide centuries-old secrets. These makeshift tunnels twist and turn in on themselves in ways not possible 23 years ago. While this helps to develop the overall plot of The Old Blood, the story of your escape from Castle Wolfenstein itself now plays out at a slower, more sedate pace, as the game's new stealth mechanics recontextualise the prison break as a stealth mission, not a multi-level gunfight.

Everything Old is New Again

The more things change...
The more things change...

Castle Wolfenstein has been many things: a prison, a fortress, a dungeon, an occult laboratory. But its role in the Wolfenstein series has always remained the same. It is the first challenge you must surmount. It is hostile territory, and you must make it out alive. It is an architectural representation of the enemy force conquering space and recontextualising its purpose. It is what will happen to the rest of Europe if you don't escape its bowels.

But it is also the origin story for an entire video game genre, bringing with it a kind of purity and simplicity which makes shooters appealing at a base level. When you return to Castle Wolfenstein, you're not just revisiting a fictional location--you're visiting a museum. That is where Castle Wolfenstein's mythological quality comes from, and that is why, no matter how the context may change, we keep returning to its grey stone walls.

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