From ‘Wolfenstein’ to ‘Unpacking’, examining Jewish characters in video games

0

Over the past few years, diversity in video games has become a hot-button topic in the gaming industry and in fan communities. Developers have been making a more concerted effort to include minority characters in the casts of their games and to account for a variety of experiences: those of people of color, LGBTQ individuals and people with disabilities.

Though increased diversity in games has been criticized as “pushing an agenda” by some, more people than ever are now able to have a gaming experience that reflects their own real-life experience.


One area that is still lacking, though, is diversity of religion. Many video games do not touch on the topic at all, and the few that do make use of fictional religions or have characters celebrating holidays that are Christmas in all but name.

As such, Jewish characters are a rarity in games, but there are still some out there. Their religious identities are not often integral to their stories, but their Jewishness still deserves to be acknowledged. There is certainly a need for more Jewish representation in media, which includes video games, but it is still important to take note of what representation is already out there, what it means to people and how it can be improved upon in the future.
Some character summaries may contain spoilers for their respective games.

B.J. Blazkowicz – Wolfenstein (1981-present)

(From “Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus”, developed by Bethesda)

The “Wolfenstein” series is all about doing arguably the most Jewish thing a person can do: fighting Nazis. The ongoing series was foundational to the first-person shooter genre, being one of the first of its kind to achieve widespread popularity alongside “Doom” and “Quake.” “Wolfenstein”’s innovations in the genre would lead to some of the most well-known games ever, such as the “Call of Duty” and “Halo” series.

But the series is not without its controversy, as one might expect from a game about killing as many Nazis as you can. The first game was banned in Germany due to its usage of Nazi iconography, and in recent years some on the far right have taken issue with the series’ violent answer to fascism and its #NoMoreNazis advertising campaign in 2017.

The main character of most of the games, William Joseph Blazkowicz, or “B.J.” for short, is a Polish-American Jew who acts as a spy and specializes in one-man missions. He’s an ardent antifascist who joins the American resistance against the Axis powers to investigate Nazi activity. The games pull no punches in displaying how B.J. and the developers feel about Nazis — in “Wolfenstein 3D,” B.J. can even assassinate Adolf Hitler himself.

Blazkowicz’s Judaism remains vague in the games themselves, but there were hints sprinkled throughout that implied he was Jewish — the most convincing of which being his ability to read Hebrew. However, according to a statement posted on Kotaku in 2014, developer MachineGames aimed to “leave it up to the player to interpret” rather than stating that he was Jewish in the game’s text.

Later that year, Blazkowicz’s character designer Tom Hall confirmed on Twitter that he designed Blazkowicz with the intent of him having a Jewish mother who was persecuted in the prewar period. This makes Blazkowicz himself Jewish as well.

Otacon – Metal Gear Solid (1998-present)

(From “Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty” developed by Konami)

Due to the ubiquity of the” Metal Gear Solid” series, Dr. Hal “Otacon” Emmerich is one of the more popular Jewish characters in video games and arguably one of the better-known cases on this list. Being the closest partner of series protagonist Solid Snake, he plays a major role in the franchise, whether he is assisting Snake in missions or raising a child, Sunny, with him. He is certainly not the toughest or coolest video game character — he’s a nerd and a self-proclaimed “otaku” (fan of anime and other Japanese media), and his introduction is, in a word, embarrassing — but he’s also an incredibly intelligent scientist with a complicated history. Above all else, he is dedicated to doing the right thing.

The nature of his Jewish identity is more apocryphal than other Jewish characters in video games, as it has mainly been alluded to in “Metal Gear Solid” supplementary material, such as him being listed as being American and Jewish in the “Metal Gear Solid Official Mission Handbook.” His father being introduced in a later game in the series complicates things, as his and Otacon’s mother’s Jewish identities are never expanded upon.

Meryl Silverburgh, another character in the “Metal Gear Solid” series who plays the role of Snake’s love interest in the first game, is also theorized to be Jewish by fans due to her surname, though this has never been confirmed by official materials or the games themselves.

Though this particular case of Jewish representation is fairly minor, it is still notable for being one of the first instances of a Jewish character in a Japanese-developed game. A fair amount of Jewish characters appear in western-developed games instead, likely due to the fact that the Jewish population in Japan is very small.

Rabbi Russell Stone (and various other characters) – The Shivah (2006, 2013)

A
(Courtesy of Wadjet Eye Games)

As far as indie games go, “The Shivah” could be considered one of the first to feature Jewish characters and themes. Published in 2006 by developer Wadjet Eye Games, “The Shivah” is perhaps the most Jewish game ever. It follows the tale of a rabbi struggling with his faith who becomes the suspect in the murder of a former member of his synagogue.

“The Shivah” is a point-and-click adventure game in the style of games like the “Monkey Island” series and “Myst.” Like many of its genre contemporaries, it presents the player with multiple dialogue options that determine the ending they get. Where “The Shivah” differs is that the player cannot directly decide what Rabbi Stone will say next: They can decide his tone, as well as whether they want to give a “Rabbinical response” and answer a question with another question, but exactly what he says is up to him.

The game’s conflict stems from an interfaith marriage between two characters. Stone refusing to marry them and casting them out from his synagogue is what eventually leads to one’s murder. As the story progresses, he is forced to come to grips with his own ideals and whether the way he espouses his faith is really the right way to do it.

The sanctity of marriage between Jews is something “The Shivah” creator Dave Gilbert says his mother felt very strongly about, and viewing it as a “very Jewish problem to face” led him to include it in the game.

Gilbert made the game in a month after returning from teaching English in South Korea. While he was never particularly religious, he found the experience of being a Jew in a foreign country where the religion is uncommon to be somewhat alienating.

“Whenever the subject came up, it was always ‘Oh, you’re Jewish, I’ve never met someone like you before,’” he recalled. “It was just really strange.

“I made ‘The Shivah’ to reconnect with that Jewish part of myself. … I was just sort of venting questions I had, that I didn’t really have an answer for,” he added.

In the 16 years since the game’s first release, Gilbert admits that he has found inaccuracies in the original game, and it is not an exhaustive look at Judaism and the issues that Jews may face in their communities. But these inaccuracies do not change the fact that “The Shivah” comes from a very personal place of reexamining one’s faith and coming to terms with it.

“It exists as this thing I made when I was going through a transition of deciding what I wanted to do with my life,” Gilbert said. “But it just ended up taking off because of its subject matter.”

Brigid Tenenbaum – BioShock (2007-present)

(From “BioShock 2”, developed by 2K Marin)

“BioShock” is a surprising well of Jewish representation. Ken Levine, creator of the series and director of the first game, stated in an interview with GameInformer that “pretty much half the cast” of the first game is Jewish. He listed Andrew Ryan, Sander Cohen, J.S. Steinman and Mariska Lutz as examples. It is worth noting that aside from Mariska, these characters are all villainous in nature and as a result their status as “good” Jewish representation is debatable. Still, the game’s Jewish cast stems from Levine writing of his own religion (though he now identifies as an atheist) and experiences.

The most important non-villainous Jew in the game, though, has to be Dr. Brigid Tenenbaum. She is introduced as a geneticist and the creator of the Little Sisters, young girls who have been genetically modified to collect ADAM, a gene-altering substance, from around the underwater city of Rapture. She eventually comes to see them as her children and is protective of them.

Her story is inextricably tied to her Judaism, as she grew up in Minsk during the Holocaust and became a prisoner in Auschwitz. She only survived because her intelligence was useful to the Nazi doctors who worked there, and they forced her to help them with their experiments or risk death if she refused.

Tenenbaum’s character is complex — she is clearly racked with grief because of what she was forced to do in Auschwitz and what she did to create Little Sisters, and has grown attached to them perhaps as an outlet for that grief. Whether the player chooses to kill Little Sisters they come across or not has a significant effect on the story, with Tenenbaum assisting protagonist Jack if he spares them. Jack even adopts five little girls at the end of the game if the player has beaten it without killing a single Little Sister.

Tenenbaum — and in a way, her identity as a Jewish woman during the Holocaust — is central to the plot of the BioShock series. She is one of few characters in the first game who has not given into her instincts and is actively trying to make up for her past behavior.

Avicebron – Fate/Grand Order (2015)

(From “Fate/Grand Order”, developed by Delightworks and Lasengle)

The plot of the “Fate” series of games is difficult to explain, but the most succinct summary is that they are visual novels about mages who summon the spirits of historical and mythological figures — commonly known as “servants” — to fight each other in hopes of receiving a wish from the legendary Holy Grail. While not the most accessible series to play, as many of its games have never left Japan, it has managed to garner a passionate online fanbase.

“Fate/Grand Order” is the franchise’s mobile entry, and while it contains historically Jewish figures from the Torah such as David and Solomon, the most curious piece of Jewish representation in the game is a figure players are less likely to be familiar with: Avicebron, better known as Solomon ibn Gabriol.

Historically, Solomon ibn Gabriol was one of the most well-known Jewish poets and philosophers. He was born in 1021 or 1022, during an age where Hebrew, which had been a long-dead language, had only recently been revived. As a result, his work in the language garnered him a significant deal of attention. He was also responsible for writing the philosophical work “Fountain of Life,” which inspired the Kabbalists — practitioners of Jewish mysticism.

“Fate” is notorious for bending the truth of the historical figures it features, though, and its depiction of Avicebron focuses primarily on the Kabbalism his teachings inspired. A matter-of-fact, reclusive person, he fights using golems: a reference to the fact that Solomon ibn Gabriol is rumored to have created golems to do his chores. Though a relatively minor character in a game with over 300 characters, he has a fairly complex characterization and is likely how many players found out that ibn Gabriol even existed.

Dina – The Last of Us Part II (2020)

(From “The Last of Us Part II”, developed by Naughty Dog)

Dina may be the most overt case of Jewish representation in an AAA (made by a major publisher and given a higher development and marketing budget, akin to a blockbuster) game. The partner of Ellie, the main character, Dina speaks openly about Judaism and Jewish practices. She wears a bracelet marked with a hamsa, has a chai symbol hanging in her house and notes that her sister would take her to a synagogue to pray.

While her Judaism was never outright stated in game, it was a popular fan theory that was later confirmed by Naughty Dog creative director Neil Druckmann.

“So I was like, ‘Well, it’s rare to see a Jewish character in a video game, and for her to own that,’” he said in a Mashable article. He also noted during a panel at the E3 video game conference that getting the light to reflect properly on Dina’s frizzy hair, a physical trait shared by many Jews, posed a particular challenge to the development team.

In the zombie-infested, dire and often cruel world of “The Last of Us,” Dina provides Ellie with much-needed comfort and someone to talk with after the death of Joel, her guardian from the first game. The state of their surroundings puts pressure on both her and Ellie, and it is difficult to say if they will find a happy ending together in future games. But Dina still stands out as one of the most visible cases of Jewish representation in gaming: As of June 22, “The Last of Us Part II” has sold 10 million copies on the PS4 alone.

Main character – Unpacking (2021)

(From “Unpacking”, developed by Witch Beam)

Indie games have provided a fair amount of minority representation over the past few years. Due to their smaller audience, many are able to address more niche or sensitive topics such as race, gender and religion without the fear of alienating a mass consumer base. This can be seen in popular indies like “Celeste” and its discussion of transgender identity and mental health, and in upcoming titles like dating simulator “ValiDate” and its focus on the reality of pursuing romance as a person of color.

“Unpacking,” a puzzle game by Australian development team Witch Beam, is a curious case in terms of its Jewish representation. By all accounts, the game has no characters who ever appear on screen or even any dialogue. But through the combination of block-fitting and home decoration that make up the gameplay, the player learns about the lives of the nameless homeowners they assist in eight different moves over the course of 21 years.

The game’s primary narrative is communicated through the items the player is assigned to place or pack — among these are a dreidel, a menorah and hamsa to be hung on the wall, implying that the main character is Jewish.

“Unpacking is all about learning about a person from the items they own,” said Wren Brier, the game’s creative director. “We wanted to make the characters feel like real, three-dimensional people so that players could relate to them. One aspect of that is a religious and cultural identity. Our character happens to be an artist, and she happens to be queer, and happens to be Jewish. All of these are important parts of who she is.”

The player never sees the main character, the boyfriend who gives her barely any room to place her things in their apartment or the woman she eventually starts a family with. But through its atmospheric storytelling, it tells a quaint but poignant narrative about a queer Jewish woman leaving her childhood home and finding happiness in a place she can call her own.

“I just want to see more [Jewish representation],” Brier said. “Games rarely feature Jewish characters at all. And I’d like to see a greater variety of Jewish representation in popular media in general. The Jewish experience is diverse: We live all over the world, we come in every skin color and every level of religiosity, from ultra-Orthodox to atheist. It feels like the only Jewish people I see in popular media are white American Jews, usually in New York, or white European Jews during World War II. Those are, of course, valuable perspectives, but I think a lot of other Jewish perspectives are just not represented at all.”

 

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here