Wolfenstein: Youngblood, released last week, introduces two major new characters to the first-person shooter franchise. Twin sisters Jess and Soph are a pair of boisterous 18-year-olds who gleefully pulverize hordes of Nazis in the streets of occupied Paris. They’re the daughters of famed fascist killer B.J. Blazkowicz, who’s been the star of the Wolfenstein series since 1992.
The problem is that the game does such a good job of setting them up as two interesting, different characters with challenges they need to overcome, that the rest of the game — in which they are standard action heroes — is a disappointment. A narrative of pure action set in the Wolfenstein universe isn’t a bad idea, but why promise the player a story, with interesting characters, that never arrives?
A symbol of treachery
The sisters have an easy charm about them, a knockabout good-nature that involves much high-fiving, fist bumps, and in-jokes. Their voices are provided by Shelby Young (Soph) and Valerie Rose Lohman (Jess), who tap into the girls’ youthful exuberance. In-game barks include such gems as “these Nazi douchebags are toast,” and “I’m gonna kill this asshole.”
[Ed. note: From this point forward, this article contains major spoilers for Wolfenstein: Youngblood.]
At the beginning of Youngblood, we’re introduced to Jess and Soph in ways that strongly suggest incoming character development. Jess hunts a goat in the first scene, alongside her father, and learns a lesson about spatial awareness. While she focuses on the shot, she is unaware of a deadly snake sneaking up on her. The lesson is a good one: If you let your focus narrow to only one thing, you may miss important details or threats around you. You can’t let the fact that you’re close to your goal tempt you into dropping your guard. Snakes also symbolize treachery, which will soon be a major plot point.
It’s clear that these two sisters would be pulling pranks, shotgunning beers, and raising hell in some small town if they lived in our world. In Youngblood we see them dancing goofily with one another in elevators, or roughhousing for laughs. Soph is especially cavalier, sporting a raucous laugh and calling her sister “dude.” Jess is slightly more serious. But apart from their looks, there’s little to differentiate the two once the shooting begins.
Meanwhile, Soph is training with her hyper-determined mother. Soph is tired of the hard work, but her mother warns her that all it takes is one Nazi who is more aggressive or in better physical shape to kill her. Soph doesn’t have the luxury of slacking off, not in this world. The stakes are much too high.
Soph’s questionable commitment plays out very early in the game when she hesitates to make her first kill. This feels like it might present an opportunity for conflict between the two sisters, but she winds up blowing the Nazi’s head off, puking, and then jumping up and down like a high school sports star. Soph is then fine with the mountains of corpses the two sisters create through the rest of the game.
Having been first presented as a potentially fatal flaw, Soph’s lack of seriousness is later turned into a joke. When she’s told to prepare for the apocalypse, she guffaws, as if it’s all one big lark. Outside of these moments, it’s never really a part of the game.
When Jess and Soph travel to Paris to search for their missing father, they link up with French resistance fighters. Jess wonders if she’s seeing the full picture, or if there’s a “snake in the grass.”
When the very obvious twist comes — the resistance fighters are really fanatical Nazis — it isn’t Jess who identifies the traitors, but their sidekick Abby who stays behind during missions to handle the technology. Later, when the sisters are reunited with their father, he mentions that he saw through the Nazi ruse right away. But there’s no reference to Jess being suckered by them, and failing to fully heed her father’s message.
This abandonment of growth or fulfillment eradicates any sense that these two young women might offer a nuanced story about sisters, overcoming their differences, or working through a rivalry, or any number of potential routes. In the end, all we get is a couple of roaring girls who become very, very good at killing their enemies — mostly through technological advancements — and that’s about the sum of it.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a two-dimensional game character whose only role is euphoric destruction. But the writers pull a bait-and-switch by introducing us to characters with the capacity for internal growth, setting up their shortcomings and alerting us to the danger of those flaws not being addressed, before delivering wise-cracking killing machines who barely need to grow or change to fulfill their mission.
When the sisters find their father and learn of potential other parallel realities, they muse briefly about what or who they might be in an alternative paradise, where the Nazis are long gone. But this is played only at a surface level, and leaves us none the wiser. Soph says she’d be writing a book ... about two sisters getting into adventures that we must assume are not too different than the reality they are actually living. Jess sees herself as a hunter. Even in their fantasies, they are unable to imagine themselves outside the roles imposed by the game’s designers.
I’d like to see Soph and Jess again one day. Their relationship and their basic personalities make them fun, engaging action heroes. But I hope that we get to experience them as real human beings, rather than as half-empty archetypes whose primary purpose is to facilitate the mechanics of a game that relies heavily on cooperative play.