header is screenshot from Wolfenstein: Youngblood
Imitating Family
Alex Dalbey

I really thought I’d be able to play Wolfenstein: Youngblood while sitting next to my brother. Videogames were a major part of our shared childhoods, and our time apart as young adults. Now videogames serve as the background activity while we catch up on the last five years. A co-op shooter with sibling protagonists mowing down hoards of Nazis sounded like a gift designed for me to share with him. It, a game about siblings talking to each other while gunning their way through Nazi-occupied Paris, seemed like the perfect game for us. But it isn’t, not just because our systems don’t match up, and there’s no split-screen co-op, but because, even without those issues, Wolfenstein: Youngblood wouldn’t contain a real sibling relationship.

As has been discussed on Bullet Points previously by Blake Hester, the twin daughters of BJ Blazkowicz and his wife Anya are surprisingly devoid of inner life. Jess and Soph are newly-adult young women who grew up together on an isolated farm in northeast Texas in an America liberated from the series’ alternate-history Nazi invasion just a couple of decades earlier. They’re both tough; they’ve been made so by the training from their parents, who are haunted by the spectre of the Nazis who still hold power in Europe. Their personalities, however, don’t seem to stretch beyond that toughness and the four things they like: writing (only Soph), hunting (only Jess), a book titled The Covert Adventures of Arthur Pennington and Kenneth and Holshouser, which they frequently reference, and (as of only quite recently) killing Nazis.

In the opening of the game BJ goes hunting with Jess, and Anya pushes Soph through combat drills. This training, and the paranoid pep talks that accompany it, seems to be one of the only shared activities for the Blazkowicz family. Jess and Soph’s childhood appears nearly devoid of entertainment, and of each other. They have their Hardy Boys knock-off, from which they took the nicknames “Arthur” and “Kenneth” for each other, but that seems to be the only thing they share besides killing Nazis and DNA.

Nostalgic reflections on their time on the farm in Texas are always focused on solitary activities: writing and hunting. While Jess takes an interest in Soph’s writing, Soph doesn’t believe in hunting (she’s not a vegetarian, though). If there’s anything else they do together, Wolfenstein: Youngblood never shows it. There’s no discussion of tending crops, of learning to drive, or of any other family activities. We’re never treated to even a sideways glance at how their parents raised and interacted with them before teaching them to fight Nazis, and telling them stories about the horrors of war. We don’t know if they have friends besides Abby Walker, the daughter of Blazkowicz’ comrade turned FBI director, Grace Walker, and, even then, Abby just appears to be an acquaintance at first. Yet for all the emptiness that seems apparent in Jess and Soph’s shared life, they never meaningfully turn to each other to fill or confront that hole.

Before BJ dissapeared and his daughters went looking for him, they had never killed a Nazi. When Jess begs Anya for a break from training in the opening, Anya grabs a knife and puts it to her daughter’s throat from behind, saying, “We die because we let them kill us!” Yet when that fateful moment comes, and the sisters actually do have to take out a Nazi soldier, they don’t carry each other through that shared fear of the “big strong Aryan true believer” Anya assured would kill them if given a second to do so. They’re angry with each other for their shared hesitation. “Are you gonna flake out on me?” isn’t what siblings say before facing the monster that plagued their parents with paranoia their whole upbringing. It’s what they say as 12-year-olds before climbing down that mining shaft their mom warned them to stay away from.

This bizarre emotional distance between Jess and Soph is present throughout the game. In one of the ambient dialogue exchanges between the twins, Soph asks Jess what she and their dad spoke about when they went hunting, referencing the opening cutscene. Jess curtly responds, “Ain’t telling Soph. Why don’t you go hunting with him yourself sometime?”

There are ups and downs with family, and not all families are alike. But in my experience, siblings tend to come together when there is a crisis with their parents, not push each other away. Sometimes that’s not true for a variety of sad and complicated reasons. But in a relationship as seemingly uncomplicated as this one, it’s hard to see why anything that could give any clue about their father’s whereabouts would be kept secret in such a spiteful way.

The flimsy facsimile of familial love extends beyond the twins to their parents as well. Jess and Soph never meaningfully grapple with the possibility that they won’t find their father. Whenever it comes up, the other twin dismisses it quickly, saying “are you kidding me?” Maybe that possibility of failure is too painful, or maybe it’s that they can’t imagine a family without his legacy. But their relationships with both BJ and Anya are just as hollow as their own.

The sisters reveal that they don’t know any details of how their parents met beyond that it was in an asylum. The emotional problems BJ was struggling with before leaving for Paris seem to have been all but invisible to them, even though Anya talks about him not speaking for days at a time. If they ever did anything fun as a family together, it is left up to the players imagination. The only stories they tell about their parents are about them fighting Nazis, or teaching them to do the same. While there’s plenty of back and forth between the twins, it doesn’t reveal anything about who they are or what their childhood was like. Instead, the player is treated to a bevy of inane affirmations like “You’re a badass, Jess!” or “Way to go, sis, you’re slaying it.”

When they finally find BJ, they don’t talk about the burden of guilt that caused him to leave his family and go silent. After they defeat General Lothar and all meet back up in the final cutscene, there’s no emotional reunion for Anya and BJ and their children. There’s barely even a conversation. When Jess and Soph, two 18-year-olds who just snatched their father from the jaws of Nazi death, learn that their parents are leaving them again, their upset dissipates in seconds. They all line up with arms around each other’s shoulders like they’re taking a picture for a middle school basketball team, not hugging for the first time after being afraid they’d never see each other again. The camera slowly rises over their heads. It feels like a poorly written sitcom ending, not the conclusion of a tale of family saving family. The joy of this reunion is, like nearly every familial interaction in the game, a hollow imitation, painfully degraded to fit upon the altar of all things badass.

Over and over again, Wolfenstein: Youngblood tries to sell itself on the bond between Soph and Jess, but they feel as close as any random squadmates in a first-person shooter. As I wandered through the post-game in search of emotional complexity between the twins, I came across a weekly mission titled “Sisterly Bonding.” The note from Abby read, “Hey, girls. While you’re out there killing Nazis, you should take the opportunity to strengthen the sisterly bond between you.” In Wolfenstein: Youngblood, strengthening the “sisterly bond” means giving each other “pep signals,” where one of the twins gives a thumbs up, a health boost, and says something awkward like, “You go, sis!” It tries to make you believe that these shallow affirmations grow a relationship, but that’s just not true. What would have displayed growth in their relationship is vulnerability: a thing they refuse to show, even to each other. Perhaps the intention was to create “strong female protagonists” who are so powerful and self-assured that they have no fear of failure. But not talking about that fear together doesn’t make them appear strong. It makes them feel like they might as well be doing this alone.


Alex Dalbey is a writer and zinester currently working out of St. Paul, Minnesota. They write about LGBTQ issues, videogames, comics, Midwest politics, and sex. Follow them on Twitter.