For nearly 40 years the Wolfenstein franchise has offered blood-soaked shooter action to video game fans. The majority of the games in the long-running series focus on protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz, a Jewish Polish-American spy who routinely thwarts Nazi plans dealing in the occult and supernatural.
With Machine Games and Bethesda’s latest title, Wolfenstein: Youngblood, the series is entering into uncharted territory: the 1980s. Set two decades after the franchise’s previous installment, 2017’s Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, in an alt-history version of Paris where the Axis powers won World War II, Youngblood also makes history as the first title in the Wolfenstein series to feature playable female protagonists.
Players take control of Soph and Jess, the teenage twin daughters of Blazkowicz and his wife Anya, a nurse and resistance fighter first introduced in 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order. Bringing the new characters to life are stars Shelby Young (Soph) and Valerie Rose Lohman (Jess).
“Something I love about Jess and Soph is that they make sense as protagonists,” Young tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s not like we’re picking up with two complete strangers. We’re picking up with two Blazkowiczes and two female badasses.”
“When I was younger I really only had, like, Lara Croft and the girls in Mortal Kombat, then eventually Metroid. I didn’t really have a funny, interesting, young female lead in anything growing up,” says Lohman. “It’s a big deal to me to know that Shelby and I are going to be that for young girls who are into gaming.”
“I love that there are more and more games coming out with female protagonists who are just strong and amazing and flawed and beautiful, because women in life are all of those things and more. To see more and more representations of women that I can find a piece of myself in or who I can aspire to be is amazing. I’m already in my 20s, so I can’t imagine what that must be like for little girls growing up now,” says Young.
The Blazkowicz sisters have been mentioned in previous games in the franchise but never introduced until Youngblood. The game follows the siblings as they travel to Nazi-occupied Paris to search for their missing father and help the French Resistance liberate their country.
“I think the game will be familiar in the sense that you’re still fighting Nazis and it’s still Wolfenstein, but it’s different in the sense that you are seeing it through the lens of two very different characters,” says Young.
“Obviously, they are the children of two war veterans, but at the end of the day, they’re two 17-year-old girls in high school,” Lohman adds. “Whereas B.J. is a total badass and he knows what he’s doing, these girls are good at what they do, but they are in so over their heads.”
Lohman and Young are no strangers to video games. Young has voiced characters in Battlefield 1 and Youngblood predecessor The New Colossus and had a leading role in 2013’s Dead Rising 3, while Lohman is perhaps best known for voicing the title role in 2017’s indie hit What Remains of Edith Finch for Annapurna Interactive, for which she earned a BAFTA Games Award nomination. Youngblood, however, was a unique experience for both performers.
“There was a lot more responsibility this time,” says Young of taking on a lead playable role in a franchise for which she’d voiced non-player characters in the past. “Something I really liked that we did on set was familial improv to get a sense of what they’d be like as a family unit.”
“I’ve never worked on a project where it’s been a two-hander like this,” says Lohman. “We did a lot of improv work in the rehearsal process to find our character dynamics, because this is the first time these girls really appear in this franchise.”
Lohman describes Jess as the “more serious” of the two sisters, who carries “a lot of the emotional gravitas” that her father does. “Jess is definitely the more anxious one. I feel like she is a lot closer to B.J. She has a lot of emotional stuff bubbling underneath that never comes out, and she worries a lot.”
Meanwhile, Young’s Soph is a “little bit lighter” and sports a signature laugh that required a bit of workshopping to get exactly right. “When I first went in she was very much this soldier, ready-to-fight type of girl. When I went for the callbacks, they changed up her dialogue to play up the humor, and they sent references of Seth Rogen laughing,” Young recalls. “I already know his laugh like the back of my hand, so when they sent me all these clips I said, ‘Oh yeah, I can fucking do that.’”
The majority of the game’s motion capture was done on set in Sweden, where Lohman and Young worked closely together. “We instantly bonded because we’re in a foreign country and we didn’t really know that many people,” says Young. “I legitimately feel like she is my sister at this point.”
“Shelby has come to be one of my best friends,” Lohman says, adding that her co-star “is game for anything” and lauding her improv skills, something that was pushed for by director Tom Keegan. “A lot of the backstory stuff, the little moments, Shelby’s laughter and leaning into jokes more, was really encouraged by Tom,” says Lohman.
“There is dark humor within [Youngblood], but because Jess and Soph are new to battle and new to this world, there’s still this sisterly bond of them going through it together that makes it not as dark,” says Young. “The writing blows me away.”
“One of my favorite scenes to film was the very first time they have to kill a Nazi and Jess is having a panic attack,” Lohman says. “I’ve never seen that in anything about war, someone freaking out about having to kill someone. Then to have the dark comedy element of it just made it a blast.”
That brand of macabre humor is a staple of the Wolfenstein franchise, a series that has never been afraid to court controversy, such as its “Make America Nazi-Free Again” marketing campaign in 2017.
“It’s going to push boundaries,” Lohman says of Youngblood. Young, meanwhile, is blunter: “Nazis are evil and should die, that’s kind of the trend. It’s not veering too far away from the past games.”
Wolfenstein: Youngblood launches on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC on July 26.