When it comes to canonical first kills of enemies in video games, developers usually take one of two pretty well established narrative routes. For male video game protagonists, the first kill is usually not an emotionally charged moment. It’s not celebratory, it’s not harrowing, it’s just a stoic hero doing their job as a trained soldier saving the world and doing their duty. Games with female protagonists, notably games like the 2013 Tomb Raider, usually make out the first kill to be an emotionally harrowing and upsetting moment, but one washed over quickly by the mechanics. Women feel feelings, but only for a minute, then they become unfeeling killers like their male counterparts.
Wolfenstein Youngblood, which has just been released today, takes a slightly different approach to its first kill that I personally feel is more rounded and human, even if the game that follows it fails to really capitalise on what makes it interesting.
Youngblood focuses on the story of Jess and Soph Blazkowitz, the daughters of famed Nazi killer and Wolfenstein protagonist B.J. Blazkowitz. Following B.J.’s dissappearance in Nazi occupied Paris, the two sisters steal an FBI helicopter in an attempt to rescue him before it’s too late.
The scene that I wanted to discuss as interesting is an early game cutscene in which the two sisters kill their first Nazi, while working their way through a highly defended base. The way the scene plays out shows a really nuanced conflict of emotions that is well worth breaking down in detail.
First, from a distance, Soph attempts to shoot the Nazi from a safe distance on a raised balcony. Her hands visibly shake, and she turns her head away from her target. She’s clearly trying to distance herself from a kill that she wants to make, but is not confident in her ability to pull off. The avoidance and shaking are natural, taking a life for the first time is not an easy ask, even when the target is the universally agreed upon standard for an evil person, an active Nazi soldier in a Nazi controlled country.
After taking too long and missing the shot, with both sisters trying to psych themselves up for what they need to do and assure each other they can pull it off, they decide instead to come in close, attack from both sides and take him out. Soph starts to cry, but when Jess notices she brushes off the suggestion as just nausea, trying to act tough for herself as much as her sister.
While trying to sneak up, Jess is so focused and intent on getting the kill right, that she steps on a tape and alerts the guard to her presence.Her sheer focus on getting things right causes her to make a silly mistake in a very human way.
Caught off guard, Jess runs up and ineffectively stabs the guard through the torso, failing to kill him. You can see a smile pass across her face briefly, joy that she had it in her to make a proper go at taking this Nazi down, quickly replaced by fear and indecision as she realises she hasn’t succeeded, and is now faced with a pissed off injured Nazi.
After freezing up with a gun trained on her, Soph steps in, shooting the officer in the head and killing him instantly, much to Jess’ shock.
This is where the scene gets interesting. Jess and Soph show a wild range of quickly shifting emotions, from joy at succeeding unscathed, to vomiting at the realities of an exploded skull, to panic for each other’s safety, back to disgust, into laughter used to avoid thinking too much about the more difficult emotions at play.
The two take a quiet minute to sit down, looking at the dead body, and reassuring themselves they can rescue their father from Nazi captivity. This shot takes place after a camera cut, with the implication they sat and took their time to process what had happened, and then allows the game to move forwards.
While on paper this is mainly an evolution of the existing template for female protagonists feeling emotions at their first kill then moving on like nothing happened, by not limiting the scene to sadness or fear, and exploring a wider variety of emotions, the scene feels far more human. The conflict between joy at success, victory and duty having killed a literal Nazi soldier, and disgust at the realities of murder as an act being permitted to exist in quick and almost contradictory succession painted a far more interesting picture of a first kill. Yes they would be proud, relieved, excited, disgusted, shaken, overjoyed, overwhelmed.
Wolfenstein Youngblood doesn’t really do too much interesting with its plot beyond this point, and features a pretty limited number of locations to revisit and play through, but the core co-op shooting gameplay makes the title well worth checking out. Youngblood makes the assumption that the player already knows Nazis are evil, assumes you’re okay with killing Nazis purely because they are evil without further justification, and then allows you to play as two interesting badass Nazi killers for several hours. It’s not a world shatteringly amazing game, but it’s a lot of fun, with some good scenes like the above helping to make it worthy of discussion.