Sitting in his recording studio at home, reading a monologue into his microphone, Brian Bloom had no idea this moment would lead to six years of work. He was doing a remote audition for a voice acting part in a game, but non-disclosure meant he did not know what the game was. All he knew was was a codename, that it was being developed by MachineGames, published by Bethesda, and the character he was auditioning for had a penchant for talking to himself. Of course, we know now that this part was for William “B.J.” Blazkowicz, the square-jawed hero of Wolfenstein: The New Order, a beloved FPS series reimagined for a modern audience.
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“I was so excited,” Bloom tells me. “This was something that was a seminal title, and I’m the perfect age group for that to have holistically been the pastiche of what was happening in those days. I remember [the original Wolfenstein] well. I knew there were some reboots over the years that maybe had a little trouble finding their audience, and it was exciting to be a part of what would hopefully be /the/ reboot and the record of note on Wolfenstein. It sounds like we might have done something like that, which is awesome.”
Bloom is right. MachineGames not only managed to make one of the best single-player shooters in recent years, they took the series in a completely unexpected and refreshing direction. It was still over-the-top, full of severed body parts, lavished in gore, and punctuated by expletives, but this was Wolfenstein with a soul, boasting a cast of believable characters that exhibited believable emotional depth.
“I realised that this was anything but this two-dimensional paper tiger,” Bloom remembers. “A lot of things were happening then - motion capture was becoming more [prevalent], the uncanny valley was digging itself deeper, for better and worse, and still is. But it was exciting to see what looked like five minute scenes where characters had real motivations, real intentions, real lives, backstory, and to just be a part of taking a shot at developing that guy. A hero like this, it’s so easy for him to be 2D. This is my favourite role I’ve ever played.”
It is funny when you really think about it. B.J. is a guy whose sole function is to murder Nazis, yet he is one of the most human videogame characters in existence, despite his name being slang for a sex act. “It’s at times an inconvenient name,” Bloom laughs. “But if you look at it in its intended form it’s actually an amazing kind of… there’s Americana in there and, again, the ‘B.J.’ thing sounds so kind of like tough guy, simple. But adding that ‘Blazkowicz’ right away begs the question - when you throw the scenario, the setting, the Nazis, the alternate history [in there] - and you look at that name and you go ‘I wonder if he’s…’ Anyone who knows the character knows the connotations, implications, ramifications of who B.J. is and his background.”
Blazkowicz’s heritage is something that has never been fully confirmed by the developers, but many believe that he is Jewish. This uncertainty gives his character more depth, with Blazko potentially becoming an agent for justice for an entire persecuted race. “I think what’s more important is: does B.J. identify that way?” Bloom asks. “I think what’s more important to him is that he sees himself as somebody who wants to fight bigotry no matter what or who he is. I think that’s probably the greater takeaway, rather than getting bogged down in the specificity, although the story does get into that because that’s a fulcrum or lens you can use to orbit that subject.”
It is up to you to read into it. It is up to you how deep you want to be pulled into this alternative post-WWII story. In Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, we join Blazko as he goes back to the US. In this twisted mirror of our world, the Nazis won the war and have full occupation of the country. The US surrendered. The game’s marketing campaign has orbited these themes, using the current political climate to zone in on Wolfenstein II’s simple message: kill Nazis. However, the developers did not know their game would release alongside a resurgence of a new breed of real-life Nazis. Again, though, you are free to use that as you play, if you want to, to channel it and enjoy the catharsis. You are free to interpret the story as you want. You can read every letter, listen to every conversation, and absorb it all. Likewise, you are also free to put a gun in each hand, skip the dialogue, and turn your brain off as you decorate its levels in debris and Nazi viscera.
“[Current politics are] a coincidence or perhaps an expression of a coalescence, a convergence,” Bloom says. “Not a very harmonic convergence. If this helps us look at the subject matter or either take it more seriously or have more fun... It’s more important that the player gets the chance to incorporate, or not, whatever it is they’re looking at about their world, or revenge but, ultimately, this is and always has been a fantasy about killing Nazis. There were real Nazis and this is an alternate history where those Nazis won that real World War II, B.J. woke up and he disagrees with the result. That’s what this game has always been about in some form. We’re playing out some version of that with all of these amazing characters, with this romance, this underdog coming back to the United States, facing down this blight - this country that has been taken over by an incredibly intolerant group that has reformed everything about who we are, and B.J. needs help to solve that problem.”
B.J. is a changed man after the events of The New Order. He is broken, physically and mentally. So much so that the game opens with him fighting Nazis from a wheelchair. His country surrendered while he was in a coma during the events of that first game, and he never really got the chance to come to terms with that, thanks to all the bullets that were constantly whizzing past his robust head. Now, in The New Colossus, he is going home and he is about to see the full effects of that surrender.
“This is the promised land,” Bloom says. “B.J. is coming home to the place where the surrender would really leave a mark. It’s easier fruit, if you will, to look at the alternate history somewhere in Germany, in terms of the architecture, the setting, and the feel. But the big bite, the one I was hoping we would do and was so excited to hear they were doing, was coming to the United States. Doing this ‘enemy of my enemy’ kind of story, B.J. having to mess around with some bohemian communists in order to beat these fascists, to find that common ground.”
Speaking of finding common ground, that was not so hard when it came to Bloom and Blazkowicz. Bloom is B.J. - not only does he sound like him, even when he is not purposely adding that signature rasp to his voice, but he could definitely cause you a mischief. A practitioner of a martial art called Bojuka, the voice actor knows how to handle himself in a physical confrontation. It is a martial art built around defending yourself from street thugs, arming you with all the tools you need to deal with a violent confrontation, including knife counters and eye-gouges, though with a focus on de-escalation.
“Years of martial arts have helped a lot in terms of physical presence, bearing, maybe some confidence, and articulation in how you express yourself physically, blocking, and zoning,” Bloom explains. “Some of these things are actually pretty valuable to help convey what your character is thinking and feeling - determined, decisive movements, rather than shifty, shaky half-measures. That’s what B.J. is about, and that kind of commitment to your physicality, that presence or ownership of it, is definitely a part of creating motion capture that feels natural and organic. So, yes, it’s a big part of it. And when I get to do some combat it’s always a treat for me. I love having that in my front pocket, ready to go at all times.”
Despite Bloom’s very particular set of skills, his highlight from working on The New Colossus is more poignant. “I could tell you ‘oh, there was a time they had me hanging from the ceiling from these wires and I had to do this jump’ and all this crazy kind of stuff, but I feel like anyone can give you answers like that. What was really amazing was that we had a little bit of an emotional experience together quite often. So what sticks out for me, through the fog of the memory of working on this for all these years, is how pertinent, how organic, how prescient, how sometimes personal [it was].
Again, politics aside, even factions - real life, proverbially - aside, we had some emotional experiences together making this thing, and I think they will translate and make the fun, exciting, bombastic, crazy, hardass, fucking bananas shit... it gives it the ying to that yang.”
Just like with B.J., there is a soft side to Bloom, one that values friendship and personal moments over eye-gouging martial arts. Perhaps that is why his performance of the character works so well, getting across that human side of this Nazi-murdering cartoon character, this square-headed high-school jock with a heart of gold. Bloom says a lot of that is down the MachineGames’ excellent writing - specifically Blazkowicz’s inner-monologues.
“The inner voice is a nice balance against the tough guy,” Bloom explains. “If you look at B.J., one thing that’s kind of interesting is, aside from periodically having an argument that counts with someone he loves, about something that he cares about, he’s not a yeller or a screamer.
As well as being a voice actor, Bloom is also a writer - he wrote some of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare’s script, as well as lending his voice and likeness to the main character - so he has a particular appreciation for the script MachineGames have delivered.
“I think he expresses himself physically by getting the job done, but that inner voice is quiet and softer and more contemplative, maybe less secure than he is forced to perpetrate to the other folks. He’s a weaker and broken man when we meet him in this game. That inner voice is kind of another gear on the transmission box, a lower gear, and he kind of uses it to help rally himself, to help steel himself, to steady himself, and to mock himself. I think that’s part of the charm of this guy - he’s in the middle of doing incredibly macho stuff, but there’s some self doubt, and opportunities for him to [throw the tough guy] under the bus once in a while. You hear that voice like ‘come on Blazkowicz’ and that’s an interesting thing. You look at that guy and he doesn’t look like a guy who needs too much encouragement.”
What is it like, then, to play a game in which you are the main character where the inner voice you hear is actually your own, and with so much insight into the character’s motivations?
“It’s a trip,” Bloom says. “No kind of ego or self-involvement, no kind of crazy vortex like that, it’s just a total trip. We talked about the audience of one - it’s pretty amazing to play a campaign where you’re [the lead]. The thing I get to say to the audience and every other person in the world is that handshake between B.J. and you, but to myself I get to say ‘hey, there’s this crazy twilight zone, outer limits handshake between you, and Blazkowicz’. It’s this weird dimension that only actors who play these first or third-person player characters [can visit]. It’s definitely a wild trip.”
Speaking of those weird experiences that not many people get to witness, there was another on-set anecdote that Bloom decided to share, this time involving himself and another cast member having to simulate full sex for motion capture. “If you’ve seen the way actors have to wear cameras on their faces and the microphones hanging from the face, it looks like a ram’s horn coming out of your forehead, staring back at you to record your eyes and the way your face is moving,” Bloom explains. “Anya and B.J. had to do a kissing scene and also a full-on love scene. It is quite something to see the two actors in the moleskin with the dots and the two ram’s horns, faking a love scene as we are trying to create a feeling of intimacy but we’re not able to stand next to each other - because we need space for the cameras and the microphones, so we are miming a love scene in those silly costumes with the dots on and it’s very, very difficult to, erm, maintain the thread, let’s say. There’s a lot of laughter and a lot of takes to get that stuff right. It’s always awkward.”
That’s the thing with modern Wolfenstein - it has just the right balance. There is action, there is downtime, there is characterisation, there is humour, then there are those emotional moments Bloom speaks about. Sandwiched between all this are B.J.’s memorable one-liners, his quips that react to your actions in-game. One of my personal favourites is “Killed your fucking dog, Rudi,” a line B.J. delivers in The Old Blood after he murders his torturer’s mutt in front of him. Bloom’s favourite line better captures the essence of the series, mind you.
“I was always attracted to ‘shooting, stabbing, and strangling Nazis’,” Bloom growls. “That always meant a lot to me. It really always seemed like that was the guy. I feel like if you tapped him on the shoulder at any given time and you said ‘Hey, B.J., where are you at, what’s up?’ If he said ‘I’m shooting, stabbing, and strangling Nazis’ you’d know that it’s B.J. Blazkowicz. There’s something about those three words, even though they’re incredibly violent - let’s face it, this enemy deserves it, this is a binary choice. The world is not so black and white anymore, and it’s nice to get behind the barrel as B.J. Blazkowicz and treat these things in that more binary way. It’s a pretty clean fight. These are bad guys, and we ought to get rid of them and make the world a better place. That’s B.J.’s philosophy and that’s the whole team’s philosophy in the game. Shooting, stabbing, strangling Nazis - that’s what it’s all about.”