Every game with a cast of characters faces the same challenge: making that cast, especially the protagonist, interesting enough to keep the player invested in them and the story as a whole. Different games handle it in their own way, be it in the Legend of Zelda style of creating a silent, blank slate hero for the player to project on to and building a supporting cast around them, or the Mass Effect style of giving the main character multiple possible personalities and letting player choice dictate which one will be presented; Some games, though, choose a route that is easier said than done, but satisfying when done correctly — just writing a good, interesting main character. Naughty Dog managed to set a trend in gaming for both a look and personality type back in 2007 with the release of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune and plucky series protagonist Nathan Drake, and while it remains to be seen if it catches fire in the industry, Machine Games captured a similar magic with their take on B.J. Blazkowicz, hero of the Wolfenstein series in the 2014 entry The New Order and 2015’s prequel, The Old Blood.
In the classic Wolfenstein games, B.J. is the definition of a nothing character. Prior to Return to Castle Wolfenstein, his characterization is limited to the fact that you know what he looks like. However, in the new games in the series, Captain Blazkowicz’ personality is presented in the very first mission, in which he tells a painting of General Wilhelm Strasse that he “wastes his paint”. Contrary to other protagonists in modern action games, B.J. isn’t constantly cracking wise to his enemies, a la Nathan Drake, the bulk of his trash talk is to and for himself, which is worth noting to understand him. The fact of the matter as it pertains to B.J. Blazkowicz is that he is damaged goods. Not in the over the top, in your face way that the film Suicide Squad presents The Joker, what with the literal tattoo of the word “damaged” on his face and all, but in a real, human kind of way.
Blazkowicz is for all intents and purposes, worst timeline Captain America. He spends over a decade in a catatonic state in an asylum, watching Nazis come in and out, taking patients and doing as they will with them, mind you, after watching countless friends and comrades die, such as Wesley, the origin of his “Inhale, Exhale” mantra. He either has nightmares or dreams of a quiet, peaceful future with a family that he doesn’t believe is for him every time he sleeps. He has a borderline obsession with killing Nazis and getting up close and personal to do so, and if the enemy in question wasn’t literally the Nazis, he would start to feel like a villain just on that basis. All of these elements mix wonderfully to create a unique experience and a character that players want to keep playing because of how different he is from other characters in the genre.
First person action games in general don’t exactly have loads of interesting or memorable protagonists, and that’s part of B.J.’s appeal — he’s not just “gruff brown haired shooter man”. There’s an actual character there that’s worth investing your time into and a deliberate purpose to him looking the way that he does. Compare him to Alex Mason of Call of Duty: Black Ops fame: both are soldiers in an alternate version of a war long over, part of covert units out to win the war for the American side, but ultimately the difference is that one of them is interesting from second one of the game, and the most interesting thing about the other is a plot twist that makes the most interesting character in the story mean nothing. B.J. stands out because he is the only hero in recent memory like him in a genre populated by either Nathan Drake clones or a soldier who might as well not speak because he has nothing interesting to say.
The reason that so many games post Uncharted had characters that looked and spoke like Nathan Drake was and still is because he is a good character. As much as I’m not exactly clamoring to see a slew of B.J. Blazkowicz clones this generation, a similar treatment for the OSA Agent would be a testament to how well he was crafted by Machine Games and how truly important it is to make a character interesting in your game’s success. Regardless of genre, be it shooter, RPG, or what have you — people want to invest in the content they paid for, and want a hero worth rooting for.