The threats facing voice actors in video games


The threats facing voice actors in video games
It's about more than just a distinctive voice.
Voice acting used to be exactly what the name implies; actors would book a job, spend a long session recording lines and clips (often with no idea what they were connected to), and then went on their merry way to another gig. However, a new precedent has been set, which is only being realised now after several high profile casualties. Voice actors now have to do more than simply voice a part; they must act the part too.

In a growing trend, Hollywood actors have been snagging roles that were traditionally reserved for voice actors. Some have taken on central roles such as Patrick Stewart (The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow), Kristen Bell (Assassin’s Creed), Eliza Dushku (Wet) and Gary Oldman (Call of Duty: Black Ops). Others such as Emma Stone (Sleeping Dogs) and J.K. Simmons (Portal 2) have been consigned to bit-parts…although Simmons stands out as more than just a bit-part despite never appearing on-screen and only chiming in every so often at certain parts of the game thanks to killer lines and delivery.

Traditional voice actors have naturally been put out by this occurrence, especially as Hollywood talent typically gets paid more for their appearances. However, big names draw attention and Nathan Fillion said it beautifully when he told Jen Taylor (Halo), “If you don't do one of these games, fans are going to be upset, but they're still going to buy the game.”

We will soon see if this rings true as three titles are on the horizon that have dropped their long-standing voice actors who are synonymous with their roles. David Hayter, known for his work as Solid Snake and Big Boss, was not asked back for the next instalment of Metal Gear Solid despite having fifteen years of experience in the role. No reason has been given for Hayter’s omission, which hasn’t gone down too well with fans. Of course, time will tell if it actually has an impact on sales.

Hayter isn’t the only person of great experience to find himself dropped from a role recently. Stephen Russell (Thief) voiced lead character Garrett in previous Thief titles and even recorded preliminary voiceover work for the upcoming game. However, he was overlooked for the role in the end. Likewise, Michael Ironside, the voice of Sam Fisher for the last ten years, will not return to the role for Splinter Cell: Blacklist. In both instances, the reason given was that the voice actors for these roles needed to be able to do performance capture and actually carry out stunts. These are the most recent, and highest profile, cases but they are not the first. Infamous’ Cole MacGrath underwent a vocal cord change between the original’s release in 2009 (Jason Cottle) and its follow up in 2011 (Eric Ladin). This switch-up was also courtesy of the demands of the motion capture side of the role.

New technologies, such as the ability to capture a full performance, are as great a threat as Hollywood superstars to the traditional voice actor role. Motion capture and performance capture work requires a performance to be acted out, not only through words and tone, but through facial expressions, subtleties and, of course, stuntwork. These factors may make Hollywood talent even more enticing to video game developers as these technologies become more frequently utilised.

L.A. Noire served to prove that a star-studded cast, combined with high-end capture technology, could capture the attention and interest of gamers and non-gamers alike. Coverage from media outlets also served to prove that the casting choices were shrewd. Of course, you need more than simply acting talent to make an enjoyable game, but that’s another issue for another day.

A number of high-profile actors will bring life to video game roles again this year. Ellen Page takes centre stage in Beyond: Two Souls, with her likeness even used for the younger versions based on photos of the actress. William Dafoe features alongside Page and performance capture technology allowed them to interact together during filming at Quantic Dream’s unique facility. Meanwhile, Patrick Stewart and Robert Carlyle will reprise their roles for the upcoming Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2.

Gamers may know the voices behind some of their favourite characters, but often struggle to put a face (or even an actual name) to said voice. Of course, it's not just a phenomenon within the gaming industry; few can name the actor who voiced Ariel in 1989's The Little Mermaid (Jodi Benson), but everyone could tell you who voiced Aladdin’s genie sidekick in the 1992 Disney classic (it was Robin Williams in case you’re drawing a blank). With motion capture and facial technology becoming more powerful and commonplace we may become more familiar with the faces and names of the stars of video games…but that may also be because they are familiar faces from the big or silver screens.

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