Games – The Invisible Voice

With the voice actor tending to be a forgotten yet vital component in modern game development, Rory Crean explores the double standard between gaming and film in the world of voice acting

There is an odd phenomenon that exists in the world of cinema: over-dubbing.

Most non-English speaking countries that play English speaking films have their own celebrities, who are known not for their dashing looks or their not-so-private affairs, but rather, for their voice. Take, for example, Jean-Pierre Michael. If you have ever been in a hotel in France and found yourself watching a film, you have quite likely heard this man’s voice. He has been the French voice actor for stars such as Johnny Depp, Ethan Hawke, Jude Law, Ben Affleck, Timothy Olyphant, Keanu Reeves as well as his number one source of business, Brad Pitt, and he is revered accordingly. Naturally, Michael has his own talents that merit public attention, but despite the media attention his stage and television work has garnered him, it is his film overdubbing that has made him a celebrity. Now, we always like to look for common traits and features across varying media, but Jean-Pierre’s celebrity in the world of cinema has provides a sharp contrast to the gaming industry. Game voice actors are, for the most part, unknown.

There are, of course, exceptions when film and TV stars cross over the threshold. Bethesda has a nasty habit of hiring big names like Patrick Stewart and Liam Neeson for the likes of Oblivion and Fallout 3, only to dispatch them minutes after their introduction. But beyond that, most game voice actors move from contract to contract, studio to studio and genre to genre without ever gaining any real notice. Take, for example, Steven Blum. Most of you won’t have heard of him, but you may have played Bulletstorm. Epic Games and People Can Fly came together to create a tight, fun, first-person shooter experience that ended up costing Epic a chunk of change. But those details were, to the gamer, peripheral.

We wanted to know where we’d heard the protagonist Grayson Hunt before. If you look at Blum’s voiceography you’ll see a huge list, most notably the characters Oghren from Dragon Age and Jack Cayman from MadWorld. Yes, Blum is the man whose trachea has more gravel in it than a mansion’s driveway. He’s the guy you call in when you want to convey utter badass-ery, yet few people outside of the industry could put a name to the voice.

What about John DiMaggio? Why, he’s the voice of that obnoxious, yet lovable alcoholic machine Bender from the Futurama television series. He also happens to be the voice of Marcus Fenix in Epic’s Gears of War trilogy, as well as an excellent turn as Smiling Jack in the classic Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. DiMaggio is certainly a higher profile voice actor, and you may well have heard of him, but is that because of Futurama, or his contribution to the gaming world?

We seem to have a double standard whereby in TV and cinema, we revere directors, creators, writers and movie stars, but in gaming, you may recognise one developer from a studio of hundreds.

We have a tendency to give all the kudos to the studio as a whole or worse, the owning corporation such as EA or Activision, rather than singling out the individuals who made the game great. Is The Artist so successful because of the producing company, the Weinstein Company, or the genius direction and performances showcased in the film itself?

Perhaps it’s partly to do with the relative youth of the industry. There isn’t as rich a background in gaming as there is in film, music, art or television. Perhaps it’s the subtle elitism of theatre, film and art critics that won’t allow gaming’s ambassadors to grace the world stage. However, these are the teething problems of every new medium.

It may also be due to the fact that gaming hasn’t translated all that well into any other media (two words: Resident Evil), but recent developments may change that. A few short years ago, Gore Verbinski (director of Rango and Pirates of the Caribbean) was flirting with the idea of a BioShock movie, which has now stalled in pre-production and looks unlikely to ever make it to the big screen. However, the fervour that the idea of a BioShock film has proven that there is a market for a cinematic adaptation of popular gaming franchises, and the likes of Mass Effect and Uncharted seem like ideal candidates.

Indeed, Uncharted may well be the exception to this “unknown celebrity” phenomenon. Regardless of whether you own a PS3 or not, you have most likely heard of Nathan Drake and his global shenanigans. You may also know the voice of Drake to be Nolan North (who also provided the voice of the cockney Penguin in Arkham Asylum). North has said in interviews that as the Uncharted franchise has developed, the developers have slowly moulded Drake to be more like North, both in his attitude and physical appearance. North, then, would be the ideal choice for the film, but instead Columbia has tried to cast everyone but him. North has, of course, spoken up, making the fair point that he too is an actor and knows Drake’s character inside out.

Hopefully Columbia Pictures will come to their senses and rightfully choose North to portray the man that made Naughty Dog studios relevant again. North could well be the ambassador the industry needs to foray into another medium. The challenge now is to do it right, and prove that gaming celebrities are not just a pretty voice.