Thanks to a very thorough and greatly enjoyable feature posted over on Polygon yesterday, I’ve been inspired to offer my thoughts on the subject of voice actors in the gaming industry. I often comment on the voice work in games because I feel it’s a very important aspect in creating the illusion of complete immersion. And while I am very much in the minority for appreciating and taking an active interest in the folks who provide the voices of some of our most beloved characters, I’m hoping that with the right motivation, others will see the value in remembering who’s really bringing our favorite heroes and villains to (virtual) life.
Greg Cipes. Josh Keaton. Kevin Conroy. Kevin Michael Richardson. Mark Meer. Steve Blum. Tara Strong. Tim Daly. Hopefully at least one or two of these names will mean something to you. These are just a small handful of the good folks who provide the voices for countless heroes, villains, and background sound bites for a number of your favorite games and franchises. That’s to say nothing of the pseudo-celebrities you do know: The Jennifer Hale’s, Phil LaMarr’s and Nolan North’s of the world. Voice actors have never been exceptionally well regarded, that’s just the way it’s always been. In a way it makes sense, we as gamers never get to see their face. Most voice actors aren’t “famous” enough to go on talk shows or have their face plastered all over a game’s marketing campaign. We don’t see their names on the back of the box when browsing at our local retailer, nor do we get an accompanying photo to place their face alongside the character in the game’s credits; which I imagine the majority of gamers don’t even pay attention to or otherwise skip over completely. The end result is that, even for the most memorable of characters such as Cortana (played wonderfully by the talented Jen Taylor), players become emotionally attached to a character but have little or no attachment to the actor portraying him/her. That, in the eyes of publishers and developers, often times makes these actors expendable. And that’s a problem.
It’s sort of a funny disconnect when you think about it. Loyal fans of any series will be quick to cry foul when a character sounds different in a game, without realizing who played the part in the first place. Any Batman fan knows that Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill are the definitive voices of Batman and the Joker, respectively. But can anyone tell me, without looking it up, who played the Bat in the past two Dark Knight Returns animated films? When you hear the character speak, you can tell almost immediately that it’s not the voice you expected, Kevin Conroy, yet for most folks their curiosity goes no further. There’s been a lot of talk lately about how gamers are considering boycotting the next Metal Gear Solid game, MGSV: The Phantom Pain, because Kojima has decided that longtime Snake/Big Boss actor David Hayter won’t be reprising the role. Whether or not that’s a particularly outrageous reason to boycott a game we really know next to nothing about aside, can anyone tell me who voices Hal “Otacon” Emmerich? His name is Christopher Randolph. I’m willing to bet you didn’t know that, yet you probably heard about Hayter’s absence from MGSV and formed your own opinion on the issue.
So, where am I going with this? It might seem like making mountains out of molehills (I can’t believe I actually found a use for that idiom. Wow.) But I promise the ramifications go farther than you may realize. I’ve discussed previously about how games are big blockbuster spectacles these days, and how companies expect every game they release to sell a million copies and bring in hundreds of millions in profit by the time the DLC and GOTY dust settles. It’s a self-destructive cycle that results in companies constantly trying to outdo one another: Spending tens of millions of dollars on development and marketing so that a game looks insanely realistic and is constantly in the spotlight, and then expecting to not only make that money back, but also impress the shareholders by boasting that the company is more profitable than the previous year. The only problem here is that the math doesn’t make sense. To achieve these levels of success, companies would need every gamer to purchase every game that comes out, at full price to boot. Somewhere along the lines, publishers set the bar so unrealistically, unachievably high, that now smaller studios are being shuttered by parent companies to conserve resources; putting all their chips on one balls-to-the-wall AAA extravaganza that may or may not even break even. It sounds absolutely ludicrous, because it is, yet that’s where we’re at.
I realize that last bit didn’t help explain how voice actors fit in to this issue, but bear with me. The reality is, in an effort to make their games more commercially successful and appeal to a wider audience, many studios are now choosing to divert resources into paying known Hollywood actors to portray characters in games. The most well-known case for the coming year is Quantic Dream’s Beyond: Two Souls, which stars Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe. But we’ve been seeing it for years now: Patrick Stewart and Robert Carlyle in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, Sean Bean in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Liam Neeson in Fallout 3. I’m not saying these guys didn’t do a wonderful job, but I am wondering what kind of price (both literal and metaphorical) we pay so that we can afford such “luxuries”. In this regard, veteran voice actor Steve Blum, also known as the Wolverine I hear in my head when I read X-Men comics, told Polygon that, “with very few exceptions, allocating a major portion of a budget to a big name is a magnificently terrible waste of money.”
“A name on a game is something executives use to impress each other, and I find it difficult to believe that those huge dollars can ever be recouped or even justified,” he added. “I recently walked off a game because they expected me to record over 20 vocally stressful characters in one session for scale because they had blown their budget on a few ‘A-listers.’”
So, I’ve already mentioned how companies are overspending in their efforts to make their game the biggest spectacle of the year, and yet here we have a veteran voice actor who is being asked to overtax his voice and work for relatively little money because a studio opted to bring a few Hollywood actors on board in the hopes that it will broaden their game’s appeal. In this particular instance, not only is the developer burning resources paying celebrities to voice characters that could be performed for much cheaper by professional voice actors, but they are additionally alienating and burning bridges with a particularly talented and sought-after master of the craft. This, my friends, is what you call a recipe for disaster. (Just so we’re clear on money, Polygon points out that most voice actors make roughly $200 an hour voicing up to three characters per game. These gigs usually last anywhere from a week to 10 days, so before you start calculating how much that adds up to, remember these guys don’t work full time nor is their employment steady.)
UPDATE: Steve Blum gave me some insight over Twitter in regards to video game voice over sessions. In his own words, limited to 140 characters of course, he said that, “MOST gaming V/O gigs last four hours, period, not days or weeks.” So, when attempting to tally how much money your favorite voice actors are bringing in, remember that video game gigs last a much shorter length than running animated series.
Now, this isn’t just an issue of money, it’s also an issue of talent. Let me ask you another question. How many Hollywood A-listers can you name that are just average-looking? Not beautiful nor handsome, simply plain, ordinary Joes. It’s hard to come up with any, let alone a few. I ask this because once developers start putting voice actors into the spotlight for marketing purposes, all of a sudden their being chosen based on more than their vocal talents alone. They also have to be “marketable” themselves. And, once again, that’s a problem. Now, I’m not saying Nolan North and Steve Blum aren’t handsome fellas, but I am saying that once developers start judging voice actors by more than just their voice, at some point the work will suffer for it. I don’t think Tara Strong would’ve snagged the countless roles of young boys and girls she’s portrayed over the years if studios had planned to use her as part of the marketing campaign. (Fun fact, she played a young Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Returns. Yep… Tara Strong is Batman.)
If there’s one good thing the countless years of relative anonymity has provided for our favorite voice actors over the years, it’s the fact that they’re known only for their voice. Nobody would care if Kevin Conroy delivered his iconic “I am vengeance…” line while in his sweatpants reading the latest issue of Rolling Stone. Fans love him for the quality of his ability, not because he wears *insert designer label because I don’t know fashion* while he’s on the red carpet. While this article is partly about recognizing and championing the hard-working pros that bring our most memorable game characters to life, it’s also about letting the industry know that it’s okay that the general public under-appreciates them. That “general audience” demographic developers think they’re reaching by hiring celebrities to voice characters? It doesn’t exist. Because the general audience that’s buying up Call of Duty isn’t doing it because Sam Worthington is playing the starring role, they’re doing it because they want to play Call of Duty with their friends. The kinds of folks who’d be willing to buy a video game specifically because they recognize the actor voicing a character are the folks like me, the core gamers. Giving Gary Oldman (whom I adore) a part in Black Ops isn’t going to make me start playing shooters, but you damn well better believe I smile and appreciate a game just a bit more every time I hear Steve Blum, Jennifer Hale, or Yuri Lowenthal in the background. If studios want to start marketing voice actors as one of the primary reasons people should play their games, which I don’t necessarily see a problem with, I recommend featuring familiar voices gamers already love; not throwing money at celebrities and thinking a game will sell better because Jimmy Fallon played a demo of it on his show.
Doesn’t this seem like an absurd problem to anyone else? Developers want to spend less money on games. Gamers want the voice actors they’ve grown accustomed to, whether they know these actor’s names or not, who are willing to do this job for less money and no residuals. People who voice act simply because they love it, who are willing to make just enough to live comfortably and not ask for more. Isn’t the obvious answer to just let the voice actors keep their jobs, and not give those jobs away to celebrities that require bigger checks? I know the game industry loves to shoot itself in the foot, but seriously people. This is like having an ice cream stand in the winter and convincing people to buy your frozen treat while standing in the cold by attaching miniature heaters to every cone. It’s borderline insanity, and there’s an easier way to solve this problem.
Alright, I’ve probably talked at you guys enough for one day. I was going to discuss the fairness/unfairness of the fact that voice actors get paid by the hour and whether or not they deserve more money for their performances, but that’s an issue for another editorial. I’m hoping we can spread this topic around, because I think there’s a lot of great discussion to be had concerning what will soon become a legitimately pressing issue come next-gen consoles, with their photo-realistic motion-capture and graphics. I know those of you who actually remember the names or, better yet, have a list of your favorite voice actors are part of the “vocal minority”, but I’m hoping you guys are willing to come out of the woodwork and share your thoughts. This issue obviously means a lot to me, but it would be reassuring to see that there are other people in the world that care about it as well. I know I’m not the only one who can pick Jennifer Hale and Steve Blum’s voices out in a crowd, or alone in my delight when I see their names show up in the credits of games I enjoy.
So, who is your favorite voice actor? What role of theirs is most significant to you? And would you ever consider purchasing, or subsequently, refusing to purchase a game simply based on the voice cast alone? Let your voice be heard in the comments.
TL;DR is a whenever-the-mood-strikes, often weekly, soapbox where the industry’s latest issues are discussed at length. Commentary, and a bit of lighthearted humor, are often provided.