A new trend has been proliferating throughout the video game industry these past several years. In some ways it feels bizarre; in many ways, it feels long overdue. Names like Nolan North and Troy Baker are beginning to feel unavoidable in gaming news sites. Convention panels featuring the casts of games like Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us are consistently packing out halls. Names like Dave Fennoy and Ashley Johnson are beginning to be famed alongside those of Hideo Kojima, Keiji Inafune and Amy Hennig. Gaming’s time has come to experience what film and TV felt take hold years ago: the dawn of the superstar.
Argue all you like about who first laid the tracks. Whether it was the dulcet tones of Akio Ōtsuka and his Western counterpart, David Hayter, or the shrill delights of Charles Martinet; it doesn’t matter. For all the love Solid Snake and Mario sketched onto our childhood hearts they were merely proto-stars. Their respective portfolios pale in comparison to the megalith of game voice acting that is Nolan North.
North has had his tongue in every virtual honey pot imaginable. The Call of Duty, Skylanders and Assassins Creed games all feature his name proudly stamped in their end credits sequences. Today, the mere mention of Mr North’s name is enough to set fans raring. Accordingly, when High Moon Studios announced their latest game, Deadpool, they wasted no time in attaching the actor’s name to the property. While bereft of actual gameplay, the announcement trailer contained a lengthy monologue from the star. The overwhelming fan response didn’t care. The fact alone that a man of such calibre would invest his time in to the project was enough to assure it would be great. As it turned out, this wasn’t quite so. Yet, the fact still stands, buyers flocked to the mediocre title. The name Nolan North, like Christian Bale or John Wayne, has come to be a hallmark of quality.
North first engrained his name in the gaming space in 2007. Donning the titular role in Naughty Dog’s Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, he set new standards for game performance. North’s tempered portrayal of the cock-sure fortune hunter, Nathan Drake, held its own against Hollywood’s very best. With the assistance of Emily Rose (as the tough Elena Fisher) and Richard McGonagle (as the affable Victor ‘Sully’ Sullivan), North proved that videogame actors were the real deal.
Compelling voice acting wasn’t enough for Naughty Dog, though. The team was tired of poor lip-synching, bug eyes and characters doing robot impressions – they wanted Nate to look as good as he sounded, and the developer insisted on fully embracing costly motion capture technology. This was questionable turf in 2007. Motion capture was almost exclusively Hollywood’s domain. The craft had successfully brought King Kong and Gollum to life, but critics questioned whether a mere videogame cast could warrant such expense.
Proving them all wrong was child’s play. Naughty Dog had found in those funny little blue ball suits the key to video game narrative evolution. Characters were no longer talking heads. The ensemble’s jobs flourished from simply to talking to actually performing. North, Rose and McGonagle had the chance to truly inhabit their roles. Physical comparisons alone make clear how much influence the actors have had in creating these beloved characters. Naughty Dog’s fastidiousness extended unparalleled levels of creativity to their talented cast. Instead of having to paint by numbers they could make the role their own. The result: North is Nathan Drake. It’s hard to see a there being another Uncharted without him. As we found Ken Levine at the epicentre of his baby, the Bioshock series, we now find another series built around one actor, Nolan North.
Naughty Dog’s performance-centric approach got undeniable results. With the trail set other developers soon enthusiastically followed. The games industry has bore witness to an increasing emphasis on actors ever since. Take Team Bondi’s LA Noire, for example, a game which attempted to utilize motion capture for purposes beyond narrative aesthetic and translate it into actual gameplay mechanics. Headed by American TV actor Aaron Stanton, the game prided itself on highly detailed facial motion capture. As a New York detective players were tasked with picking out liars through visual cues alone – the game lived or died by the prowess of its actors.
Earlier this year, Naughty Dog even usurped gameplay completely. Enamoured fans packed the Santa Monica Broad Stage to see The Last of Us: One Night Live. The concept that gamers were taking the time out of their day en masse to observe people perform cutscenes would have been ridiculous to most some seven years ago. Today it makes perfect sense. Ashley Johnson, Troy Baker and Annie Wersching are all among the dozens of fast emerging actors and actresses who can’t be ignored. Through talent and ruthless dedication to the medium they have all clawed their way to the top – to the point where they are valued as actors (and good ones, at that) over conduits for button mashing.
Those not in the gaming loop aren’t oblivious to this fact, either. Game acting gigs are receiving increasing attention from movie superstars. A decade ago a celebrity cameo consisted of slapping their name and likeness on the license or a handful of half-assed lines of dialogue. Today, Ellen Page, Kevin Spacey, Peter Dinklage and Mark Hamill have all tested the virtual waters. Video game acting is no longer a lifeline for down-on-their-luck actors. Huge mainstream celebrities, growing fan bases and powerful new technologies are all facilitating the accumulation of prestige surrounding video game acting.
Okay, so actors aren’t just afterthoughts in games anymore, but, what does this mean? The answer is good things. The sudden ubiquity of striking performances begs for video game acting as a whole to be held to a higher standard. This inevitably drives competition. Increasingly, awards are being created to recognise the very best of the best. Developers now have a reason to utilize these new stars; and the incentive to craft a strong narrative to back them all up.
Games are a new home for serious actors. This means that games themselves can now be taken more seriously. The excuse ‘it’s a game – it doesn’t matter’ is no longer okay to simply forgive games which flippantly promote misogyny and homophobia. Titles like Lollipop Chainsaw and Blue Estate are rightfully being placed under more scrutiny and ridicule for the backwards thoughts they promote.
Even story-centric games are no longer being viewed with derision from the average gamer. Titles like Gone Home and The Walking Dead have been praised on their abilities to deliver powerful stories alone. Developers now have more freedom than ever before to create an interactive experience that speaks to them. This provides a nice balance amid the suffocating grip of bro-shooter mania.
Serious actors lend room for serious stories. More than ever before, games are helping real people with real struggles. Spec Ops: The Line gained admiration in 2012 for its refreshingly sombre reflections on war. Not to be creatively stifled by the game’s generic aesthetic, creators Yager Development took a tired formula and transcended it into a bold mechanism for raising PTSD awareness. The Last of Us’ recent Left Behind DLC won huge favour among the gay community for its delicately empathetic portrayal of adolescents coming to terms with their sexuality.
New stars are emerging from the ether all the time. Standards are only getting higher. Those in the habit of skipping cutscenes might be wise to give game narratives a second chance. With analogies to Hollywood celebrity-fan culture becoming steadily more palpable it’s tempting to speculate where we might end up in 20 years’ time. Will we start to see Nolan North’s sharp jaw line popping up all over mainstream talk shows? Will game and film/TV actors be one and the same? Will all too impressionable youths start lamenting that their vocal range isn’t as good as Nolan North’s? Probably not – but we have to invent some imaginings to pass the time until Uncharted 4 comes out.
Regardless, the point is that actors have taken hold on the games industry. They have wrought a profoundly positive influence on games for many years now, and will continue to for many years to come.