During Sony’s inaugural Playstation Experience press conference a few weeks ago, we were treated to a stunning demo of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. The lengthy showcase gorgeously flouted all the seditious mass-murder you would expect from Naughty Dog’s flagship franchise. The demo’s closing seconds, however, offered an unexpected revelation: Nathan Drake has an older brother. Prolific voice actor, Troy Baker, promptly revealed via Twitter that he was indeed the haughty voice behind the mysterious Brother Drake.
I have to admit, when I first got wind of this I was just about as excited as everyone else. But then I thought about it a little more. If you’ve dabbled in any popular video game this year, chances are you’ve played audience to Baker’s talents. The man is a machine. He treats VO gigs like Pokémon. The man has skill, that’s undeniable: his performances ooze with nuance and believability. But does this mean that he – along with a handful of other popular actors – needs to inhabit every new role?
"Good to see you're alive, little brother." Yes, that was me. Damn proud.
— Troy Baker (@TroyBakerVA) December 6, 2014
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not attacking Baker. We get work where we can. If you’re good enough (which he certainly is), then you definitely deserve attention. But where’s the polarity? When it comes to voice casting, the games industry suffers from tunnel vision like no other. The same seasoned faces pop up over and over again. Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, Far Cry 4, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Infamous: Second Son are just a few of this year’s biggest releases that Mr Baker headlined.
So why does near every big studio gravitate toward the same established names every year? The answer, unsurprisingly, is money. A few months ago, I wrote a piece chronicling the humble video game actor’s rise to industry prominence. I argued that performance has become an integral part of the medium. An important consequence of this is that video game ‘superstars’ are becoming increasingly analogous to the likes of Hollywood poster boys like Tom Cruise and Jim Carrey. Fans flap wildly at their presence like North Koreans who just found out that Kim Jong-il will be the final Smash fighter. The marketing head honchos pulling development team strings are not oblivious to this. Gamers buy Nolan North; so they give them more Nolan North. It’s basic marketing principle. As a result, it’s now hard to get away from these ‘superstars’ in any interactive space.
So, where does Uncharted’s Brother Drake fit into all of this? A Thief’s End is the most recent example of this tunnel vision casting. The franchise has suffered some serious blows these past few months. Several long-time franchise architects have jumped ship – not least among which included founding creative director Amy Hennig. Todd Stashwick, the actor originally set to portray Brother Drake (whose voice featured on the Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End E3 Teaser Trailer), soon followed suit. As if that wasn’t enough, game director Justin Richmond then left in late March. All the signs point toward trouble afoot. Pessimistic soothsayers have been all too keen to loudly proclaim these signs as indicative of an impending shipwreck.
No doubt Naughty Dog have been acutely aware of mounting trepidation among observant fans. Most definitely, the pressure has been on for the studio’s marketing team to reignite the fledgling embers of excitement propelling the popular title towards release day. How do you drown out the distressing loss of a handful of relatively unknown names? Why, you put the biggest one you can find in their place. So here we find Troy Baker slapped into Naughty Dog’s newly acquired vacancy. Read: the marketing equivalent of headbutting the emergency-hype button. Here we have flagrant target marketing highlighted in less than subtle fashion.
I know what you’re thinking: ‘So, what’s the problem? Sticking to a proven actor will ensure quality.’ And the problem is that this isn’t true. Peter Dinklage’s drab Destiny performance is evidence enough. The award winning actor sounded like he had been lobotomized under developer Bungie’s wooden scripting. An actor can only be as good as the material they’ve been handed. A famous voice can’t redeem a crappy game; High Moon studios learnt that the hard way with Deadpool. A good story demands creative writers, who can keep you guessing at every turn. Yet Naughty Dog’s last ditch attempt to engineer hype in the form of Troy Baker strikes me as inimical to that exact creative spark.
Back in 2007, the names Nolan North, Emily Rose and Richard McGonagle would have rung no bells. They were essentially unknowns. Hennig and her original team gave these actors a shot for no other reason than that they fit her ambitious vision. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune sits proudly to this day among my favourite games of all time because Henning and her cohorts’ creative vision raised it above the PS3’s early drudge of generic, creatively bankrupt titles. The very marketable arrival of Troy Baker bears no hallmarks of this creative determinism.
Sure, I am ignoring perhaps the most obvious possibility: Troy Baker was the best option. No doubt he has the skill to give Brother Drake his dues. But it all comes across to me as just a little too perfect. The biggest name in all of video game performance just happens to be the exact guy Naughty Dog wanted to breathe life into their newest creation? The guy who also happened to be the perfect pick to portray Joel in Naughty Dog’s other phenomenally popular franchise, The Last of Us? That’s just a little too much serendipity for me to swallow. Baker was most definitely not Hennig’s first choice. Everything about Uncharted 4’s latest development feels like slapdash marketing.
Yes, I’m even ignoring the elephant in the room. Uncharted 4’s PSX demo was mind-blowing, I said so myself. But the problem is just that; it was a demo, a vertical slice polished to death for public presentation. We’ve seen it with Watch Dogs; we’ve seen it with Alien: Colonial Marines; we’ve seen it with Drive Club: stage demos are not always representative of the final product. Regardless, I’m not saying that Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End will be a disaster; I’m not even suggesting its gameplay might be anything less than thrilling. What I am saying is that what little information is escaping from Naughty Dog’s camp is all pointing toward an absence of creative integrity.
The Uncharted games always struck chords with me because of their tight plotting, excellent characters and who-knows-what-the-hell-is-going-to-happen-next gameplay. That’s why recent developments are ringing alarm bells in my head. I want to see Uncharted bigger and better than ever before. But I can’t help but worry that, without the same determinative direction that the series has always known, the story is at serious risk of falling flat on its handsome face.
Do you think Naughty Dog’s reformed team can handle the creative magnitude of an Uncharted title? Think I have no idea what I’m talking about? Well I really hope I’m wrong too, so direct all your frustration towards this article in the comments box below!