Hollywood actors are taking over video games, but are they any good?
Kevin Spacey is the latest in a string of well respected thesps to lend his vocal chords to the development of a potentially blockbusting video game, the upcoming Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. But, much like Nicholas Cage films, video games can be hit-and-miss in their quality, especially when it comes to acting performances (much like Nicholas Cage).
Time and again in interviews, actors of stage and screen spout on about the pain inflicted upon them soon after they were stupid enough to accept a role in a video game. It’s easy to watch those self-obsessed folk ranting about how unreasonably tough their job is and think ‘how can you possibly complain?’ But it almost makes sense when we think about some of the truly awful voice acting we’ve heard in kids’ games, TV and film adaptations, and highly numbered sequels. Because if it wasn’t such a hard job, they’d surely be more consistent at it. How could a film with characters as loveable as Shrek‘s, for example, be the inspiration for a game with such a powerful lack of in-game chemistry that it makes the player want to travel back in time and sabotage John Logie Baird?
A big problem is: the more ‘box office’ the actor you hire, the more disappointing it’ll be if they’re not too great. So is it worth putting all this money and effort into recruiting voice talent for AAA titles? Here are some video game voice performances we hold dear and a few we can’t stand, to help us decide…
We loved Ellen McLain in Portal
Can an obsessively homicidal, malfunctioning supercomputer that looks like a Logitech webcam be sexy? Why yes, she can. Because the opera singer who provided GLaDOS’ silky tones has one of those voices that was designed to be heard. As per usual, Valve created a blank canvas protagonist who was ultimately defined by the genius of their equal opposite. And this time round, fear was the stimulus that made the entire game so exciting. Ellen struck a terrifying balance, in which she sustained a HAL-9000 level of emotionlessness 98% of the time, then hinted at the human inside her (no spoiler intended) towards the end of the odd, beautifully written line. And even after the robotic 98% attempted to stab us, burn us, and kill us in a hundred different ways, we still had room left in our heart for the human 2%. “I’m making a note here: huge success.”
We hated Liam Neeson in Fallout 3
Liam has a frustrating way of turning potential into disappointment. He can be a top notch actor, there’s little doubt about that, but, like his friend Ricky Gervais, he seems all too nonchalant and it fools us into thinking he doesn’t care. When it comes to video games at least, he clearly doesn’t. In the voice of his character James, we can hear a man who has been in a recording studio for 8 hours and is sick of being told to give it the beans. He’s sufficiently raspy and dejected, but it’s not a suitably post-apocalyptic rasp. It’s closer to the rasp of a man who hates the actors he’s sitting next to and feels sorry for the lonely young people who’d be daft enough to spend 80 hours of their time staring at a screen with an avatar of him on it.
We loved Courtnee Draper in Bioshock Infinite
A young woman guarded day and night by a giant robotic bird, Draper’s character Elizabeth intentionally makes an understated entrance to Infinite. She was designed, unlike most strong female leads/companions, not to seem complex at first appearance. The game doesn’t tell us whether she is a damsel-in-distress. Instead, it asks us subtly, “What do you think about her?” And the player is invariably convinced by her intonation and cadence that, underneath her reluctance to hear about her past, there is a vicious fightback poised to loose itself. She both loves and hates Comstock, and immediately feels the same towards Booker. And the back-seat driving that Draper allows Elizabeth to enforce is the frame for the entire plot. Without the daughter-like, standoffish technique she employs to let these two key relationships run in parallel, this game would’ve fallen far short of the stunning heights it successfully reached.
We hated Kiefer Sutherland in Call of Duty: World at War
It would be difficult to put the blame for this entirely on Kiefer, as this decision could be coloured by the intrinsic boredom we feel when we cross the most used setting in video game history with one of the most unchanging franchises in the business. That said, it is mostly his fault. Like Neeson, he’s bored and doesn’t understand the culture he’s working for. But the fact that it’s Jack Bauer is what’s depressing about this character. We’re so used to hearing that gristle rattle around in his throat while he’s being the hardest man in existence that, when he rescues us from the Japanese POW torturers, we feel like we’ve played the game before. He only has one vocal expression when he plays a macho man: vengeful. We’re as sick of Kiefer’s vengeance as we are of Colin Firth’s innate upper class charm, or Jeremy Clarkson’s insistence that he just ‘gets’ casual racism in a way that we’re not clever enough to.
We loved Camilla Luddington in Tomb Raider (2013)
With this game, Crystal Dynamics hit a landmark in character development. It seems there are far too many prequels out there these days just being forged to capitalise on the success of their father titles. While this is no doubt still the case with Lara Croft’s franchise, they did their best to at least make it feel like it wasn’t. They did it by completely changing the formula they’d been using for these games for nearly two decades. It was no longer about the strong female protagonist we’ve not yet become bored of, but about the ambitious spoilt girl she transformed from. The youthful, breathy meekness Luddington naturally lets flow out of a younger Lara allows us to fear for her safety as she is shipwrecked and attacked by apparent cannibals. And slowly, pointedly, she grows in confidence to the point in the game where she talks herself through each step like an investment banker straightening his tie in the morning – “You’ve got this. Show them what you’re made of.”
We hated 50 Cent in Bulletproof
Leave it to Fiddy to base a video game on Fiddy. He does it with everything; the 50 Cent brand can be found slapped on the front of not only terrible video games, but ugly films, vulgar aftershave and a plethora of tasteless songs. In fact, it’s the same in-game too. Most of the action sequences are overpowered by generic rap in an attempt to cover up the poor technical aspects of the gameplay, in much the same way that Homer Simpson turns on the car radio hoping to cover up the smell of his own farts. But when there’s a break from the hipping and/or hopping, you can’t really hear him at all. He’s quiet and rather mumbles when he talks. And when you do hear him, he just says “Stay dead, bitch” or “I’ma fuck you up.” Not for us, thank you.
We loved Patrick Stewart in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
P-Stew is the pride of Yorkshire because he effortlessly blends the sophisticated charm of the classic RADA-trained Shakespearean with the restless prolificacy of an ITV1 fame-whore. For our money, TES IV: Oblivion starts as well as any game could because of the comforting boom that echoes round the prison cell when Patrick first speaks to us. It’s a fleeting visit, and a bold call on the developers’ behalf, as he meets his demise come the end of the tutorial. But we never forget the immediate realisation of our own importance when we catch his eye as ‘Emperor’ Patrick escapes the dungeons and ominously informs us, “You. You are the one from my dreams.” Cue intrigue, a warm fuzzy feeling, and the rise and fall of a kingdom. We miss you already.
We hated Patrick Stewart in FIFA 14
We put this one down to casting. This is where that oft-appreciated prolificacy falls into a deep hole. A dramatic monologue by Jean-Luc Picard and a casual football game just feel wrong when jammed together like they were. An embarrassing three-second clip of Jeff Stelling stumbling over his own script – now that fits the scene snugly. Not to mention that, in sanctioning this epic speech, EA set themselves up for a fall. After he faux-passionately croons, “New battles will be fought. In the name of honour, in the name of glory, in the name of football,” how could a kick about be enough to please us? Because that’s all we get: a slightly more expensive version of FIFA 13. We’d need a truly special game to justify this interjection from the Captain.
Image: Bethesda Softworks