When Games Speak to Us
There are few things that can bring a game home for me the way the in-game characters do.
I can look past sub-par graphics, mechanics, and even music - so long as the characters are well-developed. Their motivations, their strengths and weaknesses, their emotion; it’s this kind of development that leave a mark on me more than anything else. But if you strip them down to the bare minimum of what conveys these things, what is left? The answer should be obvious: their voice. Beyond skill progression, armor and weapons, movement, and almost every other game mechanic, the voice acting that any single game features is what stands out the most for me. It’s a make-or-break kind of deal.
My first realization of this was in Metal Gear Twin Snakes on the Gamecube. Essentially just a remake of Metal Gear Solid, the game featured a revised translation from the original Japanese, and was entirely re-recorded with the original English-speaking cast of the series. The incredibly talented David Hayter led the pack as the voice of Solid Snake, and brought to life a seasoned tactical soldier in the most impactful way. The way he used inflection and grizzly exclamations brought character immersion to a new high for me, and fueled my desire to uncover the twists and turns that awaited. Hayter was joined by an ensemble cast of voice actors that brought the game to critical success (though it didn’t sell as much as some other MGS releases), and made the game a deeply emotional experience. Among these voices were Cam Clarke as Liquid Snake, Doug Stone as Psycho Mantis, and Jennifer Hale as Naomi Hunter (look them all up, it’s worth the research).
What hit me so hard as a 13 year old gamer was that these voices elicited legitimate feelings from me - the fear of Psycho Mantis reading my Gamecube memory card, the pure feeling of betrayal towards Liquid Snake, and the ( pretty creepy) tension between Snake and Meryl. These levels of fear, betrayal, and tension were totally new to me as a kid - and the voice acting in Twin Snakes made me feel them deeply and vibrantly. I’ll also go on record as saying the decision to cast Keifer Sutherland as Big Boss in The Phantom Pain was a brilliant one. I will always love Hayter, but Sutherland’s voice was almost too perfect. Email me if you want to fight me on it.
In more recent memory, the voice acting in Ubisoft’s Far Cry 3 will always have a place in my heart. Michael Mando’s performance as the sadistic antagonist Vaas Montenegro was absolutely chilling. From the very opening scene, to his madman monologue on the definition of insanity - Mando breathes terror into every syllable. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the role of Vaas was created by Ubisoft after experiencing Mando’s audition for a completely different character. That is how powerful his talent is. That is how much of an impact voice acting can have on a game’s development - and ultimately its success. Needless to say, Far Cry 3 went on to great success, being nominated for seven D.I.C.E. Interactive Achievement Awards in 2013 - including “Outstanding Character Performance” for Vaas Montenegro. Damn.
Even more recently, Ashly Burch has risen to the top of the pile as what I would say is one of the most talented voice actors of the last 10 years. Her genuine and heartfelt performance in Dontnod Entertainment’s Life Is Strange brought relatability, emotion, and complexity to the forefront in a wonderful story. Simply put: Ashly made Chloe real. Story aside, I felt like I knew someone exactly like the character she voiced. The clear passion and attachment Ashly had to her role motivated me as a gamer to invest my own emotion into the experience - something that is rare in games - just not for Ashly Burch...In Horizon Zero Dawn, Burch breathes the same kind of life into Aloy. Watching her grow progressively confident in not only her skills, but in her will and heart was a beautiful experience - due in (very) large part to how Ashly Burch conveyed lines. Every hesitancy, every moral, physical, and emotional challenge Aloy faced took me along for the ride. Though I haven’t finished Horizon, I know it’s a worthwhile endeavour if only for Burch’s performance.
It would be a mistake to not mention the 2016-17 Video Game Voice Actors’ Strike. More formally known as the SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) Strike, this was a move by the Union (SAG-AFTRA) against 11 game developers and publishers for not agreeing to what it called a “modern contract based on actor safety, industry precedent and best practices.” This strike against industry giants like EA, Activision, and Take-2 Interactive Software is seemingly coming to an end, after a tentative agreement was agreed upon between the Union and the developers and publishers involved - but not without some damage. Though none of the companies involved reported delays or setbacks because of the strike, several actors had to abandon recurring roles or future projects - including Ashly Burch. She was sadly unable to return as Chloe in the prequel to Life Is Strange named Before the Storm.
The horizon for voice acting in video games is expanding faster than ever. The industry is demanding more from the teams and individuals that build these wonderful games - including those that bring characters to life with their voice. With more television and movie actors finding roles in the gaming industry, I can only expect the blending of talents and passion will enhance our already vibrant gaming experiences. From GlaDOS’s sadistic sarcasm in Portal to the dark cackle from essentially every NPC in the Dark Souls - talented voice actors and actresses create a powerful conduit through which games are shaped for every player. They lift me into happiness, overpower me with anger, and drag me back into every boss fight - willfully investing my emotion every single time. They take me for a ride whenever I sit down to play a game, and I will never stop enjoying that ride.