Why Voice Actors Matter

If Ubisoft wanted me to pay loads of money for Splinter Cell: Blacklist DLC, then they would offer an audio track of Michael Ironside doing all the Sam Fisher dialogue. Charge me $20. I’d pay it. Seriously.

Back when the first Splinter Cell game came out, I never thought I’d ever care about what Sam Fisher sounded like. He was just another gruff dude that I was steering through a video game. But, after five or six titles in the stealth action franchise, it turns out I do care a lot. No offence to new Sam Fisher actor Eric Johnson, but I winced the first time I heard his version of the Fifth Freedom sneak-hero.

I’d argue that the voice of a playable character communicates more about their personalities than their character design or in-game abilities do. Voice acting’s second only to maybe animation in terms of its importance for making audiences love or loathe a character. In the last few months, we’ve seen three prominent video game franchises commit to changes in the actors who voice their lead characters. Splinter Cell Blacklist has Johnson taking over for original Sam Fisher Michael Ironside. Batman: Arkham Origins will have Roger Craig Smith as the Dark Knight and not the long-established Kevin Conroy. And, after weeks of teases and speculation, it’s been confirmed that David Hayter won’t be reprising the role of Snake in Metal Gear Solid V. That job goes to Kiefer Sutherland now. (Though there still might be some sort of Hideo Kojima misdirection going on in this case, since more details about the game have yet to be revealed.) With all this flux, it’s worth thinking about the role that voicework plays in game creation.


"Once upon a time, it didn't matter who did voices for video games. It was a last-minute task given, it seemed, to anyone who could read."


With most Nintendo first-party characters, the company’s made a choice to keep them relatively mute. Really, it’s the player’s control that serves at the character’s ‘voice’. Think about how different Samus Aran came across in Metroid: Other M. Sure, the story and dialogue rubbed some people thewrong way. But the very fact that words were coming out of Samus’ mouth at all made her seem changed. She was no longer the grimly resolved engine of destruction from previous games. She seemed, at once, more knowable and less focused.

Think about how weird it’d be if Gordon Freeman started yapping in the next Half-Life game. All of a sudden, he’d have to start explaining things and expressing his feelings and all that. An element of mystery would get removed from the crowbar-wielding scientist. A very important ingredient of a winning recipe would be changed and maybe not for the better.

When it is in a game, voicework is a primary vector for telling players about the world that’s been built and how they’re supposed to feel about the scenarios happening inside of it. When Nolan North quips during a gunfight, that’s an indirect communication about the level of danger the player and Nathan Drake are facing. Hearing Jennifer Hale’s voice come close to cracking lets you know how high the stakes are in a Mass Effect game.


"... putting new performers in these roles amounts to severing a long-term relationship."


Once upon a time, it used to not matter who did voices for video games. It was a last-minute task given, it seemed, to anyone who could read. But, nowadays, it’s an opportunity to define a crucial component of understanding primary and secondary characters. Getting a big Hollywood persona attached to a project doesn’t always help achieve that end, since the facial expression skills screen actors hone aren’t always of use in a video game.

And, yes, you can explain away these voice actor changes in any number of ways. A new person in the recording booth could be meant to drive home a change about the direction of the series. Sometimes, full performance capture like in Blacklist -- as opposed to something that was previously only a vocal portrayal -- requires someone new to play the part. Or maybe the main character needs to come across as younger or significantly changed. And who knows if it’s contract negotiations that might influence personnel changes? Some people might simply too expensive to keep on after a while.

Nevertheless, putting new performers in these roles amounts to severing a long-term relationship. Ironside voiced Fisher in five games over most of the last decade. Kevin Conroy has played Batman in one medium or another for just about 20 years. And Hayter’s first turn as Snake was in 1998. The new guys may be good -- great, even -- but their very presence will make the experience of playing Batman, Sam Fisher and Snake entirely different. And if these new performers don’t live up to their forebears, there’s always the mute button. Or really, really expensive vocal track DLC. It could be a whole new revenue steam, after all. Think about it, won’t you, Ubisoft?


Comments

    While Kevin Conroy is the most iconic Batman voice, he's also not the first to voice Batman. Olan Soule did in Superfriend in 1973, Adam West did in The New Adventure of Batman in 1977, There has been no fewer than 25 people who have voiced Batman, (Batman beyond does not count, he's not Bruce Wayne). So I don't really know that Batman actually counts in this case or not? Granted he's a very iconic character but he's a bit like James Bond, he's been changing over a very long time and we're kind of used to him changing.

      Conroy has been the "main" Batman Voice Actor since Animated, so people are used to him. Also, Beyond counts since Bruce Wayne was in it, again voiced by Conroy.

      I think we have become a people whom do not like change in things we grew up with or "love", hence the reason we get so upset over small things like voice actor changes.

      Last edited 08/06/13 3:20 pm

        Conroy voiced Wayne in Beyond but not Batman himself is what I was getting at. We usually piss and moan about it but five minutes later once introduced to the new one, we grow attached to it and if decent celebrate it. Heath Ledger as the Joker for instanced was SLEDGED at first. People HATED the idea of him as The Joker before any footage or dialogue emerged, just images out of context, people suspected he was a 'skater joker' or an 'emo joker'. Then at Comiccon the first sound of his voice and people were *sold* on the spot.

          In terms of movies, Ledger became the "best" Joker only because he used all live action Jokers before him as inspiration. That's what made it so good. But when it comes to Joker voice overs, no one on the planet can hit the level Hamil did.

            Hamil's a bit of a one-trick-pony on that note; he did the same voice in Darksiders. :P

              either you're trolling or you haven't looked at his VO credits on IMDb. He's one of the most prolific voice actors there is.

            Ledgers Joker is not the best joker, he is a generic insane psycotic criminal mastermind, you could put any mask on ledgers joker, and it would still pull the same screen presence. You could even call him insano-man (copyright pending)

          Actually, whilst not the primary "Batman" of the show, Bruce was in the suit on more than one occasion during the show, gave the orders, and at one point reveals he knew someone was trying to play with his mind as he doesn't call himself "Bruce" in his head... Bruce is Batman, Terry is another Batman.

      (Batman beyond does not count, he's not Bruce Wayne)
      Technically, Terry McGinnis (Batman Beyond) is a Bruce Wayne clone

      Last edited 08/06/13 5:03 pm

        Irrelevant, we were talking about voice actors. But pretty cool, never knew he was! Ta!

        Last edited 08/06/13 5:52 pm

        I don't consider that shit 'canon' ... :P

        Last edited 08/06/13 6:49 pm

          Even though it was foreshadowed from the first episode? And written by the same guys who were involved with the DCAU since the beginning?

            Justice League has no place in the Batman universe dammit!!!! I ignore those episodes, and consider them decisions made for marketing crossover purposes...

              Even though they share the same universe, Batman is a founding member of the Justice Legaue and one of it's most iconic members period fullstop end of story, and Batman/Superman had crossed over several times in each other's series and had a few movies together?

              Justice League isn't in the Batman universe, Batman is in the Justice League universe. Deal with it.

    I'd argue the main problem is that a lot of the times, the voice change is arbitrary - it's not linked to a significant change in story or events happening to the character, but mainly to get extra points for the back of the box. For instance, the Hayter change to Sutherland is likely either a ruse or because Kojima gushes over a variety of celebrities (see Gosling), and he wanted to work with them. I agree with the attachment, and it's a reason that protagonists like Gordon Freeman are still my favourite - I write my own voice onto them, and no matter what (unless, god forbid, they made him a voice character), changes to his look won't change how I perceive his 'internal' voice.

    I'm surprised there's no mention of Stephen Russel not getting to play Garret in Thief again because of shitty mocap. Why are all the big stealth games dropping their iconic protagonists? All we have left now is the dude who plays Agent 47.

      Damn, I was just about to post this... beaten to the punch. :p

      Paul Walker is playing Agent 47 in the new movie. A little part of you just died reading this.

        The Bald and the Furious... O_o

        Honestly Timothy Olyphant was shit as 47 but that was mainly because the movie itself was completely shite. I was always hoping Vinnie Jones would get the role personally...

          Choice. And I would have him repeatedly slam a target's head in a car door whilst screaming obscenities. :P

            Hahahaha. While not a PERFECT choice, I always envision him accidentally saying 'IM THE 47 BITCH!'

            Either way, Olyphant is a brilliant actor, he just was badly miscast as the Hitman. Although in retrospect? Gerard Butler would've made a sensational one.

              I like Olyphant too :/ and I know I'll get a lot of hate for saying this, but whilst it wasn't particularly amazing, in terms of video-game movies I uhh... I didn't mind it.

              On a completely unrelated topic, Vinnie Jones died almost as abruptly / disappointingly fast in "Smoking Aces 2" as Danny Trejo died in Predators... Though I suppose he did kinda suddenly get knocked off in Snatch. :P

                I was able to get my hands on the script for Hitman before it went into production back when I was working freelance for a few movie sites (contradiction in terms but my work was constantly picked up by a few sites so I tended to circle these few specifically) and the script itself was particularly fantastic compared to what was eventually put on film. It was *hyper violent* and well thought out. What was eventually put on screen though, made zero sense. It was like a committee went through and said 'Cut the good shit out, leave the pg shit in...'

                  Okay, well from an outside perspective, it was -okay-, but now you're making me want this elusive unbroken version :P
                  I can watch pretty much anything though.

    I trust the back-of-house people more than the actors (writers/directors/etc.), in all forms of media. Not to say a good actor can't make something go up a level, but the writers start the ball rolling and the directors have the final say of what goes in. A great director can pull a lot out of a bad actor but a great actor can't do much with a bad director

    I think with the thing with the Batman example is that he has done the first two games. They chose him because of his previous experience of course, but if they had picked an unknown people would be ok with it. Now on game three there is a change up it is going to seem a bit weird. Same setting, same style, different voice. Not very logical.

    If it was a new style or totally unrelated game then i think most people wouldn't mind.
    I hope this new studio knows what it is doing.

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