By Lewis Empson and Marcus Yeatman-Crouch
A lot goes into making a modern video game. The programmers, graphic designers, writers and creative directors all deal with the gutty works and behind-the-scenes of a game. But, in a story focused game like Uncharted, The Last of Us, or God of War, who are we really hearing from? The character – or, more specifically, the voice actor. Indeed, voice acting is a profession within the gaming industry that is crucial, yet so underappreciated. Would you know that the voices of Nathan Drake, Desmond Miles and Deadpool all come from the same award winning actor? Their faces may be ever-changing, but we’re here to reveal the inner machinations of gaming’s most underrated workers and highlight some of our all time favourite performances.
First of all, the pair in the feature image: Troy Baker and Nolan North. The latter has played those three characters we mentioned just now, while the former has a CV including Sam Drake (brother of Nathan), the Joker, and Joel from The Last of Us. They’ve both been nominated and won awards for their work, and the likelihood is that even if you haven’t realised they were in a game, they probably were. It’s a bit of a running joke that North and Baker voice a lot of the big name characters in gaming, and when they combine as they did in Uncharted 4 with the Drake brothers, you could call that a star-studded performance. They’re the two real celebs of video game voice acting, having stamped their mark on the industry with some incredible performances on some of the most famous characters in gaming, but even they have a lot of voice work that might go unnoticed if they weren’t playing such big characters elsewhere.
There is a bit of a disassociation between voice acting and ‘real’ acting, though, and this is perhaps one reason why voice actors go under the radar for their performances. The lure of the silver screen is always there, but video games are establishing themselves as good bases for progression, especially now that motion capture is allowing both voice and likeness to be rendered in game. Until Dawn received a lot of praise for its graphics, particularly in the motion capture of the characters (all of them played by their voice actors), and featured some recognisable faces – now-Oscar winner Rami Malek amongst them. Indeed, Until Dawn was just a highlight, as gaming has seen big name vocal and visual cameos for a while now with Keanu Reeves, Elliot Page, and Norman Reedus (more on him later) all appearing in body and voice to lend their credentials to a game.
Lesser known voice actors are also getting screentime and a platform to show their talents in the video game industry. We can see some stellar performances in the Spider-Man PS4 games, especially Miles Morales, whose titular character is played superbly by Nadji Jeter, while the superhero trend continues with Sandra Saad, whose acting as Kamala Khan was perhaps one of the few highlights of the colossal failure that was the Avengers game. Even with modern mo-cap, the voice is what makes a video game character, and performances like Christopher Judge as Kratos in the soft-reboot of God of War in 2018 show that the traditional medium is still going strong.
There’s certainly more room to grow for voice acting as a profession. Nolan North and Troy Baker are the standouts, making lengthy careers out of lending their talents to dozens of memorable characters, but the integration of Hollywood stars and mo-cap into gaming has opened up new avenues for voice acting. Any stigma over it as a lesser or undesirable job is dispelled by the quality of work being done on making characters that are loved and reviled, with timeless performances being rewarded every year at awards ceremonies. It’s not the Oscars, but we all know the love of the gaming community is hard won, and giving voice and emotion to a character that needs to stand out amongst thousands of other games is a job that needs more recognition.
We’ve covered why voice acting is such an underappreciated part of the gaming and acting industries, but now we’d like to shift the spotlight onto those very actors. Below is our picks for some of the best voice acting performances of recent years, from one memorable character to a positively star studded cast, to show just how big the profession has become.
We have already sung the praises of industry legend Troy Baker, but now we turn to his co-star from the Naughty Dog horror/adventure/cry your eyes out classic, The Last Of Us (and Part II). Johnson lends her voice and motion capture for the edgy teen sidekick, Ellie, who was born into the apocalypse and has been embroiled with trauma all her life. Her wise-cracking dark humour and wholesome bonding with father figure Joel is the glimmer of joy in an emotional rollercoaster often interspersed between nail biting tension and wince inducing violence. Johnson captures all of this energy in a captivating performance that embodies Ellie’s childlike ignorance and crippling traumatic pain to make her one of the most oddly relatable characters that you can’t help but root for. She delivers sarcastic quips with equal authenticity as her gut wrenching cries in scenes filled with raw emotion, making Ellie a truly fleshed out character that you instantly become invested in. What’s even more impressive is that Johnson continues this powerhouse performance into Ellie’s adulthood in Part II, ensuring her character is preserved and consistent. No matter where we are in The Last Of Us timeline, Ellie remains as the sarcy, lovable sociopath that guides us through the traumatic landscape of post apocalyptic America. Ellie has become an iconic character in gaming and as a PlayStation mascot and it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Ashley Johnson portraying her in this iconic role.
Days Gone was a PS4 exclusive that absolutely blew me away. I’m not the biggest fan of zombie games, but I picked up this one on sale about a year after release, knowing it had some poor reviews but willing to give it a go. My favourite part about the game? Deacon St John, who I somehow only just realised was fully mo-capped and rendered by Sam Witwer as well as voiced. Deacon is a rough-hewn, blunt biker in a bit of a tropey love story with a smart city girl scientist, who he believes is dead after they get separated at the start of the zombie apocalypse. I won’t spoil the story, because it’s excellent, but one of the reasons why it’s so good is because of Witwer’s performance. The game has so many emotive moments where Deacon’s voice and minor facial movements can break his gruff image and reveal the kind soul beneath. It’s such a shame Days Gone struggled on launch because it means Sam Witwer’s work is a bit overlooked in the grand scheme. In reality, Deacon St John has become one of my favourite characters, whose journey I truly felt like I followed from start to end, and Sam Witwer brings him to life with emotive abilities now typical of his voice acting.
Our favourite Italian plumber, alongside many of his friends and foes from the Mushroom Kingdom, is voiced by experienced voice actor, Charles Martinet. His chirpy “letsa go” and “Mario time” quips have become staples of the character as he bounds around all the worlds of the Mushroom Kingdom in search of Bowser, and it’s all thanks to Martinet who adapted the idea of a grizzly sounding American-Italian plumber into a kid-friendly mascot for Nintendo. Keeping this in mind, it’s all the more surprising to find out he is also the voice of the ancient and wise dragon Paarthurnax in Skyrim as it’s such a huge departure from what he is known for. I remember this fact blowing my mind in 2012 and it still makes me laugh to this day as those two characters couldn’t hardly be any further removed from one another. After all, isn’t Mario opposed to fire breathing lizards? Comparing Mario’s chirpy quips to Paarthurnax’s grizzly and wise monologues is like night and day but both of these iconic game franchises share the talent of an industry icon Martinet. Here’s hoping we get an appearance in the Elder Scrolls VI to continue this industry legend’s role in an appropriately legendary series.
I’m cheating a bit by going with the whole cast here, but Death Stranding deserves a mention because it is fully loaded with Hollywood talent. With Norman Reedus of Walking Dead fame playing the main character Sam, there’s still plenty of room to fit Mads Mikkelsen, Guillermo Del Toro, Lea Seydoux and yes, even voice acting king Troy Baker in big roles. That’s only scratching the surface of famous faces that make appearances in this game, and it has to be said it might not have been possible without the enormous pull of Hideo Kojima, who really went all-out in making Death Stranding the most star-studded, long winded walking simulator known to man. These weren’t uninterested cameos either, all of the actors involved delivered excellent performances befitting a blockbuster game – especially Reedus, though we have to give props to all the actors for somehow navigating the challenges of Kojima’s mind palace and emerging unscathed. Not every dev team has a Kojima to grab Hollywood names, but Death Stranding definitely suggests video games are an industry catching the eye more than ever right now.