When Stem Electronics released Bezerk for the Atari in 1980, the estimated cost for each word was about $1,000 making the 30 word vocabulary quite the expense for an arcade game. We have come a long way since 1980, voice acting is now an integral part of most games helping to define characters, forward narrative, and in some cases offer the primary form of gameplay. While rising to prominence in the age of Playstation and Nintendo 64, voice acting really got its hooks into the industry with the following generation and has seen the start of a golden age with the current generation. Today, whether games are AAA or independent, featuring robots or humans, comedic or dramatic, voice acting is an important part of the experience. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights in voice acting over this current generation.
Niko Bellic – Michael Hollick
The first Grand Theft Auto title to be released on PlayStation and Xbox was also the first of the series to arrive on the current generation hardware, Grand Theft Auto IV. Prior to the release of the fourth numerical installment in the series Michael Hollick was a little-known actor who had made appearances on each of the Law and Order series and a spot on Sex and the City. Hollick is an American-born actor and graduate from Carnegie Mellon University, though he was originally hired to simply provide the motion-capture for Niko, after working with the dialect coach he was hired to provide the voice as well.
Niko Bellic represented a new shade of grey in the increasingly dark world Rockstar was making with the Grand Theft Auto series. An eastern-european immigrant, Bellic struggled to adapt to the rules of society after his career as a soldier. Searching for a fresh start and a better life, Niko came to America. While the gameplay of Grand Theft Auto IV is very much akin to its predecessors, Bellic’s character demonstrated just how much progress had been made in character character depth since Grand Theft Auto III’s silent protagonist, Claude.
Hollick won awards for his performance as Niko, including the 2008 VGA award for Best Male Voice. An article came out shortly after his performance, discussing his comparatively poor compensation for his work on Grand Theft Auto IV, listing his pay around $100,000 for a game that grossed well over $600 million. In the article Hollick said he didn’t blame Rockstar for his poor compensation and thanked them for the opportunity. He provided motion capture for Homefront in 2011, but has not come close to recapturing a character a iconic as the immigrant crime boss.
Rucks, The Narrator – Logan Cunningham
It is not difficult for a main character to be synonymous with a game or franchise, but it is rare for a voice–especially an ambiguous narrator–to carry an experience. This is what makes the work of Logan Cunningham, who voices the narrator known as Rucks in the independent video game Bastion, so interesting. It is almost impossible to have a five minute conversation about Bastion without mentioning Cunningham’s gravely, booming narration that provides the only spoken words throughout the game. When you imagine a post-apocalyptic fantasy world, the natural inclination for a narrator would be a classically trained voice to indicate a deep and mature world. This is why Cunningham and Super Giant’s choice stands out with such distinction, because Rucks creates such a distinct flavor and tone, intertwining with Bastion’s western-meets-industrial score to instantly indicate to the player they are in for something completely different.
Cunningham, like so many other voice actors, never really intended to get into voice over work, especially video game work. What separates him from the majority of popular voice actors is that he has a history with video games that dates back to Lucas Arts’ Monkey Island and Wing Commander. He also has a history with Super Giant games, being friends with studio director Amir Rao and Darren Korb since high school. It was this history that lead to him being hired to lend his voice to Bastion’s only speaking role.
Cunningham’s voice landed him a narration role in the TV series Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 as a graphic novel narrator, he has also continued his work in video games lending his voice to Resonance and Primordia, both point-and-click adventures. Super Giant will also be using Cunningham’s talents in their highly anticipated release, Transistor.
John Marston- Rob Wiethoff
Voice acting, especially video game voice acting, is a funny thing. The accounts of how people got involved, how roles get crafted, how work circulates, all seem like “right place, at the right time” kind of thing. This could not be more true than it is Rob Wiethoff, who voiced gaming’s most famous cowboy, John Marston. In 2004, the recently acquired Angel Studios (promptly renamed Rockstar San Diego) released a third-person western shooter called Red Dead Revolver. Six years later, after dropping a couple Midnight Club games, the studio returned to their western franchise with spiritual successor Red Dead Redemption. The game channeled the soul of the spaghetti western much like its predecessor, but found a grounded message through its protagonist John Marston. Marston is unlike most video game protagonists, he is the quiet anti-hero, a man who yearns to return to a simple life on a ranch with a wife and child. Also unlike most video game characters, we don’t leave Marston when his mission is complete, we follow him home to his family, watch him find his footing with a long-abandoned wife and son.
Rob Wiethoff is the perfect fit for Marston in many ways, he didn’t see a man he was in the cowboy, he saw a man he wanted to be. Weithoff all but stumbled into the role, getting a last minute call to an undisclosed audition at the end of a long day. In interviews, Wiethoff never claims that he really wanted to be an actor, but more that he was led into the idea by others. After a quick audition that didn’t seem to blow anyone away, Wiethoff left thinking he had lost the job. A couple days later he found himself starring in the game. Listening to the man give radio and film interviews, it becomes obvious why he was chosen, Marston’s voice is Wiethoff’s natural tone. Just the way Wiethoff speaks, his drawl, his accent calls to mind the image of a true everyman American, trying to find his place in a fast-changing world. It is not hard to imagine LA actors doing their best ol’ west, dusty-boots, twang as they tried to pander to the cowboy image, but Wiethoff was able to deliver the voice of the west without even trying, allowing him the ability to find the subtleties in Marston.
The parallels between character and actor are strongest in the end. Wiethoff, much like Marston, left the insanity of the west to go someplace quiet, settling down with his family. Wiethoff never did another video game, and has no real plans to return to the medium, or do any other acting for that matter. However, when he talks about his experience with Red Dead Redemption or ever returning the world of voice acting, you can hear a twinge of excitement in his answer.
Video games do not always make for great comedy. Some titles standout here and there, but for the most part they take themselves pretty seriously. Such is not the case for Valve’s puzzler Portal 2. The natural talents of Stephen Merchant and J.K. Simmons are easily recognizable and a credit to both performers, but the most surprising and synonymous voice with the Portal 2 game is easily the dead-pan, over processed voice of GLaDOS. McLain’s turn as Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System is a refreshing take on the countless A.I. friendlies that guide players through a game’s levels. GlaDOS is a villain, in the strictest sense of the word, wanting the hero to fail their journey, however instead of the cliched evils supercomputer shtick, McLain gives this antagonist a biting, drawl, and even morbid sense of humor. GLaDOS plays on insecurities and treats the players with an uncaring attitude, which has endeared her to countless fans.
In a community dominated by young men, McLain could not be more out of place. It would have been humorous to explain this aspect of her extensive work to the actress while she was studying opera at North Carolina University. McLain has done plenty of stage work with names like Rex Harrison and national tours of shows like Camelot. However, her husband convinced her to record a demo in 2002 in order to break into the ever-growing industry of voice acting. Like many voice actors, McLain has never played a video game and to this day has only ever watched a playthrough of Portal 2, provided by Valve. She’s about as out of touch with the products as possible, often unable to recount what the role of her numerous characters is from game to game. That does not mean McLain has been out of touch with her fan base. From an AMA on Reddit to numerous public appearances, McLain has shown nothing but admiration for the fans who love Valve’s work and her contribution to it.
McLain was recently enlisted by Guillermo Del Toro to provide a GLaDOS-esque voice for his film Pacific Rim. You can also find GLaDOS in Telltale’s Poke Night 2, released earlier this year. McLain has won numerous awards for her work as GLaDOS including the 2011 VGA for Best Performance by a Human Female. While she has no planned voice work in the immediate future, her close relationship with Valve would indicate that they will be knocking on her door before long.
The Walking Dead stormed onto the scene last year with the an emotionally charged story, memorable characters, difficult decisions, and impressive voice acting. The central character of Telltale’s wonderful cast was Clementine, the young, brave, and spirited child that accompanied playable character Lee Everett through the zombie wasteland of the southeast United States. Children can be difficult characters, often coming off as bratty or incompetent, but Clementine artfully avoided these pitfalls to become a fan favorite. She is the emotional anchor to the episodic franchise, holding players back from doing truly terrible deeds with her inquisitiveness and unflappable morality. Much like real children, Clementine often found way to boil down complex ideas to a single comprehensive thought, leaving players with something to chew on after every conversation. From your first words with her over walkie-talkie, to a heart wrenching finale, Clementine offered a character that stood head and shoulders above most others.
Hutchinson has plenty of credits to her name, and is especially popular among the folks at Telltale. She first teamed up with the point-and-click studio when she voiced Stinky in the Sam and Max franchise, then returned for Back to the Future, and of course returned again for The Walking Dead. An animation fan from childhood, Hutchinson left a job waiting tables to break into the acting industry and had the rare luck of stepping right into the scene thanks to a fortunate high school connection. The actress proved her talent and hasn’t looked back ever since.
Hutchinson won the award for Best Performance by a Human Female at last year’s Spike VGA awards and was also nominated for a BAFTA. It is unclear if she will be reprising the much-loved role of Clementine in the continuation of The Walking Dead video game series, but she has other roles in works with the animated series Space Racers.
Nathan Drake-Nolan North
Video game characters can arise to fame, as proven by the previous names on this list. Characters can become synonymous with our favorite titles, even our favorite memories spent with a controller. People can say the names John Marston, GLaDOS, and Niko which instantly conjure images of those characters in their respective games, then behind those amazing characters are amazing voice actors. That is not the case with Nathan Drake. Iconic as the leading man of Uncharted is, his voice actor has arisen to comparable fame among the gaming community. Through his prolific and astounding work, Nolan North has established himself in ways that very, very few voice actors ever have before. Drake has become the Indiana Jones for a new age of young boys, whisking them away to far off locations and overcoming evil villains with a wink and a joke. Drake has not only established himself as one of the biggest faces of Sony, he has almost been one of the most human faces in all of video games. Drake is a person that doesn’t look so different from me or you, he wears denim jeans and a childhood trinket around his neck. It is a stark contrast from the plump overall-clad Mario or the faceless Master Chief, video games have always struggled to convey their characters as human and Drake–for all his larger than life qualities–is the closest to human as these iconic characters get.
North started his life with a degree in journalism and worked a year in the newspaper industry before shoving off to New York to marinate in the world of stand-up comedy and theatre. While struggling to book roles, he received important advice to put a little of himself into every role that he did. He often cites Nathan Drake as the Nolan North of treasure hunters. North has become one of the hardest working voice actors (and screen actors, for that matter) in Hollywood, but for all of his work North’s quality has never dipped. He’s voiced principle characters in the Assassin’s Creed series, Rocksteady’s Arkham series, Shadow Complex, Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, and plenty of others. If you throw a rock in a game store, chances are you’ll break something Nolan North was a part of.
North continues to be one of the biggest voice actors in the business. You can find him this year in The Last of Us, Deadpool, and Saints Row IV. He always has new projects in the works and looks to be a part of the video game industry for many days ahead. He is married to his wife, whom he met on the set of his first soap opera, Port Charles, and has two children.
There are painful omissions from this list. Plenty of great work is done every year, standing out in its own way, by extremely talented actors. Names like Phil LaMarr, Jennifer Hale, and Troy Baker are prolific and excellent in almost everything they do. Characters like Solid Snake, Sam Fisher, and Ezio have become staples of respective franchises. Celebrities from Ellen Page to Liam Neeson are viewing the video game medium as a serious avenue to reach new audiences. We are entering a golden age of video game performance, with characters becoming more relatable and human than ever before, we can only dream of what the next generation can bring.