Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Versatility of Famous Voices in Video Games

This week at Popmatters, I wrote about celebrity voices in games.

The topic has been on my mind as of late, as I feel like the medium has reached a strange point in terms of voice acting. In story-driven games, dialogue is more important than ever. However, many games are trying to create their own self-contained world, so having a clearly-recognizable may detract from the player’s immmersion. Additionally, actors like Nolan North and Jennifer Hale are quickly becoming minor celebrities within video game culture. Perhaps the talents of celebrities who gained fame outside the medium are just an unnecessary distraction?

Then again, celebrities can sometimes strengthen a game’s artistic or cultural relevance. In addition to the sheer talent of actors that honed their craft on stage and on screen, famous actors often have personas that stretch across multiple art forms. For example, would Brutal Legend been as charming without Jack Black? The game’s mixture of camp, humor, and rock and roll reverence fits perfectly with Black’s persona. If Eddie Riggs was played by anyone else, I suspect the character would simply have felt like a Jack Black knock-off. This type of casting dances on the line separating the earnest from the self-aware.

What should we make of God of War III, in which Kevin Sorbo is cast as Hercules? While he plays it straight as far as his performance in the game, his very appearance is a wink at an audience who has come to associate him with a very different version of the famous Greek hero. He does a good job blending in with the game’s tone, which makes sorting out the intent behind his casting even trickier.

Ultimately, I suppose it all comes down to the highly-subjective measure of whether an actor “feels” right for the job. There are times for both bold assertions of celebrity and transformative performances. The trick is figuring out which approach to take, and when to take it.


  1. Just stumbled on your guys blog and love it!

    I think developers are realizing that it takes some good voice acting to sell you on a story.Look at Fall Out: New Vegas featuring Wayne Newton, Michael Dorn, and Ron Pearlman.

  2. I can completely agree with the idea of recognisble celebrity voices pulling me out of the game. I experience this all the time.

  3. @Gaming in Public

    Thanks for the kind words! Good call on Fall Out: New Vegas. On a related note, I think it's great that Michael Dorn is also does voice work for Mass Effect, one of the Star Trek-iest games out there.


    I hear you. When I was playing Black Ops, I couldn't even remember the name of Ice Cube's character; I just thought of him as Ice Cube. Unfortunately, the whole Cold War-era setting made this a little weird!

  4. Tangentially, I'm not sure I'll be able to see Bane in the new Batman movie as anything but Eames from Inception. Similarly, as good as Bale is as Bruce Wayne, he's still just that Newsies kid to me in the back of my mind. (And there's a twist; Newsie from the streets grows up to be a playboy vigilante.) And why was Dr. Crane/Scarecrow in the new Tron movie?

    With games, it's not quite as strong of an effect when it's just the voice, but still, it's jarring more often than not to hear someone I know from somewhere else. Say, John Ratzenberger in every Pixar movie.

    On the flipside, someone like Jim Cummings, Mel Blanc or even Jim Varney really can do a lot to sell voicework. Notably, they don't sound the same each time, especially Mr. Cummings. I think that helps a lot. Instead of simply playing themselves, they play a part, and that makes a world of difference.