(This is another edition of /RANT, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)
If Far Cry 3 has taught me anything, it’s that we need far better voice actors in the videogame industry.
I say this not because Far Cry 3′s voice acting is bad — it is brilliant. I say it because, after seeing just how much a genuinely talented cast of actors can contribute to the effectiveness of a story, I really think it’s high time videogame developers considered investing more in the vocal chords that bring their characters to life.
There’s a reason why, in the build to Far Cry 3‘s release, the primary antagonist of Vaas has proven so memorable. Sure, he’s got a unique look, and his diatribes on the definition of insanity have helped set trailers apart from the usual dubstep and guns that most shooters — Far Cry 3 included — have used in promotional material this year. However, without the stellar performance of Michael Mando, I don’t think Vaas would have been have as remarkable. Mando delivers his lines throughout Far Cry 3′s campaign in a conversational, fevered tone, lending an air of human charisma to the dialog. Compared to so many other games, where stiff actors read stiff dialog with clear and surgical pauses between lines, Mando actually makes Vaas sound like a real human being. As such, he scenes in Far Cry 3 are a joy to watch, not just for his dark humor, but for the genuinely affable communication of it.
He’s not alone, either. Far Cry 3′s big bad, Hoyt Volker, is one of the more detestable videogame villains to appear in recent memory, and the smug, slimy performance along with a distinctive South African accent make him impossible to forget. Then we have Buck, an abusive and vulgar Australian treasure hunter, and the drug-addled Dr. Alec Earnhardt whose consistently stoned persona betrays hints of a tragic past. All these characters would be nowhere near as effective if their actors were of the mediocre stock commonly found in the majority of videogames. Far Cry 3′s narrative is smartly executed and well-paced, but it’s nothing truly outstanding if taken at face value. The performances making that story breathe are what gives it an air of credibility that is missing from so many videogame narratives.
To really put the power of voice acting into perspective, one must appreciate that, as much as a good cast can bring a story to life, a bad one can butcher it. A truly tragic example for me is the Wii RPG Arc Rise Fantasia. Not the most compelling of RPGs, but inoffensive with a decent little story to tell. Or rather, it could have been, if not for the relatively dire localization job undertaken by Marvelous Entertainment. The “actors” responsible for realizing Arc Rise’s world did an awful job, unable to portray emotions, and often not sounding at all how the characters look. For one character, the difference between him as an ally and an enemy is non-existent, and the large volume of dialog throughout the game, as well as repeated in battle, make it a very real detriment to the entire experience.
Arc Rise Fantasia was a good game, but role-playing titles in particular depend on their stories, and as we move away from text-based dialog to fully-voiced narratives, a poor vocal performance can utterly destroy the thing. It seems like such a simple suggestion, I know, but it’s shocking how under appreciated the growing importance of good voice work is. I mean, JRPGs probably need to get this right more than anything, as story-driven as they are, yet this genre is especially prone to hiring terrible actors for their characters. Lost Odyssey is one of only a sliver of JRPGs that got a half-decent localization this generation, and that success rested almost entirely on the shoulders of Michael McGaharn, who was able to play Jansen with impeccable comedic timing. He is the exception to the rule, however. Need I remember anybody of this?
Yeah, let’s not dwell too long on that last example. It’s physically painful.
Point is, we need to do more to encourage and reward good voice acting. It should be seen as a mark of shame that Nolan North is the “leading man” for so many videogames — not because he’s bad, but because he seems to be the only “leading man” videogames have. That shouldn’t be the case. We shouldn’t be in a situation where almost every single videogame is going to star a mixture of Nolan North, Steve Blum, Lian O’ Brian, Tara Strong, Jennifer Hale, and Yuri Lowenthall — all fantastic actors, but almost exclusively serving as videogames’ source of reliable talent. Everybody jokes about how Nolan North is in every single videogame, but it’s actually quite pathetic for the videogame industry that he is all it has to lean on. Voice acting for videogames is not the most glamorous gig, but it could be better than it is. The good actors are immensely talented, and work incredibly hard, often requiring a different set of skills than those who act in front of a camera. We need to make more superstars of them than just Nolan North — and we need to reward them, not just the Hollywood celebrities who are shipped in for star power, and often lack the unique talent required to bring a videogame character to life.
It’s kind of gross that, for almost every videogame award show/article, the nominations for good voice actors tend not to go to the people who bust their asses all year round to portray dozens of characters, but to celebrities who have been used in one game that year. Or, perhaps worse, when they do feature real voice actors, as last year’s Spike VGAs do, the awards are quietly handed out off-camera to make way for more REAL CELEBS and their inane chatter. We owe the talent way more than that. The writing is important, the gameplay is paramount, but for a story-driven experience, those actors are the fucking blood pumping through the veins. Upon them, the entire dramatic weight of the plot is settled. Yet we treat them like shit.
Maybe the lack of attention would be fine if they were paid what they’re worth, but even that seems to be expecting too much. I’m sure you all remember Grand Theft Auto IV, and the fine job Michael Hollick did of giving life to protagonist Niko Bellic. Some of you might also remember that, in comparison to what actors in comparatively successful movies and TV shows get, he was paid a pittance. For $100,000, he did not only the voice work, but the motion capture, and he received no subsequent royalties for a game that raked in millions. I often wonder whether celebrity voice actors get given the same treatment. If I were a full-time videogame actor, I probably wouldn’t want to find out.
When I play Far Cry 3, I realize we need to encourage good voice acting a lot more, because I want all games to have narratives that are told this well. The writers obviously do their part, but the ultimate messengers are the people reading that writing into a microphone for our enjoyment. I would like those doing such a fine job of it to be rewarded, and far less reliance on clearly shit actors who are charging pennies because, well, they’re shit. I’d like less developers cutting costs by getting friends and family to do the work, and I’d like us to have more voice actors given the star treatment when they deserve it, rather than find a pitiful handful of talent and rely on that forever. As far as I can tell, the investment is worth it. It was worth it for Far Cry 3, it was clearly worth it when Uncharted first made Nolan North its lead, and I feel it’d be worth it overall if the entire industry took Far Cry 3′s lead and realize that a good story is nothing without good actors telling it.
Why should it be asking so much, that hardworking talent is given the respect it deserves?