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The Voice | Why Legacy And Continuity In Vocal Work Is Such A Big Deal

Matt Gardner
Charles Martinet, James Bond, Jennifer Hale, Nolan North, Performance capture, Voice acting, Voice actors

The Voice | Why Legacy And Continuity In Vocal Work Is Such A Big Deal

Revisiting characters with new actors is always something of a risky business. Even in the world of theatre, where roles are recast and reimagined everyday, you'll find what people refer to as 'definitive performances'. For some Hamlet will always be synonymous with John Gielgud in the same way that Colm Wilkinson defines Jean Valjean for others.

But theatrical revivals are essential to ensure a work survives beyond its initial run, and the same cannot be said of the permanent snapshots in time provided by films and games. That's not to say the products of these mediums are above reinterpretation in a creative sense, but executives (that's a key word right there) must always balance the risk of destroying franchise potential (and there's another) with the chancer's reward of cashing in on a big name.

Even when it's understood that a role is one that requires a change of personnel every so often, the new pretender is run ragged through the media mill. Remember the headlines scoffing at 'James Blond'?

The Voice | Why Legacy And Continuity In Vocal Work Is Such A Big Deal

The news over the past few weeks has been littered with disgruntled folks posting grumbling comments on forums regarding the recasting of some of their favourite characters. The tributes poured in for Solid Snake and Big Boss actor David Hayter when the news emerged that Kojima Productions had not approached him to work on Metal Gear Solid V. There were plenty of dissenting voices when Ubisoft had Michael Ironside step aside from the role of Sam Fisher for Splinter Cell: Blacklist, even when the gravelly-voiced pro spoke up to praise the work his replacement, Eric Johnson, had done. Fans petitioned Ubisoft to get Ironside back in the recording booth. They didn't.

So it is that the latest petition, one looking to reinstate Stephen Russell as the voice of Garrett in Eidos Montreal's Thief reboot, will probably fail too.

The Voice | Why Legacy And Continuity In Vocal Work Is Such A Big Deal

Part of this has to do with the level of recognition that a voice actor receives in this industry: it's not much. A recent Polygon article that featured anecdotes and testimonials from the likes of Troy Baker (Bioshock Infinite), Jennifer Hale (Mass Effect), Jen Taylor (Halo), and Steve Blum (Call of Duty) took note of the relative obscurity in which voice actors in this industry operate. Some of them thrive on that, though, taking surprise at an association with a role as a compliment:

"With some of the really good voice actors, the problem is that they're so good at what they do, they just disappear into a lot of roles," Kari Wahlgren (Skyrim, GW2, The Saboteur) says. "I take that as a huge compliment. The better someone knows me, the more of a compliment it is when someone says, 'I had no idea that was you.'"

But it has it's risks. As Taylor notes, even the biggest "stars" such as Hale can't call the shots like their stage and screen counterparts can.

"If Jennifer Hale becomes a big enough star to say, 'I won't do this video game unless you give me a small percentage,' they're just going to call someone else," she explains.

The Voice | Why Legacy And Continuity In Vocal Work Is Such A Big Deal

Much of this has to do with the manner in which games are designed. Characters, as Mass Effect proved, don't just belong to their creators. This is an interactive medium after all. For many games this means that a sense of character is reduced to allow players to imprint themselves onto a protagonist. Bond may be redefined over and over again because his character is essentially an embodiment of a relatively simple male power fantasy, and thus replicable relatively easily. That being said, everyone still has a favourite, and if yours isn't Connery, you're wrong.

But speaking of the ageing Scot, Eidos used the Bond analogy to defend their decision for change, saying that getting Russell to portray Garrett would be like asking Connery to play Bond now. At 82. The logic is that as performance capture is such an enormous part of game development, surely a more "authentic" performance would come from recording both motion and audio at the same time. The energy, the intensity, the exertion: all of these would be physically real rather than acted.

That seems like a cop-out to me, and a bit of a slap in the face for voice actors. This is what they do, after all. And let's not forget that Connery did come back and play Bond as an older chap. Never Say Never Again was a campy affair, but it's still much more entertaining than Octopussy.

The Voice | Why Legacy And Continuity In Vocal Work Is Such A Big Deal

The fact is that gaming has a strong history of characters that are well loved by their fans because of the way in which their written combined with the performances that bring them to life. There are innumerable roles that could be pimped out to trundling carousel of barely distinguishable, but we're starting to see actors really make characters their own. Say what you will about Duke Nukem Forever, but it would have been much worse without Jon St. John. To be honest, the fact we heard his voice is part of the reason we all got so overly excited when Gearbox started talking up the return.

Can you imagine Nathan Drake being played by anyone other than Nolan North? The very idea is almost abhorrent. Imagine Ezio voiced by someone other than Roger Craig Smith or Max Payne voiced by someone other than James McCaffrey (there's one thing Rockstar did right with Max Payne 3). The day Charles Martinet hangs up his microphone will be a very, very sad day indeed. Of course, in the case of Mario you can probably sample the hell out of the back catalogue's audio, but that's not really the point.

The point is that storytelling and characterisation in gaming has been strong enough to create legacies, and important ones at that. Camilla Luddington has helped rescue the legacy of one of gaming's greatest characters as Lara Croft was given some actual depth as a character and a performance to match, and it's to be hoped that she features highly in Crystal Dynamics' plans for a follow up. She deserves it.

The Voice | Why Legacy And Continuity In Vocal Work Is Such A Big Deal

Gaming will eventually reach a period where old games with iconic voice acting start getting remade in the same way that film studios perennially seek to dig up the past and reskin it with fresher, younger faces for the new generation. But I hope that when that happens, people won't forget Armin Shimmerman's Andrew Ryan in the face of Justin Bieber's edgy reinterpretation. We pray that Ellen McLain's phenomenal GLaDOS will always be remembered, even after Miley Cyrus's singer-songwriter, tween-idol daughter wrestles the Portal IP away from Valve and remakes the game with herself as the villain. Don't worry, I'm just speculating. That not "A Thing". Yet.

We haven't reached that time just yet. So, publishers and developers alike, I rather implore you to think a little for those fans who will notice the difference. Authenticity is nice, but putting too much of an emphasis on it would be foolish; just look at Medal of Honor. When it comes down it, I'd much prefer something outstanding, something excellent, and something memorable.

Add a comment6 comments
kinkinkaid  Apr. 17, 2013 at 23:17

Great article Matt -

TheNameless  Apr. 18, 2013 at 00:40

It's a mistake to think that these things don't have an effect. I purposely didn't buy The Darkness II because they replaced Kirk Acevedo. I'm sure if they did it to another series that I cared about (Max Payne for instance) I'd feel exactly the same.

Late  Apr. 18, 2013 at 09:22

Changing voice talents is bad, m'kay.
And congrats to the new bird that plays Lara Croft, for doing a bang up job.
Bask in the contradiction.
Yeah, it wasn't exactly like that, and I've taken a (very small) liberty, but it was such an easy target. I'll get back to Tomb Raider later...

Personally, I don't have a problem with studios changing voice actors - so long as the new person does a good job. If needs be we can always ask them to make their voice sound like the person they've replaced. They're actors. It's kind of their job.

Bearing in mind all productions have a budget, if one of the voice talents starts demanding more than their worth then you should definitely replace them. I'd do so without batting an eye.

If your end product is of a high quality that's the most important thing. Nostalgia isn't. Tomb Raider is a decent example of how it's fine to replace an actor. Yes, it's a reboot, and the character has been portrayed by several actresses already, but I'd say that's largely by-the-by, especially in an argument incited by a character being replaced in a rebooted franchise, i.e. Thief. As you say, Camilla Luddington has done a fantastic job in Tomb Raider. So why does anyone assume the new voice of Garrett (or any other role) would not be good.

For all we know, Miley Cyrus' tweeny daughter might be one of the greatest actors of her generation, and might do a fantastic job in a Portal remake. There's no knowing her future, nor do we know what (the awesome) Ellen McLain will be doing in a couple of decades' time, when little Cyrus Jnr embarks upon her spectacular acting career.

Last edited by Late, Apr. 18, 2013 at 09:33
MattGardner  Apr. 18, 2013 at 10:03

The point about Tomb Raider, though, is that before this year's reboot, Lara was never much of a character. Before the reboot, she was essentially as much of a cardboard cutout character as Bond, but with even less personality. By refocusing on Lara herself, her character, her inner resolve, what makes her who she is, Crystal Dynamics placed a much heavier emphasis on determining what it means to be Lara Croft. My point is that it didn't matter who played Lara before, but it might well do now.

stevenjameshyde  Apr. 18, 2013 at 12:18

I genuinely don't think that replacing David Hayter is that big of a deal. Snake doesn't strike me as a role that was infused with a great deal of personality; I think that just about any gruff-speaking VO artist could deliver Kojima's awful dialogue without damaging the experience too much

I agree with Late's point about competent voice actors being able to imitate to old voices, as well. I for one would love to play through Gears of War with John DiMaggio delivering all of Marcus Fenix's lines in his 'Bender from Futurama' voice

Last edited by stevenjameshyde, Apr. 18, 2013 at 13:57
Late  Apr. 18, 2013 at 12:35

lol - sold!

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