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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.