Back in 1992, director Robert Altman released a film called The Player. It’s a murder mystery centered around an arrogant Hollywood executive who is under investigation for murdering a disgruntled screenwriter. One of its subplots deals with a movie being pitched to him, and its writers are adamant that they shouldn’t cast stars like Bruce Willis or Julia Roberts (remember: 1992), but go for unknowns. “No stars, just talent!” They exclaim as their statement of intent.
In recent years, movie stars have gravitated to voice acting work in video games. To say the least, results have been mixed. For every success like Stephen Merchant in Portal 2, you have Michael Madsen phoning it in so hard he says his own character’s name wrong in Grand Theft Auto 3. Some of the below actors are not necessarily unknown (especially in these circles), but they are pros who deserve every bit of praise they receive.
Jennifer Hale – Mass Effect
I’ve got a lot of love for Mark Meer, the voice of male Shepard. He’s perfectly fine, regardless of what people say. The reason his performance gets such short shrift however is because Jennifer Hale is absolutely stellar as female Shepard. In video game circles, she is well-known and well established. Her resume is long and distinguished, but her performance in the Mass Effect trilogy is absolutely her crowning achievement.
Consider that in promotional material for the first two games, it was almost entirely with BroShep front and center. With Mass Effect 3, the box cover was reversible with FemShep if you wanted it. There are likely a ton of marketing reasons why EA and BioWare chose to do this, but I can all but guarantee it wouldn’t have been on anyone’s radar without Hale’s (ahem) commanding performance.
Where does one begin with a series like this? If pressed though, I’d probably have to go with her defense of Tali to the Quarian fleet in Mass Effect 2. It’s a sham trial right from the start, and she sways the judges through force of will alone. Not only does she succeed in helping Tali, but still manages to get a shot in at the end. A big part of buying into the Mass Effect series is accepting that Shepard is a character you would follow to your end. When Jennifer Hale is voicing the character, it makes perfect sense.
Cam Clarke – Metal Gear Solid
You can debate till the end of time about which Metal Gear game is the best (and God knows we do it weekly around the Twinfinite office), but the first one is special to me. Visually, this game has not aged particularly well although the quality of its direction goes a long way to make it a non-issue. The thing that really struck me about MGS was the voice acting; not just the overall quality of the talent bringing its characters to life, but the commitment they brought to it. There is absolutely nobody in the voice cast of this game who phones it in, and in spite of the fact that the whole premise of the Metal Gear series is pure 100% uncut dumb, it all works perfectly because everyone is fully committed. How do you pick one performance out of this madhouse to single out? Well, if full commitment to the role is the metric then Cam Clarke’s performance as villain Liquid Snake can be the only choice.
After Snake spends the whole game being guided and helped by friend and mentor, Master Miller, via codec, he suddenly learns that instead of disarming Metal Gear REX, he’s been actually arming it. As you enter the last code, Miller calls and reveals himself to be Liquid Snake. It may not seem like such a mindblowing revelation nowadays, and you can definitely tell that it’s Clarke doing both voices with the benefit of hindsight. However, at the time I was completely blindsided by this revelation. The best part of it is that on subsequent playthroughs, you can find all sorts of clues in Clarke’s performance.
Nolan North – Spec Ops: The Line
Nolan North is well-established as the best voice actor in the video game industry. He is pure class in everything he’s involved with. To be fair, when his name comes up in discussion about his most memorable work, the Uncharted series is almost always right at the top of the list. Fair enough too, he’s funny, engaging, and he makes you forget that you’re spending an entire game relentlessly executing enemies with no real regard about whether there’s an alternate option or choice…Wait a minute, this sounds familiar…
Nolan North’s performance as Captain Martin Walker, the protagonist of Spec Ops: The Line, is not only his finest performance to date but one of the most memorable and ferociously believable in recent memory. Nathan Drake is detached and disaffected by the events of his games. Sure, he gets the crap kicked out of him but doesn’t really have any kind of character arc that fundamentally affects his role in the story. That’s not to say it’s bad; far from it. What I am saying is that with Uncharted, North is capturing a particular amalgam of Indiana Jones with a 21st century sensibility. It works and he really delivers, but with Spec Ops he took voice acting to a whole new level.
There are four possible endings to this game and each one feels like it should be canon, which is an achievement in itself. Every ending left me cold, but just riveted by the terrible place this game took me to, and Walker’s transformation via North’s performance is the linchpin. As the game progresses, Walker keeps his team together and following him through sheer force of will, even as they are all coming unhinged.
I was going to say the White Phosphorous scene, but honestly it was right before that where I really bought into Walker as a character. Lugo and Riggs, his subordinates get into a scuffle and he needs to assert himself and get them back on task. It’s a really short bit of dialogue, but North delivers it with such authority it makes the brilliant and horrifying part immediately after that much more plausible.
Earl Alexander, Jim French, Jen Taylor, and Vince Valensuela – Left 4 Dead
There is absolutely no official story in Left 4 Dead beyond what you experience in-game. There’s a little bit of background about the characters in an intro, but it really doesn’t matter. There’s a zombie outbreak, and the four of you need to pull together to survive. Considering this, it is a credit to the writers and voice actors that they have created characters you genuinely feel for even though they convey little beyond random one-liners. I’ve been more bummed out about Francis getting killed for startling a witch (again….God dammit Francis) than witnessing the death of RPG characters I’ve spent hours with. (*cough*Kaiden*cough*).
I could have picked something from any chapter, but this shows the versatility and I mean, this is just a small sample of some of the back-and-forth these characters engage in throughout. Not only is it hilarious, but the wide variety of one-liners is so consistent with the characters these actors have created that each new comment feels like part of a seamless performance. The adventures of Louis, Francis, Zoey, and Bill is like video game improv at its finest.
So, how about you? What voice acting performances do you find particularly impressive? Leave a comment, and let’s talk about this.