Earlier this month, the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, SAG-AFTRA, announced they had approved the strike by video game voice actors after a 96.52% vote in favour by members (of a 75% minimum required).
The strike looms over us. We don’t know all the details due to a media blackout and what little we know comes from SAG-AFTRA and vocal members such as Wil Wheaton. I’ve been wondering about what it might mean for our industry if all voice acting work suddenly stopped and it got me thinking about the conditions the actors deal with, what they’re asking for, some counter-arguments I’ve read but also about the importance of voice acting in video games, the impact these actors have on our experiences, on the memorable characters we love.
The Power of Words
When I think of voice acting and its impact in a game, the first thing that comes to mind is the Legacy of Kain series. Michael Bell, Simon Templeman and the great Tony Jay delivered powerful lines and made monstrous characters likeable, relatable and inspiring. Raziel, Kain, Mortanius and The Elder God owe much of their impact to these actors’ performances (the other part is due to the outstanding writers).
I grew up with games with no voice acting, before Link could even grunt or shout. I don’t mind a game without any voices, just pure text. If the writing is good enough, you don’t need a performer to move you to tears or make you laugh. But perhaps for having lived through the transition period between gaming without voice acting and the current state of the industry, I can more easily feel the impact of good voice acting, of powerful performances.
It used to be that voices were just another part of video games, rarely even mentioned in reviews, press releases or awards. Things have changed a lot since then. Troy Baker won an award for his performance on The Last of Us at the 2013 Spike Awards, a category that didn’t even exist before that year. Now you can wonder if they created the award because of the spectacular performances of that year or if it was due to voice acting having a bigger profile than ever before. I don’t think it matters, though a funny note is that Troy Baker was on the list for two performances.
FarCry 3 and FarCry 4 sold us on their expansive yet repetitive adventures not on the thrills we’d find on the island or the Himalayas, but on their powerfully charismatic villains. Michael Mando, the man behind Vaas, was central to Ubisoft’s promotion of the game. There were shorts of him, in character, with minions, torturing people or escaping a psychiatric hospital. They knew the game hinged on this amazing villain and his powerful actor, and they capitalised on it.
As I said, it used to be that voice acting was such a minor thing that no one paid attention to it, but is there any gamer who doesn’t know who Troy Baker or Nolan North are? North is the voice of some of the most famous characters in gaming and Baker is quickly catching up.
As for the importance of voice acting in video games, let me ask you this question: would the Arkham games have been as good without Mark Hamil and Kevin Conroy there to reprise their roles from the animated series? I don’t believe so, I think those characters wouldn’t have been so powerful without voice acting. Even Arkham Origin, the former black sheep of the series before Arkham Knight took the title, with Troy Baker and Roger Craig Smith as replacements, would’ve been a poorer game without them. If you’ve never heard Troy Baker as the Joker, see the video below where he reads one of the most famous monologues ever written for the character. It’s chilling how good it is.
But you might argue two of those are household names and play on our nostalgia, so let’s go with another example. God of War. Would we have felt Kratos’ rage, torment and the sick twisted pleasure he got from viciously killing his enemies without Terrence C. Carson’s powerful performance to back it up? I say no.
Even Link, my favourite telepathic mute (I might be guessing wildly on the telepathy but it fits), is better for the grunts and screams he’s had since Ocarina of Time.
Voice acting adds depth and power to the writing. The different actors take what’s written for them and enhance it, they feel for their characters and help us feel it as well. Be it a desperate struggle to find the truth, or destiny or to escape the bonds that have done nothing but cause pain and harm. Sometimes, they help make outlandish characters in far off lands feel like people you’d meet in the street, such as the British cast for The Last Story. They made a band of mercenaries in medieval magical world feel like a family, a group of old friends you’d want to share a pint with while telling a few good old stories.
So the possibility of no more performances for an indefinite amount of time is troubling. Imagine if The Walking Dead Season 1 was in production right this second and this strike started. We’d be wthout Melissa Hutchison and Dave Fennoy, no Clementine and Lee to take us on a somber and both heartwarming and breaking journey. No Joel and Ellie in The Last of US. Devil May Cry without Dante.
But what exactly is going on?
The Cost of Words
One of the things I read when researching for this article was the difference of conditions between the voice actor for an ad on TV and those for a video game actor. Now these facts are old, from a Polygon article of 2013 by David Griner, but it seems like the conditions are the same nowadays, especially considering some of the elements in the ongoing but stalled negotiations between the Video Game Publishers and SAG-AFTRA.
The article stated: “Voice actors are essentially paid $200 an hour to do up to three video game voices, while a TV commercial voice-acting gig would pay the same actor a minimum of $300 an hour, a bonus of $1,000 or more if the ad airs nationally and online, and offer them additional payments called residuals if the ad keeps running for a long time.”
One of the contention points in this ongoing conflict is payment of residuals. Publishers don’t want to do it and in fact most actors agree that it’s ridiculous. Nolan North, in 2010 gave his opinion on residuals, one that I agree with: “In all fairness, hundreds of people are working 12 hour days for several years to make a game, so it’s unfair for me to expect residuals, given the amount of work I contribute.”
Some of the SAG-AFTRA demands are reasonable and are more about keeping the actors safe and healthy rather than just getting more money. One of the conflicting points is on Vocal Stress, where the union demands that vocally strenuous sessions be limited to two hours as there is the danger of permanent damage if it’s a recurring thing. In a post, Wil Wheaton gave a fascinating example:
“Okay? Let’s get started. Since you probably don’t have a video game script at hand, we’re going to simulate it. I want you to grab your favorite book, and I want you to read, out loud, twenty pages from it. Really put your heart and soul into the dialog, and bring it to life. I need to feel emotion, and I need to be invested in the characters. Now, go do it again, but just slightly different this time, because we’re going to need options.”
He goes on to describe all the different things an actor does during the recording of these pages of “your favourite book” and ends with this: “If you’ve done this as I asked, it’s now six or seven hours after you started. Don’t talk at all for the rest of the day, and don’t make any plans to go audition for any other voice work for the rest of the week, because your voice is wrecked. Don’t go to any kind of day job that requires you to talk with anyone, either, because you’re not going to be able to do that. Oh, and over years and years of this, it’s going to build up into serious and permanent damage … and then you’re not going to be able to work with your voice anymore.
The fact that our employers won’t even talk with us about this growing problem, that affects the ability of all voice performers to take care of themselves, is reason enough to go on strike until they will.”
Voice Actors, as of right now, go into roles in video games almost blindly, without knowing if it’ll be a long role, a single line or just part of the chorus in a single scene. They don’t know anything about the material in a game, so if it’s on a subject matter that goes against their sensibilities or even personal preference, they won’t find out until they’ve already been contractually obligated to work in the project. One thing Publishers are pushing for is to have an actor deliver lines for multiple characters under one contract. So in the above case, the actor can go into a contract blindly and discover the only thing he’ll do is do one-liners for about twenty different characters. Sure this might seem and probably is an exaggeration on my part, but even if it’s a couple of characters and one or more call outs, it’s still expecting an actor to deliver on a job he has no idea he’s getting into until he’s already tied to it.
We all marvel at the MOCAP footage developers release or their upcoming games. We’ve seen actors fight, argue and do pretty much everything while covered in dots and dressed in a Lycra cat suit. If it were on TV or Film, the fights would have a coordinator and several consultants that make sure that everything is perfectly safe for the actors involved. That’s not the case with actors in MOCAP. Another part of the above issue of blindly going into a contract is the fact that the motion capture recording could be actually dangerous for them.
Publishers want to have the power to fine the actor if they’re inattentive during the session. This might seem fair, but as there is no clear definition to what inattentive is, it’ll be up to each developer or publisher to determine that. That is a minefield, because if they decide you are inattentive, it’s a $2500 fine. And it doesn’t stop there, they want the power to fine SAG-AFTRA up to $100.000 if an agent doesn’t send an actor to an audition, and even penalise the agent.
We only have access to fragmented information at the moment and what we have right now are some of the more inflammatory elements of this conflict, such as the previous demands by the publishers and the one about residuals from the actors. But the ones I’ve mentioned above, those Wheaton speaks of, are beyond reasonable. Everyone deserves a safe working environment. And no one should walk into a job blindly.
Not enough chairs at the table
Negotiations stalled and it looks like the strike is coming. It seems like there is nothing to stop it, not when both sides have reached stalemates. But as much as I hope for this resolution, I grew up with games without voices and Nathan Fillion said it best to Jen Taylor, aka Cortana: “’If you don’t do one of these games, fans are going to be upset, but they’re still going to buy the game. There’s only so much footing that you have as a voice actor. I don’t know if it’s because [players] don’t see us physically or what.”
Voice Actors are, for the most part, disposable (which makes that audition penalty and fining go from ridiculous to ludicrous). Unless they’re in Troy Baker and Nolan North’s league in terms of recognition and star-power, there are always more out there to replace them and that isn’t to say they won’t discard Baker and North if it comes to that.
One thing that stands above professional voice actors when it comes to preference in key roles for video games is Hollywood. From David Cage’s casting of Willem Dafoe and Ellen Page to Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister) playing Emperor Emhyr in The Witcher 3, developers keep bringing in Hollywood actors to play roles for them. Some of these actors might have never done any voice acting in the past and it’s a wildly different game to convey emotion to a microphone than to act with human beings. Peter Dinklage’s now infamous Ghost voice in Destiny is proof enough of that. It can backfire, but the Star Power is there to bring people in. In the video below, Dance mentions it’s his first video game experience.
But when the movie stars come in, they take massive chunks of the budget because they each have their standard fees and you can bet they’ll be sizeable. With so much gone for them, there’s little left for the voice actors. Kevin Conroy is a professional voice actor, but his tenure as Batman in one of the most successful animated series in history gives him that Star Power, one that can rival most actors out there and that’s not even considering Mark Hamil. You can be sure their pay in any of the Arkham Games was worlds away from what Baker got, even playing Joker.
I mentioned Jen Taylor and Terrence Carson, but I can bet you that if I hadn’t dropped the name Cortana and Kratos, you wouldn’t have known who they were. And that is the curse of the video game actor: at the centre of multimillion properties but in complete anonymity.
As I said above, I hope the situation finds a happy solution. Some games would suffer without voice acting, but it would disingenuous of me to say that it would be catastrophic if games didn’t have acting in them. Submerged is now the biggest game on Steam and it doesn’t even a grunt or a shout in it. Video Games will survive without voice acting, because as Nathan Fillion said, “[We’re] still going to buy the game.”