Let Us Pause to Give Props to Voice Actors
Confession time: When I’m not playing video games myself, I often watch my boyfriend play. We have completely opposite tastes in games: He’s a total fan of stealth-based games and RPGs, while I’m much more into collection games (i.e. Donkey Kong 64 and Spyro the Dragon) and combat strategy games (i.e. BioShock Infinite and Tokyo Jungle). I treat it as part of my education as a well-rounded nerd to observe him playing.
Recently he’s been playing Dishonored, a mind-melding steampunk combat game the two of us have officially termed the love child of Deus Ex and the original BioShock. It’s a gritty game, set in a parallel Victorian Era where everything runs on whale oil. Local religion is either monolithic pseudo-Christianity or creepy rituals set around the fetishization of whale bones (which act as power-ups, of course). The combat can be as bloody or stealthy as you like, and the creators take care to make the world as gut-wrenching as possible.
One of the measures taken to make the world as realistic as possible is having wonderful voice actors. Susan Sarandon, for one, voices the delightfully dark Granny Rags. Lena Headey, a.k.a. everyone’s favorite Lannister, also joined the cast. Their talent, as well as that of everyone in the cast, lends an air of realism that is difficult to duplicate. After all, it’s hard to kill a lady who sounds like this.
But this game made me start thinking about videogame voice actors in general. There used to be no need for them, because the genre simply hadn’t evolved to the point of their necessity. But as gamers have demanded more and more realistic game characters (or at the very least, more complicated characters), voice actors are in higher demand than ever. Duke Nukem probably wouldn’t have become so iconic if he wasn’t voiced by Jon St. John, and the entire atmosphere would have likely suffered without that go-bro voice behind it. Or what about Laughing Octopus’ girlishly sinister laugh? She helps set the tone of the game when she talks almost more than when she fights Solid Snake.
But unfortunately, voice actors hardly have a loyal following. Three people have played Mario in the United States releases alone, and hardly anyone who’s not seriously into video games knows their names. They’re no Mel Brooks. They’re also tragically underpaid, as reported by David Griner in a fabulous article on Polygon. The average salary for a video game actor is around $200 an hour. But that’s only per gig, which are never guaranteed. Rates don’t go up if they voice than one character in an individual game. They also don’t get the “residual payments” that other types of actors receive, such as syndication payments or fees for the re-release of an original work into a different format. Imagine if Jennifer Hale received a commission every time someone watched a trailer for God of War: Ascension or received a fee every time BioShock Infinite was sold on a different console than the ones it was originally developed for. This is how voice actors for television make their millions.
Some video game actors do do voices for cartoons as well, Jennifer Hale being a prime example. They are super hard-working people in an industry full of hardworking people, working even though they may never be famous as some of their colleagues in Dishonored. A quick look at Behind the Voice Actors (a website you could easily get lost in for hours) provides just a glance at the ridiculous amount of work these people do every year. As of right June 28, the top person on that site has done over 215 gigs. Imagine an actor doing 215 movies and plays in twenty years. They’d explode.
This brings up a big issue someone can potentially have with games like Dishonored: Why hire celebrities at all? Why not choose from the huge pool of video game voice actors already working in the biz? In the view of Kari Wahlgren, it’s all about the potential for marketing. She was quoted in the Polygon article as saying, “Is Celebrity A really better than Voice Actor A? No. But Celebrity A may go on Jimmy Kimmel and pimp your game." It’s true, a celebrity promoting video games, intentional or not, does something for that game. That’s an undeniable truth of the business. But that also lifts up non-game-pimping celebrity voice actors (like Sir Patrick Stewart and &@*% Princess Leia!), who presumably don’t do those gigs because it puts them in the spotlight.
So let us take a moment and show our appreciation to the people who make our games sound cool. They signify progress in video games and the move toward treating games as of art. Without them, visual elements would be the sole indicator of realism and the main way we’d immerse ourselves into video games. The Little Sisters in BioShock aren’t the best-modeled characters in the world if we were going by looks alone. But it’s Juliet Rose Landau’s voice that makes us care for those little girls more than we expect to. It makes us doubt our gameplay styles and takes us to a new level of immersion. It’s time we gave them their due and recognize them for their contribution to the games we love so much.