If Ubisoft wanted me to pay loads of money for Splinter Cell: Blacklist DLC, then they’d offer an audio track of Michael Ironside doing all the Sam Fisher dialogue. Charge me $20. I’d pay it. Seriously.
Back when the first Splinter Cell game came out, I never thought I’d ever care about what Sam Fisher sounded like. He was just another gruff dude that I was steering through a video game. But, after five or six titles in the stealth action franchise, it turns out I do care a lot. No offense to new Sam Fisher actor Eric Johnson, but I winced the first time I heard his version of the Fifth Freedom sneak-hero.
I’d argue that the voice of a playable character communicates more about their personalities than their character design or in-game abilities do. Voice acting’s second only to maybe animation in terms of its importance for making audiences love or loathe a character. In the last few months, we’ve seen three prominent video game franchises commit to changes in the actors who voice their lead characters. Splinter Cell Blacklist has Johnson taking over for original Sam Fisher Michael Ironside. Batman: Arkham Origins will have Roger Craig Smith as the Dark Knight and not the long-established Kevin Conroy. And, after weeks of teases and speculation, it’s been confirmed that David Hayter won’t be reprising the role of Snake in Metal Gear Solid V. That job goes to Kiefer Sutherland now. (Though there still might be some sort of Hideo Kojima misdirection going on in this case, since more details about the game have yet to be revealed.) With all this flux, it’s worth thinking about the role that voicework plays in game creation.
"Once upon a time, it didn't matter who did voices for video games. It was a last-minute task given, it seemed, to anyone who could read."
With most Nintendo first-party characters, the company’s made a choice to keep them relatively mute. Really, it’s the player’s control that serves at the character’s ‘voice’. Think about how different Samus Aran came across in Metroid: Other M. Sure, the story and dialogue rubbed some people the wrong way. But the very fact that words were coming out of Samus’ mouth at all made her seem changed. She was no longer the grimly resolved engine of destruction from previous games. She seemed, at once, more knowable and less focused.
Think about how weird it’d be if Gordon Freeman started yapping in the next Half-Life game. All of a sudden, he’d have to start explaining things and expressing his feelings and all that. An element of mystery would get removed from the crowbar-wielding scientist. A very important ingredient of a winning recipe would be changed and maybe not for the better.
When it is in a game, voicework is a primary vector for telling players about the world that’s been built and how they’re supposed to feel about the scenarios happening inside of it. When Nolan North quips during a gunfight, that’s an indirect communication about the level of danger the player and Nathan Drake are facing. Hearing Jennifer Hale’s voice come close to cracking lets you know how high the stakes are in a Mass Effect game.
"... putting new performers in these roles amounts to severing a long-term relationship."
Once upon a time, it used to not matter who did voices for video games. It was a last-minute task given, it seemed, to anyone who could read. But, nowadays, it’s an opportunity to define a crucial component of understanding primary and secondary characters. Getting a big Hollywood persona attached to a project doesn’t always help achieve that end, since the facial expression skills screen actors hone aren’t always of use in a video game.
And, yes, you can explain away these voice actor changes in any number of ways. A new person in the recording booth could be meant to drive home a change about the direction of the series. Sometimes, full performance capture like in Blacklist—as opposed to something that was previously only a vocal portrayal—requires someone new to play the part. Or maybe the main character needs to come across as younger or significantly changed. And who knows if it’s contract negotiations that might influence personnel changes? Some people might simply too expensive to keep on after a while.
Nevertheless, putting new performers in these roles amounts to severing a long-term relationship. Ironside voiced Fisher in five games over most of the last decade. Kevin Conroy has played Batman in one medium or another for just about 20 years. And Hayter’s first turn as Snake was in 1998. The new guys may be good—great, even—but their very presence will make the experience of playing Batman, Sam Fisher and Snake entirely different. And if these new performers don’t live up to their forebears, there’s always the mute button. Or really, really expensive vocal track DLC. It could be a whole new revenue steam, after all. Think about it, won’t you, Ubisoft?