Sex Games Are Voice Acting's Wildest New Frontier

Illustration for article titled Sex Games Are Voice Actings Wildest New Frontier
Image: FOW Interactive

To the voice actress known as SilkyMilk, the most important part of her job is authenticity. Hentai, as a rule, is escapist entertainment: something prospective masturbators the world over turn to when the humdrum restrictions of reality fail to appease their fantasies. SilkyMilk believes it her highest honor is to reflect those same fantasies as sympathetically and soberly as possible; to truly embody a character, even as that character prepares to fuck a giant squid.

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“It has to sound like it’s really happening. For example, if a character is having intercourse with some kind of huge tentacle monster or a man with a massive appendage, she’s not going to sound subdued, or quiet, or uninterested, is she? She’s gonna be moaning out loud,” says SilkyMilk. “I’ve sometimes really hurt my vocal chords by doing very loud, very intense moans for scenes like this, or hurt my jaw by using a sex toy to dub a long, intense oral scene for several minutes straight. You gotta be careful!”

And so, SilkyMilk keeps an extremely NSFW reel pinned to the top of her Twitter that details a few of the heroic wails, heaving sighs, and wild-eyed seductions she’s laid to tape. As a rule, SilkyMilk specializes in the airhead, ingenue anime girl, the ones who seem to fall into yet another lascivious bind every hour or so. She’s used her voice to pantomime Bulma in a greasy Vegeta-centric porn parody, starred in a horny Nier-themed machinima, and fucked countless orcs, goblins, soldiers, and mages in the constant trickle of high-fantasy smut that lives on this corner of nerdy obsession and cheerfully unashamed vulgarity.

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Last year SilkyMilk captured one of the hottest roles in digital adult entertainment—a nymphomaniac space pirate named Killision in an adventure game called Subverse, which has earned over $2 million on Kickstarter. Adult game studios finally have money to spend, and talent like SilkyMilk are enjoying the windfall.

“As the voice acting industry becomes more saturated with talent, the need for higher quality grows, and I think that is gradually happening in the adult [voice-over] community,” she says. “I’ve voiced for a lot of NSFW games where the quality of the VO was the same as what I’ve also experienced for a ‘normal’ game. You still have to be able to deliver good quality.”

Historically, it’s never been easy to make money in adult video games. The ESRB blacklists anything moderately lewd with the scarlet letter-like Adults Only rating, which effectively obliterates the product from mainstream commercial channels. (The most famous demonstration of this came during the Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas Hot Coffee scandal, and the resulting congressional scrutiny into Rockstar Games.)

But by the 2010s, as crowdfunding options and decentralized subscription models like Patreon took hold, adult entertainment creators suddenly had new means to avoid the tripwires of commercial taste and bring their smut directly to consumers. (I wrote about this trend in a story for Kotaku in 2018.) Today, one of the highest-earning projects on Patreon is a cheeky porn game called Summertime Saga, which generates over $60,000 a month. All of the old rules have been cast aside.

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This newfound bounty has trickled down to a whole generation of freelancers and gig-workers on the fringes of the porn gaming space. As the genre propagates, the demand for capable VO work increases—especially as studios find the cash flow to hire professionals. SilkyMilk tells me she’s been performing adult voice work since 2015, when there were considerably fewer full-time moaners on the circuit. Now, she says, new talent is emerging every day.

Gina Galore is one of those fledglings. Over the course of her six-year career in VO she had only ever worked on squeaky-clean, safe-for-work projects. That changed last year, when she saw the casting call for Subverse. “I wanted to audition for it very badly. So I created my NSFW alias and one thing led to another,” she says. “I booked a role in Subverse [the stern, hyperspace dominatrix General Elizabeth Blythe] and started working on other NSFW projects with different clients as well. It’s been a blast so far!”

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Galore doesn’t have an agent or a manager. She organizes the lion’s share of her work over Twitter and her pink-hued website, which links out to a CV featuring some of the most memorable buxom femmes she’s voiced. Upon finishing a reading in her home studio, Galore sends the work to clients over either email or Discord.

But even working from home can get tricky for adult voice actors in the covid-19 era. SilkyMilk tells me that she lives with a roommate, with whom she’s self-quarantining in compliance with social distancing guidelines. Traditionally she’d wait for an empty house to complete her contracts, as she finds it difficult to moan with abandon with others in earshot. Now, says SilkyMilk, she doesn’t have that luxury. “I can’t focus or do it properly if somebody else is listening,” she says. “I’ve still been able to work gradually when [my roommate] goes out exercising or something.”

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At the very least, Galore and SilkyMilk can rely on conventional VO jobs during the course of the pandemic. Like everyone else I interviewed for this story, they conduct all of their adult work under pseudonyms, reserving their everyday and/or legal names for non-smut voice work. Thus the prurient output of their adult personas never overlaps with the less salacious realities of their day jobs.

An ancient Hollywood proverb says that there’s no coming back from porn, yet I was still surprised to learn these actors believe that same wisdom carries over into voice work. Would VO employers care that they’ve hired someone who mimics anime orgasms on the side?

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Who knows, but Galore doesn’t want to find out. She records all of her smut anonymously so it “won’t have an effect on [my] SFW business,” which she believes is an advantage that belongs exclusively to adult performers in the VO space. The pornstars who appear on camera have a much harder time leveraging their acting abilities into higher echelons of film and TV, but Galore can practice her craft without physically appearing on camera, ensuring her some measure of plausible deniability from any moralist vendors.

She can earn her money supplying the tawdriness of General Bylthe knowing that, with a judicious scouring of the paper trail, nobody will trace that work back to her legal name. “An on-camera actor is actually using their body,” says Galore. “A voice actor is only using their voice and fantasy.”

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Of course, Galore has another very good reason to value her anonymity. She’s a woman working in porn, a realm in which unsavory characters can quickly weaponize personal identifying information.. Given the chance to guarantee her safety from both doxxing weirdos and dangerously overzealous fans, why wouldn’t she? “[It’s] to keep enough privacy from people who feel that just because you’re working in the adult industry, you’re also available to them for ‘other things,’” says Galore.

Even so, other performers in the business leave their double lives out in the open. Another adult voice actor named Pixie Willow adds that plenty of her colleagues link openly between their adult and mainstream professional accounts. [Update: April 15, 8:32 pm:  Willow notes that she recommends against this practice.]

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I wonder how much longer this taboo will stand. Subverse represents the first time an out-and-out Western porn game has enjoyed a seven-figure budget. The money in adult games is only going to keep rising, which I expect will allow an increasing number of voice actors to entirely dedicate themselves to lewd work, making bank without needing worry about the pearl-clutching concerns of other, more conservative employers.

In the past decade we’ve watched the radioactive nature of porn careers slowly atrophy, settling into a more normalized place in society. Mia Malkova is a Twitch streamer now, for god’s sake. Will the same normalization process occur for folks who work in adult games? Will there be a VO Lisa Ann? An elder-stateswoman who earns an unparalleled artistic credo, and uses her influence to open the doors for her many acolytes? What about a VO Mia Khalifa, who uses porn to become famous in a distinctly non-porn way? The adult and video game industries are now merging into a state of symbiosis. There’s no putting the horse back into the barn, and it’s up to us how well—or poorly—we’ll treat the performers.

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“There are teams out there that are paving the way to the future of porn games and they are doing it so well,” says Willow. Making sure that the porn gaming industry is seen as a very real and proper area of work is crucial to bringing more professional voice actors and actresses in.”

Luke Winkie is a writer and former pizza maker from San Diego, currently living in Brooklyn. In addition to Kotaku, he contributes to Vice, PC Gamer, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and Polygon.

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DISCUSSION

The problem here is that Subverse is an anomaly in the NSFW game space. Part of the reason they got so much money is because the studio behind the game, StudioFOW, had already made a name for themselves making top-notch NSFW animation. People knew that, at the bare minimum, the lewd animations in the game were going to be fap-worthy, so they backed it.

Summertime Saga’s success, meanwhile, has largely been due to it presenting itself as a high-quality production by standing out with it’s artwork (which is of pretty good quality). DC didn’t start making 60k a month overnight though. It took a while of having to build up enough of a reputation in the NSFW gaming community before people really started getting behind him.

And that’s the catch-22 behind NSFW games: until the mainstream stops thinking of them as NSFW/lewd games, and just considers them games, there will always be this hurdle that creators have to get over before they can start making money (and thus, put additional quality into the game). Another NSFW creator on Patreon, DrPinkCake, is actually a pretty good writer and his first game, Acting Lessons, is probably one of (if not the) best NSFW game I’ve ever played. But even he can only do so much because he has to rely on Patreon for funding, and his Steam releases can’t contain the NSFW bits without a patch (though honestly, Acting Lessons is, IMO, good even without the lewd bits).