The trouble with hiring celebrity voice talent

Liam Neeson was cast as the player’s father in Fallout 3.

A few years ago, I was forced to wear a dunce’s hat for being the very last person in the world to realise that the father in Fallout 3 was voiced by none other than Liam Neeson. This was not good because not only did the hat itch, but it spoiled the game a bit for me. Every time dad piped up from that moment on, all I could think was, ‘That’s Liam Neeson.’

Of course, he did a good job, as you’d expect – the fella’s a world-class actor. But hearing him in a game, even in not-so-distant 2008, still fractured the immersion, to coin a phrase. It’s an odd phenomenon, because I didn’t watch the movie Taken and think, ‘Hold up. That’s Liam Neeson there, making those highly quotable threats on the phone.’ No, I was more than happy to watch him run across someone’s roof and shoot foreigners.

This odd phenomenon, which I have entitled The Odd Phenomenon, isn’t because the famous person is miscast or has such a distinctive voice that it stands out jarringly. It’s simply that games occupy their own worlds, and anything that intrudes unexpectedly from the real world stands out. Perhaps it’s because I’ve worked on so many, and have had quite a lot of experience in casting and recording voiceover people, but I’ll be happily playing a game and suddenly Brian Blessed booms from the speakers and instantly I wonder what he’s doing there, followed in quick succession by who chose him, how much he got paid, and whether he hung around the recording studio afterwards to recount anecdotes. Suddenly, the game doesn’t seem quite as exciting an experience.

There was a time – and let’s call it the mid to late ’90s – when meeting rooms in game development studios were full of people listing the famous people they’d like to use as voices in their games because a) they could afford to hire them, b) they believed it added a certain cachet to the product, and c) they wanted to meet them. It was, for a while, the sign of an unsure-of-itself industry hoping some A-list glamour would rub off on it.

“Hiring a famous face was, for a while, the sign of an unsure-of-itself industry hoping some A-list glamour would rub off on it.”

For their part, in fact literally for their part, the actors who consented to be in games would know nothing. There was no script to learn beforehand, no story to get to grips with and no, as they might say, motivation. They’d turn up at the studio, get fawned on, ask who they were supposed to be and then read lines for a bit. Halfway through, they’d admit that they’d never played a videogame in their lives and tell a funny story about working with Richard E Grant. Then, when their two hours were up, they’d ask whether they could have a free copy of the finished game for their Mac SE.

Now, of course, that’s not the case. Lend your distinctive tones to a blockbusting game and more people will hear your voice there than in the next film you do. Even actors, a notoriously dim and self-absorbed crowd, know that the game industry dwarfs the film industry.

But speaking of dwarfs (or dwarves), even young Elijah Wood, who of course Frodo’d his way bravely through numerous Lord Of The Rings games, caused me to stop and say, “Hey, that’s young Elijah Wood.” And suddenly the magic of Middle-earth was gone, and all I could think of was him sitting on a tall pile of cushions on an Aeron chair in a sound booth, his little head all but invisible sandwiched between the headphones, reading out lines from an Excel document. Funnily enough, when Mark Hamill crops up in games of any genre, I simply shrug and try to make it to the next save point.

Naturally, Elijah Wood lent his voice and likeness to The Lord Of The Rings games, but he also recently voiced the lead in Double Fine’s Broken Age.

So the problem, for me at least, is that the insertion of a famous dude (or lady; ladies can be famous too) in a game is like the moment when a celebrity walks into an American studio sitcom as a cameo. There’s one of those inevitable pauses while everyone screams and cheers, then it’s back to business, even though the audience is still turning to one another and saying, “It’s him! It’s really him!” (Or “It’s her!” if it happens to be one of those famous ladies.)

The answer to this pressing problem that I – but apparently nobody else – seem to have is to not allow anyone famous to lend their voice talents to games. There’s plenty of work for them elsewhere, and if they want to spend time dressed sloppily and sitting in a sound booth, then Pixar is always there.

If you must, absolutely must, hire a famous person to be in your game, do not crow about it. Hide their name at the bottom of the credits, or ideally leave it out. Let players briefly think that the NPC sounds a bit like Chiwetel Ejiofor or Ellen DeGeneres while they continue slaughtering the zombies and ill-advisedly sparing the spooky little girl in the bloody nightdress.

Better still, hire – still uncredited, of course – Ken Dodd to say four lines as a melancholic computer countdown sequence to self-destruct. Use Sally James out of Tiswas as the rampaging Troll Lord. And for your spooky little girl in the torn, bloody nightdress, book Joe Pasquale doing a Japanese accent and simply pitch-shift him down an octave. You’re welcome.

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