I didn’t buy Fallout 3 because Liam Neeson voiced the main character’s dad. I didn’t buy L.A. Noire because half the cast of Mad Men were in the game. I didn’t play the Assassin’s Creed series because of Kristen Bell’s minor role in the game. So why do we make such a big deal about big named celebrities in our games?
This year at E3, David Cage, best known for his experimental game Heavy Rain, revealed Ellen Page to be his main muse for his up-and-coming game Beyond: Two Souls. As exciting as the announcement was for Cage to reveal, the demo didn’t really show any of Page’s acting. She just sat in a chair for a few minutes looking dazed while a confused police officer questioned her. Though it’s amazing someone like Ellen Page is taking a step into the gaming world, to gamers, however, whose name gives more recognition: Ellen Page or David Cage? Ellen Page does have a fan base, but I doubt that base is willing to spend $60 on a game they may or may not like. Games are not like movies, yet developers tend to treat videogames as if they are.
The relationship with videogames and movies is a confusing one. Both mediums are very similar, but at the same time completely different from one another. Games need gameplay to drive their players while movies solely depend on plot, characters, and/or story to keep the viewers interested for two hours. Games heavy in narrative are borrowing some of film techniques to keep their players content for well over 20 hours, but not every game succeeds at this. Sometimes the plot becomes convoluted or the gameplay gets too repetitive. So how is a well known actor supposed to save this?
Actually, that is an unfair question to ask since actors aren’t the only reason something is successful. Yes, there have been films where an actor brightens or engulfs their viewers into submission, but that power doesn’t always translate in games.
Nolan North, one of the most famous actors among videogame voices, recently did a short segment on G4 about videogames and movies while also sharing a story about getting dropped from a gig. The reason wasn’t because of his acting – come on, it’s Nolan North – but the company decided to go with the actual actor North was imitating. You can already see the problem with this, can’t you? The actor, which North would not disclose, would be paid a larger sum of money than North even though the actor’s voice was all that was needed. North insisted he perfectly imitated the actor’s voice and willing to do so for a lower wage, but what North lacked was the brand carried through his name. The actual actor was the brand and his name could easily be pasted on the front covers of the game (even though the job was for a kids game and kids probably don’t IMDB actors on a daily basis). The result of this story is unknown, but it seems stories where a celebrity gets overpaid for a voice job are common among voice acting.
Videogame companies don’t all operate on the idea that big named celebrities will sell their game, but that doesn’t mean these same companies won’t push out the star’s name as a selling point. Brutal Legend, a highly creative and funny game by Double Fine, sold quite poorly even though Jack Black headlined the main voice of the game along with rock legends Ozzy Osbourne and Rob Halford. The odd thing is Jack Black promoted the hell out of Brutal Legend, even showing up to the MTV VMA’s inflated in head-banger gear. Sadly, only a small number of gamers, and an extremely hardcore Jack Black fan base, bought the game in the end. I am one of them.
In more recent examples, developers id Software used John Goodman’s voice and his name to promote their game Rage. The game didn’t exceed their expectation. Rapper Ice-T voiced a character in Gears of War 3 and even showed up at E3 to promote the game, but I highly doubt the game’s success was due to his street cred. Miranda Lawson of the Mass Effect series got her famass…eh, famous start from Yvonne Strahovski. Though she isn’t the sole reason ME is well known, Strahovski’s image is one of the more memorable parts of the series. Stephen Merchant and J.K. Simmons both received praise from critics for their voice work in Portal 2. However, Valve’s name is bigger.
When it all comes down to it, celebrities voicing characters in games are like sprinkles on donuts. They add color to the game, not flavor. Wait, that’s not right. They are like petals on a flower. They look pretty, but aren’t the root of the whole flower. That metaphor sucks. Celebrities are like celebrities voice acting in games. They sound great at first, but gamers soon realize the game is the main star. I’ll go with that.