Putting aside business machinations and corporate decision making, keeping the stars of Black Ops underground makes artistic sense because the game itself is focused on the player’s identity.
Spoken dialogue has become increasingly important to video game storytelling. Increasingly, actors that have gained fame in film or television are lending their talents to video games. However, not all celebrities receive the typical Hollywood treatment when they step off the red carpet and onto the digital plane. Instead of plastering an A-list celebrity on every poster and putting them front and center, many video games deal with celebrity in subtle ways. I’m neither a movie nor a casting director, so I can’t speak very well to the business dealings of voice acting. But, from a player’s perspective, celebrity talent in games takes a variety of forms that range from celebrated, to subtle, to self-aware.
I started thinking about the oddities of celebrity talent in games after finishing the Call of Duty: Black Ops single-player campaign. I found it odd that, despite the game’s considerable star power, Ice Cube, Gary Oldman, and Sam Worthington were not highlighted in the marketing campaign nor formally introduced until the end of the game. It seemed strange to hire such high profile talent, especially in light of the pedestrian script and the mediocre performances.
Putting aside business machinations and corporate decision making, keeping the stars of Black Ops underground makes artistic sense because the game itself is focused on the player’s identity. The true strength of Call of Duty is its multiplayer, a mode that allows players to build their own character, hone specific skills, and create their individual stories. Alex Mason is just a side attraction to the game’s true show: the massive, dynamic, and highly customizable online experience. The game’s marketing campaign reinforces this: whether you are Kobe Bryant or Jane Doe, you are the hero:
By refusing to idolize famous talent, games that focus on the player’s "in game" identity keep the cult of celebrity submerged. The aversion to highlighting celebrities is a common occurrence in games that facilitate player driven role play. Martin Sheen’s name and likeness are not splashed over the advertisements or the opening of Mass Effect 2, nor is Liam Neeson given a huge spotlight in Fallout 3. Despite their talent and fame, many recognizable celebrities keep a low profile, which allows them to add their talent to the game without detracting from the player’s immersion.
In other cases, purposely acknowledged celebrity involvement enhances the experience. In a game like Brutal Legend, Jack Black’s talents and public persona complement the game’s attempts at conveying its rock and roll tone. Brutal Legend dances astride the line of reality and fiction, presenting a world filled with magical instruments, overrun by satanic demons, and populated by real musicians like Ozzy and Lemmy. Jack Black’s manic mixture of sincerity and sarcasm fit the game’s simultaneously campy-yet-sincere heavy metal world. As one half of the legendary Tenacious D, Black’s career is itself a mixture of parody and authenticity. Explicitly naming him as the voice of the protagonist alerts the player to an integral part of the game’s personality.
Games within established franchises also benefit from noticeable celebrities. One of the strongest points of the 2009’s Ghostbusters: The Video Game was its cast. Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Bill Murray, and Ernie Hudson define their respective characters. Their absences would have been off-putting for fans and contrary to the game’s goal of standing alongside the films within the series’ canon. A similar situation occurs in Batman: Arkham Asylum, in which Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprise their roles from the seminal Batman: The Animated Series. To fans of the series, they are instantly recognizable as Batman and the Joker not because they are notable celebrities, but because they did pioneering work with the characters. By casting them, Rocksteady is acknowledging and adding to this work.
Winking at the Audience
Famous actors can allow developers to share a joke with the audience. Franchises like Command and Conquer go for the obvious parody by casting well known celebrities in campy roles. While playing his role as Emperor Yoshiro, George Takei has a twinkle in his eye that players are meant to see. As veteran satirist and recognizable celebrity, Takei adds another layer of parody to the game’s ridiculous world.
The God of War series uses celebrity actors for more subtle meta-commentary. By casting Harry Hamlin to reprise his role as Perseus, God of War connects itself to previous retellings of the Greek myths via the people who brought the myths to life. At the same time, having Kratos brutally drown and skewer Perseus is brutal metaphor for the game’s attempt at adding to the larger body of Greek mythology. In God of War III, Kevin Sorbo steps back into the role of Hercules. Instead of a noble hero, he plays a bitter, whiny man-child who meets a gruesome fate at Kratos’s hands. Because Kratos and the rest of the characters in God of War exist in a state of perpetual seriousness within the game’s fiction, casting familiar actors and then turning their traditional roles on their heads is a joke between the developers and the players. It is a joke that makes use of the larger culture in which the game exists.
It can be difficult to tell when famous actors are being cast with a straight face. In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Sergeant Tenpenny is an entertaining villain that seems modeled after the numerous Samuel L. Jackson-style “bad-ass black dude who plays by his own rules” characters. However, since Jackson himself plays the role, it is extremely difficult to determine where the homage ends and the caricature begins. It is conceivable that both Tenpenny and Jackson are targets of Rockstar’s satirical take on American pop culture. Then again, it seems equally plausible that Jackson was hired to do justice to role in a way that he alone could accomplish.
A Touch of Class
The last category of celebrity voice acting I want to discuss is exemplified by one of my favorite actors: Patrick Stewart. A world renowned, classically trained, royally knighted actor, Stewart brings Shakespearean gravitas to even the most absurd roles. For reasons I wish I understood, he also has a history of lending his talent to decidedly silly games. The trailer for Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, his most recent appearance, stands in stark contrast to the way that Black Ops and Mass Effect treat their famous talent:
In the first five seconds of the trailer, Stewart’s name and voice appear, instantly luring the audience in with the authority of past triumphs. This isn’t any old narrator: this is Prospero, this is Macbeth, this is Captain Jean-Luc Picard speaking! Under his care, hackneyed lines such as, “It is written that a pure-hearted warrior will claim the power of the Lords of Shadow as his own,” suddenly don’t sound so clunky. His character is never introduced nor is anything of significance explained in the trailer, but Stewart helps smooth over these oversights.
Perhaps the British enjoy favorable treatment. Stephen Fry narrates LittleBigPlanet with the same warmth and authority he brings to nature documentaries. As long as there are well spoken yet mentally unstable villains, Malcolm McDowell will have a job. Both actors have a distinctive style. Their talents and fame elevate their roles and imbue the dialogue with character that it might otherwise lack.
The interactive nature of the medium makes incorporating outside celebrities into video games a tricky balancing act. Celebrity shine can detract from a player’s agency, but it can also help unify a virtual world or connect a game to larger, cross-media traditions. As is the case in film and theater, a talented actor can improve a lackluster script. At the same time, it can be easy to fall into the trap of coasting on the fame of a celebrity rather than the material’s strengths or the actual talent that performers bring. Video games challenge the perks of fame; recognizable actors from older media must share the stage, as well as control over their performances, with the players themselves.