Do movie stars make better game actors?

The art of play.
March 17 2004 4:42 PM

The Game's the Thing

Why are Hollywood actors starring on your PlayStation?

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It wasn't so long ago that movie stars considered themselves above television. Compared to the mink-stole glamour of the silver screen, TV was a place for tacky plots, tiny characters, and cheap laugh-tracks. For someone aiming at acting stardom, being on the idiot box was a consolation prize, the play-at-home game of celebrity.

But in the '90s, that changed. TheSopranos and Sex and the City got more buzz than anything coming out of Hollywood. Big-name stars scrambled to make cameo appearances on hit TV shows. Julia Roberts and Reese Witherspoon showed up on Friends, whileWill & Grace took on almost variety-show proportions as everyone from Madonna to Chloë Sevigny to Matt Damon wandered in.

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Could the same thing happen to video games, traditionally an even lowlier small-screen medium? I recently picked up a copy of James Bond 007: Everything or Nothing, the superb new James Bond game in which you take control of the MI6 agent. You drive invisible Porsches, ventilate post-Communist guards with machine guns, then straighten your tie and jacket before rappelling off the wall of an exploding building. But since this is a Bond game, you also offer up groan-inducing wisecracks when confronted with the prospect of immediate death. At one point, I ran into Jaws, who hurled me across the room. "I don't suppose we could just talk about this?" my character joked weakly. Ba-dum-bum.

Playing James Bond isn't a new experience for gamers, many of whom lost countless hours tothe seminal GoldenEyefor the Nintendo 64. What's new about Everything or Nothing is the cast:Bond's cheesariffic lines are performed by the film 007, Pierce Brosnan. In fact, all the current Bond actors lent their faces and voices to the game. When the virtual Q sets you up with your gadgetry, he looks and sounds like the actual John Cleese (because he is). Same for Judi Dench, one of the fewOscar-winning stars to appear in a game. You also get to hang out with characters voiced by Shannon Elizabeth and Heidi Klum, which marks another first. Since the game isn't tied to a movie, the actresses are Bond girls only in the virtual sense.

God knows the world of game-voice acting could use some talent. In the early days of game design, programmers themselves would perform the voices, as one did in GoldenEye, with predictably disastrous results. (Imagine overly serious, nerd-damaged guys trying to deliver battle-scene do-or-die speeches to big-breasted virtual lovers.) Even successful, big-budget games such as Resident Evil managed to screw up the acting. (Sample wooden dialogue: "This whole place is a killing zone!") Gamers developed a love-hate relationship with execrable voice acting, in much the same way that teenagers enjoy wretched kung-fu movies.

Things got better in the '90s with the rise of C-listers, a generation of otherwise-unknown but talented voice actors who finally brought some life to in-game voices. Ever heard of Jennifer Hale? Probably not, even though she's done terrific voices for more than three dozen games. Mark Hamill, after playing Luke Skywalker, mostly vanished from regular TV and film. But he has thrived doing voices for games and animation, probably because his histrionic delivery suits the genres.

Now A-list actors have taken notice of games, and it's not hard to see why. They're a quick route to digital-age street cred. Appearing in a game gives an actor a sense of being on the cutting edge of technological "convergence" (whatever that is), as well as a vague whiff of indie flava. More important, it keeps a star current among young men. Any canny star—or, more likely, any star with a canny agent—eventually winds up looking enviously at a hot video game like the Grand Theft Auto series, which is objectivelycooler than almost anything that's come out of Hollywood in years. The list of voice actors for the GTA titles reads like a deranged Who's Who of '70s celebrities so out-of-date—Debbie Harry, Burt Reynolds, Lee Majors—that they are newly ironically famous.

The trend isn't just amongst has-beens, though. Christopher Walken voiced a character for True Crime: Streets of L.A., Ving Rhames' magnificent baritone graces two games, and hot-young-thing Michelle Rodriguez has dipped into game acting. Even Ed Asner decided to play a Jedi in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. And these stars are not, as with the Bond game, merely translating on-screen roles. They're developing entirely fresh characters specifically for games.

Does the quality of the voice work in a game matter? Yes and no: Good voice acting can't save a bad game, but talented actors can imbue a game script with genuine emotional freight. Some of the best in-game voice work is not the long bits of dialogue in boring cut-scenes, but tiny, subtle bits of atmosphere. In Tomb Raider, Lara Croft's quiet, voluptuous moans as she hurled herself off ledges were half of what made the character so erotically charged. In Super Mario 64, Charles Martinet—a longtime voice actor who has done dozens of Nintendo titles—does almost nothing but grunt, sigh, giggle, and gasp, yet he gives the tiny anime plumber a surprisingly human quality.

In Everything or Nothing, Shannon Elizabeth's voicing is full of juicy energy, and Willem Dafoe chews his evil-villain lines with gusto while neatly avoiding self-parody. You start wishing somebody would put these guys in an actual Bond film.Brosnan, in contrast, pretty much phones his performance in, which just goes to show that the mere presence of a big-name star doesn't mean the voice acting will fly. Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu, and Cameron Diaz starred in a Charlie's Angelsgame, but I've heard better emotive range come out of Stephen Hawking's voice box.

In an ideal world, the arrival of the A-list will make games less campy and more gripping. With Oscar-winners offering their talents, game designers might take their scripts and casting more seriously. Yet it's also possible that the sheer fame of the A-listers could screw things up if designers start offering slots in games to ego-bloated stars merely because their famous faces will sell product. The new star system is bound to smooth the rough edges that made games such a raw, giddy, punk-rock type of entertainment. How long until we suffer through the game equivalent of Gigli?

Clive Thompson is a longtime contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired. He is the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better.

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