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With the release of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and the highly visible presence of one Kevin Spacey, I want to take a minute to talk about an interesting trend in modern gaming; that is their seeming desire to be movies more than anything.

Take a second and do an experiment with me. Think about the best performance you’ve experienced in a game.

Was it Femshep in the Mass Effect Series? Joel and Ellie in the Last of Us? GLaDOS in Portal? The Luteces in Bioshock Infinite?

Whatever your pick was, I’d be willing to bet it wasn’t Patrick Stewart in The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. There might be some who enjoyed Liam Neeson’s overture in Fallout 3 but his absence through most of the game (along with spending part of it as a dog) hurts his chances. And who could forget the powerhouse performances of Idris Elba, William Fichtner and Timothy Olyphant in Modern Warfare 3? Well, everyone. 20 dollars if you can tell me their characters’ names, no checking IMDB!

The reason I’m belabouring this point is because there are truly great performances in video games and great voice actors that nobody knows the names of because a lot of headlines in the gaming industry follow the “look its Kevin Spacey!” archetype. Games developers, publishers and especially PR seem to believe that the concept of Hollywood star power carries over to video games. If you look at Call of Duty you could be forgiven for believing this is true, but it is more self-fulfilling prophecy than anything. The biggest games have the biggest budgets, so they pay for the biggest names, their games sell well and then Activision believes the biggest draw in Black Ops was Sam Worthington’s turn as an American soldier with an Austrailian accent.

The reason for this trend is, I believe,  a self esteem issue on behalf of video games. When discussing games amongst ourselves we are happy to talk about how gaming is the biggest entertainment industry in the world, how Hollywood wishes they had our numbers. However because gaming can still be used as a punchline for jokes about nerds on late night talk shows we’re still looking to be legitimized by the public at large. Its the same reason that “cinematic” is one of the most commonly used adjectives when describing video games, those trying to sell video games dream about the mainstream appeal that movies have had for decades. If you can point at a game and say “look, Gary Oldman is in a video game” then maybe they are legit, maybe we can stop defending ourselves.

Do you know who these two are? You should.

Do you know who these two are? You should.

In my opinion, the cause behind this attitude is how fast gaming grew. Film grew from 1890 through the 20th century to become one of the dominant art forms in the world. Though there was pushback, conception of motion pictures as a curiosity, the legitimacy of the medium was proven decisively. Meanwhile gaming has grown significantly faster, taking the top spot in entertainment in a mere 40 years. The memory of games as a curiosity, as a toy is too fresh in peoples memories, children of today will understand what games are, and what they can do but there are many who simply don’t. Thats why we get interactive movie style games from Quantic Dream and thats why we load games up with Hollywood talent; to say “take us seriously!”.

Now I’m not saying we need to kick all Hollywood actors out of video games, Gary Oldman was actually excellent as Viktor Reznov, I’m just saying they don’t need to be our crutch. We have incredible voice and performance actors in the industry already and I find it a bit disheartening that this new digital Kevin Spacey receives more attention than a Jennifer Hale, Troy Baker or Simon Templeman. At the end of the day, games aren’t movies, we don’t throw massive names at the top of a poster and have the actors go on three month press tours; games are based on the experience.

In a recent interview with the Telegraph Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto remarked;

“These younger game creators, they want to be recognized,” he sighs. “They want to tell stories that will touch people’s hearts. And while I understand that desire, the trend worries me. It should be the experience, that is touching. What I strive for is to make the person playing the game the director. All I do is help them feel that, by playing, they’re creating something that only they could create.”

This I believe encapsulates the difference. Movies are storytelling, an audience sits down and experiences what you present them and the most important part is the actors themselves. Games contain stories, but they are more; they are acts and actions and experiences, creations unique unto the person holding the controller. It is folly to expect anyone to make the shift seamlessly and frankly I don’t know why we’re trying so hard. How much does the 5th movie star in your game add to the experience? Could the budget for Sean Bean have gone somewhere else? Somewhere better?

I’m not a game developer and I’m not an actor, maybe everyone of the actors I mentioned above were simply the best people for the job. Hollywood actors aren’t bad they’re just representative of a mistaken desire to be seen as legitimate, not just by gamers but the whole world. As long as we hope to gain that legitimacy via another industry, with clout by association I don’t believe we’re reaching our full potential. I look at gaming as an industry and I just wish we could see ourselves for what we are, not what we wish we were.

We’re not just movies with a controller in the viewers hand, we’re so much more.

Wyatt Hnatiw

Staff Writer

Wyatt Hnatiw is a lifelong gamer with a borderline inappropriate love of BioWare RPGs and Bioshock. Maybe he just loves the prefix Bio...

  • Mike Nieto

    Great article. I agree with most of your points but would like to add something else. With the adding of Hollywood actors as faces for game characters, the games lose one of the most important things they have: character design.

    Besides the voices, one of the things that make characters like Joel, Ellie, Elizabeth, Link, Master Chief and many other iconic is their design, their faces that were created from the imagination of the developers. This is one of the things I appreciate the most in video games and to be honest, having Kevin Spacey on CoD makes me keep my distance form the game rather than making me play it.

  • Fenrir007

    I’m not entirely sold that this is the reason why Hollywood talent is so sought after to be featured in games. This attempt of legitimizing gaming culture is something I see a lot more from gaming journalists and publications than game devs themselves. You can see how gaming publications gradually shifted from the loose language and informational oriented reporting done on game magazines of old to in-depth critical analysis, sometimes in detriment of issues relevant to help gamers decide what to purchase. This growing discussion of tangential or meta issues issues shows, to me, a desperation from certain game journalists in trying to have their profession be respected and taken as seriously as actual journalists from other fields.

    On the other hand, I don’t see developers worried too much about this. Most developers seem to understand that games are a potentially much deeper medium than movies, being capable of doing everything a movie does as well as taking the “viewer” along the ride with his input. If games aren’t taken as seriously as they should, it is merely due to either outdated preconceptions from the older generation shaping it or a lack of good talent to craft good stories in games. However, even that is relative, because many of the good stories in games are a product of emergent gameplay instead of a script, and the gamer is as much of a writer as the gamedev – maybe it would be accurate to call this emergent narrative. To see proof of this, all you need to do is read a couple of stories from Dwarf Fortress, Ultima Online, Stalker and such.

    If that is so, then why they keep going for these actors? For publicity, I would say. They are extremely famous with their own following of fans and a proven record of good work. Their movie celeb status paves the way for publications outside of gaming to cover the game, even if only tangentially. They are like a rally flag in the middle of a battle since they are instantly recognizable – a good, real face to represent your game to the outside world. You could perhaps consider this as a part of the marketing budget instead of the game development budget. A choice I, personally, feel is misguided, as these actors are generally very expensive, and unless you are making one of those $200 million budget games, then you should avoid them altogether (example: Broken Age – featuring Elijah Wood certainly wasn’t cheap, and the game ran into budget issues, so that was a very bad decision).

    One of the problems in the gaming industry is how game developers, voice actors etc have absolutely no visibility save from a very select number of iconic people. Most gamers don’t know or care about who made a game they loved. It is, after all, something you get to know mostly from either going deep into gaming culture (which is a thing mostly left to hardcore gamers) or reading ending credit sequences (something even hardcore gamers usually won’t do). This lack of visibility makes it impossible to have a great veteran game developer aggregate value to his work with his mere presence. This relative anonymity could, perhaps, be broken if the industry gave more exposure to their own set of talents so that people will know who to follow. This issue has been alleviated lately (thanks, in part, to how the diffusion of information was made easy from the internet), but we still have a long way to go.

    One thing I think this industry should foster is more dev-on-gamer interactions. This not only helps visibility, but also creates empathy between players and game makers. This is something I noted as I interacted with game developers on Twitter and through e-mail. I’m sure I’m unconsciously more likely to look favorably upon games that have easily accessible devs than on those where the makers are locked in an ivory tower. The trade shows are also heavily (or completely) industry-focused. Perhaps we need more events where game devs will be there not for business, but as a celebration of gaming – a party to which gamers will be invited. It is unfortunate that most devs end up stone walled by PR.

    I look for a day when amazing talents like Tony Jay (RIP you wonderful bastard) will be embraced by the public as themselves instead of their game avatars.

    PS.: Regarding cinematic games, there is a wonderful video series done by Investig8iveJournalism on youtube comparing it to movies at lenght:

  • Not much more that can be added to this. Says it all, really.

    Also, on the point of emergent gameplay and narratives, that requires freedom. A game that almost plays itself offers no chance of this magical thing.

    Finally, controversial opinion ahoy. Jennifer Hale is very, very overrated. Every one of the actors mentioned in this article, either live-action or voice actor, are better than her.

  • Fenrir007

    Indeed. I’m always wary of experiences that constantly wrestle the control away from the player.

    I left my opinion in a recent article in debate format held on

    That article is a good read, as well.

  • lucben999

    Ellie is just Ellen Page though.

  • Red Lagoon

    Also the censorship spree from Activision to those who shows bugs and flaws on You Tube (not related to HW I know)!

  • Wyatt Hnatiw

    I agree for the most part.

    I think the source of Hollywood talent in games is not necessarily the Devs, they understand good performance doesn’t necessarily come from an A list actor. I think its publisher pressure that is the source, they’re the ones who have to market this game, and they’re the ones who will benefit from having Hollywood stars to talk about. Just look at all the voice actor vignettes from MW3.

    Anyway, you raise a ton of good points, thanks for the comment!

  • Fenrir007

    You are correct, I should have mentioned publishers in my comment as well. Truth is I was putting them all in the same bag. However, devs also do this on some capacity – an example is the one I mentioned, with Tim Schaffer’s self published Broken Age casting Elijah Wood without external pressure.

    But like you said, this is definitely a decision that seems to mostly come from a business meeting from publishers and imposed top-down. Thanks for addressing the comment!

  • Wyatt Hnatiw

    Has Activision been filing false DMCA claims on youtube? Could you show me? I’d love to look into it.

  • Red Lagoon

    Unfortunately all I got for now are rumors!

  • bazzar

    Best performance in voice acting for me was Jeanette & Therese in Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines.

  • Arbitrary

    I will never understand the hysterical love for FemShep’s voice-acting. It was… okay. That was it. BroShep had more range of emotion, but was more flatly acted. FemShep had significantly less range, but had more feeling within that limited range.

    That was it.

    Absolutely overblown and overrated.

  • Well, Kevin Spacey is the best part of COD:AW everything else is just meh. I don’t think its legitimacy they are looking for, its how to earn more $$. Someone on the top said hmm, I think we should hire some famous actor, you know, someone people recognize and will probably buy the game because of them. Something like that. Personally I don’t mind them hiring famous actors to do voice acting as long as everything else is on the level.

  • Fenrir007

    Can’t believe I forgot that one, she was awesome in the role. Bloodlines had some pretty great VA work. I especially liked the female host of the radio station in the game.

  • bazzar

    ah yes “The Deb of Night”, favorite part was when the Tzimisce calls up her show.

  • bazzar

    Rome: Total War had just one guy do all the units IIRC and it was incredibly memorable.


  • Fenrir007

    I think it is one of the cases of people letting their enjoyment of the game affect their perception of how good the voice acting was.

  • Wyatt Hnatiw

    Femshep is one of my favorites but I’m sure I let my love of Mass Effect colour my opinion. For the purposes of the article I was just rattling off what many people consider the best recent performances in gaming.

    Regardless of what some think Femshep does top a lot of people’s lists, and even if its not the best, it speaks to the strength of the medium that sheer enjoyment of the game can lead you to list something as incredible when taken away from the experience of the game it might not hold up. That’s just me though, there’s no right answer to “which is your favourite?”