#PerformanceMatters

It’s already hard to think back to a time when video games didn’t have voice acting. Whether or not you’re playing Metal Gear SolidDestinyFallout, or Final Fantasy, your favorite characters have real, living personalities of their own. But it’s not some random person among the development team that breathes life into these pixels, but a cast of extremely talented actors who simply want to be treated fairly and equally.

SAG-AFTRA, the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, is looking to defend many of its members who are near and dear to us gamers. Unfortunately, these performance artists are often looked upon and treated as a frivolous part of the development experience. It is not uncommon for for companies to drop actors from expected employment or unfairly compensate them for the work that they do. As a result, many of the industry’s top actors are sounding off their support for a strike.

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For the sake of full transparency, I admittedly was not aware of the struggles faced by the industry’s voices for some time. I particularly recall an interview between Greg Miller of Kinda Funny and Erin Fitzgerald (Persona 4, Danganronpa) which you can view here In the interview, Erin spoke of how she chooses the developers she works with based on their prior treatment of actors. She mentions that it is not uncommon for creators to drop actors abruptly and leave them without work. This becomes increasingly worrisome for actors like Fitzgerald who should expect to reprise a common role such as Chie Satonaka so long as the character is utilized.

Another recent example of this disrespect was Konami’s decision to stealthily drop David Hayter from his roles as Snake and Big Boss in Metal Gear Solid, a character he portrayed since 1998. Kiefer Sutherland took over the role of Big Boss (Naked/Punished/Venom Snake) in The Phantom Pain. In an interview with YouTuber Yongyea, James Piddock (Major Zero, MGS3), discussed Konami’s statement explaining that they wanted to bring in an actor with more subdued reactions and facial expressions of a man in his late forties. Piddock remarked “it’s absolutely ludicrous,” and continued, “if you can believe that, you’ll believe anything.” Yong was keen to point out that Sutherland should not be the object of frustration. Piddock followed up stating “Yea he’s good, he’s lovely, and he’s a good actor, but God, where’s the loyalty?”

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Based upon the demands of SAG-AFTRA, not only is this lack of transparency between developers and actors a concern, but many other aspects of the job also require attention that is sorely lacking. Likely the biggest concern is the amount of stress placed upon the voice due to excessive line delivery or performing harsh sounds such as screaming. The union is looking for their members to receive some form of stunt pay similar to to what your favorite Hollywood actors and actresses receive for doing their own stunt work. In addition, with the rising expectation for actors to perform full motion capture, they are also making a modest request for stunt coordinators to be on hand to assist and keep performers safe. The final demand is that actors receive bonus compensation should a title achieve massive success. They are looking for bonuses at every two million copies sold, with a cap at eight million copies. While the bonus might seem like a little, a quick look at sales figures shows that hitting this landmark is not something that is achieved on a regular basis. It seems reasonable that should actors help make a game large enough to sell that well, they should expect equivalent compensation.

There was a time when voice acting was not an important part of the gaming experience. Many of my favorite titles growing up required players to read endless amounts of text on screen. At best, you’d be fortunate to hear some groans or grunts that could be performed by the developing team themselves. Even games that did feature acting often featured a very low budget for that specific area of development. Games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Resident Evil are classics, but the acting and dialogue is often something out of a bad comedy.

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Fast forward to the current generation. Voice actors are the cornerstones of some of our favorite franchises. Feel free to check out a little event called “The Last of Us: One Night Live”. It is a challenge for any person to experience a title like Uncharted or The Last of Us and honestly say that figures like Troy Baker, Ashley Johnson, Nolan North, Annie Wersching, Richard McGonagle (I could go on all day…) are not pieces of the experience that are worth fairly compensating and protecting. Countless AAA titles are relying more and more not only on quality voice acting, but high quality motion capture to bring titles to the next level (look no further than titles like Heavy Rain, Until Dawn, Grand Theft Auto V). Though it is my personal opinion, I firmly stand by the idea that The Last of Us would be a very average game without people like Baker or Johnson. Their work is a testament to the fact that the gaming industry’s performance artists are no less valuable or talented than the figures on television or film that are paid an obscene amount. In 2015, many of these artists have become more well known to me, in fact, than those in your average theater flick. When I see names like Dave Fennoy, Yuri Lowenthal, Laura Bailey, Travis Willingham, Sam Riegel, Jennifer Hale, and so on, I know I’m in for a quality experience. I could list countless other names that deserve to be mentioned as well. All of which are a testament to the respectable amount of talent to be found in voice acting. 

What makes the situation most upsetting is that while SAG-AFTRA’s demands are so understandable, the actors are resoundingly being forced to vote yes in favor of a strike. If such an event were to occur, it would rock the gaming industry and cause a serious drop in quality to our favorite titles. However, such is the point of such action, and surely developers would be forced to reconsider their treatment of the ones who bring their characters to life. Here are just a few of the thoughts being shared by those supporting the strike on Twitter:

Wil Wheaton (Star TrekTabletop) also rose to challenge the status quo with his article that has caught fire amongst fellow actors. He discusses an average day for the modern performer in effort to give perspective to outsiders. Actors deliver their lines with intensity and emotion for four to five hours. They are then asked to do callouts, which are a series of lines that range from quick delivery to full on shouting. If you’re wondering if putting pressure on your vocal cords for this long has effects, Wil responds with this:

“. . . It’s now six or seven hours after you started. Don’t talk at all for the rest of the day, and don’t make any plans to go audition for any other voice work for the rest of the week, because your voice is wrecked. Don’t go to any kind of day job that requires you to talk to anyone, either, because you’re not going to be able to do that. Oh, and over years and years of this, it’s going to build up serious and permanent damage . . . and then you’re not going to be able to work with your voice anymore.”

The demands of these voice actors in no way are a cry for increased monetary compensation. At the end of the day, these individuals are just as important to the development process as story writers or graphic designers. Just as labor laws and agreements exist to protect individuals in other fields, it is obvious just based upon an average day of work that these artists not only require but deserve protection for both their voices and their bodies between recording and capture. There is honestly no way to justify the fact that this is not the case. Protect the people who work for you, video games industry.

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With all this in mind, I, for one, stand passionately with these performers. Should they choose to strike, the damage will be monumental to video game quality. However, this may be the wake-up call studios need to start treating artists with fairness and decency. Protect the bodies and voices of those who make our favorite titles great, and move forward with understanding and kindness.

Oh, and a direct thought to development studios: though it is the right for any business to hire and dismiss an artist as they see fit, show some loyalty to those who helped make your franchises what they are. And at the very least, always show them respect for what they’ve done.

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