Late last year I was watching The Walking Dead, and at one point in a particularly grim episode I was (mercifully?) distracted from all the killing-of-favourite-character shenanigans when a particular bad dude showed up. See, at my age I seem to spend an inordinate amount of my TV-watching time going “what the fuck do I know him from?”, or “what else was she in?” and I then proceed to spend the rest of the episode thinking about that, and only that – and so it was with this guy. Of course, IMDB exists now, but that’s basically cheating, so it’s only to be used in the most extreme circumstances, and I admirably resisted it here (“Hero” is a much overused word these days, but, you know, if the shoe fits….). This particular actor was, like, mahoosively familiar to me, so I set about trying to place him, and precisely because he was so familiar, I narrowed the mental search down to stuff I’ve watched a lot of. None of the TV programmes I’ve sunk a chunk of time into provided the answer though, and just as I was thinking of turning to the IMDB app on my phone, it hit me…… It was Trevor Philips from Grand Theft Auto V.
Of course, once you know it it’s obvious, and I spent the rest of the episode (and all of his subsequent appearances) comparing the two characters, and having played a lot of GTA V, it really was quite a weird experience seeing a Gaming character in the flesh. The character in The Walking Dead basically is Trevor Philips too – down to all the nuanced gestures; the psychotic rage hidden behind a thin veneer of bonhomie – and honestly, once I’d made the connection, it was impossible to not see the dude as Trevor.
Why do I mention this? Well, I think it’s interesting because it highlights just how far Gaming has come as a medium – in many areas – and whilst Gaming’s been a massive industry for a while now, this is still something of note, I believe. To start with, if you’d have told the 10 year old, Mario-playing me that one day I’d be able to physically recognise a real life person solely because of their Graphical Representation in a Video Game, I’d almost certainly have laughed in your stupid, adult face. That was quite literally unthinkable in my 8-bit world, where voice acting wasn’t even a thing, and where Mario’s block-ey facial hair represented the very pinnacle of graphical capabilities. I mean, if somebody dressed as a Gaming character, I’d have got that, but actually recognising somebody’s face from a game…. Fuhgeddaboutit! Unless somebody had some weird disease that made them look pixelated, there was absolutely no way on earth anybody could look like a character from a game. Ever.
Secondly, it further emphasises Gaming’s arrival as a serious narrative medium, perhaps even suggesting that it’s on the way to surpassing TV and film in that respect. Again, at one point, even the idea of this would’ve been laughable, in a “spikey blue hedgehog’s gonna say what about the human condition, exactly!?” kind of way. A while ago however, and in an attempt to be taken seriously, Game Studios began to use big name actors in their games – and though we take it for granted now, at the time it was quite a big deal. As Gaming power and tech improved, and as sales followed an upward trend, it suddenly became possible to recruit A-list Hollywood names to provide the voice talent for the longer, improved stories Developers were trying to tell, and undoubtedly it helped add a little som’thin-som’thin to Triple-A games. That’s not to disrespect Voice-over Actors, obviously, but given Gaming’s interactivity, there was something undeniably cool about, for example, directly “talking to” Samuel L. Jackson with a character you were hugely invested in.
At about the same time, Hollywood also began to look at popular Gaming Stories as something to adapt for film (and, not for nothing, profit too); whereas before, it had really only been the other way around, with Games trying to make money by piggybacking celluloid popularity with a Gaming adaptation of a successful film. Of course, Film adaptations of games don’t have the best of reputations – and there have been some truly horrific ones, for sure – but there have been some decent ones too, and the fact that Hollywood studios were paying attention to the Games industry – both in terms of sales, and the quality of their narratives – was important in and of itself. Whilst the earlier adaptations had to extrapolate a story (essentially using just a Game’s characters, rather than its quote-unquote “Narrative” – Super Mario Bros, Street Fighter etc) – eventually film versions of games began to stick to said Game’s core narrative; or at least their main themes and “events”. In essence, Gaming narratives were now good enough to stand alone, outside of the games they’d featured in. This too was a big deal, because there’d always been a kind of “Sure, Games aren’t great at stories, but they hold your attention with all the interactivity stuff instead” perspective, and the fact those stories could now work without the interactivity was high praise indeed.
Now, in recent years Games, Film and TV have seen something of a convergence in terms of the technology and techniques that they can all use to tell their stories. CGI, motion-capture, computer animation (to name but a few) have all improved exponentially in recent years, and it’s allowed all three mediums to up their game. Films can now take place in fully realised fantasy worlds, and they’re not limited, for example, by what set-builders and puppet makers can come up with on some studio lot somewhere. The same applies to TV (although usually on a lesser scale/budget), and imagine, say, how hilariously rubbish Game of Thrones would be without decent CGI. Indeed, to prove the point, consider recent remakes/reboots of Shows/Films that can now utilise new tech and look a fuck-ton less shite because of that.
In the case of games, developments in CGI and animation have improved pretty much everything, and motion capture stuff now also means that not only do we hear A-list actors in games, but we can now see them too. They’re actually “acting” in our games, and we can get all the nuances and physical cues these actors would bring to a live-action performance. In both cutscenes and Gameplay, actually seeing the trademark sneer of an Oscar winning actor, or the emotional reaction from a famous, motion-captured face has often added an extra element of gravitas to a Gaming experience, and perhaps one that’s more subtle and affecting than post-production lip-synching can deliver. Games like L.A. Noir doubled down on this, and the game itself required you to pick up on just these nuances – little subtle facial expressions – to progress in the game, and it featured a whole host of recognisable (and skilled) Actors to assist you in doing so. I spent a chunk of my time in that game going “ha, that’s the dude from Mad Men”, or “That’s the weird one from Bones – good call guys!”, and it was, I think, a great showcase for “Acting” in games.
Which brings me right back to the case of Trevor Philips in The Walking Dead. Back when I was racking my brain trying to place Steven Ogg – and getting nowhere fast – it was because I was in the wrong fucking medium. I knew I’d seen hours of the guy acting, to the point I pretty much knew every facial tick, what each subtle change in tone heralded, but because I was mentally scanning films and TV, I was drawing a blank. It never occurred to me that I could have gotten such an understanding and detailed picture of an actor from just a Video Game – and that I did, I think, speaks volumes about the quality and strength of GTA V’s experience. What it also *might* mean (and I emphasise “might” here because, to some extent, I am pulling assumptions out of my ass) is that Steven Ogg could’ve got his role in The Walking Dead at least partly because of his performance in GTA V. Of course, we might not know for sure, but given the similarity between the characters, and given Stephen Ogg’s roles until GTA V were decidedly “minor” in nature, I’d be surprised if it wasn’t at least a part of his CV – and that at some point, somebody on The Walking Dead crew checked out (or knew of) his performance.
Anyways, let’s say they did – how cool is that, and how much of an endorsement and validation of Gaming narratives and performances would that be? I mean, if Actors can now hand over a fucking Video Game to Casting Directors in order to show off their acting chops, doesn’t that highlight just how great Gaming Narratives and Performances have become, how they’re every bit as good as those in film and television? And even if Stephen Ogg didn’t actively use a copy of GTA V to get his part in The Walking Dead – i.e. just got the part in an Open Audition – the same still applies because of the similarity between the two characters. Why? Well, if the part called for a specific performance, a character with a particular set of traits, and Stephen Ogg thought “That sounds a lot like Trevor, I’ma do him”, it still means that the character of Trevor Philips – a character that exists solely in a Video Game – was believable and powerful enough to be featured in one of the World’s most-watched TV shows.
Indeed, if we’re now at the point where Acting in a Video Game is providing casting agents with a reference, or even just where Game characters are good enough to hold their own in uber-popular forms of passive entertainment, I think it’s definitely an indication that Gaming has become as valid a Narrative and Visual medium as Film and Television, and that, right there, is pretty fucking cool. Perhaps we’re not quite at the point where a performance in a Video Game will be in the running for a Best Actor (no “in a game” qualifier) Oscar just yet, but…..if you’ve got block-ey Mario at one end of the spectrum, and Best Actor Oscar at the other, in just a few years Gaming’s already a fuckload closer to the latter than the former.
I appreciate I’m preaching to the choir here – and if you’re willing to read my clumsily stabbed out ramblings (and especially if you’re still reading this one), you’re probably not somebody who needs to be told how shit-kickingly awesome games are – but personally, I think it’s possible I’d largely missed this particular reason they’re shit-kickingly awesome. Obviously, I knew they’d improved massively in terms of narrative, I knew they used motion-capture, real actors and such nowadays, but I think because I’d been present for all of the incremental changes along the way, I’d not entirely seen the bigger picture; the phenomenal distance games have come when you take a step back and look at it from beginning to end.
Perhaps the fact that it took my familiarity with a notorious Gaming psychopath to realise it might not say great things about me – I’ll admit that – but I do still think it says great things about Games so, like, every cloud and all that………
February 18, 2017 at 1:14 am
I agree with a lot of what you’re saying, insofar as having the faces of real actors being portrayed in games because they are being motion-captured and filmed is quite a change from the 8-bit days! But I do sometimes like when characters don’t look exactly like an actor, especially once they start voicing different characters. Like I’m thinking of (cough Jennifer Hale cough) Alix Regan, who voices Samantha Traynor in ME3 and the Inquisitor in DAI… neither character looks like her, but they stand on their own as vastly different characters even though they have the same voice. It allows (in my opinion) a little more flexibility in the voice-face relationship of a character.
But yes, having “real” actors involved in the production of games is a fantastic step forward to the medium being seen as a “legitimate” entertainment medium!
February 18, 2017 at 1:05 pm
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say Voice-over work is rubbish, and the reason I mentioned the improvements in animation etc is because all that stuff’s meant that, even when a Voice Actor’s “just” post-production lip-synching, all these improvements still help to create an exceptional character/brilliant performance nowadays. I’ve frequently mentioned The Last of Us as being a great (and emotional) narrative experience, and both Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson were “just” voicing those characters (and look nothing like them), so it’s not that a game has to feature a real actor’s likeness being motion-captured to be considered great or anything. Troy Baker’s actually a good example of somebody bringing something to a whole array of different characters, and as such, he’s one of Gaming’s most respected actors.
But, I think that the motion-capture stuff has definitely added something – and for a few reasons. If you make the (admittedly crude) analogy that Voice-over + animation = animated film, and motion-capture + recognisable actor = film with CGI/motion-captured characters, it means games have taken a step away from essentially being cartoons. Animated films can be great, sure, but they’re often limited in their sense of realism and emotional impact precisely because they’re animated, and because humans tend to react more strongly to “real” stuff – faces, expressions, what have you.
Secondly – and rather cleverly – it has also meant that Gaming (and film) managed to successfully cross the “uncanny Valley”. By using a combination of motion-capture, improved animation/CGI and (sometimes) *recognisable* actors, Games have managed to silence/bypass that bit of our brain that was supposed to freak out with stuff that wasn’t cartoon-ey, but wasn’t quite photo-realistic either. I think this is *especially* true with recognisable actors, solely because your brain is more readily tricked into focusing on the similarities/recognition than the “that’s freaking me out” stuff. It’s probably helped in that respect by the fact that it’s already been trained with film, and that it had no problem, for example, still finding a twelve foot tall, bright blue version of Zoe Saldana attractive. Like, erm, some guy I know.
Which brings me to Trevor Philips – who, quite conveniently, reinforces both your point and mine. Given he wasn’t a recognisable person to me, I assumed he was an example of great animation and great voice-over work, and he was still a stand out character, brilliantly portrayed by Steven Ogg. However, having now seen the actor “in the flesh”, and having recognised him as Trevor Philips, he’s now an example of how games can motion-capture/animate so well that it’s entirely possible to capture and convey an Actor’s “essence” in a way that’s incredibly close to Live Action performances. And, just because it’s the first time it’s happened in a game-first-live-action-second order for me, it was quite a revelatory experience, and perhaps highlighted it more than, say, recognising Jon Snow in the last CoD game.
Or something, anyway. Again, it’s possible I’ve not entirely thought this through properly! 😉
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February 18, 2017 at 8:25 pm
You’re right that motion-capture and the new cinematic-like tech definitely says something about the legitimacy of the medium! And I certainly didn’t mean to sound like I was speaking poorly of motion-capture, either 🙂 I guess I just personally don’t care about photo-realism in my games, but the implications about *having* photo-realism available is important!
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February 18, 2017 at 9:00 pm
There’s absolutely a place for both (and everything else) in Gaming, and one of the medium’s main strengths is that, for example, playing as a hedgehog, or Alien, or racoon can be as fun and absorbing as playing as a photo-realistic human in a “realistic” setting.
The main difference now, I think, is that it’s becoming ever more possible to do the latter, so Gaming doesn’t *have* to be limited to the former type of stuff, and more importantly, other people/mediums have to re-evaluate their perception that it *is*!
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February 18, 2017 at 1:49 pm
Great post! Gaming really has come a long way. I always like to complain about modern day annoyances, such as DLC, Day One patches, etc. You’ve reminded me of the positive steps the industry has taken.
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February 18, 2017 at 1:59 pm
Cheers, that’s very kind. And yeah, for sure Gaming’s adopted plenty of dubious practices – which annoy the shit out of me too – but, in terms of quality and technical improvements, it’s hard not to be amazed at what’s happened in a (relatively) short space of time, I think.
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