After this month’s news that Ashly Burch had turned down the opportunity to voice Chloe in Life is Strange: Before the Storm, due to the ongoing voice acting strike, it seemed like an interesting time to investiage the reality of being a voice actor.
So, for this week’s episode of Here’s A Thing, I’ve spoken to a couple of voice actors about the strike and also, some of the frustrating moments they’ve experienced while working in the games industry. Like, for example, the voice actor who wasn’t told he was playing one of Fallout 4’s leading villains until just before the game was released.
Now, we’ve read your feedback in the comments of previous episodes and I understand some of you prefer written features over video work. I’m somewhat limited when it comes to the amount of time I can dedicate to an individual piece, which makes an entire rewrite unfeasible. Instead, I’ve included a modified version of my video script below, with a few extra quotes pulled in from the people I’ve spoken to.
Hopefully that’s a decent compromise, but I’m keen to hear what you think. Cheers.
Back in 2014, Keythe Farley received an email from his agent. He’d landed a role on an upcoming video game, it told him, in which he’d be an ‘off-camera principal performer’. That doesn’t tell actually him very much at all: in layman’s terms, this means it’s a voice acting gig and they probably don’t want him to do any motion capture. At this point in time he didn’t know who he’s working for, what the game is called, or in fact, any details about the character he’ll be playing.
“You don’t know, when you go in, if you’re going to be working just today,” said Farley as he recalled the experience over Skype. “I had no idea I was one of the bad guys in the game.”
Now this level of secrecy isn’t particularly uncommon when you’re an actor in the games industry, he told me. Publishers are eager to avoid leaks and, well, actors have been known to cause them. Which means whenever possible, actors are expected to work on a need-to-know basis.
But that raises a couple of interesting points: what does an actor need to know when working on a project, and when exactly do they need to know it? We’re going to have a stab at answering those questions a little later on.
“I showed up at our session and signed an non-disclosure agreement saying I wouldn’t talk about the game,” said Farley. “And they said: oh, we’re really excited, this is going to be a really big game.”
Well, what game is it? he asks, as he hands back the NDA. What’s it called? They wouldn’t tell him.
Thankfully the script he received was well-written and the character direction made sense (dark and film-noir being the gist of it), although even then, he was only just in that moment learning that he’d be playing one of the game’s antagonists.
But he got on with it, because that’s what he’s paid to do, and completes the session – they’re somewhere up to four hours long if you’re a voice actor. It’s pretty clear they’ll need him back at some point because they don’t finish the script they’re working through, but due to the nature of game development, nobody can tell him exactly how many lines he has left to voice. Some of them won’t even have been written yet.
“They just kept calling,” said Farley. “Every couple of months I’d go in for a session or two, over the course of about a year and a half.”
And yet, despite these multiple recordings, at no point do they ever tell him that in fact, he’s been voicing a character called Conrad Kellogg for a game called Fallout 4. If you’ve played it yourself, you’ll know that’s not an insignificant role.
In fact, Farley would only find out he’d been working on Bethesda’s extremely popular post-nuclear RPG series because one of the other actors on the project, who also hadn’t been told what the game was called, managed to figure it out while reading the script and then let him know.
This sounds bizarre, doesn’t it? But having recently spoken to Keythe Farley and also another actor by the name of Phil LaMarr, who you might know best for voicing Samurai Jack, this happens to a lot of performers if they take on video game roles. This is perhaps one of the more extreme examples, but there’s a feeling that actors are too often being kept at arm’s length by game publishers and it’s leading to some fairly major issues.
For a start, and we’ve mentioned this already, the performance itself is suffering. The less an actor knows about their character and the world that character inhabits, the more difficult it will be for them to understand the nuance. If an actor isn’t told they’re working on Fallout, it robs them of the chance to fully understand its dark humour and its history. That seems like a loss all round, to be honest.
“I need to know, to be most effective in my job,” said Farley. “There are so many moving parts in video games that they don’t always communicate as well as they might. We want to fix that, so we can give them better performances.”
There’s also a more cynical angle to consider. If an actor isn’t being told they’re working on Fallout 4, a game that had 12 million copies shipped to retailers around the world for its launch day alone, how are they supposed to properly negotiate their fee for the project? They can’t.
Now, the publisher’s argument would be that they’re protecting against leaks, and despite the fact that actors are signing NDAs promising not to share this stuff, it’s still safer for them to keep the details vague. They need to think big picture. That’s their defence. Well, unsurprisingly now that we’re talking about money – this is where things start to get really messy.
“The only justification for it, and this is a little cynical on my part, is that the person who’s negotiating their salary can’t negotiate with all of the information,” said LaMarr. “Imagine if you’re working on a game and you don’t know if it’s an indie title, or if it’s Activision’s fifth series in the tentpole. As the person working on it, there’s a big difference in how much you get paid when you’re working out of someone’s garage and when you’re working for a multi-billion dollar company.
“An actress friend of mine ended up re-auditioning for a character she’d already played and didn’t realise until she got the job and ended up looking at the script. It’s only helpful to the business affairs department, because if an actor knows it’s a character they’ve established, then they actually have a little more leverage and they can possibly negotiate a higher salary. They know they’re needed for this character.”
In October of last year, an organization called the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists went on strike. This is a labour union made up of something like 160,000 actors and the strike was aimed squarely at the video games industry, or more specifically, 11 companies including the likes of Activision and Electronic Arts. No union actor would take on voice acting or motion capture work with these companies until their demands were met. As of publishing this article, the strike is ongoing.
The union’s demands include better transparency – they want their actors to be better informed about the projects they’re working on, although even then, I was told they’re willing to negotiate.
“We understand the publishers aren’t going to give the actual title of the game out to everyone who’s auditioning for it, that’s fine,” said Farley. “The actors that then book the roles should know, but if you want to narrow that down even further, we figure as long as the agent knows the scope of the performance, after signing an NDA, they can better represent us their actors.”
There are concerns about vocal stress and stunt safety too. LaMarr, who voiced Ratbag in Shadow of Mordor, also did the character’s performance capture too. One scene sees him strung up by a group of Uruks and LaMarr recalls being asked to shoot that scene, which would require the actor himself to be strung up, without any stunt safety professionals. He almost did it too.
“The truth is, once you add that physical component, you can’t treat it like a glorified cartoon anymore,” said LaMarr. “You actually have to take into account people’s bodies. There was one point in Shadow of Mordor, in which I was Ratbag. There’s a scene where he’s strung up by some other orcs and they were going to string me up. It was just me, the other actors, the director and nobody who was specifically trained in that sort of stuff.
“Thankfully there was an experienced actor on the set who was like: you know, you probably don’t want to just have somebody hang you. I mentioned it to the producers and they were like, oh yeah of course, we’ll get a stunt coordinator and do this tomorrow instead. They were really good about it, but it’s the fact that they didn’t think about it first. That’s why we need this stuff in the contract to avoid some sort of awful accident.”
But the impression I get is that the real sticking point in this strike and the reason negotiations have barely even started at this stage, is that the union is asking for it actors to receive bonus payments for their work. This comes back to the fact that from a financial perspective, working on a game like Fallout 4 is different to working on Thomas Was Alone.
At this point in time I’m told the voice actors are asking for an additional day’s wage, which is typically in the hundreds of dollars, per 2 million units sold. And that’s up to a maximum of four additional payments. So if the game they worked on sells 8 million copies, they’d get four days extra pay, and if the game sells 80 million units, they’d still only get four days extra pay.
These don’t sound like unrealistic demands, but so far, the companies targeted by this strike haven’t begun to negotiate with the union, so clearly there’s an issue there. And this is now starting to have a noticeable impact on the games we’ll play – the most high profile example that we know of being Ashly Burch, who voiced Chloe in Life is Strange. She recently turned down the opportunity to return for its prequel, a decision she doesn’t appear to have made lightly, and was replaced by a non-union actor.
In a recent interview with that game’s developer, Deck Nine Games, Eurogamer was told the following: “It really challenged us, we were well into development when that kind of problem arose. We contemplated lots of different ways to react, including abandoning the project.”
They thought about abandoning the project? That sounds extreme, and perhaps a little unbelievable, but it suggests that developers and publishers are starting to feel some amount of pressure here. So why aren’t negotiations happening?
I’ve seen mild grumblings online that voice actors and motion capture performers don’t deserve bonus payments and better contracts, if gameplay programmers and artists and audio engineers aren’t also receiving those same kind of benefits. And I agree, I think. But that doesn’t mean the actors are in the wrong, I think it actually means the entire industry needs to change.
It seems to me that these actors are setting what could be a very important example, one that game publishers likely find a little frightening. If they give in to the demands of the acting community, what’s to say this won’t inspire the programmers to unionize? Developers often work unbelievable hours – how many stories have we heard about the horrors of crunch? With proper unions, that could be addressed, or at the very least, better compensated.
I think that’s partly what this whole conversation is about. It’s bigger than voice acting. And perhaps it should be too.