The Voice Actors Behind Video Game Characters Are Famous, but Also Nearly Invisible

This is what it’s like to have thousands of fans who don’t recognize you

Consider the strange case of Grey DeLisle, who, when she was still little Erin Grey Van Oosbree of Fort Ord, California, a precocious child of four, would laugh this evil laugh and tell kids she was possessed by the devil. The teachers were worried. One day a few years later, she was sitting in class when she decided, “I should go work on my screams right now.” She excused herself, headed to the bathroom, and “screamed bloody murder.” When a teacher appeared and asked her what the hell she was doing, DeLisle started sobbing: “I’m practicing my scream!”

“Why would you do something like that?” the teacher asked.

“I don’t know!” she said. Today DeLisle clarifies not one bit: “I really didn’t know.” But that’s when her career was set. “To this day, I get hired for my bloodcurdling screams,” she says. “I swear to God, that evil laugh hasn’t changed since I was four or five.”

As a nine-year-old, DeLisle became fascinated by the many voices that chorused within her. She would trap some of them on a tape recorder as they escaped. In these one-girl radio shows she recognized an ability to hide behind her characters—a power, like any power, that came to be abused. As a teen, she’d play a dangerous game, picking random men’s names from the phone book and dialing the numbers. If a woman answered, she’d ask for the man of the house in a seductive voice: Is Terry there…? Well, tell him that Candace called.… Oh, he’ll know who it is. You can imagine how this went over.

Eventually DeLisle moved to Los Angeles to become an actor. This was in the early ’90s. She’d done theater in high school. She’d played monkeys and old ladies and a tree, a variety of odd and interesting characters. In L.A. it seemed she could play only the “20-year-old girl.” It was limiting, and besides, she was uncomfortable in her skin. So DeLisle found her way into voice acting, which seemed like a better use of her powers than destroying marriages.

DeLisle has, by her count, voiced nearly 1,000 characters for cartoons and video games in 20 years—more, she says, than any other woman in history. At 42, she is probably best known for voicing Daphne on the Scooby-Doo TV series since the early 2000s; more recently she was Catwoman in one of the most successful video game releases of 2015, Batman: Arkham Knight. By most accounts, DeLisle, who also goes by the name Grey Griffin, is famous. But it’s a type of celebrity seen only at the periphery of the public eye. She can walk down the street and look up and see Catwoman, her Catwoman, on a billboard advertising a game talked about on gaming sites and in newspapers around the world, a game that brings in millions of dollars. “How weird,” she’ll think. “Nobody knows who I am, but I’m on this big poster.” While Catwoman’s voice might be familiar to a lot of small-town divorcées, DeLisle remains unrecognized because, of course, it’s not her face up there.1

But there are places where people will know her. One is the Internet; there fans meet and discuss and argue and elevate voice actors to a strange kind of celebrity. The other is the Internet’s real-world avatar, the convention, or in fanspeak, the “con,” the biggest of which—San Diego’s Comic-Con International—drew about 167,000 people during its four-day run last year. At these events people will line up to meet DeLisle. They’ll dress up like Catwoman or Daphne or some of the hundreds of other characters she’s played and journey to any of the dozens of comic and anime and gaming conventions going on practically any weekend in America and beyond. They’ll sidle up to her and get her autograph and smile and snap a selfie, even though the famous part of her won’t show up in the image. Her face, her actual face, is just another curious artifact of the digital age. “Now we’re all little celebrities in our own little world,” DeLisle says.

This story is about that, about this part-time fame. It’s particularly about voice acting for video games, because while most voice actors don’t work primarily on games—DeLisle says games make up only 30 percent of her income—what’s happening in this “little world” of video game voicing has a lot to do with the future of celebrity and almost certainly the future of media.

Blizzard director Andrea Toyias with voice actor Yuri Lowenthal
Blizzard director Andrea Toyias with voice actor Yuri Lowenthal

Photograph by Dustin Snipes

Voice actors are a special mutation of the thespian genome. Whereas an “actor” is the child who hams it up for the benignly neglectful parent, putting on Mom’s clothes while she’s off smoking her thin cigarettes and eyeing the pool boy, the “voice actor” as a child does not go looking to change into other people because other people are already in there—other voices, which come out unbidden and, you might say, guide the child in her decisions, often disruptively. If a child is destined to be an actor (onstage, on camera, etcetera), you’ll say, “He’s going to need acting lessons.” If a child is destined to be a voice actor, you’ll say, “She’s going to need an exorcist.”

Nowhere is this possession more evident than in Los Angeles, home to most of the big-name voice actors. Some of them you possibly know—Hank Azaria does voices for The Simpsons but also shows up constantly onscreen. There are many, many others who live primarily or exclusively behind the mic. L.A. is where the production companies are, and not just for TV and film but for games, too. Three of the largest—Activision Blizzard,2Riot Games, and Naughty Dog—are headquartered in the Los Angeles area.

Blizzard Entertainment’s main campus in Irvine gives the impression of being exactly what it is: a hybrid of Hollywood studio and tech company. To get in, check with security at the gate and drive under the soaring company sign and into a standard-looking office park. Walk past the statue of an orc with an upraised ax riding a giant wolf, ringed by inscriptions of the company’s eight core values, a gamer’s Bill of Rights that includes “Gameplay first,” “Embrace your inner geek,” “Every voice matters,” and “Play nice, play fair.” The young employees in flip-flops, the breezy SoCal casualness, the lush and ever-thirsty lawn—they’re a trick of the light. This is not a local company. Blizzard has a Global Network Operations Center, a dark room with computers and lots of flat screens on the walls. Some screens display heat maps of all the games’ players currently online around the world (in every country but North Korea, so the company says). Some are tuned to the Weather Channel, watching for cyclones or tsunamis that might take down the servers (to say nothing of the players). Notably another core value is “Think globally.” If the NSA were fun, it’d be like this.

Blizzard is responsible for very successful “massively multiplayer online role-playing games,” including the World of Warcraft series. The company employs 4,000 people, and with sister company Activision in Santa Monica, it’s the fifth-largest maker of games in the world. Blizzard titles feature mythological figures, aliens, superheroes—hundreds of characters that need voices, even if it’s just for a few lines.

“A long time ago in early video games, I think it was, ‘We need a big strong guy, go get a voice,’ right?” says Andrea Toyias, a Blizzard casting and voice director since 2008. Her approach now is to put the characters on the analyst’s couch. “We’re really trying to find our characters in a unique way. In casting we ask the team, ‘OK, this character that you want—what’s his biggest fear? What’s his biggest dream?’… So I really work with the team to get to the essence of who the person is that we’re trying to find.”

Tara Platt (top) performs as Katarina in "League of Legends." Yuri Lowenthal (bottom) and his character the Prince from "Prince of Persia"
Tara Platt (top) performs as Katarina in League of Legends. Yuri Lowenthal (bottom) and his character the Prince from Prince of Persia

 

Owing to the popular interest in its products and to the value of corporate intellectual property, Blizzard is as secretive as a smallish nation. But then it makes as much money as one. The company brought in $4.66 billion last year, roughly equal to the GDP of Barbados. The nondisclosure agreement is the company’s first line of defense, which your narrator signed without, admittedly, reading too closely but which must have promised terrible punishments if sensitive information were released. So while I am allowed to attend a recording session near Universal Studios for the forthcoming title ____________   a few days after my Irvine visit, a lot of the details are, I’m pretty sure, off-limits.

At L.A. Studios, an audio recording outpost on Cahuenga Boulevard, a dozen people are in a booth—engineers, producers, and Toyias, who today is serving as director. On the other side of the glass is Yuri Lowenthal, who voices characters for games like Prince of Persia3 and Castlevania as well as for anime and cartoons—notably Ben on the Cartoon Network series Ben 10 and Sasuke Uchiha on the manga show Naruto. Toyias cast Lowenthal as a drunken villager in Diablo, a Dungeons & Dragons-style game that Wikipedia describes, for once, best: “an action role-playing hack and slash dungeon crawler.” Lowenthal, who is 45, is here recording voice-overs, or VOs, for several characters. “Anything weird, I give to Yuri,” Toyias says.

The secret to successful voice-over is being able to find three ways to say the same thing. Lowenthal does this with aplomb, going down the script, issuing one-liners, which (it’s safe to say this isn’t giving away much) include “Die!” and “Hello!” and “Ha-ha!” The recordings are played back, and everyone decides which version they like best.

Lowenthal adjusts his posture for each character, but also for each voice’s moods. He occasionally puts his finger to his lips as though he’s thinking, which, I later learned in a book titled Voice-Over Voice Actor, written by Lowenthal and his wife, is a way to keep from popping the p’s.4 It’s full-bodied acting funneled into a few choice words. It can be monotonous and physically taxing, but above all, voice acting relies on a nuanced application of imagination. “There’s no scene partner, there’s no props, there’s no wardrobe, there’s no makeup,” says Toyias, “and they have to walk into a recording studio by themselves, and they don’t even know what they’re coming in for”—because of the aforementioned secrecy—“which means there may not even be a sketch to go off of, just, ‘OK, you’re an angry space alien, you don’t have a mouth, could you speak psionically? And your camp is under attack?’…It’s just them in this glass booth bringing the most fantastical scenarios and characters to life.”

A session is four hours, and the pay is usually $850 to $900, though sought-after actors can negotiate higher rates and a main character for a game can require more sessions. But as actors I spoke with noted, the fee is still only a few thousand dollars for what may be a billion-dollar franchise.

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In many ways this story would prefer to be a video game. It’s a little insecure that readers would rather be playing it than reading it. This article wishes it had more action. Like all stories, it wishes it were better written. And then there’s the worry that voice actors could decide to go on strike after the article goes to the printer but before it comes out the other end, which would change the whole video game landscape. As negotiations with video game producers have stalled over what’s called the Interactive Media Agreement, the voice actors of America have united under SAG-AFTRA and voted yea to striking. Unlike in film, TV, and commercial work, voice actors for video games don’t receive residual payments, aka royalties, for their unionized work—only that $850 to $900 for a four-hour session. They’re looking for a performance bonus of $825 for every 2 million copies of a title sold, up to 8 million copies. The major complaint, though, concerns working conditions. Because it’s easy to strain the vocal cords with all the hollering involved in voice-over work, actors want to limit “vocally stressful” sessions to two hours. And they want transparency, as the secrecy that goes into video game development means actors are often hired for projects without knowing what flavor of hollering will be required. I’ve heard no stories of anyone having to leave the industry due to injury, but this demand seems to be a way of establishing a baseline for risk, similar to an employer having to post warnings that an office job might require lifting heavy boxes. As for injury to the rest of the body, the actors are also demanding stunt coordinators for those who do performance-capture work, which is translated as “acting, covered in Ping-Pong balls.”

This fight is very contentious and very modern. Some video game designers and developers are asking, “Why should an actor waltz in, yell into a can for a few hours, and get royalties in perpetuity when a game can take three or four years to develop?” To that, actors answer that since the character voices are central to the game’s identity, actors should be compensated for their holistic contribution to the game rather than their hourly one. “And where,” developers ask, “would that voice be without the game we’ve created?” The response usually goes something like, “Well, why don’t you guys form your own goddamn union and get your own residuals?”—after which the whole thing goes predictably to hell.

The actors, via the union, have taken their demands to the game companies, which have not returned to the table as of press time. When and if they do, the conversation will be one about who owns the property, and in what way, and how much everyone should participate financially.5 The video game’s relationship with the audience is worth paying attention to as well because it indicates media industry trends in general. You watch a cartoon character, but you are a game character. That voice becomes your voice. Passive is passé. (Tweet that out.) Interactivity is everything. American gamers—155 million of them—can’t be wrong. Voice actors are at the nexus of this evolving relationship. All this makes for some blurry distinctions between real and virtual, between celebrity and not, while getting downright existential in the process: Does a game have a soul, and if so, where does it reside?

I visit Lowenthal and his wife, actor and producer Tara Platt, at their home, hidden down a side street near Sunset and Vine, to talk about games. Both of them are friendly and bright-eyed and keen to discuss the subject. When fans visit conventions, says Lowenthal, “they’re not going to meet [Halo’s] Master Chief, they’re not going to meet [Uncharted’s] Nathan Drake. There’s a person behind it. That’s what they connect to. They connect to the voice in the same way that fans of movies and TV connect to the face of somebody else.” 6

Platt, a pretty 37-year-old brunet, has done voice work for animation (mostly anime) and games; she’s also had on-camera roles. She and Lowenthal—along with Tara Strong, Jennifer Hale, Troy Baker, Nolan North, Steve Blum, Laura Bailey, and De-Lisle—are among a small group whose names show up most often in the credits for games. “So now the people who play the video games are starting to recognize the voices,” Platt says. “They’re starting to become familiar with the work they do.”

With IMDb, fans can learn about the lives and work histories of their favorite voice actors. With social media, they can interact with them. With sites like Reddit, they can banter about them ad nauseam, as when Kiefer Sutherland replaced Metal Gear Solid ’s David Hayter and fans wondered whether he would get it right. That’s another wrinkle in the video game-celebrity complex: Game companies with the financial resources and a major title in development have taken a cue from Hollywood by casting marquee names. Kevin Spacey appears as the villain in Activision’s 2014 release Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare—and I mean actually appears; the performance was motion-capture.

You see what’s happening: Games are becoming more and more like the movies they have learned so much from. The “cut scenes,” in which you stop your thumb-callusing abuse of the A button to watch the characters emote and exposit cinematically, have improved. What used to seem tacked on feels more integrated (although many voice actors will tell you they’ve still got a surplus of death rattles on the résumé). But soon games will follow the plot of any good Shakespearean tale: Having learned all they can, they are now rising up and destroying their televisual forebears. “In a way, video games are eclipsing feature films and television shows because you become the lead character,” Platt says. “It’s not Tom Cruise in the driver’s seat; it’s you. You get to play the game. And so it’s making people, on some level, feel empowered.”

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Given the amount of time people spend on games, it’s reasonable to assume that during those idle hours of “grinding” or “farming” (terms for that OCD behavior in which you do the same bit, fight the same monster, over and over to rack up gold or experience or whatever), gamers might be wondering who the heck Lowenthal and Platt really are and might want to meet the faces behind the digital faces. As it happens, this works out for everybody. Because as voice actors gain fame, they gain another revenue stream: conventions. Fans meet actors, actors get exposure, and conventions grow stronger as nodes for the culture. It’s a new economy of direct contact.

“I think the convention experience and the convention boom also reflect a change in being able to earn a living as an actor,” says Lowenthal. “Once upon a time you could be an actor, and you could do a commercial or whatever and live off that for a year. But now it’s much harder to consistently make a living as an actor in this industry. So now you’ve got conventions where you can go for a weekend and make a little extra money, and I think that it’s becoming more popular among actors.” Lowenthal and Platt put together a semiautobiographical faux-doc about this called Con Artists, a chronicle of the 11 conventions they went to in one year. Eleven sounds harrowing enough, but the pair say they know actors who go to 50 cons a year, which is its own sort of grinding.

In the course of researching this story, I attended cons in Sacramento, Seattle, Hartford, New York City, Vancouver, and Hawaii. Certain eternal verities emerged. For one, outcast communities form where self-expression is protected. Remember that cartoon with the sheepdog and the wolf punching the clock and chatting like American workingmen before resuming their ancient game of chase? Conventions are like that, a liminal space for incongruous characters to gather and talk shop and exchange compliments and design tips and have pictures taken (with verbal approval secured beforehand) by other attendees, who collect such absurdities themselves. The prop inspection table, or faux-weapons check, at the doors of most conventions is the intersection of safety and to-thine-own-self-be-trueness. Here’s where six-foot swords and arm cannons are proved to be unproved, where Master Chief and, say, Batman’s Harley Quinn wait patiently as their accessories are judged suitably harmless so that their menace can be that much more comfortably appreciated by the other attendees.

Beyond the weapons checkpoint, there’s the main floor, where vendors of comics, videos, toys, hoodies, and the like power the capitalist center of the thing; there are the panels, where guests talk and audience members hope for something to be leaked or communities come together to discuss issues of importance; there are premieres of movies, games, comics; there are the kilts, there are the autographs, there are countless eyes nearly put out by people pointing at all the attractions; there’s often a Furry Parade (about which—look it up); there’s the statistical inevitability of ending up in someone’s picture of somebody else; there’s the cosplay repair, where wings are fixed and papier-mâché is repapiered; there are the lines for people you never heard of, for products you never heard of; there are a million attendees, but somehow you brush shoulders with the same folks again and again, right where American culture is happening, where it’s meeting itself or at least running into itself. The Internet, live.

Then there’s cosplay.

People are the same everywhere, and never more so than when they’re at their most different. This is the second verity. The hidden connections are manifest. Cos-play becomes a cultural survey at the cons, in which the popularity of a movie or show or show’s character is determined by prevalence. It’s democracy disguised as dress-up, based on the metric of “what looks cool to dress as.” You vote with your mask. In Seattle there were great corporate monuments to The Walking Dead and related properties. In Hawaii there were Deadpools in aloha shirts; in New York there were Poison Ivys. And you couldn’t walk from Exhibit Hall B to Small Meeting Room Q without stumbling over the realistic gear of a bunch of cadets from the manga/cartoon/live-action movies/game Attack on Titan. (Not surprisingly, the manga has 52 million copies in print; as an October Forbes post pointed out, this is the mainstream.)

Phil Lamarr voices Vamp on Metal Gear Solid, among other characters
Phil Lamarr voices Vamp on Metal Gear Solid, among other characters

Now, add to the mix the actual humans who give voice to those characters. Celebrities have buttressed the con experience since the first San Diego Comic-Con, in 1970: stars of television and film (Star Trek and Wars), comic book writers and artists, sci-fi and fantasy novelists. In the past decade voice actors have begun appearing as well. You’ll probably see Phil LaMarr. If you took a core sample of American entertainment, you’d find concentrations of LaMarr at just about every strata. He is an original cast member of MADtv, a frequent guest star on sitcoms, and a voice on many, many cartoons: Justice League, Samurai Jack, Star Wars, and Futurama (as Hermes Conrad). He was Marvin—poor, sniveling Marvin—accidentally shot in the head by John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. He voices a lot of games now, too. In the past four years he’s started attending cons frequently. Sitting at the center of one of the greatest Venn diagrams in all of geekdom, perhaps that was inevitable.

In his quiet hours, and probably when he’s staring down the barrel of a long line waiting to get his autograph, LaMarr has thought about the changes that brought him here. “People invest in these creations in a way that people don’t invest in more mainstream creations,” he says. It’s no secret that fandoms gather cyclonically around revered animation, comics, or obscure ’70s TV shows. There’s a simple test: While Futurama is more niche and Everybody Loves Raymond is more mainstream, “nobody is getting a tattoo of Ray on their side,” LaMarr says. What a world that would be!

A generation ago, he says, people loved the voices, “but nobody knew who Huckleberry Hound was.” In these modern times “everybody can be an expert instantly.” The Internet, of course, is just a big box in an underground room in Arizona, powered almost entirely by nostalgia and masturbatory friction. About the latter, little need be said; as for the former, a desire to know who wrote that episode of G.I. Joe or voiced that one horse in that one show engenders a sort of scavenger hunt. There’s so much to discover. This explains why so often those interminable lines at cons lead right to someone you’ve never heard of: There’s a market for obscurity.

I tell LaMarr that I’m thinking this yields a type of fame that can be slipped on or off, like a mask:7 Similar to the postwar invention of a “teenager,” neither child nor adult, is this oscillation between anonymity and celebrity in the Internet age. LaMarr says such “teenage fame” has to do with the dissolving of the boundaries between fandom and object-of-fandom. “Fan letters are almost not even a part of my existence anymore. Now there’s Twitter. The level of interaction with an audience is beyond anything I could ever imagine,” he says. This adds up to a distinction: “I’m not famous, but I’m popular.” He, like most of us, subconsciously imagined fame as a chemical change, consumption by the fire of adoration and made not ash but immortal. “If I have fans,” he jokes that he once reasoned, “I’ll be hugely rich and famous, and I’ll have people to deal with them.”

And so the LaMarr-Reynolds Theory of Fame proposes that celebrity is a phase change. It depends on the environment: You’re ice or water or steam based on the presence or absence of heat; you’re anonymous or familiar or sainted based on the presence or absence of fandom.

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The future is strange, and not just because it’s now. Games are becoming more like films, which in turn are becoming more interactive however they can. The audience is interacting with the products online and in person, at conventions. The celebrity is famous here and anonymous there. Everyone’s roles blur, onscreen and off. The game is life.

Recall “grinding.” Once again, gaming provides a metaphor for actual lived life. In this case you have the voice actors, shuttling between auditions and recording sessions and autographs, trying always to earn enough gold to survive and gain enough experience to someday possibly level up to a Triple-A game, a Pixar film, a role in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie.

So the question is, When it comes to video games, where does the narrative live? The writers, developers, producers, and actors may create the character, but it lies inert in limbo until the player animates it with life and direction. All of them work together to build the character’s story. Who owns that property? The way the Interactive Media Agreement plays out will resonate through every medium that follows because nothing will be broadcast; it’ll just be. And be had.


Brandon R. Reynolds is a Los Angeles writer. This is his first piece for the magazine.

 

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