More and more established actors will play characters in video games, God of War director Cory Barlog said at the Gamelab conference today, pointing to Keanu Reeves' role as Johnny Silverhand in Cyberpunk 2077 as an early example of an emerging trend.
In an onstage conversation with Sony London Studio's Stuart Whyte, Barlog detailed the laborious task of finding the right actor to play Kratos in last year's God of War. The problem was not just finding the right voice, he said, but someone who would sound right while also having the physicality to work with motion-capture technology.
"That took two years," he said. "I almost lost faith. When we found Chris Judge [who played Kratos], I was getting meeting requests on a daily basis: 'Let's talk about if this doesn't work out, we'll have to go back to this, scale these things down, we'll have to cut back.'"
In fact, when Judge was selected for the role, the script and the depth of the character led him to believe that God of War was a movie. The same was true of Danielle Bisutti, who played the part of Freya.
"For a long time, people were like, we don't need to have the likeness of the actor in the game -- we don't need celebrities"
"Danielle thought she was auditioning for Game of Thrones," Barlog continued. "She tried not to be disappointed when she found out it wasn't Game of Thrones.
"Chris was the same. He was like, 'This isn't a game. No, this is a movie, right?' I was like, should I tell him? Or would that mean he doesn't do it? How long can I hold on to the lie that it's a movie, then be like, 'By the way, Chris, this is a game and we just shipped it.'"
Judge and Bisutti were both cast for their ability to act physically, not just vocally, but it's fair to say that neither is as recognisable an actor as Keanu Reeves. Perhaps the most famous actor in God of War is Jeremy Davies, who was selected to play Baldur after Barlog was impressed by his performance in the TV series, Justified. However, the offer was almost never made, based on negative experiences Barlog had trying to cast well known actors in previous God of War games.
"We contacted several actors who were fairly well known, and they came back to us and said, '$10 million is what we want.' Our budget isn't even $10 million. What are you talking about? We can't pay that.
"It was just that they'd had a bad experience with a game, they really didn't want to do it, and that was their way of saying no... Other people just flat out said, 'I will never work on a video game.' Other people I fought really hard for, but it didn't work out."
Whyte, who was director on the PSVR title Blood & Truth, agreed that advances in technology had changed the way Sony London Studio thought about casting. Historically, he said, picking an actor was essentially picking a voice, but Blood & Truth proved far more difficult.
"We wanted to scan in the actors, and try with photogrammetry," Whyte said. "Suddenly we created a much higher bar from a casting perspective, because we had to find someone with not just the right voice, but who also looked the part, and could also physically act... Trying to get that combination was definitely more challenging."
"Now you can have somebody who can perform completely, and take over a character"
The kind of technology that allows full, physical performances to be scanned and captured in a game has also created what Barlog described as "more comfort" within the industry about hiring famous actors.
"For a long time, people were like, we don't need to have the likeness of the actor in the game -- we don't need celebrities," he said. " But I like to have a good balance, because there may be certain performers who is just perfect for it. I get it, they're a name, but they're gonna be perfect for this.
"You end up battling a lot of game understanding -- 'that's not necessary,' right? But clearly it is something that is more accepted now. When you see something like Johnny Silverhand, which Keanu Reeves is playing in Cyberpunk 2077. Literally the entire cast of Death Stranding is amazing.
"For me, I think that's really exciting. We're starting to see more of a connection between these industries. Because there was pretty much a wall between them for a while. In the beginning there wasn't this connection, but we're seeing a lot of younger directors on the film side coming up who play games and are more aware of this, and a lot more actors who are fully aware of what this is."
And the industry is rising to the challenge created by the growing recognition of its creative worth, and the kind of tools now at its disposal. Keanu Reeves is no doubt paid handsomely for his performance in Cyberpunk 2077, but that performance can be captured in the kind of depth and detail that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago.
"We're now able to give [actors] meaty performances, as opposed to just doing voice," Barlog said. "Great voice actors are a treasure -- when you fund an incredible voice actor it is absolutely amazing -- but now you can have somebody who can perform completely, and take over a character. Even in those ridiculous helmets and leotards."
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