It's hard to create a memorable character when you get the script on the way to the recording booth.
Imagine Jennifer Lawrence showing up for the first day of principal photography on The Hunger Games without knowing what film she was shooting. Or picture Daniel Day-Lewis on the set of There Will Be Blood, where Paul Thomas Anderson has only given him access to whatever parts of the script they were shooting that day. Or try to conceive of The Big Lebowski, but if nobody had told Jeff Bridges beforehand that he was playing The Dude. These might sound like silly hypotheticals, but they are everyday realities for voice actors in the video game industry.
Ray Chase, the voice of lead character Noctis in Square Enix's Final Fantasy XV, has experienced this sort of treatment his entire career as a voice actor. "All the time, I don't know what I'm dealing with. I'll fall through the cracks and go 'I don't know what I just did. I hope it comes out at some point.'" And it's this sort of secrecy that fuels at least part of the current SAG-AFTRA voice actor's strike.
Protesting current business practices from eleven major video game companies including Electronic Arts, Insomniac, Take 2 Interactive, and Warner Bros. Games, the SAG-AFTRA strike seeks transparency in the voice acting process as well as better compensation for performers, though it was the former that dominated our conversation with Ray. "I think the level of secrecy in games and the people working on them should definitely be changed. That's a huge thing for us."
Developers and publishers have carefully controlled every facet of their game's publicity campaign for decades now. In-development games are kept secret for months or years in order to garner a huge response when finally revealed. But for the voice actors in these games, says Chase, it's another roadblock separating them from the art they've contributed to.
"We want to promote these games," says Chase. "We want to talk about these games, and be proud of our work. But a lot of the time, if we're in something, we don't realize it. We don't know when the release date is. We can't talk about it and we don't know when we can talk about it."
Square Enix, the developer of Final Fantasy XV, is not one of the companies targeted by the recent SAG-AFTRA strike. In addition to working with Square on Final Fantasy XV, Chase also had a role in Square Enix/Eidos Montreal's Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, and Square's practices with voice actors break from the industry's obscurant norms in many ways. Deus Ex is the only game Chase has worked on where he received the script ahead of time. With most other games, Chase was given the role the day he went in to record, only learning about the character he was playing through the early hours of recording recording.
And with Final Fantasy XV, Chase and the other voice actors that constitute the game's core group of ragtag friends/adventurers were given the constant guidance and presence of voice director Keythe Farley (who also has a career in front of the mic, most famous as Fallout 4's Kellogg and the Mass Effect series' Thane Krios). While it's common in films with central friendships to have the actors spend a significant amount of time together before shooting begins, the Final Fantasy XV "bros"—as Chase refers to them—never met until over a year into production and never recorded together because of difficulties with dubbing. But according to Chase, Farley was responsible "for making it seem like we were all in the same room at the same time talking to each other as real people. He was there for every single session. He's responsible for fostering that team work."
Despite landing a role as coveted as a lead in the Final Fantasy franchise, Chase is a relative newcomer to video game voice acting. His career started out with work in audiobooks and voice overs in commercials before branching out into anime and video games and it was only in more recent years that Chase was able to turn it into full time work.
However, Chase is also part of a growing generation of voice actors that grew up with video games as their main source of entertainment. "[As a kid], I wanted to be a video game actor, not a movie star or TV or anything like that." And it's his knowledge of video games that often cues him into what series he's doing voiceover work for even when he hasn't been officially told. He finds cues in concept art or the idiosyncratic vocabularies that so many games employ. He expressed admiration for the games of Jonathan Blow, Undertale, and Naughty Dog's human-driven approach to storytelling and echoed a complaint many gamers have: a Steam library of unplayed games that never seems to end.
Although Chase expressed deep respect for the work Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson did on The Last of Us and wants to work with Naughty Dog in the future, Chase's biggest source of inspiration as a young voice actor is a reflection of his age: Charles Martinet as Mario. "There are videos where it just plays all of his efforts from Mario Sunshine in a row and you go, 'Man.' The variation, the imagination he has. It's not just, 'I got punched in the gut.' It's different sounds for 'I fell off this cliff and landed on my butt' versus 'I fell and landed on my shoulder' versus 'I fell and landed on a green-spiked shell.' It's all over the place and really, really imaginative."
Chase is passionate about his work in Final Fantasy XV and the rest of his work in both video games and anime (where he's appeared in shows like One Punch Man, Charlotte, and Hunter x Hunter). He was also excited about the continuing strides that both the AAA and indie game spaces are making towards telling more subtle, more human stories. But it was also clear how disheartened he was by the ways that so many developers block voice actors from fully contributing to both the creative and promotional process of the games he worked on and that was why he was a proud active member of the SAG-AFTRA strike.
He's also proud of the fans who are supporting the striking voice actors. "Every time that we've picketed, we've tweeted about #PerformanceMatters and it always trends at least at #3 or #4. And that's really inspiring to see. That's the fans. The supporters of the game, the supporters of the strike, they're helping us with that. Publishers and game developers do check their Twitter feeds, so getting their attention that way is very worthwhile."
And, for my part, I do think performance matters. There's no Nathan Drake without Nolan North. There's no Commander Shepard without Jennifer Hale. There's no Solid Snake without David Hayter.
And when you have young talent as knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the medium as Ray Chase, what good does it do for the final quality of your game to keep him and any other voice actor in the dark? If you treat voice actors like expendable pieces of increasingly expensive video game productions, what does it say about the heroes and villains they're supposed to bring to life? How do games find humanity when a significant portion of the talent driving it are reading dissociated lines on a page?
Perhaps the SAG-AFTRA strike will finally shed light on the answers to these questions.