“I mean, Gary Oldman, one of the greatest actors on the planet, did Call of Duty. He wouldn’t have done it 10 years ago. It’s a new age dawning, and I’m just really proud to be part of it.”
Nolan North, born 48 years ago today, played more than just a “part” in the new age of video game acting. Known for roles such as Nathan Drake in Uncharted, Desmond Miles in Assassin’s Creed, and Ghost in Destiny, North has established himself as one of the most iconic voice actors in the video game industry as we know it today. As a birthday present, we’re going to look at why that’s important.
The quotation that opens this piece echoes something that the inimitable Andy Serkis once said:
Every age has its storytelling form, and video gaming is a huge part of our culture. You can ignore or embrace video games and imbue them with the best artistic quality. People are enthralled with video games in the same way as other people love the cinema or theater.
This is largely something that can be attributed to the incredible performances of actors who bring video game characters to life. Serkis is an interesting person to refer to here, as his motion-capture performances as Gollum from The Lord of the Rings and Caesar from Planet of the Apes have been met with much controversy. Despite his incredible performance as Gollum, Serkis never won an Oscar due to the fact that it was a different kind of acting.
Now, years later, motion-capture is recognized as something that requires a wealth of extraordinary talent to execute properly. Serkis, who is also an established theater actor, has no issue acting outside of motion-capture. He can do what others do, but not everyone can do what he can. We can apply the same principles to video game acting; on one hand, the motion-capture mechanics resemble that of animated or computer-generated sequences from film, but the animations need to correspond with the input of the player. Therefore, the acting must be absolutely flawless, lest the movements look out of place, thus breaking the immersion.
On another level, video game acting has to be expressive enough in terms of intonation in order for players to feel that the voice reflects the choices that they make. If a player chooses an option on a dialogue wheel, poor voice acting will leave them dissatisfied. Voice actors in games need to act as a character that is capable of communicating multiple emotions depending on the current set of permutations, especially in the RPGs of today. Each character contains multiple personalities and needs to account for multitudinous yet not simultaneous modes of expression. On this, North said, “I’m an actor. Whether I’m on stage, in front of a camera or a microphone, what I do is the same—although with video games it requires a lot of imagination.”
So what “part” did North play in the establishment of video game acting as a new and innovative form of acting in general? Well, a pretty huge one, actually. The man’s list of credits speaks for itself in relation to his insane output, but it’s the consistency of quality throughout his career that marks him as an iconic figure in the industry. For 19 years, North has been producing high quality video game performances, managing to establish himself as a video game celebrity in the process alongside the likes of Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson.
The fact that Nolan North is so instantly recognizable as David in The Last of Us and Hades in God of War helps to establish the importance of the role of a video game actor, something that wasn’t always the case. Although Serkis’ quotation draws attention to the gravity of games as a contemporary form today, this leap is one that is tied to relatively recent events. On one occasion, North said, “I revel in my anonymity. But when I’m at a specific event and gamers are there, they’ll recognize me.”
A famous actor for traditional cinema would be instantly recognized; anonymity is not an option. However, the fact that people who play games are invested enough in North’s performances to have learned enough about him to recognize him highlights the main way in which respect was bestowed upon the role of video game acting. North established himself as a famous video game actor, and thus the comparison between games acting and the theater acting that Serkis talks about came to be. Video game acting became an art, reserved for incredibly talented and passionate people. These people became celebrities, which helped to make the industry gain attention and subsequently respect as a whole.
The reason that actors like Sean Bean, Charles Dance, and Gary Oldman have worked in the games industry is because the actors in the industry have proved themselves to be incredibly skilled people. For traditional actors, video games acting poses a new challenge that’s radically different to acting on screen. It’s become an art in itself, and likely wouldn’t have become so if people hadn’t committed themselves to it in the way in which Nolan North did.
The reason that games have began to establish themselves as an important contemporary form is largely due to the wealth of talent pumped into them by the people who act in them—the people like Nolan North. If not for him, our age’s form of storytelling wouldn’t be quite as magical as it is.