Movie stars sell movie tickets, but do they also sell video games? The latest title to put this question to the test is “Brütal Legend,” a new action-adventure title set in a heavy-metal land of mythic creatures and crushing tunes that stars Tenacious D frontman and “School of Rock” maestro Jack Black as the voice (and likeness) of its head-banging hero Eddie Riggs.
Developed by acclaimed designer Tim Schafer (of “Grim Fandango,” “Psychonauts”) with Black’s creative input, “Brütal Legend” is a heavily hyped game that’s invested a lot in the popularity of Black, who’s not only touted in ads as the lead but who even has shown up on red carpets dressed as Riggs. More so than any other recent game, “Brütal Legend” has pinned its retail hopes on players’ fondness for its lead voice actor, a decision that says a lot about the industry’s desire to market their games around recognizable voice talent.
But does anyone really give a hoot who’s speaking their on-screen avatar’s lines? The answer’s still “Reply hazy, try again.” The same goes as to whether having a celeb’s participation really does anything to enhance a game’s quality. There’s no doubt that, at least when it come to movie tie-in games, having the cast carry through to the game helps maintain synergy. But in terms of stand-alone titles, the benefits of having celebrity voice actors is murkier, thanks to the many examples out there where celeb efforts either did nothing for the game or actually hurt as much as helped the overall product.
Signing a big name movie star to voice your game’s protagonist or villain definitely carries with it a sense of credibility, all the more to make the argument that gaming is just a legit an industry as cinema, one with major talent getting involved. But as more and more actors turn their gaze to the console and PC arena, it’s getting difficult to see what significant benefit, if any, is really enjoyed by games that choose to use them.
The practice first took off in the ’90s, when CD-based crud like “Night Trap” (starring Dana Plato) and “Wing Commander III” (headlined by Mark Hamill and John Rhys-Davies) erroneously assumed that having filmed cutscenes of real actors would enhance the gaming experience. But the modern trend to hire accomplished actors really kicked into gear with 2001’s “Grand Theft Auto III” and, to an even greater extent, its 2002 sequel “Vice City.” Featuring Dennis Hopper, Ray Liotta and Samuel L. Jackson (among many others), “Vice City” has a star-studded cast to match its over-the-top scale, one made up of actors whose badass personas perfectly meshed with the game’s gonzo thug-life material.
There can be an artistic danger in relying too heavily on celeb voice actors, as seen in the case of animation. Following the lead of DreamWorks’ “Shrek” series, the majority of animated films have started pushing their A-list voice cast in the same way they would any in-the-flesh leads, which can get in the way of the fiction that their characters are “real” as opposed to performed “roles” — “Hey, that’s Seth Rogen voicing the adorable gelatinous blob!” Games haven’t, at least until “Brütal Legend,” gone quite that far, but it’s a future fast approaching.
My favorite AAA game from 2008, the time-usurping post-apocalyptic RPG “Fallout 3,” offered up the vocal stylings of Liam Neeson, Malcolm McDowell and Ron Perlman, all of whom provided fine work that had absolutely no bearing on my attitude toward the game. Similarly, Eliza Dushku’s starring role as “WET”‘s sexy mercenary Rubi didn’t make a lick of difference, not because her work was terrible (“adequate” would be a more appropriate assessment), but because the game’s interests aren’t in serious drama (or engaging scripting) but choreographed action.
The list goes on — Patrick Stewart in “Oblivion,” Tim Curry and Jenny McCarthy in “Red Alert 3,” Linda Hunt in the “God of War” franchise — and the conclusions are usually the same: actors can be solid in games, but their efforts rarely elevate or desecrate a title’s general value, except in those many instances (mostly, again, with movie tie-ins) when the celebs’ voice acting is so lifeless, stilted and disconnected from the action at hand that it calls attention to their lousy contribution.