How to Act in Video Games | Kickstarting your Gaming Career

How to Act in Video Games

Written by on | Acting Industry

If you’ve kept an eye on the articles I write, I’m sure you know by now that I’m a certified nerd. And being a certified nerd, I can tell you for certain that the video game industry is turning into a hotspot for acting opportunities. The HBO adaption of The Last of Us, originally a video game created by American game studio Naughty Dog, has proven that video games have huge potential to touch the hearts of the masses. This has resulted in a trend towards character-driven video games—meaning there is a growing demand for proficient actors to bring digital characters to life. So, let’s talk about how us bright-eyed, bushy-tailed acting folk can get in on this boom and act in video games.

Video game acting requires a unique set of practical skills. You’ll need to be able to give physically embodied performances and, in some cases, stretch your voice into larger-than-life characters. You’ll need a solid agent, and you’ll also need to know about game studios, local and international, and the kinds of games they are developing.

Voice Acting or Plain Old Acting?

This article isn’t strictly about voice acting for video games. That’s because nowadays, companies with big budgets will often use motion-capture to create their characters. If you’re lucky enough to act in one of these massive projects, you’ll get strapped into a funny suit and act out scenes from the game in a studio, as if you were acting in a film or a stage play. Check out this behind-the-scenes video from The Last of Us Part II. It’s unreal.

Even on projects that are strictly voice-acting, your ability to stretch your voice will depend on your physicality. Video game characters are often heightened, and most of the creature or monster sounds you hear in video games are created by people pushing their voices to the limit and making sounds that seem impossible. Vocal fitness and physical fitness are intrinsically linked: the voice is not separate from the body after all.

WFH

The beauty of voice over work is that you can work from home. You need a good home studio, which does require some startup capital. But once you’ve got it, you’ll have it for as long as you need and it can open you up to international opportunities. Voice artist Misty Lee, works from her home studio and creates some truly harrowing sounds for major video games made all over the world:

How Do Our Voices Work?

In order to be a proficient video game actor, your vocal range will need to be somewhat superhuman. The way you get there is just like anything else. Practice. Having a good understanding of the different components of our voice will help us practice safely, so here’s a crash course.

It all starts with air. If you want to speak or make a sound, you take a breath in. The louder you want to be, the deeper the breath you take. The air then travels up through our oesophagus through our larynx where our vocal folds hang out. These pretty things look a bit like butterfly wings as air travels between them. They are delicate, but capable of some crazy stuff if the right amount of air is travelling through them at the right rate. Your voice doesn’t stop there, though. If you got your head cut off just above the larynx, it would make a sound similar to a duck. The things that shape this duck sound into words and noises are your teeth, your tongue, and your lips. 

So, to make sounds and voices worthy of a great video game, you need:

  1.  Well-supported breath which comes from regular breathing exercises and good physical fitness
  2. Just the right amount of air flowing through your vocal folds. If you’re experimenting with sounds or voices and you ever feel any kind of scratchiness in your throat, stop. That’s your limit and it shouldn’t be tested.
  3. Muscular and precise articulators. We have some amazing warmups on our YouTube channel that, if practiced regularly, will strengthen your vocal muscles and keep your body relaxed and loose which is the best state of being to make crazy sounds.

The essence of this paragraph is to train. If you want to be a video game actor—if you want to be any kind of actor—you need to train. We’ve said it before, we’ll say it a million times more. Whether it’s at drama school, in workshops or your own consistent personal practice; be sure to train.

The ‘Style’ of Video Game Acting

In 2011, now-defunct Australian developers Team Bondi created L.A. Noire (published by GTA juggernaut Rockstar Games.) The main pull of the game—revolutionary at the time–was your ability, as a grizzled, 1940’s Los Angeles detective, to read facial cues and determine if a suspect was lying. L.A. Noire revolutionised the way that performance capture could give video game characters a sense of naturalism.

In the decade-plus since, technology has allowed for more nuanced performances to be captured. With announced projects like OD (a collaboration between game developer Hideo Kojima and director Jordan Peele, trailer below.), the blur between film performance and game performance has never been, well, blurrier.

What does this mean for actors in this field? Without old mate Kojima on speed-dial I can only speculate. But it’s safe to say that performances for games will become smaller: intricate, nuanced, cinematic. Not every game will have the AAA budget to make this happen, but the trend towards this will ensure that actors trained in stage and (particularly) screen will find acting in video games a lot like their usual gigs, than something they have to completely retrain for.

Physicality in Video Game Acting

So how do these technological advancements translate to physicality for the actor? Our advice is to develop a complete understanding of how your character moves, stands, interacts with the story world. Returning to the example of L.A. Noire, one of the limitations of that game was ultra-realistic faces being mapped onto computer-animated bodies. It sometimes looked like a robot wearing a human face—and it’s about as scary as it sounds…

If you want to act in video games, be ready to get physical. Move, crouch, jump, fight and get killed as many different ways as the devs can dream up. But that’s not to say that you’re not shooting for a sense of truth or naturalism. Even in stylised movement or performance, there are still rules that dictate the way you traverse the plot.

For some inspiration, check out what we have to say on mask work, animal work and clowning. If you wish to become more comfortable with physicality as an actor, these are some fun places to start!

Types of Video Games

Okay, now that we’ve discussed the practical skills required to act in video games as characters/creatures/robots/monsters/et al., let’s talk about a few of the different types of video games and what kinds of characters they’re likely to contain.

Action Games

The biggest games in the billion dollar industry are overwhelmingly action, FPS (first person shooter) titles. Expect lots of performance capture, exertion and fight choreography. And while you might think action games are light on dialogue, there is often a lot of talking to propel the plot forwards.

The other thing these games require is a lot of foley: sound effects that undercurrent the action added later in the production. You can expect to do a lot of screaming, shouting, grunting, growling, breathing–anything you would expect from a high-stakes action scene with explosions and bullets. Action games usually have a lot of background characters, too, who will need someone to give them the scream they always wanted.

Adventure Games

Fantasy, role-playing games (RPG) are usually the most character driven, because they are needed to prop up unfamiliar story worlds that make the player feel welcome. Expect plenty of dialogue, and large casts of characters that require a voice. As an example, the script for fantasy epic Baldur’s Gate 3 had two million words in it: not only can you speak to every character, you can cast a spell that speaks to every animal.

In adventure games, vocal work is essential: you’ll need to provide distinct voices for human characters, as well as supernatural and monstrous beings as well. Experiment, have fun, but don’t sacrifice the truth of the thing.

Simulation Games

Simulation games span a few sub-genres, including real-time strategy (think a board game come to life), life-sim (in which the player lives an alternate life through a character in a fictional world) or the replication of a real-world job/event/career: Acting Simulator 2024 might have you going to auditions, submitting self-tapes, sneaking out of work early to see a friend’s showcase…

These games are trying to create something as true to life as possible, which means that any and all voice work for them will be highly realistic. You can expect to be doing things like radio chatter, news broadcasts or perhaps giving orders. Space simulation games are pretty popular at the moment and there is always a lot of background dialogue to enrich the world.

Indie Games

This is a term used for smaller games developed by smaller game companies. Due to budget constraints, they won’t often have big chunks of voiced dialogue but they’re very likely to need sounds for creatures or humans. These kind of projects are the ones you’ll start out on because there are more of them and the demands of the performance are not as high.

Where It’s All Happening

Most video game companies, even the smaller ones, operate out of major cities around the world.

Canada

The Canadian games industry is one of the most robust in the world, sporting international heavy-hitters such as Bioware, Ubisoft (from the French parent company) and EA Canada. While most companies are moving west to establish studios in cities with government and provincial support, Vancouver, BC, is known as a staple for production of both independent and studio titles.

United States

Measured by sheer size of its industry, there is arguably no better place to develop games than in the United States. It has the largest number of game developers employed anywhere in the world. If you want to act in video games, this is the place for you. A lot of companies are based out of California, which makes that LA acting dream all the more appealing.

Notable companies include Naughty Dog (responsible for The Last of Us series), Take Two Interactive (the parent company of GTA’s Rockstar Games), Riot Games and Blizzard Entertainment.

Japan

Japan has a rich culture of video game development, and its industry is an enormous supplier of games to both domestic and international players. Unless you speak Japanese, you’re unlikely to find this industry readily hospitable, although the need for dubbing games into English does necessitate actors from all over the world.

Nintendo, Capcom Konami, From Software and The Pokémon Company are just some of the major players, along with Sony Interactive Entertainment—whose PlayStation Studios (U.S.-based) are responsible for many of the AAA titles that have revolutionised performance capture in modern gaming.

Australia

There’s a pretty decent indie game development scene in Melbourne and Sydney, though there aren’t a lot of big studios. If there’s a game or company you like the look of, look up some gameplay from one of their recent releases and see what kind of voice acting it makes use of. 

There are a couple of big studios based in Melbourne and Sydney that produce larger games. Activision/Sledgehammer Games are a heavy hitter in the industry. They’re a global company that own a lot of smaller companies. But take the time to find the interesting indie developers as well: Big Ant, Massive Monster.

Universities

Not a specific place, per se, but a great place to stumble across up-and-coming developers with projects needing voices and performers. Look to your local university or college and see if anybody is putting something together you can be a part of. It won’t necessarily be paid, but you’ll be able to network and build your profile. Think of it like doing a student film.

How to Get Into It

Like any other form of acting, working as an actor in video games requires a whole lot of patience and consistency.

Build a Reel

The first step is to build up a couple of demo reels. You can take some dialogue from existing video games, or write your own, and record yourself putting your own spin on it. A lot of phone microphones are good enough for starter reels these days. I would recommend having two reels: one for character dialogue and one for creature/monster sounds to demonstrate your range. Play video games or watch gameplay to get an idea of what to put on your reel. Best homework ever.

Once you have something to show off, I would start by sending emails to local universities that offer game design courses. Introduce yourself and tell them you’re an actor looking for voice-over work and send them your reel. You can also keep an eye on job boards like StarNow and Casting Networks for video game gigs. Recently, a friend of mine has landed a couple of voice over jobs through Fiverr

Network, Network, Network

As you start to pick up work on student projects, you’ll naturally start to build a bit of a reputation–just make sure it’s a good one. There’s no prescriptive way of doing it, but you’ll hopefully start to gain more contacts with people who are well-connected in the industry.

University lecturers are great for this because it’s their job to know at least a few companies they can put their students in touch with. There’s also nothing wrong with sending a polite email directly to any game development companies you’d like to work with, similar to how you would contact a casting director, explaining who you are and giving them your reel.

Get a Good Agent

And make sure they have a voice-over branch. There are dedicated voice agents out there who you can sign with. But most good agencies will also be on the lookout for voice work. Just be aware of the city you live in and the video game scene there. As someone based in Melbourne, I haven’t ever received an audition for a major game development company because there aren’t many of them based here. That doesn’t mean there aren’t smaller opportunities to look out for, but it’s usually on you personally to seek those out.

If you have a mind to make the move to Los Angeles or another hotspot for game development some day, seek out smaller opportunities to get experience and to build on your reel. It all adds up over time and you could find yourself in the studio of your favourite game designers if you stick with it.

Conclusion

Video games present exciting and interesting opportunities for actors. The skillset you develop from working on them is essential to any other kind of acting you’ll do throughout your career. It’s important to note that bigger opportunities are more likely found in places like California, but it is entirely possible to do voice acting on these projects from home. As long as you’ve got the studio and equipment to do it. 

The steps to working on big video game projects are very similar to that of film and theatre. Starting small and building up. You have to run before you can walk. Keep your eyes peeled and ears sharp for smaller projects, keep developing your skills and delivering a great performance when you work. And you may very well end up in a weird suit in a weird studio working on the next major video game.

Hope this helps, see you around the traps!

 

About the Author

Frazer Shepherdson

Frazer (he/him) is a writer, actor and director. He has worked professionally in film, television and theatre since 2016 and graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts with a Bachelor in Acting in 2021.

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