Why Hollywood actors are being drawn to star in video games

Video game plots and action are becoming more like those in films and a number of actors, such as Game of Thrones’ Aidan Gillen, are portraying characters using motion capture

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 May, 2016, 10:01pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 May, 2016, 2:55pm

Video game plots don’t always have the best reputations. It can be hard to keep a coherent story together when you’re also trying to let a player explore an open world, or choose between branching storylines.

But there are quite a few people in the industry who are working to make video game plots more like those in television or film.

Quantum Break, released earlier this month by Remedy Entertainment, further blurs the lines between “traditional” media and video games. The game features live-action sequences intercut between gameplay that stars the actors who are portraying the (very realistic) digital characters in the more traditional gameplay.

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It can be hard to tell which is which sometimes. Shawn Ashmore, an actor known for playing Bobby Drake/Iceman in the X-Men movies, anchors a cast in Quantum Break that also includes Dominic Monaghan of Lord of the Rings fame, and Game of Thrones actor Aidan Gillen.

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The studio’s creative director, Sam Lake, says that he wanted to look to Hollywood to find professional actors for the game because he wanted to use lifelike motion capture technology. “When you can have a slight movement on the actor’s face, you start to need better and better actors to deliver the drama,” he explains.

Ashmore is a fan of past Remedy games such as Max Payne and Alan Wake, and was excited to work with the team. He shot the game over the course of two years. It was initially difficult to adjust to the game part of the role, the actor says, because he had to wear a helmet camera. That meant he had two cameras, four lights and two microphones aimed at his face to capture his performance.

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But Ashmore adjusted over time, perhaps partly because of his experience in the X-Men movies.

“I think to a certain extent playing Bobby Drake in the X-Men films and having been involved with special effects-driven films, did help me imagine what it was going to look like,” Ashmore says.

“Doing motion capture, you really have to trust the filmmakers and the storytellers because so many elements are missing.”

Even when filming for an effects-heavy movie, Ashmore says, he’d at least be in costume with a practical set. When shooting for the game, he had to imagine what the world around him looked like based on drawings from the Remedy team. In terms of the acting itself, however, Ashmore says there wasn’t much of a difference.

“I didn’t approach Jack Joyce from a different position than I would a film or television performance,” he says.

“I wanted to create a back story for Jack. I wanted it to be an authentic character and a grounded performance, so I didn’t approach the preparation or the actual performance from a different angle.”

I did think about how to make [Jack] an accessible character and likeable to a certain extent, just so the player wanted to spend time with this character
Shawn Ashmore

He did, however, take into account that he would be the avatar for the many players who control him as the protagonist. Game protagonists are often strong, silent types, so that players can project their own personalities onto them; the star casting in Quantum Break obviously requires something different.

“It didn’t affect the performance necessarily,” Ashmore says. “But I did think about how to make [Jack] an accessible character and likeable to a certain extent, just so the player wanted to spend time with this character.”

Lake says he wasn’t worried that having a character with a strong personality and an identifiable face would keep players from relating to Jack Joyce.

“Our approach has always been that we would rather build a strong main character as you would expect in any story to be enjoyable,” he says.

“What’s important is making sure the player wants to be on the ride with this character and help him succeed with his goals.”

And, Lake would argue, the kind of storytelling you can do in a game can be deeper than in a traditional television show or film. For one, you can selectively flip your camera angle, so that you can literally change your view of a scene to see the protagonist’s reaction to a shocking revelation.

Games also have the luxury of time to deepen a scene. While a critical email or a book may be a crucial plot point, for example, it could only get a few moments on screen. In a game, players can dig through the book, go through the email chain, maybe even snoop around the inbox.

“It gives you a very different experience,” Lake says. “It’s interactive because there is a player agenda that you can choose to ignore some of the content or even explore further.”

We are getting more and more people from the film industry to work on games
Sam Lake

Lake is convinced that projects like his show that films and games are moving closer together.

“We are getting more and more people from the film industry to work on games and being excited about the storytelling opportunities games offer, from the special effects side,” he says.

“There are people who have done work on movies like Gravity – they were part of these scenes that won the Oscar – and they are now working in our studio on Quantum Break. ”

Could starring in the latest games put some shine on an actor’s resume? There’s no doubt that Hollywood actors seem to be invading the video game world, including Kevin Spacey, Angela Bassett and Kiefer Sutherland.

Ashmore says he’s not sure if games will soon reach the level of a TV show or film in terms of prestige. But, speaking for himself, he’d do another game in a heartbeat if the project were right.

“I feel that if actors are looking to tell stories, and they’re not picky [about] the medium they tell it in, games could become incredibly popular for actors,” he says.

“And now that I’ve done it, I see that the performance is as rewarding as working on film or television, so I think that could become a trend.”
The Washington Post