The changing role of game acting

The changing role of game acting
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

December 28th 2011 at 12:30PM

Uncharted 3's lead actors on why actors have a new role to play in game development

With Uncharted 3 wrapped, the actors that gave Drake and many of his co-stars life have had a chance to rest and reflect on over five years embodying the same characters.

In that time, a lot has changed. Drake has emerged as one of gaming’s most convincing protagonists, whilst mo-cap and animation technology has vastly improved its ability to record every detail of an actor’s performance.

Today a performer can put their all into a game character, from the squint of an eye to their emotional soul. As such, game actors now have a huge creative influence and larger responsibility than ever.

That considered, isn’t it about time they were allowed to exercise a little more of their craft? Actors have had input in film and television for decades. Perhaps game developers could benefit from encouraging a little of the same.

Naughty Dog certainly seem to think so, and Nolan North and Emily Rose – who play Uncharted’s Nathan Drake and Elena Fisher respectively – have almost become as much a part of the team as those in traditional dev roles, such as level designers and artists.

BORN TO PERFORM
Under the watchful eye of series director Amy Hennig, North and Rose have had a remarkable effect on a game that has become something of a mascot and key franchise for the PlayStation 3.

“For this series of games in particular I feel Amy Hennig birthed the characters, but she has allowed us to raise them,” offers North. “We were able to infuse our personalities over the past five-and-a-half years into who the characters are.”

And that, says North, has made it easier to play long-standing video game parts; to sustain nuances of character and make the on-screen relationships convincing and complicated.

“Amy has such an incredible skillset of writing and storytelling, and she has such a lack of ego, that as actors we’re able to take the trunk of the story and branch off,” adds North. “If that works, we keep it, and if it doesn’t we get rid of it. It’s a very organic process, and Amy can work on what we’ve done as actors and take it in new directions.”

In fact, according to North, it is rare that Naughty Dog starts an Uncharted game with a full script. Instead, working with the development team, the actors help ‘connect the dots’ between Hennig’s core ideas. There is no doubt; these actors help make the game.

From a purely creative perspective such an approach sounds ever so nice, but pragmatic developers have every right to ponder how workable it is as a business model considering the make-up of most studios across the globe.

AS SEEN ON TV
To make Hennig’s somewhat unique approach to working with actors practical, Naughty Dog has had to realise an entirely new approach to games development workflow.
“We have these recurring characters, and the way we shoot and our workflow is very much like a TV series. We shoot very frequently across the period of development rather than in three intense weeks, so everyone from this ensemble cast gets to know and work with one another over time,” explains Naughty Dog community strategist Arne Meyer.

It’s a model that’s certainly popular with the acting talent. The methodology has allowed North, Rose and their colleagues to better form their characters and the game world they share. It has also given them the opportunity to acquire an understanding of the game development process that has allowed them to collaborate with the team like few actors have done with a games studio before.

And, according to Rose, the model of working with actors employed by Naughty Dog has set a new standard that film and TV producers could learn much from.

“For me working with Uncharted in my life has set such a high standard for the way things should be done,” she says. “When you work on television with some creators, their word is gold, and that’s fine. I mean, you wouldn’t want to input there, and then some writers could really do with a bit of help.

“Amy, though, has set this high standard because while you shouldn’t really differ from what she says, at the same time she encourages collaboration. She’ll even say ‘here’s this crap I came up with last night. Now you can make it better’. She actually says that. I can’t believe it. And then you read it and it’s amazing, but she’ll encourage us to riff off one another as we do a table reading.”

Any observers that doubt Rose’s perspective may be interested to learn that the final moments of the final cut of Uncharted 2 were utterly improvised. Undisputable proof, then, that Hennig is not too precious about her opus to let her actors off the leash.

An enthusiastic interpretation of what Naughty Dog is doing is redefining the way actors work with creators. There is little or no hierarchy in terms of producers overlooking and micromanaging at the studio, and through the extended shoots and closeness between actors and developers, there is a level of trust that those inside the walls of Naughty Dog insist is unrivalled.

Rose even considers that the approach might be confined to Hennig and her co-workers: “I just don’t know if other games studios could handle this model. The risky way that Naughty Dog works is so unique to them. The ‘organic-ness’ of everything, and the way it is on the fly and the fact that the development team is so in sync with each other just wouldn’t work in many places.”

Whether or not the approach is one that other studios could easily adopt, the Uncharted outfit has made many actors very happy, and its games have become famed for the believable, human and likeable quality of their characters.

In fact, what Hennig and her team are doing – in adopting and tailouring the existing approach to shooting content so prolific in film and television – is even allowing the cast to begin pondering the emergence of a new school of acting theory; and one that is specifically conceived for game and special effects work.

“I think performance capture offer actors acting in its purest form,” suggests North, as he begins to hint at an approach to acting ‘systems’ pioneered by the likes of Andy Serkis.

METHOD IN THE MADNESS
Alec Guinness, who North highlights as an inspiration and an idol, has long been an advocate of developing a character from the outside, and projecting it in. It’s quite the opposite of acting theory’s most famous name; Constantin Stanislavski. It was he who pioneered the ‘method’ approach to acting which centred around the inner being of the actor and bringing that to the outside. Guinness’ approach, argues North, is one that any actor squeezed into a mo-cap suit should seriously consider.

“With mo-cap it’s acting in its purest form because you need that imagination. It’s play acting; it’s the imagination, and it it’s a matter of grasping onto specific moments and really connecting with the other actors in a way you don’t normally have to do, especially in games where you’re alone with the microphone,” says North of acting in a world of high-fidelity mo-cap, adding: “It’s a new way of acting that requires a new way of thinking.”

A SPECIAL EFFECT

The actors’ work on the Uncharted series has brought them a great many things. Rose admits it has provided a significant boost to her skillset as an actress in a range of industries increasingly dominated by special effects. She is adamant that performing in games now has risen to a level of respectability that has her colleagues the world over keen to seek work at the new frontier of game acting.

What’s more, Rose has even had her eyes opened by gaming to many of the failings of the conventions that dominate the film and TV studios scattered through Los Angeles and beyond.

“There’s too many controlling people in Hollywood and that industry,” states Rose. “Networks control creators. It’s so different with games. The freedom Sony gives Naughty Dog, and the freedom from Naughty Dog all the way down is amazing. There’s so much trust, and I think part of that is because of Amy.”

If there is a new movement in game acting – one that sees performers working more closely with developers in crafting a game – then it has a way to go. Naughty Dog’s method and its relationship with Rose and North remains fairly atypical.

Rushed shoots crammed into just a few days still dominate the industry landscape, and many game actors still only see the insides of an ADR booth.

That is changing though, and bold developers who are not too adverse to risk could do well from inviting actors a little closer, and listening to their insights throughout a game’s development.