With credits in franchises as iconic as BioShock, Uncharted, Metal Gear Solid, Batman and Far Cry, Troy Baker is undoubtedly one of the industry's most prolific voice actors. In an expansive interview, he looks back upon his career and examines why games remain his greatest passion
What was it like working on Uncharted 4?
Everyone uses this term as a platitude, but it honestly was a dream come true for me.
I remember sitting in a hotel room in Texas on a really terrible movie and the only solace that I had was that a friend of mine let me borrow their PS3 – this is back in 2007 – and he said: 'You have to play this game.' So I started playing Uncharted and when I got done with it, I immediately emailed Naughty Dog – it ended up being Phil Kovats, the audio director there – just to tell them what a great job they had done.
I really had no idea of their process and how they made this, and as I dug in a little bit deeper I found out they were really the tip of the spear when it came to, at that point, motion capture and that created the process of performance capture. All I knew is that that's what I wanted to do. I had to find a way to do that.
So, you cut to almost ten years later, and after being with the franchise as a fan, now I get to be a part of the franchise as not just like a redshirt that Nate Drake kills, which is all I wanted to be – I just wanted to be a bad guy that he threw off a ledge – but here I am playing this new character and I'm playing the brother of Nate Drake.
It was incredible; as a fanboy it really was that dream come true, and as an actor it was the best compliment for a director to look at me and say: 'You're a solution to a problem.' Because everyone knows the process of Uncharted 4, that it went through a lot of changes. As all good things do.
Da Vinci was the one who said 'True art is never completed, it's simply abandoned' and it's just this iterative process that you can constantly keep changing and creating. When they changed the character of Sam, I didn't have to audition or anything. Neil [Druckmann, Uncharted creative director] said: 'I need you to come in because I need someone who knows this franchise, who has faith in this franchise and the respect and fearful respect for this franchise, and someone I know and trust who can come in and just hit the ground running.' For him to think that of me was a huge compliment, It was incredible, it was truly was an incredible experience.
It reunited you with Nathan Drake actor Nolan North, arguably the other most recognisable voice in all of games. What was it like working with Nolan?
What's great is, going back to Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, I was a fan of Nolan's before he and I became friends. It's been cool to see how that relationship has developed over the last seven, eight years that I've known him, because he's still someone that I think is the most talented person in this industry. He's the most versatile – the deepest that I can go, he can go three levels deeper. It's so cool to watch him work.
The first day on set, I'm sitting there and I see out on the stage, in the mo-cap suits and everything, there's Nolan, Richard and Emily. All of a sudden, it's 'Action', and I see Nate Drake, Sully and Elena, and I freaked out. I was like: 'This is unreal, this is not my reality right now that I'm watching them do this.'
Nolan and I get on famously. There's this whole rumoured rivalry that we have. We laugh about it because nothing could be further from the truth. We both respect each other's work, we've both worked a lot with each other – we love working with each other – and, especially on Uncharted, I think we brought the best out of each other.
What attracts you to work on a particular game or with a particular developer?
Well, if it was up to me, any time I see a good character I want to do it. But what I've learned over the last several years– Maurice LaMarche actually said this weekend: 'There's no such thing as rejection, it's just simply you're not the right person for this. It has nothing to do with your talent or your ability, you're just not the right person. Let that one go and get onto the next one that you are right for.'
We always want to be able to make what we love doing our job. Especially when you're starting up, you'll take anything that somebody will get you. If they just let you do what you love to do and allow you to pay your rent and put food in your mouth for that, then you're more than happy to.
It's not that you arrive or you get this 'status', but you prove yourself enough to people where they say: 'We know that you can do this and we're filling to give and entrust this role with you.' Which is huge. These games are multi-million-dollar projects and franchises that rival film budgets, and sometimes surpass them. So for them to take something like The Last of Us and be willing to hang that franchise on me is huge. I would never get that opportunity in TV or film.
So for me where I'm at now is I'm willing to sacrifice because I want to make art, and I seek out people like Naughty Dog who have a proven pedigree of being people that lead the way when it comes to story-driven, character-driven content and crafting experiences that really are not only milestones but benchmarks in the industry. That other people inside the industry say: 'We want to go not only to that level, but higher.' That's what Naughty Dog wants to do. They want to inspire people.
People like Telltale, which is this small, never-saw-'em-coming developer that blew past triple-A franchises with their storytelling and a very simple methodology. Those are the kinds of people I want to work with. Fortunately, what's great is that because of some of the projects I've been lucky enough to be a part of, I have somehow gleaned a benefit from those experiences and people look at me and say: 'Well, you were in this, this was good, we saw your work, you were good – can we bring you into our process?'
Now, what I'm looking for are empty seats at a table that are right for me, where I can come in and be part of the team. Because I want to be a part of the crafting of this, as well. I've never been the guy that just likes to show up on the day, do my job and go home. Some people, that's their thing, and maybe they have more balance in their life than I do. But, for me, I really like being involved soup-to-nuts in projects that I really believe in.
"We're creating stories and characters that have to sustain 12, 15, 40, 100, 200 hours. So they have to be so much richer than what we're seeing in other forms of media."
How do you approach voicing an original character and making them 'come alive'?
Y'know, Neil Druckmann and I were just having this conversation. He said: 'I don't think I've ever asked you this, but what is your process?' And I said: 'I'm glad that you asked, because I don't know.' I don't know what the process is.
There's a couple of common denominators. Number one is just listen. There are incredibly talented people at these developers that have spent hours, years working on crafting these characters, world and story, and they have so much information to give to me – I don't really have to bring much to it because there's so much there. It's just that once I listen and hear where they're wanting this story to go, it may spark something from me as an outsider that allows me to participate in the conversation and together we start crafting this character.
But for me as an actor trying to create a character, the first thing I try to do – it sounds really strange – is find a secret that only I know about this character. I start asking questions like 'Why is this thing the secret?' and 'Why has this character never told anybody else this?' If you start looking at it through there, it's a very revelatory process.
A lot of people say 'I just want to find a voice'. It's really not about that anymore. It's become so much more, to where you don't just go into a studio and get in front of a mic and read lines – these are, again, not even on par but sometimes surpassing where we're at with TV and film. We're creating stories and characters that don't have to sustain two hours, they have to sustain 12, 15, 40, 100, 200 hours. So in a lot of ways they have to be so much richer than what we're seeing in other forms of media.
For me, I really want to dive into who this character is, not just how he looks, sounds, looks or walks or throws a punch or whether he shoots a gun or a bow and arrow. It's so much deeper than that, because what I want is to be partnership with the player, because they have to believe that they're that character, as well. It's this really cool relationship that I have with the developer and the gamer of creating a character that they feel they have agency in and that they're actually in the shoes of that character.
It's really interesting, we were at a convention and there was a teenager, young twenties maybe, in a wheelchair. He'll never be able to move, he's on a breathing apparatus, he was pretty severely disabled. His father looked and he said to Nolan: 'Y'know, my son will never be able to go on adventure like Nathan Drake, but because of Uncharted he can go on adventures with Nathan Drake.' It blew me over, I was like: 'We are really giving not only an outlet for people to kill time or get trophies with or communicate with friends through multiplayer, but we're actually really giving people licence to have adventures and become people that we could never be.'
In some ways we don't ever want to be that. I don't ever want to be Joel, never want to be Joel. But it's kind of cool to be able to hypothetically and theoretically put ourselves in the situation so that we can have a distinct experience. Just as we learn about those characters, we learn about ourselves, too.
You've also portrayed established characters, such as Ocelot in Metal Gear Solid V and various superheroes and villains, including Batman, Robin and the Joker. How does your approach to pre-existing characters differ to original characters?
In a lot of ways, it brings a lot of comfort. Especially in the case of Joker; if they had looked at me and said 'We want to create a whole new Joker for this generation', I would've buckled under the pressure, man. I may've found a way to muddle through, but it was actually a big warm blanket around me going 'Not only do you get to point to an established interpretation of this character, but you get to go to the pre-eminent, widely-accepted definitive interpretation of this character – we just need you to be a young Mark Hamill'. I'm like: 'Okay, that's a little bit easier for my head to wrap around.'
If what Mark had done in Batman: The Animated Series and the Arkham universe was a laser, then the Joker that we did in Arkham Origins and Assault on Arkham was more of a firehose. It was just this unbridled, whimsical passion and chaos that would eventually become the laser beam focus.
You have to approach those things with reverence and respect, and you don't throw out what has obviously resonated with people before, but what I want to do is not do something better or as good, but simply show a different side of that character. I feel like if I've done that, if someone can walk away from that experience and say 'I never knew that about that person, I never knew that about that character', then I've done my job.
It's like King Lear or Richard III – I've seen three different people do Richard III and they all have to be different and show you some different side of that character. The character is the constant, the actor is the variable. So when you put yourself in that position, it's not about hoping you're just as good – there's no way I could be as good as Mark Hamill, but if I can show you a different side of Joker, then maybe I've done my job.
Have your professional requirements increased with the growing presence of concepts like mo-cap?
Absolutely. People can look at it and say it's been technology-driven and I think that's a little bit of putting the cart before the horse. What's happened is there's been this necessitation for evolution because we didn't need this technology to exist, what we needed was a pathway for us to craft better experiences.
Story has become more of an element in games, more than ever before. Creating a cinematic experience became a necessitation and a requirement for players that are investing their time. Time, too, became more of a commodity in games. It wasn't two- or three-hour experiences – we now need an eight-, 10-, 12- 15-hour experience. So how do we do that? How do we create worlds that are bigger, more lush, more immersive, more emergent than they were before?
The acting and the cinematic and the narrative aspect of that and the evolution of that process has become almost a by-product of what players were crying out for: 'We want something we can invest in more.' Before it was go into the booth, 'Here's your script' and maybe you might be with another person. Now, it's pretty much the standard for most games, especially a triple-A title, to do the full performance capture as if it was a movie and spend two to three years filming and going through 300 to 400 pages of script and producing an hour-and-a-half to two hours to three hours worth of cinematic content. It's required a lot of me, and more of me, which I absolutely love.
What's cool is that these teams at the studios have been: 'Alright, this isn't your first rodeo, so can you help us in this process? What have you found that works and that doesn't work?'
Everyone has finally stopped looking for the magic bullet of how to do performance capture and they're creating their own boutique version of it. It's like: 'Well, I know that worked great for Naughty Dog but that's not really what our pipeline is. Our pipeline is more focused on this, so now we do it this way.' It's really more of this bespoke version of performance capture than it is the formulaic ISO 9000 standard version. Our industry won't sustain that.
It's an iterative process, and every studio has their own DNA. For me to be able to come in and go: 'Well, I've worked with developers A, B and C; here are their strengths and their process, and here are their weaknesses and responses to that.' It's really cool for me to be an ambassador and actually help guide studios through coming up with their process for creating cinematic and narrative-driven content in games.
What are the best ways for developers and actors to work together to produce the best performance possible?
Neil has really got a good handle on this when it comes to that and really involving his actors in the process and making sure they have ownership of these characters and are invested in them enough to the point where he is constantly asking them questions about it: 'Well, what do you think Joel would do with this?', 'Okay, well Elena's really wrestling with this thing with Nate – how does she respond to that?' As opposed to telling them what it is, asking them and getting them to come up with the answers for themselves. That's a great way to bring actors into this.
The other thing that I think is really helpful is because he comes prepares with so much information. The classic Neil Druckmann question is: 'What do you think?' If I come up to Neil and say 'I'm really struggling with this, I don't know if this is what Sam should be doing', he would look at me and say 'Well, what do you think? Do you think he should? Do you think he shouldn't?' He's really ready to hear my answer. He's got an answer tucked away in his back pocket that he could pull out anytime he wants – he's always prepared – but he really trusts his actors.
I'm seeing that happen more and more with other studios, as well, where they have all of the back story and information you possibly need, so they still retain their role as a source of information, but they also trust you enough to run with it. Even if it's going to be a monumental failure – I've played out my ideas to the nth degree and see how horrible they were. But fortunately I've worked with directors that are like: 'Cool, did you get that out of your system now? Let's try it this way.' It's fun to be a part of that process, if you're given the information.
What I hate is when I look at people and I go 'So I have a question about this: are we trying to play off this or is this calling back to this or are we setting up this?' and I get met with shrugged shoulders and eyes looking around going 'I don't know'. Being able to have all of your high level questions already answered before you go in, so that when you go into more of the low-level stuff, meaning the intentions and the choices and things like that, then it's got this perfect framework and people feel they can play within that.
There's an interesting experiment that some scientists did where they took a flock of sheep and put them in a pasture with no fence. All of the sheep would never leave the fold – they would stay bundled up and hunched up together. They were afraid to explore. But the second they put this wide-small fence, then the sheep would scatter and explore because they felt like there was safety and parameters and they were at least somewhat more defended. I think actors are the exact same way; if we feel like there are parameters, we're never going to go too far that we've gone overboard. Then, being able to explore that becomes a much more palatable and enticing option than being afraid of screwing up.
"There's an interesting experiment that some scientists did where they took a flock of sheep and put them in a pasture with no fence. All of the sheep would never leave the fold – they would stay bundled up and hunched up together. Actors are the exact same way; if we feel like there are parameters, we're never going to go too far."
There's been a lot of debate over the recognition of voice actors in games as roles continue to ask more and more of performers. Do you feel that games actors should be recognised more by the industry?
It is such a precarious conversation. The problem is that there's not much of a conversation that's happening. There's a lot of people talking at each other.
I can say this: the day that people started tweeting with the hashtag #performancematters I was on the phone all day with developers, different people with different studios whether they be creative directors or even studio heads. They wanted to know what my thoughts on this were – they were like 'Is this you?' I talked to more broken hearts that day, because if anyone was going to use the hashtag #performancematters it was them. These people spend millions of dollars and years of their lives supporting the notion that performance matters. Performance doesn't matter any more to anyone than it does the developer. That's why they make these games.
To be honest with you, it was a big slap in the face when they saw all of those actors that they had worked with and developed relationships with saying 'You need to recognise how important we are and how much our performance matters'. I didn't join in that. I wasn't going to say #performancematters because I didn't need to tell Twitter that my performance matters. I let Twitter tell me and the people who have played my games and have gone along these journeys with me, I let them tell me that performance matters. I don't need to shout it from the rooftops. the most precious commodity I have in this industry are my relationships. That transcends dollars, that transcends the right role – it's more important than anything.
I've turned down more jobs than I've taken because I wasn't the right person for it, and I knew I wasn't the right person for it. It's come back to really pay dividends in that, because what you do with that is people see that you're not just out for you, that you don't have this agenda, and you're willing to say: 'You know what, man? I'm going to pass on this because I really think you should get Travis Willingham, I think he's honestly the best person for this role' or 'You know, Matt Mercer I think could actually pull this off better' or 'Get Liam O'Brien because that's the guy that's going to be able to kick the shit out of this role. Me? I'll wait for the next bus, I'm okay'. When they see that, that builds trust.
I don't do it for that purpose, because it's still costing me something, but what I'm more interested in... I'm not jobs-minded, I'm career-minded, and I want to be in this as long as I can. If I can develop these relationships with people and show them I'm a part of their team, I think that goes way further than me going in an doing a mediocre job on a role that I probably shouldn't have got. That's been my focus
Whether every actor should get a residual on something, man, our industry won't sustain that. Would that be great? Of course, it would be awesome! Man, don't think I didn't do the math when Call of Duty was doing record-breaking numbers and thinking about the house I could buy from that. But our industry won't support that, and that's okay.
If there's a way that somewhere down the line that can be a reality, I'm not going to say no to that money, but I will say this: I think the first in line that should be getting some kind of supplemental payment would be the animators, the lighting guys, the level designers, the coders, the QC people that spend months of their lives doing nothing for eight to 10 hours a day but playing the game just to make sure that when it hits the shelves it's not too buggy that it breaks. Those people are the front and last line of defence, and if anybody deserves to get extra money for doing something, I would rather see it go to QC people. Every time I go to the studio and meet the team or whatever, I always want to go to the bays where they have, like, 15 to 20 to 30 to 50 QC people going: 'I just want to buy you all a beer and apologise for having to listen to my voice and watch my stupid face for the last several weeks of your life. Thank you for making sure I get to play a game that doesn't break.'
As well as games, you've also worked in TV and film, including quite a lot of English-dubbed anime. How does working in those mediums compare to games?
It's all about the process. Acting is acting is acting, it doesn't matter where you do it. If you're doing community theatre or a JJ Abrams movie, you still have to be a good actor and be able to function in the role you've been given.
The difference is, if I'm doing anime and I want to change up the line a little bit... 'Good, cool, glad you have that idea, except for the fact that there's some people that have carefully crafted these words to make sure that we're properly translating the intention and the thought of this original language into these finite amount of already animated flaps. So we love that you have an idea, but do me a favour and just read the line.'
When you come into something like TV or film, typically TV is moving so fast that there was a show I did one time where I was like 'Hey, I've got an idea about this scene' and the director looked at me and laughed and said: 'Oh, you've got an idea? Fantastic. I've got a day to make, so do me a favour – we just need to get through this scene because we've eight to 10 pages we have to do with like 24 different setups.' So a lot of it with TV is time is not your friend.
With film, you have a little bit more leeway, but again, it all depends on your role. Films just haven't given me the kind of roles that I've had in games, to really be given the voice or the seat at that table to say 'Let's take a second and discuss this'.
I remember one scene that we were doing, the ranch house scene in The Last of Us, where we had a big day – we had many, many pages to shoot and this was just two of them. It was good, it was really good – anybody else would've been totally happy to ship that scene with the game. But we all knew that it wasn't great, and it wasn't exactly what it could be. We took a lot of time and we didn't make our day because it didn't feel right. There were no technical problems, there were no lighting setups that we had to do or a problem with location or anything else, it was just the three of us in that scene – me, Ashley and Neil – were like 'It's not right'.
I've never personally been in a situation on a film or a TV show where we've had that amount of leeway. It really is about the process that you're given – it's like 'Here's how we're going to make this thing', and staying within the confines of that, and then also: what's your role? If you're a waiter that has to bring a glass of water to the table, then bring the glass of water to the table and get off screen and shut up. You don't have to be thinking about what your character is thinking when he's bringing that glass of water.
In film, you say 'Know your number on the call sheet'. If you're number one on the call sheet, then maybe you can speak your mind a little bit more. If you're number 10 on the call sheet, shut up and bring the glass of water.
"Crafting good experiences and creating incredible characters will attract more and higher-quality actors than any amount of money will."
In recent years, we've seen an increasing number of TV and film actors, such as Hayden Panettiere and Peter Stormare (Until Dawn); Shawn Ashmore, Dominic Monaghan and Aidan Gillen (Quantum Break); and Willem Dafoe/Ellen Page (Beyond: Two Souls), move into games. As someone working continually in the sector, how do you feel about those actors from other mediums transitioning into your world?
One thing that I love, and the way that I look at that, is that I feel like I've been given the opportunity to be an ambassador, or to turn these people into ambassadors.
What I don't want is for someone like Kevin Spacey, when he's sitting on Jimmy Kimmel, to go: 'Oh, man, making that game, let me tell you what a joke that was.' I want him to say exactly what he did say, which was: 'This was like any other film shoot, TV shoot, play that I've done.'
What was great to see was when Kevin came on stage that first day and they started walking him through, he was like: 'This is theatre, this is me coming back to my love.' He's a huge theatre guy. I got to see him do his one man show of Clarence Darrow. That guy is nails when it comes to theatre, it is really impressive to watch him work. For him to look at this process of making a game and treat it with the same respect and attention that a) the role deserved and b) we needed to do. He threw himself into it. He had ideas, he took direction, which was great – I wasn't sure how that was going to go – and he took the direction from his director and said 'Understood, boss' and put it to work.
That's the kind of experience that someone, if I look at acting as acting, I can't say 'TV actors shouldn't come in and do games'. No, dude, bring it in. Rami Malek coming in and doing Until Dawn – the guy's a nerd, he loves games, of course he wants to do something like this.
I was blown away: this weekend, I was talking with Tony Todd. Tony Todd is a huge nerd, both in stature and also in nerdom; he loves games. He pulled me and Nolan aside and said: 'Oh man, I'm halfway through Uncharted 4 right now, you guys are crushing it, I'm loving the game, I can't wait to finish it.' That's the kind of thing that I want, and I think games specifically have really risen out of this niche kind-of 'we're going to keep you tucked away in the corner because that's for kids in their basement' to something that people do.
It's an incredibly engaging, immersive form of entertainment and our culture right now is craving substance. There's fewer and fewer places to get that substance from – I'm just glad to be a part of it.
How can smaller studios working on a tighter budget attract voice-acting talent to their projects?
I think it was this book, The Business of Film-Making, where it said: 'Rule number one, only make the movie that you can make.' If you're a five-person studio that doesn't have the best physics, you're going to make a really cool platformer... Bossa Studios, those guys blow my mind, I love what they're doing. They're constantly changing, you can never put a finger on what it is they're– these are the kinds of games they make, they just make all different kinds of games.
Thomas Was Alone is brilliantly written and has one voice, and that's the narrator, and that's it. But it's an amazing experience. I think that if people feel like they have to have these things in their game in order for it to be a good game, then maybe you need to rethink, because if that's not your DNA, stretch yourself but don't break yourself.
We should always be trying to challenge ourselves – you want that crunch to be hard. If your crunch is easy, then maybe you should dial it up just a little bit. I look at small studios specifically and I'll say this for me, I can't speak for everyone, what I'm drawn to is the content.
There's a few projects that I'm doing right now that are not big-budget games. They don't have the 'money' to get me, but because I want to be a part of that, we're getting creative about how we can make it make sense for me to give the amount of time that I'm willing to give to be a part of the project, because I believe in the project.
People will throw out 'Oh my gosh, I can't pay double scale' or 'I can't pay Kevin Spacey for what he wants to do'. No, you can't, but what you can do is create content and say 'Do you want to make some art? If you want to make some art, and you're in a position that you can maybe sacrifice a little bit in order to make that art, we want to give you a platform to do that.'
That's why you see so many actors that do these small indie movies, because they're like 'It's just guerrilla film-making' and 'It's this great play that I've always wanted to do' or 'It's this really cool game where I love the character'. 'Did you make a mint on it?' 'No, but I made art.'
If developers will entice people by just really crafting good experiences and creating incredible characters, that will attract more actors and higher-quality actors than any amount of money will.
You've worked on some of the most iconic franchises in games and entertainment, from Metal Gear Solid and BioShock to Uncharted and Batman. What have been some of your favourite roles to perform and enjoy getting stuck into?
I mean, Ocelot for me... being such a big fan of Metal Gear and understanding that franchise alone has spawned this entire generation of game-makers. Neil Druckmann would not be Neil Druckmann had it not been for Hideo Kojima. So, to be brought into that holy of holy franchises... I was never going to play Snake, nor would I have wanted to. But playing Ocelot was actually cooler for me because Ocelot is this enigma of a character. He is constantly changing, he's in almost every Metal Gear, he's either your friend or he's your foe, he's going to help you or he's gonna kill you, he's crazy, he's not... it's just the kind of character I love to play. To be brought in and go: 'Let's see what you do with this.' That was a huge honour. Working with Kojima – huge honour.
To play a character like Joel in a new franchise where, literally until [The Last of Us] shipped, we didn't know if it was going to be a success or a monumental failure, I feel like I really became an actor on that project.
In the same year, to do BioShock Infinite and work with an auteur like Ken Levine and be a part of a franchise– the original BioShock was one of the first games in a long time to scare the piss out of me. It was just so horrific and claustrophobic. To be in this new version of this where the messaging of the game we knew was going to be so impactful... those are the kinds of roles that I want.
Obviously, Joker. I used to rush home every day after school to watch Batman: The Animated Series and Mark Hamill is one of the people that not only enticed me to want to be an actor, but made me believe that I could do it. I didn't know what that Joker voice was going to sound like coming out of my voice until the audition. I'd never tried to do it before, it wasn't something I aspired to do, but the fact that I was able to do it and people responded well – even Mark has responded well and just gave me the thumbs up – how do you pick a favourite among those?
It's not so much about what's my favourite role, it's me finding out what my favourite thing about that role is. It's positively mad, man. It's never lost me. There's not one second where I go: 'Yeah, I got this.' I'm always freaking out. I'm always, not nervous, but always trying to find ways to stretch myself, because if I'm not doing that, then I feel like I'm not doing a service to the developer and I'm not doing a service to the gamer. I only want to make the experience that makes somebody out there go: 'That's what I want to do.'
All this week, Develop is taking a deeper look into sound and music in video games through our Audio Special.