Snake's Tale: David Hayter on recognising actors, working with Kojima and plans for his own game

Snake's Tale: David Hayter on recognising actors, working with Kojima and plans for his own game
Matthew Jarvis

By Matthew Jarvis

August 3rd 2016 at 10:58AM

As the voice of Snake for more than a decade, David Hayter is one of the most iconic performers in games, as well as a successful Hollywood writer and director. With the career-defining franchise now behind him, we ask about moving from triple-A to the indie scene, the importance of contributing to characters, and what lies ahead

What have you been up to recently, David?

Oh, god. A million things. I just got back from MegaCon in Florida where I signed a bunch of autographs and met a bunch of cool Dr Who people and hung out with some of my voice idols, like Maurice LaMarche and Kevin Conroy. Which is pretty awesome.

I'm producing a short film trailer for a larger film project that I'm going to direct and be in on the 10th. I just pitched Jeffrey Katzenburg on a movie yesterday that I've been developing for Dreamworks. And I'm about to go on vacation to Canada for 10 days on the 14th. It's fairly insane.

Oh yeah, and I'm recording Star Wars: The Old Republic tomorrow. And I just got a new dishwasher, so it just couldn't be crazier.

In the world of games, you're best known for your voice work in Metal Gear Solid, but you've worked on a number of other titles, too. What attracts you to a particular project?

I'm mostly attracted by games and projects that want to hire me. That's my primary interest. [As Solid SnakeEnthusiasm, basically. Luckily, I have this job as a writer so I don't rely on voice-over to provide a living. So I get to do things that I think are fun.

I'm attracted to all sorts of things. I really just love doing the job, so I'll do little independent games that nobody's ever going to see, or Star Wars: The Old Republic where it'll be millions of fans and worldwide exposure.

I like genre pieces, I like playing heroes, I like playing villains, I like exploring new worlds. The bottom line is I just really like to work, and fortunately this is one of the most fun jobs in the world, so just anything that allows me to continue to do it is okay in my book.

Who are you playing in The Old Republic?

I'm the lead Jedi voice. If you decide to go through that world as a male Jedi, then it's my voice that will accompany you the whole time.

"I don't really do the voice-over for the money. I just look at it and think: 'Am I going to have fun doing this and am I going to be able to do something a little different?'"

David Hayter

You say you like to play a diverse cast of characters, and it shows in your repertoire – from Republique's Daniel Zager to Dragon Age: Inquisition's Lieutenant Renn. How do you get into character for your various roles?

Well, I just try to find the reality of the character. I try to imagine what I would do in various situations, and how each world would've shaped me. So, in Dragon Age, he was a dwarf soldier so I imagined the pressures of someone at war.

When I did Snake, I auditioned with essentially my normal speaking voice. I was pretty young, I was 28 or so. I got the script and the first scene revealed that he had already pretty much retired from the military, had already become a legend and gotten out, and they were pulling him back in. So I thought: 'He's got to be older than me, he's got to have [drops into Snake voicebeen through some things and been worked over in a number of ways.' Adding that weight of years and cynicism to the voice gave it the quality that it became.

It really comes from the script and trying to bring as much reality to it as possible. My character Zager in Republique is a revolutionary who's living in the walls essentially of a huge Orwellian conspiracy, so he was a little erratic, a little more unpredictable, he was getting his message through in his voice so it had a little more of a DJ thing to it. So you just try to take all the elements that are unique to the character and try to convey them in the personality of the voice.

You're of the best-known voice actors in games, and you're a Hollywood star as well, yet you continue to work with smaller developers such as Camouflaj. How do those partnerships come about given that they are working with reduced resources such as budget?

In the case of Republique, it was being put together by a game developer friend of mine named Ryan Payton who had been a producer on the Metal Gear games. He just called me and asked me if I would do it, and told me about the character, and I thought it was really cool. I mostly wanted to do it because I believe in Ryan and he'd always been a good friend to me.

But I did a little– I can't remember the name of the game, this is terrible. I did a little independent game recently, called... I wonder if it's on IMDb, I'll look it up. Deponia Doomsday (pictured, below). They didn't have a lot of money, but they just really liked me and asked if I would play an older version of the main character. I thought it looked fun, so... y'know, like I say, I don't really do the voice-over for the money. I mean, the money's pretty good, but my writing work pays my bills, so really I just look at it and think: 'Am I going to have fun doing this and am I going to be able to do something a little different?'

A lot of people just want to hire me to do the Snake voice again and I kind of feel if it's not Snake doing it then it's just a rip-off.

You mention your writing. If I remember correctly, Metal Gear Solid was 1998 and X-Men was 2000. Was that your first major writing gig?

It was my first writing gig at all. My friend Chris McQuarrie, who wrote The Usual Suspects, he's a very brilliant writer-director, called me up and he said: 'Do you realise you are the most successful first-time screenwriter in history?' And I said I did not realise that, but that I was glad that I had achieved that.

As your writing career has progressed and evolved alongside your voice acting work, how has the relationship between the two changed?

I try to keep the writing and voice-acting sides of my life separate, unless I am acting in something I am producing and writing myself. I will occasionally look at the script and say: 'Hey, it might be cooler if we said this this way or that way.' But a lot of times, it's already woven into the DNA of the game what the dialogue is going to be. I don't want people to feel like I'm pressuring them to change the script or whatever.

If they have the leeway to make changes and they want me to speak my mind, I will do that. But on the Metal Gear games if I wanted to change a word they had to call Tokyo and get it approved from the company all the way the food chain. So I eventually stopped doing that, I just said whatever they wanted me to say.

"If a developer said 'I'm going to have all these scenes be ad-libbed', you really have to pick a specific group of actors who are capable of doing that."

David Hayter

Whether you're working with Hideo Kojima or a smaller indie developer, what are the best ways you've found for voice actors and developers to work together to produce the best performance possible?

It depends on the actor. Because I have a writing background, I'm able to make up my own dialogue if need be, or to do ad-lib sessions, things like that. In a way, if they say 'No, the script is the script' and it needs to be said the way it's written, that's more comfortable – I know what my limitations are and I know what I'm expected to do.

I'm happy to do both, but I think if a developer said 'I'm going to have all these scenes be ad-libbed', you really have to pick a specific group of actors who are capable of doing that. Some great actors are not comfortable acting without set dialogue. So it depends on who you've got to give you the amount of improvisational freedom that you might want.

You started on Metal Gear almost 20 years ago, and voiced Snake all the way up to Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain. Over that time, what were the technological and working practice changes you experienced as a performer? 

That's an interesting question, particularly from the perspective of the Metal Gear games because they were always on the technological cutting-edge. They were always exploring new ways to present gameplay, to do battle, to integrate cutscenes... Each game raised the bar and so each one was different.

Metal Gear Solid, my first game with them, was the very first game that went straight from the gameplay into the cutscenes – which was why Snake didn't have a face in the first game, it would move seamlessly from the game to the cutscenes and you felt like you were playing a movie for the first time.

As the games went on, each script got longer and longer. The script for Metal Gear Solid 4 was thousands of pages long and took us nine months to record, whereas the first game took us seven days, essentially.

Along the way they developed technology. I think it was for Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (pictured, below) or maybe even Metal Gear Solid 2 that they developed technology where I could just say a bunch of syllables into the mic and the computer would eventually recognise what sounds I was making, so they would not longer have to animate the lips, the lips would just move to my voice. So that was interesting.

I never did mo-cap for Metal Gear, that was always done in Japan, but eventually I started recording my voice to videos of the Japanese mo-cap actors, which was sort of interesting and hilarious at the same time.

As someone who straddles the line between the games industry and Hollywood, what are your feelings on the increasing movement of TV and film actors into working on games? Do you think it helps the industry?

It depends on the situation. I believe in the integrity of the character, so I don't necessarily think it's wise to change the voice of the character along the way just to have a bigger marquee name playing it. For me as a fan, and as a gamer, that takes me out of the situation. But I also think it's interesting to see Ellen Page or Shawn Ashmore or Kevin Spacey playing versions of their own personas in video games. A great actor is a great actor, it's always fun to watch them do what they do. And it brings even more legitimacy to a gaming project.

That said, there are amazing voice actors like Nolan North, Jennifer Hale or Phil LaMarr who are arguably better at the voice acting side of things than your average celebrity. I think it just depends on what the project is, how you're selling it and how you want your characters to be played.

Do you think that more TV and film actors should be looking at games and considering the medium as a legitimate art form they should get involved with? What would you say to them to advocate working in games to them?

I would probably say: 'You really don't want to do it, it's not much fun, you might want to stick with television and stay out of my business.' Because I don't want the competition.

I'm in a very unique position, but it's annoying to me when I see great voice actors who are replaced by celebrities who make ten times the money but don't bring as much quality to the project.

But if I'm being honest, it's a great job, it's super fun and if TV and film actors want to do it, I don't blame them at all. It's a great way to make a living.

"If somebody is incentivised to buy more games because a specific actor is in them, that actor deserves the recognition."

David Hayter

There was a great deal of discussion last year over the legal recognition of voice actors, fuelled by changing requirements such as motion-capture work and other factors aligned more closely with performers' work in film. Do voice actors in games need more recognition and, if so, what's the best way to recognise them?

Voice actors deserve recognition if they bring a certain amount of quality and talent to a game in the same way that film and TV actors deserve it. Recognition for a project you've worked on is a way of getting more work, building your career and being recognised over time as someone who brings quality to whatever it is they work on. So, yeah, absolutely.

If someone is doing voices in the background or they're just doing a workhorse-style job then no, they don't necessarily need to be overly promoted. But if someone's making a star turn in a game, like Nolan North in Uncharted, he should get recognition for that.

Sometimes the video games companies – the developers, the producers – are a little nervous to allow that to happen because they'll have to pay more for their actors, but at the same time it's good for the titles. If somebody gets to know Nolan North or Troy Baker or some of these amazing actors and then they're incentivised to buy more games because they're in them, then they deserve the recognition as they're driving the commerce of it.

Both you and Kojima are now out of the other end of the Metal Gear Solid franchise. Looking ahead, are there any opportunities you're particularly interested in due to your newfound 'freedom'?

I'd love to develop and produce my own games. I'm a big fan of the medium and I'd like to do things. I'd love to have a career like Seth MacFarlane where he gets to create what he wants to create and he gets to do voices in those pieces. That's a pretty dreamy job. But I'm very lucky on the writing side; I get to work with all sorts of people. I was just in a meeting with John Carpenter about a project, which would be a dream for me. He was always a hero of mine.

So I take it the way it comes. I think the world has some idea who I am and what I bring to a project, and that opens certain doors. Beyond that, I just try to focus in on, just like with the writing, stories that I think will affect people and be interesting and cool. Parts that I think I can bring a certain unique fire to are those things that will draw me.

My overall plan is to just keep producing stories in film, television and games and keep stumbling across amazing opportunities. That's the job of my current position.

"I'd love to develop and produce my own games. I'd love to have a career like Seth MacFarlane where he gets to create what he wants to create and he gets to do voices in those pieces. That's a pretty dreamy job."

David Hayter

If you're looking to make a game, I think Kickstarter would be behind you. Something tells me you wouldn't have much of a problem raising funding...

Thank you. I've talked to Ryan Payton from Republique about partnering up on a game. Any project is a huge thing to put together, so it takes time and I have to make sure it's the right thing. But, yeah, I would love to do that.

I love Kickstarter and I love the fans, but I sort of prefer to take private equity. I don't like to risk fans' money if I can help it.

It's obviously early days, but are you able to elaborate on the type of game you'd like to make?

I really love RPGs, I love creating world and diving into that world and exploring that concept of levelling-up and developing your character and getting attached to them. I love the Assassin's Creed games.

I was just replaying Red Dead Redemption, it's just such a beautiful world and so immersive in a way that movies are not. And long – you can spend 80 to 100 hours in these games and it just becomes a world unto itself. I think that's where I'd really like to be.

Given your experience working with major triple-A developers on franchises as massive as Metal Gear Solid, would you like to work on a project of that scale again? For example, does the bureaucracy ever get in the way?

It certainly can do. I think it's just like the film world; there are pros and cons to indie development, there are pros and cons to studio development. Essentially what they are is that indie development gives you more freedom, while the studio gives you more money. Both freedom and money are something that are enjoyable when you're doing a project.

Because the things I tend to imagine are large, world-building stories, I'm a little more comfortable in the studio realm. Though I love making things on a shoestring as well, that can be really fun and creatively inspiring.

Very much like the movie studios, I think I would rely on my game developer friends to advise me on which companies it's a positive experience to work with and which companies aren't. Because just like the movie studios, some studios are a dream to work with and its amazing: you have all these smart people and all the money in the world backing you up, and you know that your project's in good hands.

Sometimes you go to a studio and they're just a miserable group of backstabbing executives who don't trust each other and are always getting fired and always in a state of panic – you deal with so much nonsense it's not worth making the project. I would imagine the big video companies are the same way, and I would have to do some research to figure out where I might fit in to my greatest satisfaction.

"For Republique, they realised that the performance seemed a little more electric if they gave me a glass of scotch. I would set the recorder and they told me to just go nuts."

David Hayter

What is an experience you have had that would never occur outside of games or the world of voice acting?

With Republique, where I'm playing the semi-insane DJ of the apocalypse, what we started doing... Ryan wanted a very specific sound for the whole thing, so they would bring in an '80s-era tape record and I would set that under the microphone in the booth and press record to do my tapes.

They also realised that the performance seemed a little more electric if they gave me a glass of scotch, so I would have scotch standing by. I would set the recorder and they told me to just go nuts. I'd fall against the mic, you'd hear my beard scruff scraping against the microphone, I was throwing things against the wall.

They brought in an actor to act as a soldier that I had imprisoned and I told him: 'Okay, when we do this, I'm going to wrestle you around, so be prepared.' Turned out he was a marine, so he could handle it. I grabbed this guy, whipped him around the booth, dragged him by his head back over to my mic and made him do his lines over my mic.

It was just unhinged, and that was a really fun thing to play. If you get a sense of lunacy from the Zager character, that's not all manufactured, a lot of it is spontaneous and on the day.

How big was the glass of scotch they gave you to get you to wrestle a marine?

To my shame, it wasn't that big. It would really just be half a shot or something to give me the sense of actually drinking whiskey. The marine man-handling... I wanted the audience to hear a grown man being thrown around and really hear it in his voice that he was literally being pulled off his feet and wrestled about.

Fortunately he was cool, he didn't want to throw down afterwards, so I was grateful for that. I wasn't out of control, but I was putting my all into it to create a unique experience.

What's next in the works for you, David?

Unfortunately, a lot of that stuff that I work on is secret until it comes out. As a writer, I'm working on a very big movie right now and a very cool TV show. I've got a TV show called Reincarnate which is about to go out on the town which I'm head writer and a producer on.

I am still recording for Star Wars: The Old Republic. I haven't done Bloodstained yet, so hopefully that's upcoming.

I did a couple of episodes of The Flash as King Shark. He's not dead yet, so hopefully he will come back and finally kill The Flash. That's really what I've wanted for that character. It's unlikely, I know – it's a long shot, but King Shark is a dreamer and he's the Bernie Sanders of DC villains: he never stops hoping.

Interview conducted June 8th. Lead photo credit: Randall Slavin.

All this week, Develop is taking a deeper look into sound and music in video games through our Audio Special.