Once upon a time, hearing a voice in a video game was a miraculous occurrence. I remember playing an ancient submarine simulator on a 386 desktop and being amazed when a voice crackled through my computer's single speaker, crying in a distant, tinny voice, "dive! Dive! Dive!"
Things have come a long, long way since then. We've got 7.1 surround sound and games have employed professional voice actors for over fifteen years - but as voice work in games becomes more normalized, great divides begin to form in the quality that is offered - often to our benefit. We have our Lindsay Lohans, to be sure - but we also have a few Meryl Streeps - and they have a huge impact on the game worlds they help construct.
A capable, believable performance on the part of an actor does more than tell us a story or suggest character. At its best, a great performance shuts our cynicism down, bypasses our bullshit detectors and informs us, on a deeper level, that this person - and so, the world it inhabits - is real. A player's immersion in a game, therefor, can often be significantly dictated by the quality of its actors - let us not ignore their contribution, here.
Now, you may wonder why I'll entirely ignored Dragon Age II, L.A. Noire and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, here, when they clearly have very strong work across the board. It's because I don't dole out best performance awards for entire casts - just individual performances.
2011 has fewer remarkable performances than 2010 - but there are several deserving of a nod, and three in particular that stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best in the biz. These are the best performances of the year.
Bastion has a ton going for it, but - music aside - nothing got people talking about this game more than the fabulous narration. It's like Tom Selleck's mustache or Star Wars' light sabers - it wouldn't be nearly as cool, without."Every new enemy, every weapon you find, every conversation you have, every choice you make and every crumb of story is revealed by the wonderfully-cast narrator, who drips bittersweet exposition throughout the game like salted honey. There's a cool indifference to his voice - but there's also weariness, and a palpable sense of loss and pride."
in Uncharted 3
While Uncharted 3's script wasn't up to previous standards, that didn't stop North - who has fast become The Voice of Gaming - and McGonagle from maintaining their remarkable place among the best in the biz. North is an absolute master of all the little asides a player character can toss out, from the brief elation of snagging a new weapon to the panicked whimper when a grenade smacks into the sand too close for comfort, while McGonagle continues to impress as the well-traveled but not yet world-weary father figure.
in Dead Space 2
Nobody thought it was a good idea when we heard Isaac would speak in Dead Space 2. We all thought it would spoil the immersion and shatter Dead Space's trademarked, constant tension - but Gunner Wright's Isaac is never a hindrance to the formula. Instead, his comfortable-yet-stressed performance adds a rich new layer to the experience, offering us a passenger-seat view into a man who's been to Hell and back.
Here, Isaac isn't an ultra-badass action hero or tortured emo - instead, he's just... a normal guy - and that, oddly enough, counts for so much when placed against the insane circumstances he finds himself in.
in Portal 2
Merchant and McClean have practically defined excellence in voice work in 2011 as two artificial intelligence constructs. For their part, the writers at Valve offered up the single best script of the year, with the wackiest characters you'll find in Western development. Here, GLaDOS becomes a character of fathomless depth when compared to her iteration in 2007's Portal - despite her repeated attempts to kill us, she ends up feeling like something akin to a comrade - and a character we actually sympathize with.
In both GLaDOS and Wheatley there is a sense of human fallibility. Of arrogance, error and self-discovery. These are not easy roles, by any stretch of the imagination (comedy never is), but Merchant and McClean - buoyed by Portal 2's remarkable script - deliver two of the most-memorable, best-realized characters of the year.
"Spinny blade wall!"
in inFamous 2
Similar to the lack of faith surrounding the decision to voice Dead Space 2's Isaac, folks were up in arms at the news that Cole McGrath had been re-cast for inFamous 2. For his part, Eric Ladin attempts to retain a bit of Jason Cottle's gravelly rumble, but elsewhere this is nothing short of a breath of life for the character, and the franchise.
By adopting the Naughty Dog-pioneered method of having actors together, blocking out scenes as if it were a stage production and playing off each other, each character feels infinitely more human and relatable.
"This gleans wonderful, comfortable, funny and realistic performances from the actors - and thank goodness, inFamous 2 is actually pretty darn well-written.The script highlights that protagonist Cole McGrath isn't a super man - he's merely super powered. He's an everyday dude who just happens to be able to shoot lightning out of his fingertips and manipulate magnetic fields. The in-engine cutscenes are now an absolute treat. Beautiful to watch, always entertaining and involving, and often very funny."
This level of storytelling has never been achieved, previously, in an open-world game. The easygoing performances from Moody and Ladin are the driving force behind one of the most successful narratives of the year, and a massive contributing factor to inFamous 2 being one of the single best titles of the year.
in Batman: Arkham City
"Heath Ledger wowed the world with his interpretation of the villain, but [...] it is Mark Hamil's Joker that instantly bypasses my cynical defenses and plugs in to my unconscious expectations of the character."
Merchant and McClain may have had larger individual impacts on their game while Ladin and Moody set new standards for simple believability, but no single performance of 2011 stuck with me and echoed long after I put the controller down like Mark Hamill's latest turn as the Joker.
He's absolutely masterful in this role. He damn well should be - he's been playing the Clown Prince for nineteen years in various incarnations - but in the two decades I've been listening to his interpretation of the character, it's never made as great an impact as it did in Arkham City.
It's doubly impressive that the Joker's plot is merely one of a half-dozen arcs spanning Batman's latest playground - he has relatively little time, here, when compared with Arkham Asylum - but Hamill's Joker tap-dances from crazed, coughing laughter to vicious violence to a supernatural intimacy that I've never experienced in the character before.
Due in no small part to City's capably efficient writing, Hamill elevates the character - and his story, here - to culminate in one of the single best moments in gaming of the year, and provides us with one of the all-time greatest Batman narratives ever.
Mark Hamill's performance in Arkham City is humble, energetic, thoughtful and insightful. Best of 2011.