If you follow the game industry then you’re probably at least passingly familiar with the SAG-AFTRA video game strike that’s going on. If you’re not, though, I’ll do my best to summarize it: SAG-AFTRA, a union of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, is the union that represents performance talent in video games. They represent non-videogame talent too, but that’s not relevant to this issue. For over a year and a half, they’ve been working to renegotiate the decades old standing contract, which expired at the end of 2014 but stands until a new contract is negotiated. Some of the game companies have not only been less than fair, but they’ve tried to force some unprecedented and arguably illegal terminology into the contract, like people able to strip your agent of their union status if you pass on an audition. They literally want to make turning down a job a punishable offense. But I’m not here to go over the legal complexities of the strike, there are plenty of other people doing that and the SAG-AFTRA website has plenty of information available and you can read testimony and articles from talent all over the web.
I’m here to talk about the question that we all need to ask ourselves: Do we as consumers and as gamers value the performance in games? Because make no mistake, I’m not writing this article because of extreme for the wellbeing of the actors. I know some of them and would hate for them to give up their dream sure, but there are other jobs out there. What I’m worried about, and what I think all of us gamers should be worried about, is the quality of our games. Let me explain.
Some people may not remember this, but there was a time when voice acting in video games was extremely limited. Part of that was because of technology wasn’t really there yet, but even when the technology became available there was the issue of quality. If you remember the early days of video game performance then you know that the quality was all over the place. A lot of early voice work was pretty close in quality to the original Resident Evil until a few games like Metal Gear Solid decided to actually invest in professional voice talent. Now, both of those games were good, but where the story and characters of Metal Gear Solid are iconic, the original Resident Evil is mostly significant for having kicked off an iconic franchise. If you don’t think that the voice acting impacted the difference in how MGS is remembered, try to imagine Snake sounding like the cast of Resident Evil.
I use this example to make the point that, as the hashtag says, performance matters. MGS invested in professional voice actors and when we compare it to games that didn’t the difference is huge. This extends past voice acting too. Look at what motion capture has done to improve immersion in the product, making the characters on screen look less like animated puppets and more like actual people. It’s easy to forget how much work goes into making these things happen, and in the case of motion captured stunts how dangerous that it can be as well. There has been at least one motion capture injury since it became a thing, and one of the terms that game companies have balked at is the requirement for a stunt coordinator to be on site. You know, so that stunts are performed safely.
My point is that we, as gamers, should be supporting the voice actors in their strike and we should be valuing them as contributors to our hobby. We value performance in our television, our cinema, animation, and everywhere else and we also, at least I like to think, want video games to be treated with the same level of respect as other media. We can’t expect that, while also undervaluing the people who aid in the immersion and provide the performances that turn a good game into an amazing game.
Performance matters. I know I’m repeating the hashtag, but it’s true. And maybe you disagree, and that’s your prerogative, but before you decide I would like for you to watch this video of the original Resident Evil and then tell me that the performance isn’t important.