'One time, I actually threw up': Why video game voice actors are on strike
Jennifer Hale, David Hayter among voice actors currently striking against 11 video game publishing companies
You might not recognize Jennifer Hale in a crowd, but if you've played a video game or watched a cartoon in the last 20 years, you've probably heard her work.
The actor from Goose Bay, N.L., has voiced dozens of characters in popular franchises such as Star Wars, Spider-Man and the Halo video games.
But she's best known as Commander Shepard, the lead character in the Mass Effect games by the Edmonton-based studio Bioware, in which players save the galaxy from a cybernetic alien race called the Reapers.
Lending your voice to a character that millions of players build a personal connection with — it sounds like a dream job.
But it comes with unique challenges: long sessions that shred a performer's vocal cords and no promise of residual payments — even for working on games that sell millions of copies.
Because of this, voice actors who are part of the SAG-AFTRA union in the U.S. are currently striking against 11 of the largest gaming publishers in the industry.
They're looking for the same guarantees of health and financial safety that are standard in the rest of the entertainment industry.
But they're also doing it to prove to the wider industry that their performances are vital to the continued growth and success of the medium.
'Your voice is dead' after intense recordings
The interactive nature of a video game makes the recording process fundamentally different from working on an animated film or TV episode. Instead of a single script, performers have to record lines for every possible sentence, shout or sigh their character might utter.
"If the character's throwing something, you have to make a sound for throwing something a short distance, a long distance and a really long distance," explains Elias Toufexis, best known for his role as Adam Jensen in the cyberpunk Deus Ex games.
Another difference is that when recording TV animation, actors play off of their colleagues' performances and get to rest their voices when someone else is reading.
Game sessions are typically four hours long — and the actor is performing solo.
"It's the equivalent of a four-hour one-person show," Hale says. "So that's very demanding, especially when a lot of it is battle-oriented, and IT'S ALL SCREAMING AND YOU GO LIKE THIS!"
According to Toufexis, after even two hours of hollering, "your voice is dead."
Hale says she lost her voice for roughly a week after one recording session. But that's nothing compared to what some of her colleagues have endured.
"I've got a friend right now who's undergoing [vocal] surgery and will not be able to work for months," she says.
David Hayter, best known for playing gravelly voiced secret agent Snake in the Metal Gear Solid games, made his name partly thanks to grunting and shrieking while being shot, blown up and, in one infamous scene, tortured by electrocution.
Hayter says the most intense line-readings are typically done in "one horrific day" after other lines have been completed. While he doesn't mind "facing the pain" for these marathon sessions, some moments stick out in his memory.
"One time, I actually threw up on the mic because I had to make a bunch of vomiting sounds in a row," he recalls.
No residuals for actors in gaming
SAG-AFTRA's list of demands includes splitting up the most intensive recording sessions from one four-hour session to two two-hour sessions.
They are also asking for more advance information about their roles. Sometimes after landing a job, voice actors are left in the dark about their character's motivations, what scene they're recording lines for, even the game they're working on.
As well, video game voice actors are seeking bonus payments for work on games that sell over two million copies — i.e. the blockbusters that make hundreds of millions of dollars.
Scott Witlin, a lawyer representing the video game companies in the union negotiations, calls this request "fundamentally unfair." He says developers, programmers and designers — who are not SAG-AFTRA members — wouldn't get the same treatment.
Voice actors represent "less than one-tenth of one per cent of the total workforce on the game," Witlin said.
"It basically tells those people that the performers' efforts are outsized with respect to everyone else."
Phil LaMarr, who has hundreds of voice acting credits from but is perhaps best known as a one-time cast member on the sketch show MadTV, calls this comparison "a self-defeating argument."
"They seem to be working from this assumption that they shouldn't share [the proposed bonus] with the developers and programmers. I'm not working from that assumption. Why wouldn't you share it with the people who are working 16-hour days during crunch time?"
Do voice actors matter?
Neither SAG-AFTRA nor the companies its members are striking against have met since the actors started walking the picket lines. With no one at the negotiating table, it's hard to say when — or if — they'll return to the job.
In the meantime, major publishers will work with non-unionized voice actors.
Advocates for the publishers' side have argued that players care more about the visual effect of Commander Shepard darting across a battlefield than what she sounds like in dialogue scenes.
Hale disagrees. "Ask the fans," she says. "I get tweet after tweet of fans saying, 'I got this game because you were in it.'"
Hayter has an even better story. "I've had grown men burst into tears upon meeting me, which indicates there's some sort of entertainment impact occurring there."