Hollywood actors appearing in videogames is not something new. From voice-overs to celebrity cameos, plenty of acting elite have dipped their toes in the pool of gaming over the years.
However, it’s only been in recent years that we’ve seen Hollywood’s elite beginning to take front and center stage in games: lending not only their voices or likeness to the medium, but undergoing intensive motion-capture, training and filming for their virtual roles.
In 2019 alone, The Punisher’s Jon Bernthal is strapping on his bullet-proof vest to star as the lead antagonist in Ghost Recon Breakpoint and his The Walking Dead co-star Norman Reedus is strapping a baby to his chest for Kojima’s Death Stranding. Meanwhile, WWE wrestler-turned-actor Dave Bautista has armored-up for a star cameo in Gears 5’s multiplayer.
And that’s just 2019. A huge part of the buzz around CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 is Keanu Reeves’ appearance in the dystopian RPG as the wise-cracking Johnny Silverhands.
But, why does this matter? Because it means that the games you grew up with are growing up themselves. They’re about to become more immersive thanks to better acting and they’re taking the audience with them for the ride.
Walking with a Ghost
Hollywood actors trading in the voice-recording booth for a mo-cap suit is certainly no bad thing. If anything, stars becoming more immersed in their roles allows them to bring more of their talent to the medium – not only voicing the role, but living and breathing it.
In Ghost Recon Breakpoint, Jon Bernthal stars as antagonist Colonel Cole D. Walker, a former Ghost turned leader of a rogue group of operators known as the Wolves.
This isn’t Bernthal’s first rodeo when it comes to being in a videogame, the actor previously lent his voice and likeness to janitor Jim Decker in the Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare Exo Zombies DLC. But we don’t really remember that.
What we will remember is Bernthal’s riveting performance as Cole Walker – the complicated, captivating villain of Breakpoint. Not just because Bernthal has more of a starring role in the game, but because you can see the work that’s gone into him inhabiting the character.
Bernthal physically and mentally trained for the role under the watchful eye of real-life green berets, in a process which was arguably more challenging than some of his previous film and television roles.
“It’s just different,” Bernthal told TechRadar at the press event for Ghost Recon Breakpoint. “The thing that I really dug about this process wise, was the sort of the the one take aspect of it – you’re in a room with 800 cameras. The take has to be flawless.”
“That’s what you’re after, you’re after one perfect take where it could be a 10 page dialogue scene. But, the only way it works is if everybody is flawless: the blocking, the action, the dialogue, all the technical aspects, they have to line up and be perfect. If there’s one little mistake you’ve got to start over. I love that. It makes it high pressure and high octane. It’s quite like the theatre in that regard, you rehearse it until you get it ready. And then when it’s ready, you do the take and sort of everyone in the room, you can feel the electricity.”
The involvement of the green berets added an extra layer of legitimacy to Bernthal’s character that sees us roped in by his performance in the same way we would if Walker was the antagonist of a silver screen film. The same passion and work went into the role, and it shows.
“It goes so much further than how to walk around and talk or how to carry a weapon,” Bernthal explains. “It’s a mindset. It’s how you feel about everyone in the room.”
A natural fit
Legitimacy is key when it comes to Hollywood actors starring in games. It simply wouldn’t make sense to throw Jennifer Aniston into The Last of Us: Part 2, but including former wrestler-turned-actor Dave Bautista in the adrenaline-fuelled Gears 5 makes perfect sense.
“We’re big fans of him,” Gears 5 campaign design director, Matt Searcy, explained at the Gears Ink event in London. “There’s lots of crossover between our fanbase and his fanbase. A lot of it had to do with connecting with WWE and with Bautista, and going ‘this is a natural fit’. We’re looking for things that – people may not have thought of them before – but when it shows up in game it makes sense.”
This sentiment is echoed by CD Projekt Red, the developer behind the upcoming dystopian RPG Cyberpunk 2077.
Back at E3 2019, Keanu Reeves took to the stage at Microsoft’s conference to announce his role as Johnny Silverhand in the game – and resulting in the public getting considerably more excited about the title. However, the excitement wasn’t just due to the fact that it was a well-known actor stepping into the role, but that Reeves himself made perfect sense.
“We had the character of Johnny Silverhand, and he was also a character in Cyberpunk 2020, so he was an established character with a certain personality,” Cyberpunk 2077’s concept art coordinator, Martha Jonkers, explained to us at Gamescom 2019. “He’s a guy who fights for what he believes in. Then we started to think what type of actor could help to add something to this character. We don’t just want to attach a celebrity to it, it has to be someone who actually fits the role.
“Keanu played John Wick and he really has an affinity with these types of roles so that was like a really good match. He even had suggestions for lines for Johnny Silverhand and really had ideas. I think people were really enthusiastic about Keanu – not just because it’s Keanu – but because it makes sense that he plays Johnny Silverhand. It’s important for us that these characters never break the immersion. We don’t want you to feel like they’re not apart of the Cyberpunk world.”
Elevating the medium
While the talent and legitimate fit of these Hollywood stars goes far in creating more immersive games, we can’t overlook the fact that their appearance also does wonders for marketing.
It’s a harsh and ugly reality, but having a superstar name in a videogame’s cast list is a huge draw for those who maybe didn’t consider picking up a certain game – or simply don’t play games at all.
Games do not need to be legitimized but, for the mass market, the inclusion of well-known actors helps to do just that.
Take, for example, Hideo Kojima’s upcoming title Death Stranding. Objectively, Death Stranding does not look like it will break barriers with its game mechanics but it has one heck of a star-studded cast that includes the likes of The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus, Hannibal’s Mads Mikkelsen and Spectre’s Léa Seydoux.
Automatically, this list of big names appeals to both non-gamers and gamers alike. Where games would typically only be covered by specialist games media and specific newspaper sections, we’ve seen Death Stranding appearing in the likes of the Financial Times and Hollywood Reporter. It’s not exactly the kind of coverage Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid received but all publicity is good publicity.
Games as a medium is also being elevated by these actors approach to starring in videogames. Where starring in a videogame was previously only undertaken by those with a keen interest, a huge number of Hollywood actors not have at least one game on their resume: Ellen Page, Hayden Panettiere, Seth Green, Mark Hamill, Willem Defoe, Kristen Bell to name just a handful.
“I mean, I think acting is acting and we’re all trying to go after our own thing,” self-confessed non-gamer Jon Bernthal told us. “I think it’s a it’s a real mistake to to judge anything or compare make certain things more or less notable, especially in today’s world is there’s so many different kind of avenues to express yourself.”
The evolution of games?
Over the years, we’ve seen the lines blur between videogames and films – so it’s no surprise to see Hollywood’s elite identify the potential in gaming.
While it sometimes feels like these actors are included to enhance marketing strategies, there’s often purpose behind their addition and it’s us – the players – who benefit from their involvement.
“It’s just this massive operation,” Bernthal tells us. “But it’s just like the best films, just like the best TV shows [or] the best pieces of theatre, it’s driven by love. It’s driven by a real dedication to making it as good as it can possibly be.”