Every single one of us grew up playing video games. Some of us even play more video games now than we did it our youth, be it on our Xbox, Wii, or even iPhones! If you ever wondered what it would be like to be the voice behind your favorite video game heroes, wonder no more. We sat down with actor Troy Baker to chat about what it is like to voice some of the most well-known video game characters out there today. Your inner child has permission to jump for joy!
Troy did not start out as a gamer. In fact, he was a rocker turned actor, whose voice acting career started when he voiced the character Sgt. Matt Baker in the successful Brothers in Arms franchise. Since then, his career has included highlights like being chased in Ghostbusters as Slimer, shouting ‘Steel Guard!’ as Snow Villiers in Final Fantasy XIII, dodging grenades in Activision’s juggernaut FPS Call of Duty, battling for the Autobots as Jetfire in Transformers: War for Cybertron, and going toe-to-toe with Batman as Two Face/Harvey Dent in Spike TV’s “Game of the Year 2011” nominee, Batman: Arkham City. Animation fans will also recognize him as the evil Van Kleiss in Cartoon Network’s Generator Rex and as Clay Quatermain in Marvel’s The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. He will soon be heard in two projects set for 2012/2013 releases- Bioshock:Infinite and Last of Us.
In addition, Troy has a slew of film, TV, and music credits to his name. No wonder this chameleon fits so well into the animation world and made for an animated interviewee!
PPLA: So Troy, you are a rocker, turned actor, turned voice/video game actor. That’s definitely an interesting and non-traditonal trajectory. Tell me about how you got your start in the business as a performer.
TROY: It’s so funny, because I always joke and say that I tripped backwards into this. I think that it’s the adage that a lot of times…well you know the phrase, ‘do you choose your life or does your life choose you’. Well, that’s true, because I’ve always been a performer. My first stage was next to a fireplace in my living room at the age of five. So, you see, I was always a performer… but how that was going to manifest itself was in flux. My parents were very supportive. I got involved in music very young and learned to play some instruments and finally got into a band which had some mild success. The band was based in Texas, and we had a label deal and I even got to sing on the radio. Then one day, we were recording our album, and I popped in to another studio that did lot of commercial work. I said, “Hey, I’ve always wanted to get into radio” and they were like, “Hey… get out!” But two weeks later, I got a call from them and they said, “If you’re still interested, let us see what you can do.” I walked into the booth and read these car commercials and it just so happened that they were looking for a new guy, so it was the right place/right time for me. Everything has been me stumbling my way through ever since – it’s just been about meeting the right people at the right time, and them being willing to give me a shot and me being able to be brave enough to walk through the door that led to the next thing. Car commercials led to doing anime, anime led me to doing video games, and video games led me to doing TV and Film. I’ve actually come full circle now. But in video games especially, I’ve really made a niche for myself.
PPLA: When did you decide to leave Texas and become a California guy?
TROY: I’m still a Texas boy at heart. I lived there for almost 30 years, and I moved out here in 2006 under the graces of a few people who helped set me up in a couple of places and with a couple of studios. They really gave me a shot and I’ve tried my best and keep trying to just knock ’em down.
PPLA: What do you enjoy the most about being the voice of such well-known video-game characters?
TROY: It’s really cool because I’m a gamer. Ultimately the best perk of the job is that I get to geek out over something or be a part of something that I can geek out over later. That’s certainly the best fringe benefit of the job besides the paycheck, but the thing I enjoy most about video games (and this is why I’m really focusing on video games currently) is that I think it is the most innovative medium right now. TV and Film have been relatively the same over the last 10-15 years but with the advent of new technologies, and movies like Avatar, that’s changed and movies have become more of an immersing experience. But it’s really all been propelled by what video games have done, and as a gamer, I enjoy both sides of it. I enjoy it as a consumer and as a player, being able to appreciate the work and the advances in the way the games are being made. You know five years ago, we didn’t have motion capture or performance capture. Before, you were just in like a vacuum with a microphone and you’re doing your best to understand what the story is. As long as you had a cool voice, that’s all that really mattered. In the last five years, you’ve seen that really change. Games are becoming more cinematic and so they want more dramatic actors- people that are more well-rounded actors not just some person with a cool voice- to play those roles. So it’s really been challenging.
PPLA: Have you had the chance to work with these new image and motion capture technologies?
TROY: Yes! What’s so funny is that because it’s so new, there’s really no ‘This is the way to do it’. Everyone is just trying to discover their way. A lot of people have been chasing after this one company Naughty Dog that I am doing the game The Last of Us with, because they had a lot of success with a game in their franchise called Uncharted. They were the first to really do full performance capture- as far as doing the voice, the motions, the facial movements- all at the same time. If the scene called for two actors to be in a jeep in the jungle, that company would have those two actors in a jeep on the stage. They would be running through the sound stage, called a volume, as if they were running through the jungle, and they would be capturing that. So, it brought this new realism to things. What was once simple movements is now the whole performance, so the nomenclature has somewhat changed from motion capture to performance capture. Fortunately, I’ve been able to do a lot of that and that’s where I’m really finding myself as an actor. It is being a leading man, and it’s so funny because I don’t think I would have been a leading man in film. I’ve done film and I’ve done TV, but thing that video games really affords is the opportunity for the actor to be anything. You see, I can be a dashing hunk, or solo-esque type hero, or I can be a nine foot tall giant. There are no limitations of type casting or physical attributes as with film or TV because you can portray anything. You have your voice and your movements to portray those different roles. It almost lifts that barrier so you can really get into the acting of it. It brings acting down to its quintessential elements.
PPLA: What makes what you do so special?
TROY: I remember once having a meeting with Alan Ball (Six Feet Under, American Beauty, True Blood). He’s hugely popular and I’m sitting across from him on the couch and I go through the audition process. It’s my second meeting with him, and he just shakes his head as I’m reading. It’s just the absolute last thing you want to see from the director while auditioning. I was like, “Alan, you’re kind of messing with me here…what’s the deal.” We had a good repore so I could say that. He says, “You look so vampiric.” I said. well for True Blood, that’s good right?” He said, “Not for this character, not for this guy. You were great but I can’t use you.” So of course, it was great to hear that he liked my work but it’s tough to think that he liked what I did as an actor but couldn’t find somewhere to cast me. He said, “I just can’t use your look, it’s too similar to this other guy.” And that’s exactly it. In TV and Film, you have those limitations and video games avoid that. What’s really interesting about what’s happening now is that technology is finally catching up with our imagination and with this game I just did, The Last of Us, I’m truly blown away every time they show me something new. I’m literally like a kid on Christmas. The producers will call me and say, “Oh my God we’ve just finished this scene, you have to check it out.” Then I’ll see the finished product and it transcends realism. You can’t say that it’s realistic because you’re watching my voice come out of this other character so it kind of throws you off a little bit. But as far as all the idiosyncracies and all of the nuances, they are really starting to shine through. So to be able to be in that kind of environment and that kind of medium, and to be able to do what I really want to do, it’s just incredible.
PPLA: What are some of your favorite roles or characters that you’ve gotten to voice for video games?
TROY: It’s so hard to say… it’s like asking what’s you’re favorite breathe. If I’m a drowning man, it’s the one I just took before I tasted water. There are two games that I’m doing right now that I’m really going to hang my hat on. One is Bioshock: Infinite which is a follow up to Bioshock- a successful franchise directed by Ken Levine- and the other one is The Last of Us where I play a survivor named Joel in this post-apocalyptic world. Joel has to guide this young girl through this chaotic mess. Those two projects have really been amazing. But I go back in my career, and I was in a game called Final Fantasy 13, which actually the new Final Fantasy xiii-2, the sequel, just released, so those are huge properties to be involved in as well. It’s the equivalent of being in a ‘Bond’ movie. That would be like the banner day for me in film! But for video games, I’m exactly where I want to be right now.
PPLA: With all the advances in technologies, there have been a lot of films and TV shows based off comics and video games, and vice versa. There is a lot interchanging of properties among the different mediums nowadays. How do you feel about that? And have you participated in any of these festivals or panels like at Comic Con?
TROY: I am a huge nerd! I am a card-carrying, badge-wearing nerd and what’s so funny is that now it’s cool to be a dork. You can talk to anybody on the street and they’re probably playing at least Angry Birds so that qualifies as a gamer! But seriously, people are playing more games than ever and reading more comic books, and there really has not been a big blockbuster popcorn movie that in some way has not been touched or directly influenced by either a graphic novel or video game. Everyone’s realizing it because it’s so just engrained in our culture now. Games are finally being reflective of life and comic books and graphic novels have always been that way- going back to Frank Miller with Batman. I think it’s especially the case with the new Batman movies. I think what Christopher Nolan did really revived America’s love for graphic novels which is still at the root of everything. All movies can tie themselves to books or novels, and video games can tie themselves to graphic novels, so that’s kind of still our home and still our source. I love going to conventions, and I do a ton of appearances at conventions from Comic Con to Penny Arcade to E3, which is a developers conference. It is all the people that make the games and it’s this big brain-trust where people talk about where this industry is going. I feel, just like in anything, if you are a professional, you need to be aware of your industry. So I check the stocks of a lot of the publishers and developers, and I try to stay on top of what’s happening in technology- what new things are doing and what new games are coming out and who’s writing what. I want to be as involved as I can, and then at the end of the day-18 months to two years later- to be able to sit down on the couch and throw it in the Xbox and actually play it!
PPLA: I know you said that in life, at least for you, you felt you fell into the right path. What advice would you have for someone wanting to start a career in video games or voice work?
TROY: If they want to have fame and stardom and money, then go buy a lottery ticket, because your chances are better! It’s such a hard aspect of the industry to break into, but I think especially where the industry is at now and where it is going, you have to be a solid actor. Get involved in theater. Theater is always a great place to start because it just teaches you the core of a character. I guess the main thing is that if people want to be a voice actor…. slice that first word off (voice), because it really is about you being an actor, especially when it comes to games that use performance capture. It’s not just about the voice anymore. It’s going to become more and more about what do you intrinsically and inherently do as an actor and what you bring to the character that makes them choose you above all other people that audition for the same role. So I’d definitely say focus on being an actor.
PPLA: There are a lot of people out there that don’t know a thing about the video game world. If you had to give them a ‘day in the life’ how would you describe your work?
TROY: My email signature on my iPhone is ‘I play make believe for a living’. A good friend of mine Nolan North, who is really on top in the video game industry- he plays the main character in Uncharted– puts it the best. He says, “I’m getting paid for the things that used to give me detention,” and it’s true! I think that answers your question. (laughs). But a day in the life…I wake up and I have coffee. That’s how I begin every day! (laughs) It really depends but the best part of any day is when I get to go to ‘playgrounds’ which are the studios that I work at. The day could be anything from just walking in to sit with the writer, director, producer, or engineer and just delving into the script to being in the studio and VO booths. Or it could be with a whole bunch of different actors like when I did Generator X or The Regular Show on Cartoon Network. Those are the fun ones because you really get to interact with all the other people. I’ve also got to work with Mark Hamill who of course played Luke Skywalker, but to me, he is The Joker. He played the Joker for twenty years in the animated series for Batman, so I get to meet all these people who I look up to and grew up listening to. Then the great days are when we get suited up and we go to the sound stage and you get to completely throw your ego out the window because you’re in spandex and disco balls. So those are the fun days! It just varies.
PPLA: I know right now you are focusing on video games, where you are meeting great success, but do you see yourself moving back into TV or film or music down the line? Do you consider bringing your music into the video game world to accompany the games?
TROY: Music is not something that I do… I’m a musician. It’s just something that is in my DNA; it’s always been music for me. I put it up on Twitter last night that I’m getting that itch to make a new album from scratch. You get this feeling that these thoughts or things need to come out of you. But it’s so hard…. a lot of times, when you start your career it’s this ‘This is my dream, this is what I am going to do’. But then, there is the ‘these are the opportunities that I have’, and you fall in love with that alternate path but where you originally started gets pushed off to the wayside. I’m starting to feel that kind of urge toward music again. I had the opportunity recently to work in my music. There’s a really popular video game called Silent Hill, and I got to go in the studio and write and record and produce a song for the soundtrack. So I get those outlets which are really good, but still I want to do music more and more. I see myself doing voice over for video games for as long as people will let me do it. They’ll have to kick me out of the studio before I quit, but I also understand that it’s almost like being a prize fighter. My favorite fighter is Sugar Shane Mosley and ten years ago, Sugar Shane was the man! He was on top, but now he can’t get a fight. So you get older and you know, you scream ‘RPG’ fifteen thousand times, and it takes it toll on your voice. You start doing other things and maybe people won’t be so hip on what I do anymore. I feel like the model hero has changed. Before, it was a thick-neck, gun-toting, strong, brave, man and people couldn’t really relate to that. Now the audience wants the anti-hero. The public is Rome and Julius Caesar was such a good example of that- how things can just sway on a whim! Eventually people will be like, “Sit down kid, you’ve done enough!” Then, I’ll do something else. Maybe music. Maybe directing. I love directing video games so maybe I’ll do that. I don’t know.
PPLA: Do you think somewhere down the line you will try to create your own game?
TROY: I would love to and there’s actually two properties that I’m looking at optioning now, but I don’t know yet what I want to do with them. One I can see turning into an amazing film and the other would be a great video game. There’s not a lot of that happening right now. Not a lot of people are taking existing properties… well, except of course for movies which obviously have their tie-ins but that’s more of a marketing ploy…but there’s not a lot of people saying, I want to take that graphic novel and I want to turn that into a video game. Typically, people think they are going to make more money in film, which you can actually lose your ass in a film and make a lot of money in a video game! But, I really don’t know. I’m just doing my best not to think because the second that I start thinking about things and trying to figure out my future, that’s when I start to fail. I think that when I just kind of go along with it, life’s turned out okay, so I am going to just keep doing that.
PPLA: Where is the best place for fans to find more about you?
PPLA: Any last thoughts for your fans?
TROY: Keep playing, keep dreaming!