People like celebrities, for the most part. They cultivate public images that can be relatable or likable. They are recognizable and that can be a huge draw for publishers, because people like familiarity and trust certain actors because of their choices in roles. Meanwhile, voice actors are less visible, but no less talented. It is unfortunate that so many games like to use Hollywood celebrities to sell their games, when it is not always a great fit.
The first thing that comes to mind was when David Hayter lost his role as Snake in the Metal Gear Solid franchise. A good portion of Snake’s personality comes from the way Hayter chose to voice and express the character’s dialogue. Technically, the Snake in this game is a different Snake. In fact, there are a few different Snakes in the series, and most of them are voiced by Hayter, but he had to audition for these roles. In Metal Gear Solid IV: The Phantom Pain, Konami went with Kiefer Sutherland. The whole time I kept thinking, “This isn’t Snake.” While technically true, it pulled me out of the experience. In the past, creator Hideo Kojima had hoped Kurt Russell would play the role, which makes a degree of sense since Snake is based on a Kurt Russell character. But that is beside the point: Hayter is Snake the same way that Nolan North is Nathan Drake from Uncharted.
Kojima has a thing for celebrities, and Norman Reedus has been cast as the lead in the upcoming Kojima game, Death Stranding. That shouldn’t be such a problem, because the role seems to have been created with Reedus in mind. The character even looks like Reedus. If I was super exposed to the character, that could be a problem, as I wouldn’t see a video game character so much as I would see the actor. This was the case with Kevin Space in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.
Obviously, Kevin Spacey is a contentious figure these days. That casts a shadow over the game, but even when the game launched, there was an issue with his character. Primarily, it was so reminiscent of his character from House of Cards that I couldn’t trust him. This distracted from the game’s narrative.
Meanwhile, voice actors are cast for their versatility. They are trained to express emotions primarily with their voice, although motion capture adds a physical element to all of this. They can also play multiple roles in the same game. This is what studios want from them. Hollywood celebrities are normally cast to play themselves, and that overrides the character itself.
There are, of course, exceptions. Some actors move into voice acting, appearing in cartoons and games more frequently than the silver screen. Mark Hamill is primarily known for Star Wars, but he has spent a long time perfecting his craft in the field of voice acting. For many, he is the definitive version of the DC Comics' Joker. The work he did with that character can be held up to voice acting icons both in and outside of gaming. He may not have the versatility of someone like Mel Blanc but he sure can leave a mark.
In general, when I think back on the most iconic video game characters, I don’t think of the ones played by A list actors. I think of the ones that were created from the ground up by the writers, with unique insight and expression contributed by the voice actors. And, while I don’t think it’s necessarily fair that voice actors are paid less, they don’t come with the same cultural demand as other actors. Isn’t that just driving up the cost of development? Couldn’t that money be invested in other parts of the game?