Tales From Inside the Voice Actors Strike

It’s almost the end of 2016, and the video game voice actors strike is still going. No SAG-AFTRA union voice actors are working on new games, and who knows when that’ll end? Searching the #performancematters hashtag doesn’t bring up a lot of info.

Well, I wanted to know, so I went digging. What I found was a recent episode of BOOP! Video Game News You Can Use. That’s a podcast hosted by comic artist and all-around Internet dude Scott Johnson. The guy puts out a lot of great content, and BOOP! is where he talks to people from the video games industry.

Scott is a good interviewer, and he’s usually able to get to the heart of things with his guests. He recently interviewed Liam O’Brien, an amazingly prolific voice actor. He’s probably best known as the voice of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings games. Liam works a lot, though, and if you play games, then chances are you’ve heard him.

The main topic of conversation was the SAG-AFTRA video game voice actors strike. Liam’s right in the middle of it as one of the strikers, and he had a lot to say.

On the Importance of the Voice Acting in Video Games

Liam O'Brien, a voice actor participating in the SAG-AFTRA strike.

Source: triangularroom.com

Liam goes into some detail as to why performance matters in video games. Quality voices, he says, aren’t something that most fans will register, but they are still a crucial component of the game.

It’s common knowledge that today’s AAA video games rival big-budget movies in cinematic quality. Liam expresses that well, and he uses the analogy to show why each and every piece of a game’s presentation needs to be on point for success.

An average gamer, says Liam, might not even know why they don’t like a game that has sub-par voice acting. They’ll just say “This game is kind of lame”, and not be able to articulate it further, but it’s often due to poor sound design or voice over.

That’s not the case for voice acting fans like most readers of this site, but it’s a fascinating perspective on what is, in the end, only one small component of big-budget games.

Why Strike

SAG-AFTRA logo

So, according to Liam and the BOOP! show, voice acting is just as important a feature of games as animation, graphics, writing, and even gameplay design. I tend to agree with him, since I’m a big fan of voices.

However, voice actors aren’t currently treated as an integral part of game production. The podcast has some brief discussion of residuals, the money that actors receive over time for most work they do. Video game voice actors don’t generally receive residuals, and that’s not even on the table in negotiations.

They also don’t receive a piece of the monthly subscription from games that charge them, like World of Warcraft.

What SAG-AFTRA does want is bonuses based on sales milestones. If a game sells millions of copies, then the voice actors should receive some of that windfall.

Current video game industry contracts also don’t include safety provisions like mandated breaks. According to Liam, voice actors will often have to take several days off for each day in the studio in order to let their voices recover. That’s especially true in video games, where actors are often asked to scream, shout, and otherwise abuse their voices.

Nobody walks out of there feeling great. – Liam O’Brien, speaking on the Boop podcast.

All this contrasts with animated movies and TV shows, which Liam says are “pretty much settled.” It’s the video game industry that has a long way to go in terms of fair contracts.

Is the Video Game Voice Actors Strike Working?

Voice actors on strike at the EA offices

Source: latimes.com

Here’s where the show gets interesting.

Liam says that due to the provisions of the strike, it doesn’t even feel like the strike has truly begun.

The strike states that actors who have already begun projects for game companies can continue that work. In other words, if an upcoming game had already hired its voice actors before the strike began, then those actors can keep recording.

Since most AAA games take well over a year to complete, the strike’s effects have yet to be truly felt. The fact that it’s happening near the holidays, when big games are wrapping up production, only adds to the situation.

It feels like just because of the time that this is… it almost doesn’t feel like it’s happening yet. – Liam O’Brien, speaking on the Boop podcast.

Furthermore, the strike only targets a limited list of companies. Companies that aren’t on the strike list are free to hire SAG-AFTRA voice actors.

When Will the SAG-AFTRA Strike End?

Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix logo

Source: kingdomhearts.wikia.com

Because of the timing of the strike, Liam doesn’t think it’s going to end anytime soon. In the podcast, he stresses that he’s not personally part of the negotiations, and isn’t representing the SAG-AFTRA union. However, he clearly believes that the strike will continue for many months.

In the meantime, the companies on the list are almost certainly scrambling to cast their games to enter production next year. Some games journalists have already noticed that “HD Remasters” are becoming more and more common.

Could that be because those games already recorded their voice actors, sometimes many years ago? Touching up the graphics for a game that came out for the PlayStation 2 means companies can avoid recording new voices.

Information for this article was taken from BOOP! Video Games News You Can Use, episode 127.

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