Hades Wallpaper
'Hades' images and art courtesy of Supergiant
Games

How 'Hades' Actors Made the Internet Horny for Their Voices

Voice acting doesn't turn performers into audio sex symbols very often, but the cast of 'Hades' is finding out what it's like.
December 2, 2020, 2:00pm

In 2011, Jennifer Hale, the Guinness World Record holder for most prolific video game voice actress, said in a New Yorker profile that her job is “to not exist.” That may have been true 9 years ago. But the normalization of fan culture, plus the meteoric rise of social media, means that everyone gets drawn into the fan conversation. It’s hard to stay out, even if the only thing you’ve contributed to a work is your voice.

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When the trailer for Supergiant Games’ latest title, Hades, debuted on August 18th, Avalon Penrose was not paying attention to her social media. The actress, who voiced the antagonist-turned-love-interest Megaera, had deleted her Facebook and Twitter accounts in July. “I was in such a spiral of not enjoying social media,” Penrose said, “because of the politics I was fighting over.” Then the trailer hit, and Penrose started noticing a trickle of Hades-related comments on her Instagram. “I was like, should I have Twitter again?” she said. Penrose got a new Twitter account and began engaging with a few fans who reached out to her directly about her performance.

On September 17th, Hades 1.0 dropped. The game, a roguelike that tells the story of Greek god Zagreus, son of Hades, and his attempts to escape the Underworld, had been in early access since December of 2018. Upon its official release, Hades received dazzling reviews and sold over 300,000 copies in three days. It climbed sales charts on Steam and the Nintendo Switch. Enthusiastic fans, who responded to the game’s complex and fully-voiced characters, began a deluge of art, chatter, and fanfiction. Two and a half months later, that deluge has hardly slowed.

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For Penrose, who has never voiced a video game character before Megaera, the fan response has mostly been exhilarating. She doesn’t play many game—she tried Hades but gave up after failing to beat Megaera, her own character—but she loves seeing how players react. Penrose joyfully retweets fan art of Meg, a brusque and intimidating woman who is not-so-subtly styled as a dominatrix, wielding her whip. Penrose, who is bisexual, is especially delighted when she comes across queer fan art. 

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Penrose has a naturally husky voice, which she pitched even throatier for the role of Meg. The result is a commanding performance. Meg is not a woman to be fucked with. However, a few people cross the line and do fuck with Penrose, messaging her to tell her how her voice figures into their sexual fantasies. “It feels empty when they’re only reaching out to me to tell me that I’m a weird part of their horny dreams,” she said.

In 2020, it’s easier than ever before for creators and their fans to interact. Platforms like Twitter are endless voids, awash with fervent blasts of communication that may or may not reach the tagged targets. For a creator, the feed might look like this: a heartfelt compliment, followed by a scream of harassment, followed by a fan artist’s cute, chibi-style drawings of the creator’s characters, followed by another fan artist’s explicit drawings of the same characters. For the people who give voice to these characters in Hades, what is that experience like? To find out, I interviewed Penrose, as well as Courtney Vineys (Aphrodite and Dusa), Darren Korb (Zagreus), and Cyrus Nemati (Theseus, Ares, and Dionysus).

Until now, Supergiant Games, which released Bastion (2011), Transistor (2014), and Pyre (2017), has had a dedicated but small fandom. They’ve also never had a fully-voiced game before, though in-house voice actor Logan Cunningham played narrator-like roles in all three previous games. The performances in Hades are rich, varied, and abundant: there are over 20,000 voiced lines.

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Since Hades is a roguelike, many of the lines focus on combat. But just as many focus on the dynamics between Zagreus and the people he encounters, from his forbidding father, Hades, to his relatives on Mount Olympus sending him encouraging, godly voicemails, to his mentor, the warrior Achilles. Every time Zagreus bites the bone dust during an escape attempt, he drags himself out of a pool of blood into the House of Hades. Then, he checks in with the inhabitants of a house he has never been able to leave. Viewed this way, the game is a series of conversations. Zagreus, who is emotionally and physically at war with his dad, is constantly processing his feelings. So is everyone around him. “Communication is such an important part of these relationships,” said Vineys. Zagreus and his companions “have the hard conversations, they have the awkward conversations. There’s so much talking going on.”

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For Vineys, who also contributed voice acting to Pyre, the difference between fans’ reception to her work on the two games has been obvious. Almost no one reached out to her directly because of Pyre, in which she voices a chittering imp named Ti’zo. Hades has netted her much more attention. “A lot of people have found me on Twitter, found me on Discord, found my stream when I stream Hades,” she said. “People have said the nicest things! People have made the sweetest, most adorable fan art.”

“I’m really curious about the difference between what people have said to you, Courtney, and what they’ve said to me,” mused Penrose. “I have gotten a lot of weird messages.”

“I’ve seen some of the things you’ve gotten, Avalon,” said Vineys. “One was like: ‘I want Meg to whip me and read the phone book to me at the same time.”

The three of us were talking together over Zoom, since Penrose and Vineys are friends in real life: they met in an improv class in Los Angeles. When Supergiant Games needed a wider spread of voice talent for Hades, Vineys suggested Penrose, who had just graduated from college and felt petrified as she sized up the road to being an  actress. Penrose read for several characters but ultimately booked Megaera. “It was all so much,” she said. “I remember going up to San Francisco [to record], and I was like, ‘Ahhh! This is all so crazy!’” During recording sessions, Penrose had to work hard to make sure she didn’t slip back into her natural voice. “Sometimes the line would start to blur… and all Darren [Korb, audio director] would have to say was, ‘Let’s do that again, but with a little more Meg.’” Then she would sink back into the persona of Megaera, First of the Furies.

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Vineys was also tackling a role unlike any she’d done before: Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. Vineys specializes in voicing cute, puckish creatures like Pyre’s Ti’zo, which made her a natural fit for Dusa, the jittery gorgon head who always cheers Zagreus on. But Vineys also landed the role of Aphrodite, Dusa’s polar opposite. The voice that Vineys ended up creating for the goddess is melodic, honeyed, and mature while staying bright and high, like an expertly-played oboe. It’s an entirely different take on sensuality than the smoky, terse one that Penrose lent to Megaera. “Greg [Kasavin, creative director] was very specific during my first recording. He wanted her to have more layers than just sexy,” said Vineys. She pulled up the casting side she received when she auditioned and reeled off some of Aphrodite’s descriptors: “self-assured, mischievous, knowing, suggestive, perceptive.”

Character artist Jen Zee’s Aphrodite has marble-colored skin and wears nothing but her cascades of pink hair, positioned strategically over her body. When Vineys first saw Zee’s art, she was briefly taken aback by the difference between the character and herself. “I was like, ‘Wow! She’s naked! She’s very voluptuous!’ And I am not curvaceous at all.” Vineys began  “face acting” (the term we settled on for any kind of acting that requires more than just the voice) as a teen, but because of her blond hair and petite frame, she was constantly cast as a cheerleader. That got old, fast. But when she ventured into voice acting, she was no longer constrained by a casting director’s first impressions of her face or body. With her voice as her only instrument, she could convey any character. “With Supergiant, I have voiced an imp. I have voiced a floating Gorgon head. I have voiced the goddess of love. I have been given the opportunity to play a lot of different roles,” she said.

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Vineys has seen a lot of the fan art depicting Aphrodite, and she loves it. The fan art is “definitely horny, but it’s mostly really beautiful. Sensual,” said Vineys. When I asked if it ever felt strange to look at sensual art of a character she voiced, she said that on the contrary, it felt amazing. “My personal body isn’t being changed or put under a microscope,” she said. Free from the baggage of seeing her physical self remixed and reinterpreted, Vineys is able to enjoy all the fan art she sees.

Still, she wouldn’t be surprised if someone harassed her via social media. “Hades has gotten so popular. I feel like I am constantly waiting for someone weird to seek me out,” Vineys said. She’s acutely aware of what it’s like to live as a woman, and to be a woman on the Internet. But she has her fingers crossed that the Hades fanbase will continue to treat her with respect.

Penrose doesn’t mind when people tell her that her voice is sexy, but the interactions cross a line when fans send creepy or overly detailed messages. However, she estimates that 99% of the feedback she’s gotten on social media has been positive. Of all the messages she receives, she told me, the appreciative outweighs the creepy by such an order of magnitude that she hasn’t changed her sunny perspective on interacting with fans. If anything strikes Penrose as overly familiar, “I literally just block the person and delete the request,” she said.

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In general, Penrose feels like she has control over how much she identifies with—or is identified with—Meg. Sometimes, she lurks on Reddit, reading through Hades-related conversations. “I feel really powerful in those moments because I'm like, nobody knows that I'm seeing all of their comments,” she said. “I feel very empowered knowing that if I want to find out what people are saying about my character, I can.”

Very few people have harassed Darren Korb, voice of Zagreus and Supergiant Games’ longtime audio director. “In general, people have been very, very sweet,” he said.

Prior to Hades, Korb was better known for his genre-hopping soundtracks and polished sound design. But he’d always had an interest in voice acting (“for fun, I like to do silly voices, you know?”). For Pyre, which features a fantasy language, Korb voiced some of the side characters. When Supergiant Games began working on Hades, Korb recorded placeholder dialogue as Zagreus. However, when the team reviewed audition tapes, they realized they actually preferred Korb’s take on the son of Hades. Ordinarily, Korb—sometimes accompanied by Greg Kasavin—is the one who records the talent. But for the remainder of development, Korb would multiclass as audio director and the talent.

When we spoke over Zoom, Korb was remarkably blase about his new role. “I don’t see myself as a professional voice actor,” he said. To me, this sounded like Achilles declaring that he’s average with the spear. When I reminded him that he voiced the main character in a best-selling game, Korb was bashful: “It’s not my main gig.”

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Korb’s interpretation of Zagreus is a crisp, understated British accent, but hints of both sarcasm and warmth keep the protagonist relatable. A lot of fans think it’s hot. Not only did Korb not intend to create a vocal thirst trap, he seemed surprised by that reaction. “The focus wasn't much on trying to make him desirable to have a relationship with,” said Korb, chuckling. He enjoys seeing fan enthusiasm, but he doesn’t dig too deep into fandom culture: when I asked him if he was familiar with shipping, but didn’t specify the kind, he thought I was talking about shipping a game. (I meant shipping characters together.) We talked in circles for a minute  before he realized there was another kind of shipping I wanted to talk about.

Korb keeps a strict barrier between his personal identity and the work he creates. “I don’t think [voicing Zagreus] has changed my own perception of what I can do,” Korb said. “The response and the thing - they have some separation between them, I think.” All that’s changed, he said, is the sense of validation he feels towards his “silly voices.” And while he loves seeing fan art of the characters he’s voiced, fan interpretations don’t factor into his understanding of himself.

After interviewing Korb, I wondered if gender had something to do with the way some voice actors have embraced fandom chatter. Maybe, for women, the act of voicing characters allowed them to free themselves—in some small way—from society’s constant fixation on their actual, physical bodies. Maybe that was why the effusive player reaction mattered so much. Maybe, for men, it wasn’t the same.

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Then I spoke to Cyrus Nemati, the voice of Theseus, Dionysus, and Ares, and realized I was galaxy-braining this. Nemati, who is a voice actor as well as a games writer, has been cheerfully engaging in social media conversations - wholesome and thirsty - about his characters since Hades was in early access. “It feels amazing, as a creator, to know that somebody loves what you're creating that much and that it inspires them as well,” said Nemati. Many fan artists have focused on Theseus, the blowhard champion of Elysium, and his ‘sparring partner,’ the laconic, honorable minotaur Asterius. As Zagreus fights Theseus and Asterius again and again, he unintentionally introduces complications in the duo’s relationship. Eventually, the two make up, their bond stronger than ever. (My reading, before I ever saw fan art, was that Theseus and Asterius are absolutely boyfriends. But to each their own.)

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Some people might feel uncomfortable seeing romantic or horny fan art of a character they voiced alongside a half-man, half-bull. Nemati loves it. “I think it’s wonderful!” he said. “People care enough about the characters to put them in these situations and let their minds run wild.”

Nemati came to understand the transformative power of fandom years ago, as a kid obsessed with the Thief series. He hung out on fan forums, dissecting the characters with other hyper-enthusiastic players, and tried his hand at writing fanfiction. “I found it a few years ago. It’s not very good,” he said. “But it’s still cool that the game was able to inspire this terrible fanfiction of mine.” Nemati remains fascinated by the dynamics between creators and their fans, and he sees the same excitable, uplifting qualities from his Thief community in the Hades fandom. He’s read “one or two” Hades fanfiction stories and was impressed by their quality. Since he’s a games writer as well as a voice actor, he sees the future of game writing and art in the Hades community. “Fanfiction is where a lot of people cut their teeth on writing,” he said.

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Still, Nemati tries to keep a healthy barrier between himself and fans. “I don’t want to get too involved. I think fandom belongs to fans,” he said. Nemati doesn’t want Hades players to see him as an authority, handing down canon decrees, just because he lent his voice to the game.

For Avalon Penrose, the popularity of Hades has led to what she calls a cognitive dissonance. “When people say, ‘Meg is so sexy,’ or ‘your voice is so sexy’ - I have never in my life, ever, viewed myself as sexy,” she mused. Before Hades, she had never played a romantic interest, and she didn’t think she would. She recounted a story from several years ago, when a man told her not to go out for ‘pretty girl’ roles. “He said, ‘You’re gonna be in the audition, and you’re gonna see the girl next to you, and you’re gonna think, that’s a real pretty girl,’” Penrose recalled. The insult stuck with her.

But as Meg, she could portray a romantic interest, and one who’s much more than pretty. Meg’s sharp, brutal beauty and commanding athleticism - the Fury does not skip leg day - are qualities that Penrose loves. She gets excited when she sees fan art that depicts Meg as particularly muscled and powerful. “Meg being a sexy love interest is something that feels very empowering for me,” she said. “Maybe her body is not representative of mine, or many others. But I think it is very cool for me to play a character that feels so different from anything I’d be able to play in real life.”