How Video Games Cast Actors Just Like Movies Do

"Far Cry 5" is an example of an actor's performance making a game.
April 6, 2018, 5:47am
Still from the game. The Father is in the middle.

Note: while reading this article you might be like, "hmm was this author flown to this interview by the makers of Far Cry 5?" Well yes, and they fed me beer and I had a very nice time, but also: the blurring of lines between games and film is something I find pretty interesting.

Back in 1983 an Atari game was released featuring the first voice over in a video game. The game was called Sinistar and included the digitised voice of a radio personality named John Doremus booming out phrases like “I am Sinistar! Run coward!” And although this now seems a bit quaint, it came at a time when digital voice compression cost around US$1,000 per word.

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Fast-forward to 2018 and video games feature not only voices, but actual performances by actors. This has been a feat achieved via motion capture technology, but it’s also had a lot to do with games companies trying to emulate the conventions of film. Modern games are now immersive worlds populated by nuanced characters motivated by complex backstories. In 2018, a game’s narrative is just as important as it’s playability, so leading actors like Samuel L. Jackson, Ellen Page, and Elijah Wood are cast in video games, officiating the convergence between gaming and cinema.

But these changes have also led to a shift in expectations. Games can no longer get away with hammy acting, and so getting the casting right is serious business—a point made apparent with the release of Ubisoft’s Far Cry 5.

You might be familiar with the franchise. Far Cry puts players in wilderness locations and asks them to fight their way out, which is exactly the set up in the fifth instalment. Far Cry 5 revolves around a failed police mission to arrest the leader of a doomsday cult, a self-professed incarnation of Christ who calls himself the Father. You then have to fight your way out of the group's Montana compound, while hopefully re-arresting the leader.

“And everything hinged on casting the right bad guy,” explains the game’s executive producer, Dan Hay. “In order to build a believable cult, we needed a believable cult leader.”

Another scene from the game

Dan explains the difficulty was the Father isn’t an evil antagonist in the traditional sense, but instead someone who believes his moral transgressions are justified by a higher purpose. And in this way the Father incorporates a medley of personality traits including, as Dan points out, charisma.

“I’ve never been in a cult,” says Dan. “And what I really struggle with is the idea that someone could convince me to join their cult. I just rarely find anyone that charismatic, so finding an actor who felt convincing enough in that way was always going to be hard.”

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Dan describes how their team cycled through hundreds of casting applications without luck. Other characters were cast easily, while the Father’s role stayed vacant. “And then people were like, ‘Are we going to get the father? When are you going to get the father?'. And I was like ‘Yeah, he’s coming, don't worry, it's going to be good, it's going to be fine.’ And we were kind of just thinking, 'Are we in trouble?'”

Finally, Dan describes a Canadian actor by the name of Greg Bryk sending in an audition reel who immediately had potential. “Greg’s got a very interesting way of communicating and he doesn't blink a lot, and within 30 seconds I was like, 'I absolutely, unequivocally believe this guy could convince me to be in this cult.’”

So how does an actor’s performance get digitised? As Dan explains the process involved flying Greg to Ubisoft’s Toronto mocap (motion capture) facility, and covering every part of his body with markers, then getting him to act out the game’s sequences while surrounded by cameras. In this way, the markers’ movements were measured, turning Greg’s performance into a set of ones and zeros.

“Greg flared his nostrils a lot and he used to do some really strange things with his mouth, explains Dan. “So we had to record all that data and give it to some really talented animators and say, 'Okay, now turn this into platinum.'”

Later, after meeting with Dan, we’re shown a promotional video. It’s a vignette from the game, featuring the Father baptising his followers in a stream. We watch a young woman wander in up to her knees, and the Father dunking her backyards before going into a kind of trance. By the time he snaps out of the trance, minutes have passed and the Father finds that he’s accidently drowned his follower. Without a pause, the Father lifts his hands up high and the young woman’s body drifts away with the current.

And yes, it’s a video game, but it feels just like a moment in a film.

Far Cry 5 is out now on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Microsoft Windows

This article originally appeared on VICE AU.