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When Hollywood Invades Video Games

There was a time when A-listers in a video game got players hyped, but these days we need to know that they mean it before parting with our cash.
May 1, 2015, 2:50pm

Kevin Spacey in 'Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare'

The latest Call of Duty game, Advanced Warfare, features a performance by two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey. But rather than just spend a week in a recording booth, Spacey bravely donned an unflattering motion-capture suit and physically acted out his scenes. The result is an eerily lifelike digi-Spacey that, while still teetering on the precipice of the uncanny valley, puts in a solid performance as Jonathan Irons, the CEO of a private military company.

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Call of Duty might be seen as the video game equivalent of a Michael Bay movie—a dumb, loud, lowest-common-denominator action roller coaster—but it's cool to see a respected actor taking video games seriously enough to put half as much effort into them as they do a film. Hey, maybe Spacey is such a pro that he was on autopilot and it doesn't show, but I don't think so. He actually seems into it.

The relationship between Hollywood and gaming hasn't always been so cosy, though. It's only now, with games like GTA V shifting 45 million copies, that agents aren't immediately throwing the scripts in the bin. But decades before Spacey slipped into his mocap bodysuit, some enterprising actors were already giving video games a shot.

Throughout the 1990s, some of the biggest names in Hollywood embraced games in a way they'd never done before. The arrival of the CD-ROM brought with it a wave of interactive full motion video, or FMV, games. These saw a parade of genuinely massive stars ham their way through appalling scripts in front of bluescreens, wearing costumes that looked like they were stolen from a community theater's wardrobe.

'Ripper,' starring Christopher Walken

In 1996, Christopher Walken—who won an Oscar for his role in The Deer Hunter—starred in a CD-ROM game called Ripper. Set in New York City in the year 2040, it's a neo-noir sci-fi murder mystery, and every bit as terrible as that sounds. I love Walken, but he's phoning it in so hard here, it's like watching someone doing a Christopher Walken impression—and not even a very good one.

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The late Dennis Hopper appeared in Black Dahlia in 1998, another FMV murder mystery, this time based on the real-life killing of Elizabeth Short. His performance here isn't actually that bad, but seeing the dude who played Frank Booth in Blue Velvet acting alongside a guy in an oversized suit on an unconvincing CG set doesn't really do his talent justice. With all these FMV games, you can't shake the feeling they were filmed in some dingy LA basement with a blue sheet pinned up on the wall.

John Hurt starred in 1998's Tender Loving Care, a psychological thriller that's like one of those films you find yourself watching on TV at 2AM through a haze of insomnia. Jeff Goldblum was in 1996's Goosebumps: Escape From Horrorland, based on the popular children's books. John Goodman starred in Pyst, a desperately unfunny parody of PC classic Myst. The list goes on. I don't know how it happened, but someone in Hollywood convinced these actors CD-ROM games were the future, even though the quality was only slightly better than watching a YouTube video on a 28k modem.

And it's not just Hollywood either. Musicians have been flirting with video games for years, and not just by lending their music to them. In 1994, Aerosmith appeared in an arcade shooter called Revolution X, which imagined a dystopian future in which, tragically, their music has been declared illegal. Worse still, the band has been kidnapped, and it's your job to rescue them—armed with a gun that fires CDs. Your reward? Steven Tyler inviting you to "do some damage, Aerosmith style" to a bevy of pixelated women in bikinis. No thanks, bro.

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Tommy Vercetti of 'Grand Theft Auto: Vice City,' as voiced by Ray Liotta

In Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories, reclusive pop legend Phil Collins plays himself, performing "In the Air Tonight" at a concert. Not only that, but you have to foil an assassination attempt on the former Genesis frontman by stopping some gangsters from dropping a lighting rig on his head during that famous drum solo. Weirder still, his manager, Barry Mickelthwaite, is played by veteran English thespian Timothy Spall, recently acclaimed for his role in Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner.

Rockstar's infinite Scrooge McDuck–style money pile has resulted in some of gaming's best, and most unlikely, celebrity casting. Dennis Hopper chews the scenery brilliantly in Vice City as hyperactive porn director Steve Scott, while Goodfellas star Ray Liotta plays the lead, Tommy Vercetti. Grand Theft Auto III's cast includes the likes of Kyle MacLachlan, Joe Pantoliano, and Robert Loggia, while San Andreas features Samuel L. Jackson, James Woods, Chris Penn, and the genius pairing of straight-to-video cockney Danny Dyer and Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder.

'Grand Theft Auto: Vice City' recording sessions

Other publishers haven't been afraid to spend big on A-list talent either. In 2004, EA somehow convinced Marlon Brando to reprise his role as Vito Corleone in their shitty Godfather game. Tragically, Brando was so ill his voice was unusable, so they hired an imitator instead. What a way to end a career. In 1997, Westwood's Blade Runner spin-off managed to reunite much of the film's cast, as did Rockstar's version of The Warriors and, more recently, Sega's masterful Alien: Isolation.

Emhyr var Emreis from 'The Witcher 3,' as voiced by Charles Dance

In 2006's actually-quite-good Scarface: The World Is Yours, Sierra dumped a fortune on a cast that includes Michael York, Oliver Platt, Elliott Gould, and even Ricky Gervais. They only managed to secure Al Pacino's face, though. Not that it mattered, because his soundalike—allegedly picked personally by Pacino—was so damn good. Ricky Gervais also starred in Grand Theft Auto IV alongside fellow comedians Katt Williams and Frankie Boyle, and Rockstar hired comedian David Cross (Tobias from Arrested Development) to play Zero in San Andreas.

The latest luminary to lend their voice to a game is Tywin Lannister himself, Charles Dance, who plays Emhyr var Emreis in The Witcher 3. But we're at a point now where, with the exception of giants like Spacey, the mere presence of a well-known voice actor isn't enough to get us excited. You can tell instantly whether their heart's in it or not, and there's nothing worse than someone you enjoy watching in films or on TV half-heartedly mumbling through a script they don't give a shit about.

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