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The Biggest Video Games Don't Tell Voice Actors What Game They're Working On

Why do game publishers keep voice actors in the dark?

by Emanuel Maiberg
Oct 24 2016, 10:00am

Fallout 4's Conrad Kellogg.Image: Bethesda Softworks

Fallout 4 opens with a terrible act by a great villain. A mercenary named Kellogg awakes the player from cryosleep only long enough to steal their baby, murder their partner, and put them back into cryosleep for presumably years of nightmares. When the player finally wakes up again they have a singular focus: find Kellogg and exact revenge.

It's a great motivator that works in large part because Kellogg is a well-realized character, a despicable gun for hire, but one the player gets to know and empathize with as they progress through the story. That's why I was shocked to learn on a Friday press conference with SAG-AFTRA, the union that represents voice actors, that the actor who gave Kellogg his voice and helped bring him to life, Keythe Farley, filled that role for a year and a half without knowing what game he was working on. Bethesda Softworks, Fallout 4's publisher, refused to tell him.

Farley argues that keeping voice actors in the dark about what project they're working on gives video game companies an unfair advantage.

"This benefits producers because agents aren't able to negotiate when they know an actor is working on a huge game," he said.

This is one of the main reasons why as SAG-AFTRA's Interactive Committee chair, Farley supports the strike that went into effect on Friday, and the picketing of game publisher Electronic Arts in Los Angeles on Monday. Voice actors want to know what games they're working on while they're in the recording booth.

Sounds like a simple request, so why would game companies refuse?

In short, because video game companies want complete control over when they reveal a game, and that's commonly long after game companies start casting and recording with voice actors. In their defense, video game leaks happen all the time, and Fallout 4 specifically leaked through a voice actor casting call, though there is no reason to believe this information leaked through a voice actor.

As Farley notes, voice actors are almost always required to sign non-disclosure agreements that prevent them from leaking any information anyway.

"It might be hard to believe because we talk for a living, but we are good at keeping our mouths shut," he said.

Additionally, Farley said that while directors will give voice actors the context they need for the scene, some actors might not want to contribute to a project if they knew what the end product was, citing violent video games like Grand Theft Auto as an example.

According to SAG-AFTRA, this issue of transparency is one of the main reasons why voice actors are striking today, as is the issue of the physical toll voice actors have to pay for intense voice recording and motion capture sessions.

However, both of these are minor compared to the issue of secondary compensation, which at the moment seems like the primary point of contention between SAG-AFTRA and game companies.