Why Hollywood actors are being drawn to star in video games

Aidan Gillen in a scene from Quantum Break.
Aidan Gillen in a scene from Quantum Break.

Video game plots don't always have the best reputations. It can be hard to keep a coherent story together when you're also trying to let a player explore an open world, or choose between branching storylines.

But there are quite a few people in the industry who are working to make video game plots more like those in television or film.

"Quantum Break," released earlier this month by Remedy Entertainment, blurs the lines between "traditional" media and video games even more than usual. The game features live-action sequences intercut between gameplay that stars the actors who are portraying the (very realistic) digital characters in the more traditional gameplay.

It can be hard to tell which is which sometimes. Shawn Ashmore, an actor known for playing Bobby Drake/Iceman in the "X-Men" movies, anchors a cast in "Quantum Break" that also includes Dominic Monaghan of "Lord of the Rings" fame, and "Game of Thrones" actor Aiden Gillen.

The studio's creative director, Sam Lake, said that he wanted to look to Hollywood to find professional actors for the game because he wanted to use very lifelike motion capture technology. "When you can have a slight movement on the actor's face, you start to need better and better actors to deliver the drama," he explained.

Ashmore is a fan of past Remedy games such as "Max Payne" and "Alan Wake," and was excited to work with that team. He shot the game over the course of two years. It was initially difficult to adjust to the game part of the role, the actor said, because he had to wear a helmet camera. That meant he had two cameras, four lights and two microphones aimed at his face to capture his performance.

But Ashmore adjusted over time, perhaps partly because of his experience in the "X-Men" movies.

"I think to a certain extent playing Bobby Drake in the 'X-Men' films and having been involved with special effects driven films, did help me imagine what it was going to look like after the fact," Ashmore said. "Doing motion capture, you really have to trust the filmmakers and the storytellers because so many elements are missing."

Shawn Ashmore from Xbox One game Quantum Break.
Shawn Ashmore from Xbox One game Quantum Break.


Even when filming for an effects-heavy movie, Ashmore said, he'd at least be in costume with a practical set. When shooting for the game, he had to imagine what the world around him looked like based on drawings from the Remedy team. In terms of the acting itself, however, Ashmore said there wasn't much of a difference.

"I didn't approach Jack Joyce from a different position than I would a film or television performance," he said. "I wanted to create a back story for Jack. I wanted it to be an authentic character and a grounded performance, so I didn't approach the preparation or the actual performance from a different angle."

He did, however, take into account that he would be the avatar for the many players who control him as the protagonist. Game protagonists are often strong, silent types, so that players can project their own personalities onto them; the star casting in "Quantum Break" obviously requires something different.

"It didn't affect the performance necessarily," Ashmore said. "But I did think about how to make [Jack] an accessible character and likable to a certain extent, just so the player wanted to spend time with this character."

Lake said he wasn't worried that having a character with a strong personality and an identifiable face would keep players from relating to Jack Joyce.

"Our approach has always been that we would rather build a strong main character as you would expect in any story to be enjoyable," he said. "What's important is making sure the player wants to be on the ride with this character and helps him succeed with his goals."

And, Lake would argue, the kind of storytelling you can do in a game can be deeper than what you accomplish in a traditional television show or movie. For one, you can selectively flip your camera angle, so that you can literally change your view of a scene to see the protagonist's reaction to a shocking revelation. Games also have the luxury of time to deepen a scene. While a critical email or a book may be a crucial plot point, for example, it could only get a few moments on screen. In a game, players can dig through the book, go through the email chain, maybe even snoop around the inbox.

Screenshot from Quantum Break, new Xbox One game out April 5.
Screenshot from Quantum Break, new Xbox One game out April 5.


"It gives you a very different experience," Lake said. "It's interactive because there is a player agenda that you can choose to ignore some of the content or even explore further."

Lake is convinced that projects like his show that movies and games are moving closer together.

"We are getting more and more people from the movie industry to work on games and being excited about what storytelling opportunities games offer, from the special effects side," he said. "There are people who have done work on movies like 'Gravity' - they were part of these scenes that won the Oscar - and they are now working in our studio on 'Quantum Break.' "

Could starring in the latest games put some shine on an actor's resume? There's no doubt that Hollywood actors seem to be invading the video game world, including Kevin Spacey, Angela Bassett and Kiefer Sutherland.

Ashmore said he's not sure if games will soon reach the level of a TV show or movie in terms of prestige. But, speaking for himself, he'd do another game in a heartbeat if the project were right.

"I feel that if actors are looking to tell stories, and they're not picky [about] the medium they tell it in, games could become incredibly popular for actors," he said. "And now that I've done it, I see that the performance is as rewarding as working on film or television, so I think that could become a trend."

- Washington Post

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