John Wick Hex and the Art of Voice Acting

John Wick Hex came out this week. I’ve been looking forward to it for quite a while. Regular Argue The Toss listeners will remember that both Chella and I are fans of the film series, and I was interested to see just how the tightly-choreographed, beautiful fights that make John Wick such a joy to watch would transfer to a game. Hex, if you haven’t already checked it out, attempts to recreate John Wick’s precise combat by turning the game into a (sort of) turn-based strategy, in which players select their next move and watch it play out in realtime before the action pauses again for your next decision. This all happens alongside a displayed timeline, which shows exactly what your enemies are going to do next and how long it’ll take them, allowing players to outmanoeuvre foes with smart play and clever use of the environment, like Wick is able to (albeit in real-time) in the movies. But does it work?

Dunno. Sorry, haven’t really had time to play enough of it to give you a proper rundown of the mechanics. It’s only been out a couple of days, so whether or not Hex works as well as it could is still being debated. It’s certainly an interesting approach, and so far the reviews have been mixed but broadly positive. But that’s not what I’m writing about today. Today I’m writing about Ian McShane.

A promotional image of John Wick Hex, featuring a cel-shaded John holding a gun to the camera.
Sadly, John Wick Hex doesn’t feature Keanu Reeves, but the rest of the voice cast makes up for it.

The thing about voice acting is that it’s a totally different discipline to screen acting, and even the most talented film and TV actors aren’t necessarily able to transfer that talent to voice work. Not to spoil the second half of this article, but there are a fair few examples of big-name actors being brought in to voice game characters and doing mediocre or even terrible jobs. Voice acting isn’t easy – it requires a level of control over tone and delivery that’s not always a requirement of more visually-oriented acting. 

Which is why it’s so great that Ian McShane’s Winston loses absolutely nothing in the transfer to John Wick Hex. The character may now be made out of cel-shaded polygons rather than out of… well, Ian McShane, but the vocal performance is perfect. Every line drips with Winston’s trademark juicy theatricality – joyous, wonderful scene-chewing in tones of pure gravel. Ohhh, Jonathan. I thought I was interested in Hex for its mechanics, but now I realise that all I really wanted was more Winston.  Lance Reddick also reprises his movie role, and does a similarly great job, bringing the same playfulness, heart and humour to the Continental’s impassive concierge.

Here are a couple of screen actors whose transitions to games weren’t quite so well-received.

Destiny

I never really watched Game of Thrones, so I couldn’t honestly tell you whether Peter Dinklage is a good actor or not. He was OK in that one episode of 30 Rock he was in. (The episode has not aged well, in case you’re wondering.) He was, er, there in Avengers – Infinity War. He won a lot of Emmys playing Tyrion Lannister, though, so there must be something to him.

That something is not “an ability to convincingly portray a hovering robot sidekick in Bungie’s Destiny”. Dinklage’s original performance as Ghost was infamously inadequate, and spawned much Internet Derision. Look, I’ll cut him a little slack here – Destiny’s script wasn’t exactly up to much, either, and it’s easy to understand why an actor not known for voice work might have trouble engaging with a plot so broad, vague, and difficult to get a real handle on. But either way, the results were awful. Ghost’s dialogue sounded like nothing more than a bored actor forcing his way through a list of bad lines he had no context for, nor a particular interest in.

Dinklage did not return for Destiny’s DLC packs or sequel, being replaced by Nolan North, who did a better job with the material. But not only did North record new lines for the DLC – he completely re-recorded Ghost’s dialogue for the base campaign. They patched Peter Dinklage out entirely. Bungie’s official line was that they wanted to maintain consistency across the game, but one suspects they were a little glad of an excuse to excise the original voice work. After all, Nathan Fillion was unable to reprise his role as Cayde-6 in the new Destiny 2 expansion (again being replaced by Nolan North, who in a couple of years will presumably be voicing all of the game’s characters), and oddly, Bungie hasn’t patched out his performance. Draw your own conclusions.

Metal Gear Solid V

Metal Gear Solid V made some interesting changes to the long-running franchise. It moved from a semi-linear structure to a fully open world. It placed a greater emphasis on adaptability and improvisation. It posited that a half-hour demo was, in fact, a totally separate game, and worth thirty pounds.

But perhaps the most controversial change it made, at least for long-time Metal Gear fans, was to recast MGSV’s incarnation of Snake. Konami dropped David Hayter, who had voiced the English-speaking version of the character(s) since the first Metal Gear Solid, and replaced him with Kiefer Sutherland, best known for being famous actor Kiefer Sutherland.

Promotional image of Metal Gear Solid 5' Venom Snake
Without the original voice actor, Metal Gear Solid V’s version of the Boss just feels like an impostor.

To be fair, Sutherland doesn’t do a bad job as Snake, but Hayter’s voice had by this time become the most iconic feature of the character. Forget the bandana, the stealth suit, and the well-shaped buttocks. There’s one thing our callipygean hero is most famous for, and it’s repeating things that have just been said to him, phrased as questions, in David Hayter’s uniquely gruff voice.

The weird thing is that Sutherland doesn’t even get a lot to do in MGSV. Previous games were famously overstuffed with dialogue, but Venom Snake rarely even speaks for longer than a sentence in-game. The whole thing stank of stunt-casting, and Hayter has in subsequent years expressed disappointment in the way he was dropped from the franchise that he had helped make famous.

Also? Kiefer Sutherland starred in 24 for eight years, and by now someone should have corrected him on his pronunciation of “nuclear.”

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