Actors in gaming are seizing the spotlight – but will AI switch off?

Name your favourite characters in gaming. Were they voiced by an actor? If you’re having trouble remembering who by, it’s no surprise. Historically, most actors have struggled to achieve recognition for their roles in the medium. That changed in 2023, when casts of several games – including hit titles Final Fantasy 16 and Baldur’s Gate 3 – were propelled to internet stardom through their performances. But in the same year, the industry was decimated by unprecedented layoffs. The future looks equally fraught as looming AI advances threaten creative livelihoods.

To learn more about how acting in gaming is changing, we spent a morning meeting high-profile performers and experts across the industry. Actors Ben Starr (Final Fantasy 16), Samantha Béart (Baldur’s Gate 3), and Doug Cockle (The Witcher) have all shared their thoughts with NME, and today, they’re gathered in a cosy basement studio in east London for a star-studded photoshoot.

For Cockle, who is best known as Geralt Of Rivia in CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher series, some of the industry’s changes have been decades in the making. When Cockle started landing gaming roles in the early 2000s, he remembers there being a stigma surrounding the art form. “Working in video games as an actor wasn’t seen as legitimate,” he tells NME. “For whatever reason, it wasn’t ‘real acting’. That’s changed a lot – now, people are clamouring to act in games.”

Doug Cockle, Ben Starr and Samantha Béart, photo by Rachel Billings
Credit: Rachel Billings for NME

Last year, Ben Starr landed his breakout role as Final Fantasy 16’s vengeful hero Clive Rosfield. His gripping turn, along with a series of viral parody videos released on social media, connected him with thousands of new fans.

“It’s been really wonderful to have the opportunity to get my face out there,” Starr tells NME. He says developer Square Enix was “really supportive” of him being more public-facing in promo. “There’s probably many people’s performances that you admire [in video games], but don’t associate them with their performers,” he explains. “There’s a level of anonymity – being present with your face is a lot easier, but you’re not often going to be recognised for your voice.”

Two months after Final Fantasy 16 launched, Samantha Béart seized the spotlight with a BAFTA-nominated performance as fierce warrior Karlach in Baldur’s Gate 3. Like Starr, Béart played up their role as Karlach online. Many of Baldur’s Gate 3 cast did the same, and Béart hopes the trend will lead to more appreciation for in-game performances. “If this begins the idea that actors can be seen, because they’re still very invisible, it’s great,” they tell NME. “We enjoy that recognition, and we put the work in, so it’s nice to be seen.”

Kirsty Gillmore, who works as a voice and performance director as well as a casting director, tells NME that she has seen far greater appreciation for the craft since last year. “A lot of studios and publishers have become really aware of how much a good performance can really boost their game, and how much players are now engaging with them,” she says.

Doug Cockle, photo by Rachel Billings
Doug Cockle. Credit: Rachel Billings for NME

While more recognition and attention is being given to those bringing our favourite stories to life, it’s not all good news. Advancements in AI mean that human voices are steadily being replicated by robots, and studios have already started using these in lieu of real people. All of the actors we spoke to voiced concern about the technology, ranging from worries over it taking jobs, to artistic integrity being jeapordised.

“It’s like watching a tidal wave coming, and worrying about it hitting,” says Cockle. “It’s going to happen and you can’t do anything about it.”

Like many actors, Cockle has struggled with his voice being replicated without consent. “People who steal voice actors’ work to do something else are wankers,” he says. Cockle doesn’t have the time or money to fight this theft, and wants studios to use their own resources to protect talent. On the other hand, Béart and Starr worry that the same developers may prioritise profits and cost-cutting ahead of creative input from humans.

“I’m worried for the art form,” says Béart. “Automation has replaced so many things already, and I’m not surprised it’s coming for art. If enough people don’t mind AI, or if it’s allowed to creep in, we’re in trouble.”

Samantha Béart, photo by Rachel Billings
Samantha Béart. Credit: Rachel Billings for NME

Already, it’s becoming more of a norm. 2023 multiplayer game The Finals used AI to voice several characters, and Béart knows at least one person who has been asked to sign an AI waiver – which would give studios permission to replicate their voice with AI – while auditioning for a role. More experienced performers will know to turn down deals like this, but Béart points out that newcomers who don’t want to risk losing out on a role will be easier to take advantage of.

While Béart says AI needs to “crash and burn” for it to play less of a role in the industry, Starr and Cockle believe it’s an inevitability that the industry will need to adapt. “We need to figure out how to work alongside it, as opposed to it completely taking over,” says Starr. “The unknown is terrifying – and in the wrong hands, AI has the capacity to take away jobs.”

Starr also raises the concern that AI may be used to voice more background and supporting characters. These are where performers “cut their teeth,” says Starr, and replacing it with AI would lead to less opportunities for new talent to break in.

The people making games are also struggling. In 2023, thousands of workers in the industry lost their jobs, with PC Gamer putting the total at 11,250. In the first two months of 2024 alone, Kotaku reported another 8,177 layoffs. It’s an unprecedented situation fueled by over-expansion during COVID, irresponsible studio acquisitions, spiralling production costs and the ongoing cost of living crisis.

Ben Starr, photo by Rachel Billings
Ben Starr. Credit: Rachel Billings for NME

“[The bubble] has blown apart and we’re just picking up the pieces,” says Starr. “You can’t describe these layoffs as anything other than catastrophic to people’s livelihoods.”

As a result, fewer investors are taking chances on studios, and many companies are scaling back their new projects. Many of the people who lose their jobs are having to leave the industry to find work. Though everyone we spoke to is more concerned for developers than themselves, there has been a knock-on effect for thousands of freelancers, from performers to sound engineers and directors.

Béart and Cockle say there’s much less work available right now, while Gillmore – who gets “daily” emails from actors looking for work – has now started getting asked for jobs by fellow directors, something she says has never happened before. The industry is expected to bounce back in time, but with projects still being cancelled behind closed doors, livelihoods are falling through and not everyone will be here to see better times return.

“You’ve got the games themselves, which are good,” says Béart, pointing to the critical acclaim of Baldur’s Gate 3. “But the industry sort of sucks to be in right now. It’s becoming very cutthroat.”

Doug Cockle, Ben Starr and Samantha Béart, photo by Rachel Billings
Credit: Rachel Billings for NME

At today’s photoshoot, these troubles feel distant. The trio are enthusiastic, giggling as they crack jokes and complimenting each other’s wardrobe choices. At one point, they convince our photographer to let them recreate the cover of The Witcher 3’s Blood And Wine expansion, with Starr leering over Cockle’s shoulder like a demon.

Despite everything, everyone we spoke to believes the future is still bright. Starr and Cockle predict more film and TV actors will step into gaming, while Gillmore is looking forward to more “diverse voices”. Last year set a precedent for actors putting a face to their vocal talents, and going forward we’ll likely see more performers doing the same. “There are so many opportunities here,” says Starr. “A lot of this is untrodden snow.”

The big problems don’t have immediate solutions, but we’re getting there. Cockle points out that principal actors (mostly people with speaking roles) are paid royalties in film and TV roles, which could make work in gaming more financially viable. Béart and Starr want to see more unionisation in the games industry – Starr says it would give developers more protection from “reckless” layoffs, while Béart believes stronger unions could combat AI.

Ultimately, nobody knows what the future holds. Béart is optimistic that actors will get through its uncertainty together. “We’re a community, and we’re here for each other in a way that other parts of the entertainment industry aren’t,” they say. “That’s why I’m not too worried personally – because we’ve all got each other.”

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