Just as Gears of War's swaggering, bloody reputation as a first rate, first person shooter is seen as the quintessential title to show what the Xbox 360 is truly capable of, Sony's jewel in the PS3 gaming crown, Uncharted is seen as the game that helps us realise what is possible if you push the console to its limits.
Back for its third instalment, Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, the protagonist Nathan Drake has been an integral part of the game's appeal since it launched back in 2007. The man who has helped bring an almost human, affectionate quality to the treasure-hunting Drake, is actor and voice actor Nolan North. Well versed in the ways of lending his wide-ranging vocals to game developers for roles which range from the Penguin in Arkham City to a defected turret in Portal 2 (more on that later), we grabbed some time with Nolan to talk about all things Uncharted 3, the voice acting business, and what it means to be the voice behind Nathan Drake. Here's what he had to say.
At what point when you were working on Uncharted did you realise that you were part of something that resonated so well with the gaming public?
When I was first cast, I knew that it was something different. I remember doing the first game and we had such a great time. We didn’t even know we were going to do a second one. I think we knew we had something really special somewhere in the middle of making the second one. I had been working on more and more games, I was involved with a lot of other developers. It was clear to me that Naughty Dog and Uncharted was doing something very different to the other games. Like with the motion capture for instance, where I’m involved as the lead for 14-16 months for a two year development project from casting all the way to post production, I was there.
Then the awards season came out and it was just a juggernaut of victories. The industry really recognised it as doing something really special. When we came back for the third one, the big question was, would we feel the pressure to top ourselves? My initial instinct was, we don’t have to top ourselves, let’s just keep doing the good material we are used to. You just don’t want to regress backwards. Of course Naughty Dog doesn’t think that way, they just want to keep getting better and better. I’ve managed to see most of the game all the way through, I can’t believe I am saying this but they have topped themselves.
Why do you think people identify with Nathan Drake?
I think he is representative of all of us. He is one of those few heroes who is vulnerable. He has a quality about him that makes you want to root for him. I was talking to my wife one day and someone described Drake as the guy that every guy wants to be and all the women want to be with. She said didn't agree with that. When I asked why, she said the guys might want to be like him and hang out with him, but women just want to give him a big hug. He looks like he is trying to do the right thing and be good and he keeps on getting thrown into these circumstances. He always makes the right choices at the end of the day. He goes through things that are mentally, emotionally and physically tough just like we do as human beings. He is flawed, but he is doing his best and I think that is a great way to describe all of us, flawed but we are doing our best in whatever job we do to get through the end of the day.
What process do you have to go through to audition for voice acting jobs?
Typically, most games that I’ve done the developer will send the part of the script with a character description and some of the lines to the agency and the agencies just go through them and say okay these people fit this type of character. They are the first line of defence or offense depending on how you want to look at it. They’ll take those things and there will be a group of characters that will go to certain people that they know will have that quality. Fortunately I have a bit of a range to be able to do different voices and accents. Perhaps a lot of my success is the fact that I have the range for a variety of characters from Sigmund in Ratchet and Clank to the Penguin in Arkham City to a Nathan Drake type character. Maybe my success is that I get more auditions because the agents can find different voices for these different players.
Then what happens is that the material is sent to you, emailed, you go through it. A lot of us now have home studios where you can just do it on a mic, turn it into a MP3 and then you send it back to the agency and they forward it onto the people who are casting and they will go right on the voice. They just make their picks and selections from there. If you don’t have a home studio you can go to the agency and record it at the booth there.
With motion capture jobs, it’s slightly different. A lot of times it will start that way. So they will whittle it down maybe to a dozen people and then those dozen people come in and read In front of the directors and the developers. That’s how we did it with Uncharted. With Uncharted it was different because they had a few selections and then they would come and read with me. Rosalind Ayres who plays Katherine Marlowe. She came and read with me. With Uncharted it is very different. We want to make sure that the people we cast really fit into the troop we have created. Sometimes the talent is just as important, the person’s personality is just as important as their talent, to quote that old saying, one rotten apple can spoil the bunch. You want to really make sure you cast carefully. You want to make sure that people really get it and the sense of play and will be collaborative and be willing to play in a group.
How much of the finished dialogue in the game is improvised?
I’ve said this before, Amy Hennig writes a brilliant script. Think of it as a trunk of a tree. You can’t branch off without a trunk of a tree. So she provides that trunk. We do from time to time improv or adlib and sometimes great ideas are born of that, other times not so much. I can say that more stuff is left on the cutting room floor that we’ve improvised than actually makes it in the game. So the script especially for the cinematic scenes is well scripted.
Where we differ is that Amy Hennig will only write two or three scenes at a time maybe, and what comes out of that, that recording of readings and improv, whatever comes out of that, she’ll write to. More of the adlibbing is stuff that I get to say comes out from the stuff you hear in gameplay. What we do is something called chasing picture where the game designers will actually play a level of the game and then record it and then bring it to an audio booth. So I will just watch that and chase the picture and just react to the pictures. All the jumps and falls, the grunts you hear. That’s where the whole Marco Polo scene came from in Uncharted 2. I just saw this swimming pool and the designer had jumped into the pool and that’s when I just said, ‘Marco’ and Claudia Black was in the booth with me and she was just saying, ‘I’m not going to say it.’ That ended up being a trophy and honest to God is was just me goofing around. I think one of the designers said, if we get it back to the office and we listen back to the stuff and it makes us laugh then it goes in to the game.
Does your job differ doing dialogue for Uncharted on the PlayStation Vita?
They follow the same model that Naughty Dog did. They consulted with Naughty Dog quite a bit especially Amy Hennig about the story and John Garvin did a great job following. I have done this so much he would look at me and say, ‘hey, do you have any suggestions?’ He really embodied the collaborative spirit along with our director Chris Zimmerman. They are really big fans of the Uncharted game. The only difference is just the hardware. I think hopefully it will come across that both games will have the same personalities and the same adventure and fun, it’s just a factor of what the hardware’s capacity is. Certain things can only be done on the PlayStation 3. But that’s the same with anything. The reason Uncharted is not a multi-platform game is because of the power of the PlayStation 3. That’s the only processor that can handle it. Naughty Dog is pushing the boundaries of that processor. So it’s the only thing that can handle all the data that is needed to make Uncharted.