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Game On: Remembering David Warner and the importance of good voice acting

David Warner as Spicer Lovejoy in 1997’s "Titanic." His performance netted him a nomination for the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture.  (Paramount Pictures)
David Warner as Spicer Lovejoy in 1997’s "Titanic." His performance netted him a nomination for the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. (Paramount Pictures)
By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

Veteran actor David Warner passed away on Monday at the age of 80 – BBC reported that he died of a “cancer-related illness.” Beginning in 1962, his acting career spanned 56 years. His roles are too numerous to list, but standouts include Spicer Lovejoy in “Titanic,” Keith Jennings in “The Omen,” and Ed Dillinger, Sark and Master Control Program in “Tron.” He also played a plethora of characters in “Star Trek” from 1989-2000.

But personally, I knew him best for his portrayal of Jon Irenicus, the main antagonist of legendary role-playing game Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, an officially-licensed Dungeons & Dragons PC title released in 2000 that still makes regular appearances on “best games of all time” lists for its impressive 95/100 Metacritic score.

Many would argue that Warner’s contributions played no small part in the game’s success, and I would be inclined to agree. For all his faults that are revealed in the later stages of the game, Jon Irenicus starts off as an incredibly intimidating villain thanks to Warner’s vocal gravitas. Baldur’s Gate II opens with Irenicus inflicting torture upon the protagonist, and his disturbing croon of “It is time for more … experiments” is forever etched into my mind.

And of course, his vocal performance doesn’t peak there. Moments after escaping his lair, the player watches as Irenicus obliterates wave upon wave of Shadow Thieves with his powerful magic – Warner’s bellow of “You will suffer! You will all suffer!” is performed with enough conviction to send goosebumps down your spine.

Despite being presented entirely from a zoomed-out, fixed isometric perspective, Baldur’s Gate II feels incredibly immersive thanks largely to its impeccable audio design. The music booms and swells appropriately, environmental sounds are mixed in perfectly, and yes, BioWare managed to recruit an incredible cast of voice actors for the game. Warner is a standout, as are Michael Bell, Jim Cummings, Jennifer Hale and Kevin Richardson.

A large part of what makes voice acting so challenging, and in some ways much harder than traditional acting, is the lack of visual and action cues. Voice actors often record their parts alone, unaided by another actor to ping-pong off of. Because of this, it’s not uncommon for voice acting in animated films and shows as well as video games to sound over or under excited. It requires serious skill to understand the nuances behind the lines an actor is reading.

Video games are by far my favorite media, but I’ll be the first to tell you it’s been plagued by bad voice work more often than good voice work – it’s made me appreciate people like Warner all the more. As the medium has matured, developers have put in more money, time and effort to acquire quality vocal talent, but gaming has a painful history of cringe-inducing voice acting.

It’s even true of many games that are otherwise good. 1997’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is often considered one of the greatest games of all time, but the English voice dubbing is notoriously atrocious. Just as it’s impossible for me to unhear the perfect croons and bellows of Jon Irenicus, it’s also impossible for me to unhear Richter Belmont’s pathetic, whiny “Die, monster! You don’t belong in this world!”

But no voiceover fail in gaming has ever topped Peter Dinklage’s performance for Ghost, the player’s AI companion throughout 2014’s Destiny. At the peak of his fame thanks to his award-winning work as Tyrion Lannister in “Game of Thrones,” many gamers looked forward to Dinklage’s first outing as a voice actor. What followed was a monotonous performance so uninspired that developer Bungie decided to replace him entirely a year into the game’s existence. Yikes.

While voice acting doesn’t make or break a video game, good performances certainly elevate titles to another level of greatness. Portal, Mass Effect, BioShock, The Last of Us, Borderlands, The Legacy of Kain – all of these games are renowned for quality voice work, and their success has had a lasting impression on the industry. Warner’s contributions to the medium, while relatively few in number, were top-notch – he will be missed.

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