Heroes to Outer Wilds: when actors become game developers

Hollywood has its fair share of stars getting behind the camera, and it’s slowly but surely also happening in the games industry. Veterans of Assassin’s Creed Origins, Metal Gear Solid V, Firewatch, and TV’s Heroes give us their stories.

Since the early years of Hollywood, there have been actors that weren’t merely satisfied with being stars but also filmmakers in their own right – notably Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Orson Welles, Clint Eastwood, and countless more besides. But what about video games? We’re frequently told that the global games market is bigger than Hollywood and the music industry combined, and as the medium has given rise to more sophisticated forms of storytelling, it should stand to reason that video game actors might also be seizing the opportunity to create their own games and tell their own stories. So why doesn’t the games industry have its own equivalent of Orson Welles or Clint Eastwood?

It’s arguably because, compared to film and television, games are still in their infancy, certainly in terms of acting and storytelling. After all, it’s only been just over 25 years since the release of Resident Evil and its campy voice acting. While narrative has become more important in games, the performances that drive them, whether through voice acting or mocap, don’t have the same star power that we’d associate with screen actors.

That may be slowly changing, as we speak to a handful of actors who’ve taken their own individual leaps into the games industry. Stefanie Joosten, best known as Quiet in Metal Gear Solid V, has both a performing role in action game Wanted: Dead, but serves as its cinematic director. Abubakar Salim, best known for his starring role as Bayek in Assassin’s Creed Origins has founded his own game studio, Silver Rain Games, with an unannounced title set to be released under the EA Originals label. Then there’s Cissy Jones, best known for her BAFTA-winning performance as Delilah in Firewatch; she’s co-founder of Temporary Legend, a production company geared towards telling new stories, with plans to get into game production.

Assassin's Creed Origins

Playing the lead role of Bayek, Assassin’s Creed Origins was Salim’s video game debut. It inspired him to get into development himself.

Masi Oka

Masi Oka: Emmy and Golden Globe-nominated actor – and founder of Mobius Digital.

We could be heroes

One thing to bear in mind is that the actors’ projects listed above are still in early phases – an indication, perhaps, that performers making a move into game development or production is still a new pathway. With that in mind, let’s begin with a proven case study.

Screen actor Masi Oka is best known for his starring role in cult TV show, Heroes. Yet prior to acting, his first foray into Hollywood was at visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic, where he worked on the Star Wars prequel trilogy.

With his technical background and a grounding in Japanese culture, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Oka would venture into game development; in 2013, he founded studio Mobius Digital, best known for the acclaimed sci-fi timeloop adventure game, Outer Wilds. Oka says his decision to get into games was due to his personal frustrations in Hollywood, where he tried to produce live action adaptations of Japanese properties (he eventually co-produced the 2017 Netflix live-action adaptation of Death Note).

“Sometimes it takes two years on the TV side, or it could take five or ten on the movie side,” he explains. “At that time, people were making mobile games and the turnaround seemed fast – you could create something and get it out there. That was the joy for me going to the game side, feeling like at least there’s something that can be done quickly, compared with the Hollywood side where it takes so long to get something done because it gets stuck in development.”

Of course, game development can take just as long. Although Mobius Digital originally focused on creating mobile apps that could be released quickly, Oka also found it a humbling experience, admitting he’d jumped into the industry “without really having much knowledge of understanding how that works”, and found little success with any of the studio’s mobile titles. “We didn’t really understand marketing and how to get it out there. We were hoping word of mouth or my platform would help, but it definitely wasn’t enough,” he adds. “But also my designers prefer to do something more with a single player experience and apps weren’t their thing.”

It was during an open day at the University of Southern California open day that Oka saw Outer Wilds, then a thesis project by Interactive Media student Alex Beachum and a small team of collaborators. Although it was in its nascent stages, Oka saw OuterWilds’ commercial potential, and brought the entire team behind the game to Mobius Digital in order to get it fully developed. What was originally meant to be a six-month polishing phase crowdfunded via Fig soon became a four-year process once publisher Annapurna Interactive was attached. Says Oka, “It just took it to a new level and quality that none of us would have expected.”

Outer Wilds

“I want to do something that can really bring the whole world together,” says Oka, which rather fits Outer Wilds’ narrative-based, exploratory, non-violent gameplay.

Knowledge is power

Abubakar Salim

Abubakar Salim, an accomplished actor both in games and on screen, including HBO sci-fi drama Raised by Wolves and founder/CEO of Silver Rain Games.

Despite Oka’s programming skills and technical background, he’s keen to point out that he wasn’t involved in coding at the studio. Indeed, during the development of Outer Wilds, he was busy working on TV show Hawaii Five-O. “I was literally in Hawaii shooting, going back and forth, so I didn’t really have the time to just hunker down and write tools,” he explains. “Mostly, I founded the company, I funded pretty much the entire development process for all the mobile apps. I do have producers in-house who do the day-to-day, but I’m there to help create a safe space for everyone to explore their creative ideas, and be there when the big hammer needs to come down to move things along.”

As Oka proves, there’s more to making games than programming. Indeed, it’s almost secondary to other skill sets and qualities, which was important for Assassin’s Creed Origins star Abubakar Salim when he made the decision to get into game development.

“[At Silver Rain Games], I take care of the business side of things,” Salim says. “I don’t have a business background, but I’ve learned a lot, I’ve asked a lot of questions, I’ve read a lot, I’ve done a lot of digging, I love asking questions. I love learning more about other people’s lines of work, be it from being a tech artist, 3D artist, VFX artist, lighting, rigger, all these different shades. It fascinates me because I believe that knowledge is power… I have to bring in people who know what they’re talking about, be it from physics to talking to a coder or talking to a technical designer.”

From Kingdom Hearts to World of Warcraft, gaming made Salim fall in love with storytelling; growing up with dyslexia meant reading wasn’t something he was keen on, and he felt less able to connect with the predominantly white faces in TV shows. Pursue a career in games as a career wasn’t, however, something Salim realised was feasible as he was growing up. “For me, acting was a lot clearer, and even then, it’s still quite hard. But I would say that my knowledge of getting into the film and TV space was a lot clearer back then than it is now, more so than games.”

Ironically, it was Salim’s breakout role in Assassin’s Creed Origins, which he landed straight out of drama school, that served as his gateway into game development. “I started by asking developers, ‘What’s it like being a game developer?’” he explains. “The answers I got from everyone were totally different, but I was still able to deduce, break down, and get an idea. Even when I was in Montreal doing Assassin’s Creed, the days that I wasn’t filming or voice recording, I was in the studio, and I was looking at other departments and learning about what they were doing, almost like shadowing a lot of other different people. I even did a bit of QA! All of this stuff was key to learning what it means to be a developer.”

Metal Gear Solid V

While Metal Gear Solid V has its critics, especially regarding the design of Quiet’s character, the game’s success has nonetheless been important for raising Joosten’s profile.

Making your voice heard

Stefanie Joosten

While still principally a motion-capture and voiceover performer in games, Stefanie Joosten is now also a cinematic director in Wanted: Dead.

Nonetheless, Salim’s exposure to game studios isn’t something all actors necessarily share. Voice actors are often cast with little knowledge of even the game they’re working on, while recording is done via an outsourced production company.

Hollywood actors will have different reasons for wanting to get behind the camera, perhaps either to get a passion project off the ground, or to assert some level of creative control. Actor Stefanie Joosten’s interest in the games industry, on the other hand, sprang from the experiences she enjoyed outside the games industry while living in Japan. “I joined a Japanese theatre company for a big production for six months,” she says, “and there were several other productions after that as well in between other gigs I had, so I was able to learn from that. Being already more creatively involved in theatre, I was very open to being more behind the scenes on video games as well.”

According to a 2019 interview for VG247, Joosten’s fluency in Japanese also meant that, over the three years of filming for Metal Gear Solid V, she had an advantage over her English-speaking co-stars by being able to communicate with Hideo Kojima in his native tongue. This allowed her to get more input into Quiet’s background, relationships, and motivations – insight and experience that was invaluable when she became interested in directing herself.

Describing 110 Industries as a publisher “willing to take risks and do something unconventional”, Joosten joined action game Wanted: Dead primarily as an actor before shifting to the role of cinematic director for its cutscenes. “I’ve been working on video games as a motion capture artist and voice talent for many years now. But those experiences really made me feel confident that I’ll be able to bring more to the table than that. So we naturally shifted into collaborating.”

Joosten talks of having the creative freedom to shape her character Vivienne – a gunsmith and close friend of the game’s protagonist – but she also acknowledges that the gulf between actors and developers can be a barrier to such opportunities. “The landscape might just be a little unfamiliar and difficult to navigate compared to the film industry, where I think you’re much more on site with the actual crew,” she says. “There’s more of a physical presence of everyone, so those connections are easier to make. With video games, the scale is very big, locations are often scattered so you don’t get to make connections as easily.”

Joosten isn’t able to talk about her next project at 110 Industries, called Vengeance is Mine. But when asked about the skillset required for the role of creative director, she replies, “When it comes to video games, there are no real rules for what kind of background you need to have. The interesting thing about the gaming industry is that people’s backgrounds tend to be very diverse. It’s just mostly the passion that drives people to get together and the determination to get a video game made.”

Call of the Sea

Although an award-winning actor, Cissy Jones says it’s still rare for her to be outright offered roles; an exception was the 2020 adventure, Call of the Sea.

Stories untold

Cissy Jones

Award-winning voice actor Cissy Jones is co-founder of Temporary Legend, a production company specialising in telling stories via different media.

If some actor-produced or directed films can feel like vanity projects, ego is less of a motivator for actors getting into games. “There are people who make content because they want to be in it, and I actually think they end up making content that’s not great,” Salim says. “With the game we’re making, it isn’t that I want to be in it – the point is I’m making a game I’d like to play that I haven’t seen before. It’s also a team building process. We’re all building the game together, right? So even though it’s my company, we work as a team in order to make something that we’re all excited about rather than just what I’m excited about.”

Adding to this collective mindset is a desire to affect change within the industry, where exploitative practices like crunch are still common. “I personally don’t believe you have to bleed for your art,” Salim says. “I want to try and create a space where the products we make are a fun to do. They’re hard work, but they’re fun to do and we enjoy doing it. We don’t live to work, we work to live.”

Actor Cissy Jones, meanwhile, co-founded Temporary Legend with game producer Carmen Askerneese with the desire to tell their own stories instead of waiting for the phone to ring for a gig. “We want to be our own masters of destiny, I guess,” she says.

The production company currently produces weekly tabletop Let’s Plays on YouTube, but has other plans in the works. The firm’s also a way for Jones to create a sense of stability not currently afforded to her as a gig worker. “When I got in the business 10 years ago, it was one booking for every 150 auditions, so it’s a lot of my time in this soundproof box, throwing spaghetti at a wall hoping that something books, and if something does book, hoping it’s enough to get a good pay cheque so I can pay my mortgage.”

Jones also hopes that Temporary Legend creates opportunities paves the way for other up-and-comers to tell stories. Although there might be a separation between actors and developers, she’s keen to highlight how tight-knit the voice-over community is, where even actors considered your direct ‘competition’ will be supportive and celebrate each other’s successes.

“We all have our own stories that we want to tell. And so often, we’re waiting for the phone to ring, we’re bound by the stories that are given to us, which is amazing and I don’t mean to sound disparaging to that in the slightest, I love what I do – but I also want to do more,” she adds. “And I think my peers also want to do more, and it’s getting to a point where we can. It’s not so prohibitively expensive to put out different stories. And so I hope we do start to see more and more people creating their own companies and getting their own stories out there.”

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