If you've spotted the assassin Kai Leng in Mass Effect 3, roamed the streets of Steelport spitting hot lead and one-liners as the voice of 'Male Caucasian 1' in Saints Row: The Third, or pillaged dungeons with the Scoundrel as your ally in Diablo 3, you're familiar with the industry's newest voice actor all star: Troy Baker.
Before his voice was featured in countless big budget video games, Baker's career was focused on music, playing in the indie-rock band Tripp Fontaine. Though Baker says music "came naturally" to him, he knew his life would revolve around some form of entertainment. "I knew from when I left my mother's womb that I was going to be a performer," Baker tells Joystiq.
Around 2004, Baker "stumbled" into doing car commercials, which led to a chance encounter that would shift his entire career focus. "Since we were doing album work at the same studio, it was just right place right time. So I started doing commercial work, and met Christopher Sabat who plays Vegeta in Dragonball Z." Soon he was cast in a slew of minor roles throughout the anime and video game world: various iterations of Dragonball Z, bit parts in Lupin III, roles in One Piece, Bloodrayne 2 and Mega Man X: Command Mission. Things started to explode, and did so with a sonic boom when he was cast as the memorable Frank Archer in Fullmetal Alchemist.
He was working frequently and with passion, but Baker's next big break came from another happenstance situation: being friends with a Gearbox Software employee.
"Dave McGarry was the audio lead at Gearbox; he was also this awesome musician that we played with all the time – he was a fantastic guitarist and singer," Baker says. "One day, he said, 'Hey, we're doing this game, and we were going to have people in the office do it, but now I guess we have to use actors. Do you want to come in and do this? You got a cool voice.'"
Not only did the offer land Baker the role of (the coincidentally named) Sergeant Matt Baker in Gearbox's Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30, it also later helped mend the rocky relationship with his old friend, McGarry, who voiced the role of Matt Baker's best friend, "Red" Hartsock, in Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood.
"Dave and I had this huge falling out," Baker explains, "we hadn't seen or talked with each other for years. When we came back for Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway, the first time we saw each other was when we recorded the final scene where [Spoiler Warning] Red gets his back broken, and I have to tell him that he's never going to walk again and will have to go home. So that scene was just this really cathartic process of us working things out and realizing that we are still friends. It was a very emotional scene and still one that I'm very proud of."
His performance as a soldier struggling with the responsibility of command stood out among other military shooters, where leadership is mostly measured in the deafening tones of explosions and high fives. Baker's range as an actor helped push to new levels of success, with an array of voices in Darksiders(specifically, Abbadon, Straga, and Tormented Gate), and the ill-fated Joseph Allen in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.
"I remember walking in, and [Call of Duty talent director] Keith Arem said, 'I've got a role for you,' and I said, 'Cool,' but then I looked it over and I only had about five lines. He said that this was going to be a really cool role, and when I asked, 'Well, what do I do?' And he showed me an early rough animatic of [No Russian]. We didn't know the impact that scene would have – we were in Vegas for the Modern Warfare 2 launch, and that night before it shipped, we heard that Russia had [supposedly] banned the game. I knew it was going to be a visceral scene, but I had no idea of the impact that it was going to have."
No Russian was a controversial topic throughout the industry following the launch of Modern Warfare 2, but for Baker, personally, he has yet to approach a story that has given him pause. "If there's a line I won't cross, then I haven't found it. I really believe in video games as a narrative, and I take it as seriously as any other actor would take a film or tv show seriously [...] If I had to play a character that molested children, I might have a problem with that. But take Persona 4, where I played Kanji Tatsumi, which is this really tormented and openly gay character, but hiding it. His entire story arc is him wrestling with that, and I got a lot of flak for that – 'Oh, this is Troy's coming out game,' or 'Troy's gay,' and I'm just like, 'No, I just think he's a very interesting character,' but I've had a lot of people come up to me at conventions to tell me that character really spoke to them. So as far as whether there is a moral line in video games that I'm not willing to cross, again, if there is one, then I haven't found it yet. If I do find one, then I'd probably jump over it."
Baker's true breakout performance came in 2010, landing the role of Final Fantasy XIII's Snow Villiers. "I knew that was the moment where everything would change, and I owe [voice director] Jack Fletcher and Square Enix a lot, because they really took a gamble on me. I've done some stuff in some really big games, but they were second or third banana kind of thing," Baker says.
"What does that even mean? He's still working his ass off and I'm not taking anything from him." - Baker laughs it off when he's described as the 'next' Nolan North throughout the industry
"When I auditioned as Snow, I thought they weren't going to give this to me – it would go to Johnny Yong Bosch or Yuri Lowenthal or somebody like that." Baker thought, at the time, that he'd instead get a smaller role, like Cid – not too shabby, since "there's a Cid in every Final Fantasy." Soon after, Baker was cast as Snow Villiers. "That game – besides being a Final Fantasy game which is a huge feather in my cap that looks good on my resume – I knew with the way I was finally allowed to just go for it and really do what I want to do, that's when everything was going to change and it kind of has."
Playing one of the main characters in the first HD console installment of a celebrated Japanese RPG series probably led to a fair amount of exposure, and in the following year he portrayed Vincent in Catherine. Unlike Final Fantasy, Catherine is as niche as games can get. Baker's strong and nuanced performance as the mixed-up-in-emotions Vincent made him stand out as another strong voice actor for a casting director's consideration, and his career was about to take off once again.
When Irrational Games finally unveiled their much anticipated and highly secretive project, BioShock Infinite, Baker was thrust into the spotlight. Seeing a great looking game from the creators of System Shock 2 and BioShock wasn't so surprising – it was the fact that the traditionally mute protagonist in Irrational Games' titles now spoke and his words were central to the developer's industry-adored narratives. The mere existence of Baker's role in BioShock Infinite breaks new ground in Irrational's storytelling.
"Ken [Levine] is a genius, and this was by total luck of the draw. He was originally going to use Stephen Russell, who he worked with on Thief, but it just wasn't working out." Baker explains that Levine is "never married" to his decisions, "he's always been able to divorce himself from his own ego for what's best for the game." Baker recalls being about one of twenty men auditioning for the role, with Levine watching and commenting via Skype. When asked to read a scene with Courtnee Draper (who plays Elizabeth), the two simply "clicked" – enough that Ken asked the pair to fly out to Boston for a callback before finalizing the casting.
While discussing BioShock Infinite, Baker has revealed that he's a voice actor who actually plays games. In many instances, voice acting simply serves as another job – another outlet for an actor to express his range and then get paid for it. Baker not only gets to know the characters he plays, but he tends to know about the games themselves. "I know this is an easy punt, but I've been playing a lot of the new 'Face-Off mode' in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3."
He rattles off titles ranging from Pong on the Colecovision to Max Payne 3 when describing his gaming habits. He feels intimidated in playing the main character for an Irrational Games' title, and for his recent work on the Silent Hill HD Collection. He has worked with and played most of Akira Yamaoka's games beforehand.
"I really believe in video games as a narrative, and I take it as seriously as any other actor would take a film or tv show seriously."
Though, if anything makes us think that Baker now stands poised for obscene exposure, it's the fact that in addition to playing the lead in BioShock Infinite he's been cast as the main character, Joel, in Naughty Dog's upcoming The Last of Us.
"It was right around Thanksgiving 2010, and while on the road to Thanksgiving dinner, I get a call from my agent. She said, 'I got you this audition, but you need to nail this.' I saw what it was, and I thought, 'Dammit, my first time reading for Naughty Dog, and it's for a character that I don't feel right for.' It said that the guy was in his mid-40s – now look at Nathan Drake, and you'll notice that he looks like Nolan North. So I had two choices: either be mad about it or own it.
"When I walked into the audition room, I was the youngest person there. I walked into the room and there's [game director] Neil Druckmann, and I said, 'Let's talk about the white elephant in the room: I'm the youngest person you're seeing here. Is that going to be a problem?' Neil said, 'Absolutely not, let's see what the role looks like.' So I do the scene with Ashley Johnson [who plays Ellie in The Last of Us], and she and I just immediately fell into sync together. But Neil actually said, 'Pass' and scratched my name off! But then he said that it was the first take, and he had us do it one more time, and it was from that second take that he said, 'Okay, I like this guy. We have our Joel and Ellie.'"
"I got in by the skin of my teeth," Baker adds.
It's safe to say that Sony will be exerting its marketing and promotional muscle to promote Naughty Dog's latest, and this expected blitz will put Baker front and center in front of millions of PS3 gamers. As good as Nolan North was beforehand, it was only after Uncharted that he found himself double-featuring in two major video game properties: Prince of Persia and Assassin's Creed. The generation has grown up with North voicing many of its characters, along with other prolific actors such as Jennifer Hale. Baker seems poised to be added to that elite list.
With Baker in a double-whammy of both BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us, many gamers (and game makers) will be exposed to his work throughout the next year. While Baker already has a small surge of portrayals (such as channeling Richard Moll for Two-Face in Batman: Arkham City, and continuing his run of anime-style portrayals with Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Binary Domain) like North, the intense spotlight spread across two tentpole titles will likely lead to Baker getting a lot more calls from his agent.
For now, Baker's stronger portrayals come from less "happy" characters – ones who find themselves rattled by guilt or drink; or find themselves struggling with the simple concept of survival. That, of course, is a distinct difference between Baker and North. It's this differentiation, rather than imitation, that will likely keep Baker in people's mind and therefore maintain his "next Nolan North" status more than if he tried to jump into the same acting space as North. "I was a fan at first, but I've become friends with Nolan, and we both just laugh whenever someone says, 'Troy is the new Nolan North.' We're both like, 'What does that even mean? He's still working his ass off and I'm not taking anything from him.'"
Baker says it's hard to name a single favorite role, because he tends to reflect on the projects that he's been a part of, separate from his specific contributions. "BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us are easily on the top of my list. I really believe in what they are going to say is important and long-lasting and something that people will remember – to be a part of that will automatically be my favorite.
"I will always love being Matt Baker, because that gave me my big break and was the first time I really had to act in a video game. Being a part of Arkham City was just incredible – because I'm a huge Batman fan, and to play Two-Face and Robin after growing up watching The Animated Series was a banner moment for me. And of course, Final Fantasy XIII because that marked a change for me where people were like, 'This kid, we'll give him a shot.' But there are all the other ones I've done that I love also – playing the old wizard Dash in Sorcery, or channeling a drunk Peter O'Toole for the Scoundrel in Diablo 3. Nailing it down to five is difficult to do, because each one has something different or a little nugget that made it that much cooler for me."
When asked if there is a role he wished he had played, Baker takes a moment to reflect. "That's hard, because there's nobody I can picture playing Nathan Drake than Nolan North. There's nobody I can see playing Marcus Fenix than John DiMaggio. The list is like that. I'd have to think hard about a character that hasn't been done before, rather than one that has been done before."
He then jokingly adds, "Well, I want to play the first voiced Pac-Man in an M-rated survival horror game." But soon after, another idea comes out.
"Actually, wait, you want to know what I want to do? I will do this for free: If David Cage will re-cast Heavy Rain with actual English-speaking actors, that's the game I want to do."
Thierry Nguyen is a freelance writer and consultant based out of San Francisco, California. He previously worked at 1UP, and has written for GameSpot, PC Gamer, GameSpy, and Modojo. You can follow him on Twitter @ThierryNguyen.