For a long time, there was a huge separation of the actors that would do voice-over roles and the actors starring in big-budget blockbusters. The A-list actors would leave the smaller, less glamorous roles to voices of people like Tom Kenny and Tara Strong. While these actors still dominate the field, with the advent of motion capture and an exponential increase of video games made per year, there is room for other talent.
Until relatively recently, video games were a fringe hobby. Nowadays there is a console of some sort in most homes in the US, with hardcore gamers using them to play intense online matches, and casual gamers making full use of the Netflix application. Needless to say, the increase in popularity caught the eyes of many top-billed actors, who decided it was high-time they lent their voice and likeness to a medium previously left to unrecognized actors.
Recording in booth for several weeks and wearing a ping-pong ball suit isn’t the glamorous work these actors were used to, but they each delivered great performances in their respective games. Here are the 15 Best Performances by a Famous Actor in a Video Game.
15 Vin Diesel in Wheelman
Wheelman is a project that just screams Vin Diesel. You play as Milo Burik (voiced by and digitized after Diesel), an undercover agent with the ability to jump out of a moving vehicle into other moving vehicle.
Diesel is known for his role as Dominic Toretto in the Fast and Furious franchise, and for his incredibly ironic last name. Born Mark Sinclair, Diesel changed his name probably due to his love of cars. He later opened the studio One Race Films, which runs a game company called Tigon Studios.
Tigon Studios went on to make Wheelman in 2006, with deals to produce a film starring Diesel around the same time. The film never happened, most likely due to the mixed reviews of Diesel’s Grand Theft Auto action-movie knock-off game. It is a shame, because despite the dated graphics, parts of Wheelman are really enjoyable. His voice acting has always been top-notch, as evidence by his roles as Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy and the titular character in The Iron Giant. Diesel’s performance here is gruff and silly, and his Milo fun to play as, inspiring insane driving gameplay.
14 Elijah Wood in The Legend of Spyro Trilogy
Spyro the Dragon is by far the cutest character to make this list, and children of the '90s will remember the purple protagonist well. Though in his first appearance in Spyro the Dragon he was voiced by Carlos Alazraqui, many actors went on to voice the character, including Tom Kenny and Justin Long.
The performance that sticks out is Elijah Wood’s, who voiced Spryo from 2006 to 2008. The Legend of Spyro Trilogy received mixed reviews, however Wood’s voice acting was praised. He brought a charm to a character that previously was overly-pandering towards the 8-10 year-old demographic. Alazraqui was notably criticized for his performance in the first game for “sounding too much like the Taco Bell Chihuahua,” another character he famously voiced. Wood was a better fit for the dragon’s voice, balancing the line between an appeal towards the game’s intended audience and not sounding like he inhaled a balloon’s worth of helium.
He was supported by an all-star cast that included Gary Oldman and Mae Whitman. The supporting character of Sparx was played by three actors across the three games: David Spade, Billy West, and Wayne Brady, interestingly enough.
13 Kristen Bell in Assassin’s Creed
Before she hung out with a talking snowman in Frozen, Kristen Bell voiced Lucy Stillman in Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed. Stillman, who is also modeled to look like Bell, is a secondary protagonist in the game, guiding the player character of Desmond through his missions.
As an employee of Abstergo Industries, Stillman helps Desmond re-live his ancestor’s memories in a machine called the Animus so that the order of the Assassins can find Pieces of Eden before their enemies, the Templars. There’s honestly no point in understanding the plot of the Assassin’s Creed franchise; they’re somewhat confusing and occasionally even ludicrous. But when it comes to free-roaming parkour gameplay or pirate-based combat, look no further.
Bell, who is also known for playing Veronica Mars in Veronica Mars and Sarah Marshall in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, delivers another solid performance as Stillman. Throughout the numerous twists and reveals of double agents and god-like beings, Bell consistently provides a calming and helpful presence for the player. In more dramatic moments, her acting ability shines through despite wonky facial mapping.
12 Malcolm McDowell in Killzone 3
The British actor first received recognition for his role of Alex in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange before going on to enjoy a 50+ year career on the stage and screen. In more recent years, Malcolm McDowell has gone on to voice characters in a variety of video games, including Wet, The Elder Scrolls Online and God of War 3.
McDowell’s best performance is as the main villain Jorhan Stahl in Killzone 3. Stahl is the head of a weapons company that provides arms to the enemy factions. A combination of ideals of historical dictators and military leaders, he is charismatic and delivers a ton of in-game awesomeness. McDowell expertly rants and raves about the needs of the people and sacrifices of war; he is the perfect choice for the sadistic Stahl.
11 Haley Joel Osment in Kingdom Hearts
As a child actor, Haley Joel Osment shocked audiences (and Bruce Willis) with a star-turning performance in The Sixth Sense. Today, he voices a character that delights children (and perhaps Bruce Willis) around the world.
Osment has provided the voice for Sora, the protagonist, in every single Kingdom Hearts video game. The franchise follows a 14-year old Sora, who is chosen to wield a key-blade to defeat the darkness. He travels around different worlds to defeat the Heartless that lurk within. Luckily he is aided by Mickey, Donald, Goofy, and as you can see, Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow.
Yes, in Kingdom Hearts you get to hang out with a bunch of different Disney characters, fighting along-side the heroes, and against the villains. The games are amazingly fun and solid action-role-playing-games in their own right. Add in the fact that Osment is joined by the talented Christopher Lee as Ansem the Wise and practically every voice actor from a Disney movie ever? You get a game that just keeps on giving.
10 Bruce Willis in Apocalypse
It is largely known that most of Bruce Willis’ actual performance for the Playstation 1 game Apocalypse was stripped from the final game. This is due to the fact that his character of Troy Kincaid was intended to be a supporting character, later in development transitioning to the main player-character. Aside from a few one-liners, dialogue in cutscenes and his likeness, there isn’t much of a performance.
Willis is of course known for his role of John McClane in Die Hard, along with starring in films such as Pulp Fiction, Red, Armageddon, 12 Monkeys, and The Fifth Element. So although his involvement in Apocalypse was minimal, it helped pave the way for other big-names in the industry. Willis was credited on the game case, above the title itself. This prominence helped develop interest in voicing characters in games. Without him, this list arguably doesn't even exist.
9 Liam Neeson in Fallout 3
Liam Neeson has one of the most recognizable voices in cinema, deep and gravelly with a Northern Irish accent. In 2008, he lent his voice to the character of James in the critically acclaimed Fallout 3.
James is the player character’s father, and though he looks nothing like Neeson, he delivers each line with the gravitas of the famous actor. Neeson is mostly known for playing Oskar Schindler in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, and more recently starring in action films like the Taken franchise. In Fallout 3, his character James is instrumental to the plot, and though his “screentime” is short, Neeson is incredibly memorable.
If you play the optional prologue to the game, there is a brief level where your father teaches you (as an infant) how to walk. Nothing is more reassuring to a baby than Neeson saying “kiddo.”
8 Kevin Spacey in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare
Kevin Spacey is a national treasure. He currently can be seen as the gleefully evil Frank Underwood on Netflix’s House of Cards. Prior to his Emmy-nominated turn as the diabolical politician, Spacey won two Best Actor Oscars for American Beauty and The Usual Suspects.
So it came as a surprise when Activision released a trailer for their Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, and Spacey was prominently featured. Though many well-known actors had dabbled in game performance before, none were as decorated as Spacey. Fans of both the CoD series and Spacey were understandably delighted. Spacey voiced and provided performance capture for the role of Jonathan Irons. Irons functions as both a supporting character to the player and later, as the primary antagonist.
Spacey is no stranger to playing the villain. Irons is a perfect combination of his Lex Luthor from Superman Returns and a little bit of Underwood. Not quite mustache-twirling, but driven by greed and loss, Irons is one of the best villains in the CoD series to date. We just wish they could do something in the graphics with those cold, black eyes.
Advanced Warfare was also the first game Kevin Spacey ever played. Prior to release he stated, “I cannot say that any more bluntly… I have never played a video game in my life.”
7 Shawn Ashmore in Quantum Break
Quantum Break is a recently released 3rd-person cover-based shooter that gives the player time-manipulation powers. You play as Jack Joyce, a man who can freeze time (except for himself), make time shields, time blasts, jump forward in time, and more. These abilities make for a unique and incredibly enjoyable game.
What truly makes Quantum Break special is the game’s devotion to narrative. Split into 5 acts and a prologue, each part of the game features “episodes” about 20-30 minutes in length that tell the story in between segments. These episodes (as well as the in-game characters) are voiced and performance-captured by a superb cast that includes Game of Thrones' Aidan Gillen as the primary antagonist and Dominic Monaghan as the protagonist’s estranged brother.
Jack Joyce is played by Sean Ashmore, most known for his role as Iceman in the X-Men films and parts on TV shows like The Following and Smallville. Ashmore has a certain every-man feel to him, making him the ideal choice for a player-character. He is relatable, but not a pushover. The player cannot alter the decisions of Jack in the episodes; their only choice is whether to freeze time or just shoot all the bad guys. Regardless, Ashmore does some of his best work yet in Quantum Break, a game with numerous excellent dramatic performances, and animation that nicely complements their performance capture.
6 Michael Biehn – Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon
Though technically an expansion to Ubisoft’s Far Cry 3, Blood Dragon is a game that stands on its own. A hilarious parody of '80s sci-fi and action films, the game takes you through an open world filled with robots, futuristic weaponry, and giant neon-glowing beasts called blood dragons.
The meta nature of the game, with fourth-wall-breaking one-liners and a great training level, is brought to life by the voice of Michael Biehn. Biehn makes a return visit to the world of '80s science fiction, having dabbled in it before with friend and collaborator James Cameron. Known as Kyle Reese in The Terminator, and Corporal Hicks in Aliens, Biehn plays another military man in Blood Dragon: Sgt. Rex “Power” Colt, a cyborg fighting in the distant future of 2007.
Biehn has a blast with Power’s side-splitting dialogue, parodying himself and action heroes like him with a gravelly, entirely serious voice. With lines like, “this little piggy went to the morgue” and when using a flamethrower, “we didn’t start the fire,” it’s tough not to smile when playing the FPS. Coupled with one of the best game soundtracks ever, courtesy of Powerglove, you get an expansion pack even better than the game it expanded.
5 Martin Sheen in Mass Effect 2
An legendary actor whose career is nearing the half-century mark, Martin Sheen is best known for his work in high art fare like Apocalypse Now and The Departed. It's pretty surprising to see him pop up in a video game, even one as smart as this.
In the sequel to Bioware’s Mass Effect, Sheen plays the elusive Illusive Man. In a game filled with talented actors, including Seth Green, Keith David, Freddie Prinze Jr. and Yvonne Strahovski, Sheen gives a game-pausing (read show-stopping) performance. The Illusive Man is a necessary evil in the game, helping the player character of Shepard search for the evil Reapers that stalk the galaxy, wiping out life.
With only his voice, Sheen makes the Illusive Man an interesting and immediately suspicious character. His ambiguity is both entertaining and a little bit scary. He is one of the many reasons why Mass Effect 2 is the best entry in the trilogy.
4 Ellen Page in Beyond Two Souls
Quantic Dream, developer of Heavy Rain, loves to make games about player-choice. In fact, pretty much all you can do in Beyond Two Souls is choose between dialogue options, or choose which meal to make your date. The combat system is entirely limited and the on-rails movement, un-exciting. Instead, the game focuses on crafting a story that the player feels like they have control of — a story revolving around Jodie Holmes.
Holmes was motion-captured and voiced by Ellen Page, an actress famous for player the title character in Juno, among other roles. Page is joined by Willem Dafoe, playing Holmes’ surrogate father and doctor. A girl with a link to a soul named Aiden, Holmes is gifted with supernatural powers that sometimes are out of her control. The story itself is all over the place, told in non-linear fragments, skipping from end to beginning to middle and back again. But a strong emotional core is maintained throughout thanks to Page’s moving performance. Page’s Holmes is a broken and confused adolescent who struggles with her powers and purpose in the world.
Though it is less a game and more an interactive story, Beyond Two Souls features one of Page’s best performances and for fans of her work, it is worth a look.
3 Ray Liotta in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
Rockstar pulled out all the stops for the 4th installment in the GTA franchise, hiring the voice talents of Burt Reynolds, Gary Busey, Dennis Hopper and more for Vice City. Set in 1986 in a Miami-like city, the story follows the player character of Tommy Vercetti on his rise to head kingpin. Vercetti is portrayed by Ray Liotta, a man familiar with the gangster story.
As Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (our top-ranked '90s film), Liotta buried enough bodies to earn himself a two or three star Wanted Rating. He does some excellent work in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and helped cement the game in history as one of the greats.
2 Stephen Merchant in Portal 2
Stephen Merchant is mostly known for his collaborations with Ricky Gervais, on the BBC series Extras and The Office. You may not have even realized that this under-the-radar talent lent his voice to Valve’s Portal 2, their follow-up to the critically acclaimed first-person puzzle game.
Portal 2 improved on its already near-perfect predecessor in every way, combining a thrilling, dark comedy-filled story with engaging and difficult physics puzzles. Merchant plays the robot Wheatley, an adorable sidekick to the player, Chel (and we all know how badly robot sidekick roles can go). He follows you around, assisting you in your escape from the hellish Aperture Laboratory. However, once you defeat GLaDos, the villain of the first game, Wheatley takes her place as an AI with destructive tendencies and god-like control of the environment.
Wheatley contrasts GLaDos’ slow-paced and deliberate dialogue, with his fast-talking witty banter. The writers of Portal 2 wrote the game with a British voice, specifically Merchant’s, in mind. Merchant won Best Performance by a Human Male at the Spike Video Game Awards for his portrayal of the self-doubting Wheatley and received numerous other accolades. Critics loved the vapid stupidity of the stammering droid, several saying he stole the show from other voice actors like Ellen McLain and
J. Jonah Jameson Commissioner Gordon himself, J.K. Simmons.
Merchant’s flair for dry comedy and pitch-perfect voice make Wheatley one of the most memorable video game characters of all time, and a close second on this list.
1 Mark Hamill in Arkham Asylum and Arkham City
Rocksteady’s Arkham series ranks among the best adaptations of Batman ever made, in any medium. No other superhero game has captured the feeling of being a vigilante quite like their sprawling action noir trilogy. The intense and intuitive combat system and intelligent stealth-based mechanics make the Arkham games some of the best the current generation of consoles has to offer.
But the games would be nothing without a strong performance from the primary antagonist. The developers hit the jackpot, casting Mark Hamill as the Clown Prince of Crime, The Joker. Though Hamill voiced the character numerous times in animated features and television, Arkham Asylum was his first video game performance. To fans of the games, Hamill’s Joker is as iconic as Heath Ledger’s and Jack Nicholson’s. His is a more cartoony, gleefully evil Joker than the darker movie versions, and one that perfectly complements the mood of the game.
Hamill has so much fun with the Joker character that he has played him over 10 separate times, and will be reprising the role yet again in the upcoming animated adaptation of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. If you aren’t a Batman fan, you probably know Hamill for playing Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, the complete opposite of the Joker in nearly every way.
Hamill’s performance has consistently received acclaim, including a BAFTA win for Arkham City, and numerous nominations and wins for his other appearances. He perfectly captures what makes the Joker fun, yet terrifying, and elevates the Arkham games to new, previously-believed-unreachable, heights. As it stands today, his Joker is the best performance by a major actor in a video game.
Did we miss any of your favorite video game performances from big time stars? Sound off in the comments section.