Hale to the Commander

Jennifer Hale speaks about her two decades voice-acting, fame and garnering respect in games.

Jennifer Hale has appeared in 142 games in a career that stretches back to the 16-bit era, a time when voice acting in games was just a scratchy novelty. She's had a major role in games that have defined this generation (including one of its most spectacular trilogies), and is half of an unforgettable double-act in one of 2013's most thought-provoking games, BioShock Infinite.

Yet despite her ubiquity, and despite her indisputable talents, fame has come slowly to Hale, a native of Labrador, Canada. At a time when established names like Nolan North are starting to edge out the Hollywood talent that publishers used to sloppily attach to their products, it took nearly half of the 20 years that Hale has lent her voice to games for her to garner any acclaim.

The seeds of her career were sown at the Alabama Fine Arts High School, where she joined the theatre department and would do occasional voice work for commercials while working as a production assistant. After graduation, she moved to Los Angeles, and started receiving calls about voice acting in games.

Her first, in 1994, was a tie-in to a cartoon she was voicing at the time, Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego, which aired on Fox in the US every Saturday until 1999. Hale, who was playing main character Ivy, remembers it as a "really confusing" experience.

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Jennifer Hale

"It was my first game ever and I'm like, 'How many lines do I have? That's crazy!' I was only familiar with fitting in things with animation scripts, and that format and that timeframe. There's certainly much larger time required for a video game than a half-hour animated show." After Carmen Sandiego, Hale went to work with BioWare on Baldur's Gate, which came at a time where she was "enjoying the medium, getting to understand it better, getting to get into the process of it".

Working on Metal Gear Solid as Naomi Hunter (and later Emma Emmerich) brought Hale to the attention of gamers at large, but it was the relationship that began with Baldur's Gate that would go on to bear the most fruit with Mass Effect. BioWare's space opera trilogy was a spectacle on the grandest of scales in terms of story and blockbuster action, and one of Hale's favourite aspects of working on the series is that BioWare didn't change a word Shepard said, regardless of the gender chosen by the player. Hale wishes more writers chose that option.

"I challenge all writers out there to have a look at your lead character and unless they're specifically talking about their anatomy, that character could be a woman. Just change the name if you have to and try it. Because the time is here," she says.

"Look at Commander Shepard, you look at awesome characters like, looking at Game of Thrones - Brienne of Tarth, what a great character she is. Arya Stark, Daenerys Targaryen, these characters breaking the gender barriers in the way they're behaving in their worlds. And that can happen anywhere. I challenge you writers to do it because, frankly, the audience is starving for it."

While she says she doesn't want female characters to be "objects of desire solely", she doesn't want to have that aspect taken away from them or to have the tables turned on men that way. In her words, women "can carry a title".

Tomb Raider, and to some extent its recent revival, is one such example. "There's a lot of focus on that she's a hot girl, but then you look at FemShep and that has nothing to do with it. She [Lara Croft] was a well-written character who got stuff done and engaged people and got in under their skin."

They're hopefully small samples of a coming wave as the medium finally matures, and as it finds places for smarter, less objectionable and less objectified depictions of women in games. "Oh yeah, I mean we are seeing them," says Hale. "I just think we need decisions on the part of developers and companies that, yes, we are going to take this risk, we're going to do this. Because frankly, it's not a risk. The audience is ready. And I mean ready with capital letters: READY."

"BioWare being BioWare, they listened. They listened, and that came from you guys. So get on it, write some emails, let people know what you want."

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BioWare's handling of Shepard suggests there could be a brighter future for the female protagonists in games.

By way of example, fan pressure moved BioWare to place FemShep on the cover of Mass Effect 3. "BioWare being BioWare, they listened. They listened, and that came from you guys. So get on it, write some emails, let people know what you want. That's the beautiful thing about this industry, you can move it. It's the most interactive of all the entertainment fields. So there's a degree of listening that doesn't happen in films and TV that happens in games."

Of course there was another aspect of Mass Effect 3 that BioWare was pressured on, and the handling wasn't quite so graceful. "I know, I know," says Hale as she acknowledges some of the fallout that accompanied the trilogy's famously controversial ending.

"But, you know, I loved that people were so invested they got upset. That just tells me people loved it so much, they didn't want to let go. And writing is hard, period. Endings are really hard and endings where you got tens of thousands of co-creators of the story, I mean come on, that's a herculean task. I think BioWare did a great thing in the way they listened to people and responded with some really terrific DLC. I think the only thing I would fault is the people who got really personal in their objections and we're just gonna let that go and move on."

Away from the high drama and high profile of Mass Effect, some of Hale's best work has been in more diminutive, less spectacular roles. Rosalind Lutece, one half of BioShock Infinite's twisted, fascinating twins, is delivered in a performance typical of Hale. Elizabeth is set as the star of BioShock Infinite, but the Lutece twins shine just as bright, Hale's take on Rosalind matched by an equally brilliant turn from Oliver Vaquer as Robert. So far, Hale has been completely "thrilled" with fan reaction to her performance.

Hale doesn't remember too many details from the first audition, but she does recall being brought in to read for both Lutece twins with Vaquer.

"We got called back - I believe there were four men and four women - and they mixed and matched us in the studio. Ken [Levine] was on Skype from Boston directing us and they just took that mix and sorted out what they wanted."

Having worked with a lot of high-profile game directors, Hale says it's "critical" for an actor to "understand where you fit in the process" - a piece of advice she passes on to others. "Even if you don't know much about how it all works, know where you fit in the puzzle because that way, you're part of the solution and you're not slowing things down and you know where you fit."

That place is becoming increasingly broad, and a bigger part of the creative process in games. Uncharted without Nolan North would be unthinkable, as would The Last of Us without Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson. It's not a phenomenon unique to Naughty Dog, either - actors are helping shape many different games.

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Rosalind Lutece is the perfect example of Hale's adaptability - her clipped tones ensure the actor's unrecognisable.

"I think as people get more collaborative across the board and the industry goes through the changes it's going to go through," Hale says, "you're gonna see a little more freeform, a little more back and forth as the technical side loosens up a little bit and allows for it."

"It's a very different style of working," Hale explains. "There was something very collaborative from me in BioShock with Ken. We'd run through a section and he'd have an idea to play with some of the words and shift things around and he'd be open to whatever came to mind if one of us had something constructive to add. And that was a nice way to work. Both of those people have phenomenal minds and I'm a big fan of phenomenal minds. I could just spend all day just sitting in a room with them."

As games have become more mainstream, they haven't just raised the profile of actors who have worked closely on them for years, of course - they have also attracted actors who are already famous in the more traditional mediums of TV or cinema. Metal Gear Solid recently shunned David Hayter for Kiefer Sutherland, and in Mass Effect there are recognisable names such as Martin Sheen, Lance Henriksen, Freddie Prinze Jr and Tricia Helfer.

Hale is happy to see this happen, with a few caveats. "I think it's fascinating. I think if a celebrity is up for the acting in a gig, then great. But if they're [publishers are] doing it just to sell games, I don't know if you're going to necessarily sell that many more games because it's a celebrity. I think the fan appeal of the voice actors is greatly underestimated by the companies making games."

Hale also says fame in itself isn't that interesting to her. Instead she appreciates "the notion of respect for all of us", namechecking Ken Levine, Hideo Kojima and Mark Cerny as just some of the developers she has come to understand and respect. (She is working with the latter on PS4 game Knack.)

After nearly 20 years, respect is something she has amassed across the industry, from her peers and gamers alike. But while the fans might be appreciative of the work voice actors do, Hale admits the "large corporations" may not be quite as respectful - yet.

"I think that will come, but... those of us who are in the early stages of this industry, the sort of first people on scene, we're putting on that pressure and I think that recognition will come," she says.

"We may just be about to see it."

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