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Returnal's Jane Perry on women in games and embodying psychological trauma

"We need to see the difference that exists in the world reflected back at us."

"There were some comments that came up on Twitter after the game was released saying ‘Oh, she's ugly, she's not very attractive, I'm not interested in her'," says Jane Perry, the voice of Returnal's lead character Selene.

"And I thought that was such an interesting comment, I thought it was kind of illuminating in some ways in terms of what is expected of female characters in games, especially if they're going to be a kick-ass hero like Selene.

"And I just got to thinking, that person probably feels that because he or she has been fed a steady diet of a particular stereotype. And I think when you're fed a steady diet of one thing, you've been educated to expect that in a way."

Cover image for YouTube videoLet's Play Returnal: Ascension Co-op Gameplay Update 3.0 - SELENE DUO-N!

Selene isn't your typical video game protagonist. As Perry mentioned in her speech following her BAFTA win for Performer in a Lead Role, Selene is a middle-aged woman and a mother. There's a tension between duty to her career and to her children - as well as shooting tentacled aliens on an isolated, time-cycling, inescapable planet.

Perry explains how Anne Beyer, Selene's face model, spun the Twitter remarks into a positive.

"She shot right back at this person and said ‘Your comment was actually so great, because in fact I'm a fashion model. And in my acting career I've been told too many times that I'm too glamorous, and that I'm too beautiful. And so being able to play Selene was my chance to not be that'. And so she spun it around and took it as a great compliment and I sort of took it as a great complement too."

Returnal's narrative director Greg Louden told Perry that - in reference to stereotypically glamorous video game women - everything that Selene isn't makes her what she is.

"I thought that was such a profound and wonderful statement," says Perry.

"I look at Selene and I see somebody who's inspiring to me, I see someone who is breaking the boundaries of what we might expect from a woman. And I just think, why the fuck not?

"I know women who are strong and powerful and brave. I have so many women like that in my life. So why shouldn't they be represented in games?"

Indeed, it was Selene's bravery and fearlessness that drew Perry to the role in the first place, as she describes the character as "determined", "courageous", but "flawed".

"She's got some things going on in her life that I think, if we can't relate directly to her circumstances, we can relate in some ways to the sense of loss or a sense of internal psychological struggle," she says.

"And I love biting into those things as an actor. I find it so interesting how our pasts can play out in the present and in the future, how our past can inform the choices that we make in the moment. It's very intriguing to me what makes people tick."

Though Perry's career began in TV and theatre, she's become well known as a video game voice actress - something she's humbled by, but describes as "slightly weird".

"I think games offer me the opportunity to play characters that I might not play if I was on screen," she says. "It's fun to hop over into the land of games, because you get to be extraordinary people that you might not be otherwise."

Selene is certainly extraordinary. Perry notes how invested the team at Housemarque were in the character.

"She's very grounded in true experiences that some of the members of Housemarque were grappling with in their own lives: about parenthood and career and ambition and letting go of things and being driven in a way that feels perhaps unhealthy," she says.

"I liked that so much: that it came from a real, honest place, a place of processing for the people who actually were processing the same things that she was processing - just without the aliens."

Embodying Selene and experiencing her psychological trauma proved a challenge, with Perry relying on the spontaneity of her performance rather than over-preparing.

"Psychologically, I just allowed it to happen in the moment, because it was a very difficult space to occupy," she says.

"I just let it sort of flow through. So the preparation was more about just being available to the moment, as opposed to thinking and taking myself to a particular place of trauma before I even started recording.

"That's what I really love about film, TV, and voice work, is you can do something spontaneous and it will be captured. And once they've got it, they've got it. And there it is. And that's such a wonderful thing."

Perry also says Selene's moments of madness were painful to return to over so many hours of recording.

"I think with acting you have to be very careful that the psychology of your character doesn't enter into your own psychology too much, that can be extremely damaging. So part of actor training and being an actor is to understand the boundary that exists between yourself and your character, to be very respectful of that.

"However, even if you are extremely respectful, there is a little bit of dovetailing that happens, and I would carry a little bit of her with me. And I'd be very fatigued by that."

With both Returnal and her iconic role as Diana Burnwood in IO Interactive's Hitman games, Perry has chosen to play powerful, headstrong women. She puts that down, simply, to her voice, which has a natural gravitas and authoritative nature.

But she also discusses the diversity of roles in gaming as the industry grows.

"There are a lot of women my age who play [games], who really enjoy them, who get so much out of them. And so those women need to be represented, we need to see representation," she says.

"Diversity is very, very important. So we need to see people from the global majority in games playing lead roles, we need to see women playing lead roles, and we need to see the difference that exists in the world reflected back at us in the entertainment that we choose to partake in. Games are no exception to that and I think [the industry is] actually really taking that on board."

Coincidentally, much of Perry's work has been with Scandinavian studios, but she notes how intriguing that is and suggests - using Finland's female prime minister as an example - that perhaps these countries (generally) have "a different relationship to women".

"Women are held in perhaps a slightly different regard than they are in some other countries," she says. "And I wonder sometimes, if that comes through in the narratives and the stories that they tell in games?"

That said, she's keen to do something more lighthearted in future, perhaps in animation, despite the gravitas of her voice.

"In some ways, I'd like to step back from the alpha female, and just be somebody who's completely silly and frivolous," she says. "That would be really fun."