Nolan North Talks Spec Ops: The Line, Kittens & Nolan North: The Video Game
Written Thursday, May 31, 2012 By Lee BradleyView author's profile
Nolan North has probably been in more video games than you’ve played. He’s provided voice work for everyone from Desmond in the Assassin’s Creed games and Deadpool in Marvel vs. Capcom 3, to Doctor Edward Richtofen in Treyarch’s Call of Duty titles and a million more besides. Oh, and Nathan Drake in the Uncharted series, of course.
The latest addition to North’s bulging IMDB entry is Captain Martin Walker in 2K’s upcoming, morally-challenged shooter Spec Ops: The Line. In this interview we talk about what makes the character unique, how North’s experiences as a voice actor have changed over the years, how he thought he would be murdered during his first job in games, and whether he’d save kittens or a blank cheque from a burning building. Because, y’know, morality.
Read on for a chat with one of the nicest, and busiest, guys in the industry.
You’ve spent more time with Spec Ops: The Line’s protagonist Captain Martin Walker than possibly anyone else has. How would you describe him as a character?
Nolan North: He’s a great character. It’s interesting because I did spend the most time with him. He’s a soldier, through and through, but he’s also just a man. I think a lot of games, they get it wrong where the soldier is just a tough guy who can just take anything and take those bullets.
In this game, we see more of what the soldier’s humanity is like and the difficult choices he has to make. I’ve said this before, but I really like the way they delved into Captain Walker’s psyche, more than anything. Sure, it’s a shooter, it’s a game and it’s fun, but then there are choices that the player makes along the way for Captain Walker and it’s those decisions that severely impact his psyche over the course of the game.
It’s without a doubt one of the most psychologically mind-bending games I’ve ever been involved in. I think that makes it unique and I’m looking forward to seeing how people react to it.
Would you say he’s a very different entity from the usual roles that you play then?
Yeah, well like I said, I think that there’s a number of soldiers in games, in a military style, but it’s a different setting. The designers and the artists did such a great job; an arid desert landscape can get very boring and very brown really quick, but they turned this into something really, really interesting.
I think what makes it different is that rather than the player walking in his shoes, you’re walking in his mind. You feel for the character. The game hits at an emotional level that very few shooters will reach.
As you said, it’s a game filled with moral choices. How difficult is it to switch between “Die bitch die!” to “Woah, let’s talk this out for a minute”?
You know, bi-polar disorder would probably help. It’s not as drastic as “Die bitch die!” or “Let’s talk it out,” but there are definite levels of intensity that you can put yourself in emotionally. You want to hear it vocally.
At the end of the game, after you’ve gone through all this stuff - 2K was very clear that they really wanted the character to start in one place with Walker very matter of fact about being a soldier and this is what he has to do - y’know even the sand and the gunfire and everything, what would that do to your voice? Both physically and emotionally where would you be by the end of this game?
I don’t know how they have integrated it, I’m sure they’ve done a great job, but we went through it in order so we would move our way along the story as things just kind of spiraled, and by the end of the game he doesn’t sound like he did at the beginning.
We had some pretty stressful, strenuous sessions. It was interesting. It was like doing a film where you have to take the character to another place. Especially vocally. We wanted people to hear how he was at the end of the line. After everything that’s happened, as a player you want to feel that he’s gone through hell. I think that we did a really good job of that.
Did you get much room to improvise, or were you instructed to stick to the script?
The writer who worked on this thing did a really good job. I’ve always said that a good story starts with a good script. It’s like a tree trunk. As long as the tree trunk’s there you can branch out and you can try things. So there’s always room to try stuff.
Most of the people I’ve worked with know that I like to try things and improve stuff when it’s necessary and appropriate. It has to be good though. Whether they use those ad-libs, that’s their choice. But we all respect each other, we’ve worked with each other before. I may do the line as written and then say, “Hey can we try this a different way?”
It’s always good when you have a game and you can make the most of the session time and give the editors as much choice as possible, because they may get in there with what they thought they wanted and go “Oh, you know it should have been like this.” And we can say, “Well, we have a take like that.”
So yeah, improvisation is always a good thing. Especially in this game. Because we worked with the other two main characters, running around in the game together and we actually got to record with each other. So if Chris Reid [He played Kid in Kid ‘n Play - Ed] said something in particular way to me I could respond appropriately. You know, there may be a chuckle before a line because he said it kinda funny and if I didn’t hear him say it that way, if that chuckle isn’t there, then it just sounds like a voiceovered line.
How important do you think is it to be in the studio at the same time?
I prefer it. Certain games need it more than others. I suppose if I’m playing some big, evil demon who’s just roaring and throwing fire at people, I can probably just do that myself. But when the story and cinematics and the narrative calls for interaction, you’re always going to get a better product at the end of the day than when the actors aren’t there in the room actually doing it. Because that’s what transfers onto the screen.
With the Uncharted series, for instance, we not only do the voice together but we also do the motion capture in a suit at the same time. So it’s more like theatre and they just take that theatre performance and animate it and put it right there on the screen.
You know, gamers are much more savvy than they were 20 years ago, 10 years ago even. They’re smart and they want a good product. And with games making billions of dollars for companies they’re going to start demanding better and better products. So I think you’re going to have to have the actors doing everything together as far as possible.
You talked about gamers wanting more from a product as the industry has progressed, I have to ask, do you even remember the first game that you did?
Yeah. Years ago Activision did something... I think it was called Route 66 [It was Interstate ’82 - Ed] or something like that. And they had heard me do a Christopher Walken impression. So they called me in and it was literally like a Saturday session. I didn’t even know what it was. I didn’t even have a proper agent, somebody just said go over there. I remember there were no cars in the parking lot; I thought I was going to be murdered in the building! I had no idea what it was.
So we did that, I think it came out years later and I didn’t even know about it.
But really the first one was Maximo vs. Army of Zin. I played The Baron. And I do remember that because I couldn’t see the director. I was just in a room with this one little camera, like a security camera, with a microphone in the middle of the room and he would direct me over the headphones. I remember standing in this room alone and feeling like I was in this episode of Punk’d.
So it’s changed a bit over the years then? *laughs*
Oh yeah. We’re bringing other guys into the room, we’re doing motion capture. It’s definitely maturing like a fine wine. It’s just getting better and better. I’m just really interested to see where it goes from here, because it never ceases to amaze me that these geniuses who put these games together, these designers and programmers, if you look at the evolution in the last next ten years, it’s mind boggling. So where do we go in the next ten? Is it virtual reality, I mean what is it? I’m really excited to see.
So what kind of things do you do to get into character? With Walker, do you go out and chase ex-military personnel and dish out your own form of street justice?
Heheh, I just watch the military channel or something like that. I have like 500 channels of nothing on my satellite, or I watch it on my laptop. Ultimately, Captain Walker is just a man, he’s just a person. And it’s what I do with my on-camera roles, I just imagine myself, how would I deal with that situation in the context of the script?
2K gave me a description of Walker; who he is and where he comes from, where he grew up. There was a whole backstory. So you take that into account and you realise that he’s just a man in a uniform. He’s like any soldier in the military. He’s a guy who probably would have had a normal life if he wasn’t in the military. He could have worked in an office but the next thing you know he’s in a uniform and he’s shipped off somewhere and he’s a military guy. He’s obviously Special Forces, he’s at least a career military guy, and I’ve known some people like that. But ultimately you just put as much of yourself that will fit in that character and you take it from there.
So, Spec Ops: The Line is a game about morality… Picture this for a moment if you will. In front of you sits a huge mansion that appears to have caught fire and is blazing on a crisp summer evening. In the east wing you’ve got a blank cheque from a greedy bank, while in the west wing sits a basket of kittens, if there was only time to save one, which would you save?
There’s the kittens and who else?
It’s basically a blank cheque. As much money as you want.
*laughs* I’m allergic to kittens, there’s an overpopulation of kittens! The blank cheque looks awfully good.
Well, first of all I don’t think I’d run in for money or kittens. If it’s a baby maybe… you know, you can always make more money... Oh man, I have to say the kittens. That’s a loaded question right there! Especially if you can hear them and they’re going, “Mew! Mew!” I gotta go save the kittens.
Let’s make this hypothetical situation better. If there’s a little crying girl outside the mansion and she’s crying, “Oh, my little kittens!” then I’m gonna have to go with the kittens. Especially if it’s for the girl. And, you know, if you save the kittens then maybe the guy that owns the mansion will give you some of the insurance money.
You can always make more money, but... well, you can always make more kittens too I suppose, but... you had to use kittens, huh?
Well, we could always use puppies if you want?
OK, I’d go for the puppies. But the goldfish is gonna cook!
Ha, good call! Can’t beat a bit of fried fish so it’s win-win... Anyway, moving away from morality and Spec Ops to your career as a voice-actor… Out of all the character’s that you’ve voiced, who would you say is your favourite?
With the amount that I’m invested with Nathan Drake and the Uncharted series, and as much as he’s like me - I mean, I’ve never been invited to be more myself than I am with Nathan Drake… In fact, to answer your earlier question, the quips and the ad-libs that he says are exactly the things that I would say in that situation. It’s really like theatre. And rather than do one or two sessions for a game, I’m there for 16 months at a time on that project, so it’s very, very dear to my heart.
That said, one of my favourite characters to voice was The Penguin from Arkham City. I love Rocksteady, big fans of their stuff, so for a British developer to invite me over to do that accent was a big thrill. It’s an honour because, I’ve said this before, I’m an anglophile. I grew up on British television with Benny Hill and Fawlty Towers and Monty Python. When I grew up, that’s what we watched. So I’ve always had that in my repertoire, I guess. I was always doing impressions of James Mason and different people.
I really enjoyed that character, especially at a time when people were saying “He’s in too many games, I don’t want to hear his voice,” then all of a sudden they’re like “Wait, that’s Nolan North? The Penguin?” They didn’t know it was me. I liked that. And Rocksteady said “Yeah, we don’t care. We know you can do different things, let’s broaden your range and invite you to do this.”
It’s such a fun character, just being so devilishly bad. It was a lot of fun.
With all the big characters you’ve played, do you have any regrets? Characters that you think afterwards that you shouldn’t have done?
Well, y’know, I don’t have any regrets. And I wouldn’t say I choose the characters because the developers ultimately choose me. But if I could go back and redo one though, let’s put it that way, I would go back and redo my Prince of Persia.
I just didn’t really feel like the American accent worked with the artistry that the game showed. I thought that it was a beautiful game and it was a fun game to play, but the flowing robes and the style of what he looked like - I really wanted to do a little bit of a Middle Eastern accent, or actually a slightly British accent like Jake Gyllenhaal did [in the 2010 movie Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time - Ed].
I just think it needed a little bit of flavour to it, because I just felt that the middle-American accent didn’t match the beautiful artwork that the game had. For me, personally, there was just a slight disconnect. So if I could go back and redo one, I’d wanna give him a little more style. I’m a proud American, but there’s not that much flair to the American accent. There’s not much of a romantic style to an American accent, necessarily.
Prince of Persia would be the one I would probably wanna redo.
Considering you’ve voiced so many different characters then, the one question remains… if someone greenlit a Nolan North: The Video Game – because, come on, we all want it to happen one day – and you weren’t allowed to voice yourself, who would voice you?
Well, first of all: Nolan North: The Video Game would be a horrible seller. Nobody on Earth would buy that. I can’t even believe that it would get out of the presentation stage.
Here’s the thing though: nobody, including me, likes the sound of their own voice. So I wouldn’t want somebody who could do me. I’d want somebody cool. I’d pick somebody like Steve Blum. Steve Blum has a really raspy voice. He’s got a cool voice.
Actually, Steve Blum or Troy Baker. I’d like to see Troy do it, because he’s got a really cool voice too. He knows how to make a game good. He’s the lead character in The Last Of Us and he does a really great job of that. So let’s let old Troy take a shot at it.