In the realm of heroes and villains, there are few as famous as Batman and the Joker. For decades, the nemeses have been meeting up on comic book pages, on screens big and small, in live-action and animated form. A host of actors have stepped into their roles, each one bringing a new dimension to the characters.
Now it's time for Roger Craig Smith and Troy Baker to have their shot. Smith voices Batman while Baker handles Joker in the video game Batman: Arkham Origins, set for release on October 25.
Smith and Baker are voice actors. Smith has lent his voice to major characters in multiple Assassin's Creed and Resident Evil games. Baker has voiced Snow Villiers, one of the playable characters in Final Fantasy XIII, amongst numerous other roles. They've done plenty of work in animation too, but it's in the gamer realm where they've made their marks.
Both actors note that acting for video games isn't all that different from working on cartoons. You work in a booth. You perform into microphones. Sometimes, there's a camera picking up facial expressions and mouth movements for the animation team's references. What's different is how the performances unfold. They're working on game levels, one by one. “We're not telling a story in an hour-and-a-half,” says Baker. “We're telling it in ten to twelve hours that you are immersed in.”
The actors have to voice every possible reaction that might occur in the game. They have to provide sounds that can coincide with a variety of different jumps, a multitude of different game fights. “You cover all of those grunts and efforts,” says Smith. “That's usually where a lot of video game work can be demanding on the voice. In four hours, there's only so much yelling and screaming you can do before the voice just starts to give out.”
See also: The Curious World of Voice Actors
To give players the kind of big, booming performances that go with these action-packed games, the actors have to approach that microphone with full force. “There's no kind of faking it,” says Smith. “You have to scream your guts out.”
There's a precision to what Smith and Baker do that juxtaposes with the mayhem that can unfold during the course of game play. “So much of what I do takes place in a small box,” says Smith. “I tend to micro-focus my approach to it.”
Baker points to a moment in The Dark Knight, when the Joker (Heath Ledger) remarks that he's an “agent of chaos.” “That's exactly what the Joker is to me,” he says.
However, Baker is channeling the character's unbridled determination to mess with Batman within the confines of a sound booth. “It is very interesting to be this completely uncontrolled character in a very, very controlled environment,” he says.
He explains what it's like to work in that sort of environment on such a particular character. It might take an hour to find the “groove” of the performance. “There are some characters that you can drop in immediately on the count of one and be in the right spot,” says Baker. “With other characters, like this, you really kind of need to backtrack once you found your groove and revisit some of the work you've done so that it's really the best performance it can be.”
Part of the challenge with their latest roles is the history behind the characters. Arkham Origins is a prequel game that follows up the hits Arkham Ayslum and Arkham City. In those two prior games, Batman was voiced by Kevin Conroy and the Joker by Mark Hamill. Both Conroy and Hamill went into those games with years of experience in the Batman universe. They voiced the same characters in previous projects, including the acclaimed 1990s cartoon Batman: The Animated Series. In the animation world, they ultimately set the standard for how the two characters sound.
“We can't work too far outside of what everybody knows as this character,” says Smith. “The fans are going to feel like it's disingenuous at this point.”
At the same time, the actors are portraying the characters much earlier in their careers as superhero and master villain, specifically Batman's second year on the field. Baker notes that this aspect of the story lends a bit of “freedom” to their roles. Still, getting a feel for the characters takes little bit of prep work. “I did go back and play some of Arkham City and Arkham Asylum, just to get a feel for the games themselves, but not necessarily the previous performances,” says Smith, adding, “I also don't try to overly prepare.” He adds that Eric Holmes, the creative director for Arkham Origins, passed Frank Miller's Batman: Year One his way for research.
Smith points out that, in the end, the actors are one small part of a massive undertaking. “I'm so thankful that all I have to do is walk in for four hours at a time and bark in front of a microphone and hope that it gets received well,” he says. “The breadth of creating an entire game like that, I don't know how they do it.”
It's a pretty cool gig for two guys who are both self-professed gamers. “I'm over the moon that I'm able to participate in something that I'm going to geek out over later,” says Baker. “That's a very rare quality to have in your job.”
Come October 25, they'll finally be able to play Arkham Origins. “What I'm doing is mostly theater of the mind. I don't get to see the game when I'm doing what I'm doing,” says Smith. “I am waiting with bated breath to see how it's received and to play the game myself.”