- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 24, 2006

Pop in Bethesda Softworks’ “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Legend of Jack Sparrow” video game, and hear Johnny Depp himself as his digital doppelganger saves the day.

It isn’t just out-of-work actors and former A-listers lending their voices to video games today. The industry’s rising clout, combined with Hollywood synergy that all but demands participation, means some video games sound an awful lot like what’s heard at the multiplex.

Keanu Reeves spoke for his Neo character in games based on his “Matrix” features, Naomi Watts shrieked at a virtual King Kong, and Patrick Stewart has lent his booming pipes to a host of games based on his “Star Trek” and “X-Men” film franchises. “Kingdom Hearts 2” features Zach Braff, James Woods and Christopher Lee among its vocal roster.

It doesn’t hurt that this past June the first ever Hollywood and Games Summit was held in California, letting the two industries break bread and swap ideas to further their alliances.

Michael Gartenberg, a consumer electronics analyst with Jupiter Research, says the trend toward actors lending their voices to games is on the rise.

“It adds a certain amount of cache to a game,” Mr. Gartenberg says. And with a product like “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Legend of Jack Sparrow,” it’s only natural that movie studios ensure their talent takes part in the process.

“It’s important to associate the actors with the games to keep the franchise in key so things continue to match up,” he says.

Paul Jackson, a principal analyst with Forrester Research, says Bruce Willis lent his voice to the 1998 video game “Apocalypse,” a precursor to the current trend.

“It was extremely unusual at the time,” Mr. Jackson says. “It’s become extremely mainstream.”

Technology helped propel it there. Video games of yore could barely re-create realistic looking humans, let alone sophisticated images that resemble famous actors.

Now, some video game companies use facial motion technology, the kind used in the “Matrix” films, to bring detailed likenesses to the characters in question to their games.

Pete Hines, spokesman for Rockville-based Bethesda Softworks, says his company used celebrity voices sparingly in the past. This year alone, by contrast, the company is offering three games featuring film stars, including the October release “Star Trek: Legacy” featuring the voices of the actors who played the show’s five captains (William Shatner, Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks, Kate Mulgrew and Scott Bakula).

Mr. Hines says his company connects with actors in a variety of ways. Some are secured with the help of Bethesda Softworks’ parent company,California-based ZeniMax Media, and its various L.A. ties. Others require major legwork, either by the company’s legal team or via outside agencies who work as a liaison between the two parties.

Actors once scoffed at lending their voices to a video game, he says, but now they view them as a viable entertainment option, much the way many now rush to sign up for computer-animated features.

Video game buyers will recognize a Depp, Shatner or Reeves, but they might not know Sean Bean or Terence Stamp, two respected actors who lent their voices to Bethesda Softworks’ “The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.”

“We feel the performance they give in ‘Oblivion’ makes the game better,” he says. “It also helps raise awareness … and shows folks we’re serious about the product.”

What the video game companies won’t give voice to is how much the actors receive for their voice talents.

“It’s not in our interest to reveal it,” Mr. Hines says.

“It’s rare you get to find out how much a game costs to develop,” Mr. Jackson says, adding a game can run as high as $30 million from conception to finish. So highlighting how much a game costs, or how much the actor took home for his or her work, could hurt its appeal, in the same way hearing about a film’s high price starts people whispering the word “flop.”

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