The cross-pollination between movies and video games has been rampant for decades—if not basing themselves directly on films, games have long employed stars as voice actors, or simply taken their not-so-subtle cues from their big-screen counterparts.
It’s a naturally symbiotic marriage, given their shared affinity for action-oriented storytelling and special effects. And it’s a union that seemed to grow much stronger late last week, with the release of the trailer for Activision’s highly anticipated upcoming first-person shooter, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.
That’s because, amidst its footage of elite military teams leaping, sliding, climbing and shooting their way through a hellish urban combat zone, it featured a villain who stands to mark a new era in the long-running video game-movies relationship: Kevin Spacey.
On the one hand, the Oscar-winning Spacey’s participation in a big-budget game isn’t particularly surprising, since games have often boosted their profiles (or simply sough more credibility with their audience) by featuring well-known actors.
Spacey is front-and-center as the story’s prime military industrial complex villain—and one who shares Spacey’s exact appearance and voice.
The difference is that, in most of those past cases, actors’ involvement was limited to their voices—think Ray Liotta in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Samuel L. Jackson in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Liam Neeson in Fallout 3, Gary Oldman in Call of Duty: World at War, or Sean Bean and Patrick Stewart in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. While those thespians certainly added a measure of gravity and class to their given sagas, they remained minor (if value-added) elements in much larger works.
Not so, apparently, with Advanced Warfare, which seems set to feature Spacey front-and-center as the story’s prime military industrial complex villain—and one who shares Spacey’s exact appearance and voice.
Unlike when actors are contractually obligated to allow their likenesses to be used in movie tie-in titles, Spacey will be delivering an original motion-capture performance for a non-movie-based game. That’s a groundbreaking phenomenon that has few precedents. Last October’s PS3 action-adventure Beyond: Two Souls was at the forefront of this new trend, featuring digitized central performances by Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe. But while Page and Dafoe are certainly marquee talent, they aren’t as big as Spacey, whose celebrated headlining part on Netflix’s House of Cards has recently returned him to the A-list spotlight.
That, at the height of such popularity, Spacey has opted to take on a principal role in a AAA title like Advanced Warfare speaks volumes about the state of the video game industry, and its escalating sway over the pop-culture landscape. Light years removed from Dana Plato’s notorious turn in the 1992 Sega CD slasher Night Trap, and a considerable step up from the vanity project-style mo-cap work of 50 Cent in 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand and Snoop Dogg in True Crime: Streets of L.A., Spacey’s contribution to Activision’s latest is that of a fully fledged, 360-degree performance.
That he’ll likely be confined to the game’s cutscenes, rather than function as a playable character during in-game action, remains likely. Yet that distinction doesn’t alter the fundamental fact that his presence in such a capacity drastically ups the ante on all video game drama, transforming it from less of a connective-tissue distraction and into more of a main draw.
This isn’t to say that games should now be expected to deliver the same type of nuanced, complex narratives found in great films or TV shows. But it does signal the gaming industry’s interest in improving its own dramatic quality through increased appropriation of cinematic and television devices, and stars. In light of Spacey’s Advanced Warfare turn, it’s little surprise that Konami’s signature Metal Gear Solid series is, for its eagerly awaited forthcoming installment Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, having rugged spy Solid Snake be voiced not by David Hayter (who’s uttered the hero’s lines since 1998’s Metal Gear Solid), but by Kiefer Sutherland—and that, additionally, it will use Sutherland’s face as a template for the character’s new look.
Thanks to the enhanced technical muscle afforded by the PS4, Xbox One, and high-end PCs, games are now increasingly able to do proper justice to a great actor’s performance. And the willingness of stars like Spacey to lend not just their voices, but their actual acting talents, to blockbuster releases further indicates that games are inching ever closer to the point of becoming something akin to interactive films. Moreover, it suggests the ongoing escalation of a paradigm shift in which movie stars—recognizing the gaming industry’s immense popularity and attendant revenues (approximately $20.5 billion in 2013, compared to $9 billion in domestic movie ticket sales)—give it further legitimacy as a dominant pop-cultural art form to rival TV and movies.