Keanu Reeves and the Growing Art of Video Game Performance

As of late Keanu Reeves has been one of the hottest topics in Hollywood cinema. I should know, given that only last month I covered his more recent and upcoming pictures, which all serve to further drive his already explosive mid-life rediscovery by audiences worldwide. Like Liam Neeson before him, Reeves only needed one pivotal role to fuel his re-emergence, which in this case is John Wick, likely the most critically lauded role of his illustrious career. Recent news updates, however, show that Reeves’ is not limiting himself to film alone.

In June this year at the annual E3 convention, which is generally considered the most significant gaming-expo in the world, AAA developer CD Projekt Red, best known for the Witcher series, shocked fans by revealing that Keanu Reeves will be playing a significant supporting role in their hotly anticipated follow-up to The Witcher series, Cyberpunk 2077. It would be one thing if this revelation was limited to just game footage, but it’s entirely another when Reeves graces the electric E3 hall with his presence, working the audience a little bit before revealing the game’s April 2020 release.

Although it’s not the first time his likeness has been used for a game, having appeared in The Matrix: Path of Neo, Fortnite and an upcoming John Wick game, Cyberpunk 2020 is Reeves’ first time combining voicework with motion capture performance in a video game.

Since its humble beginnings motion capture performance has evolved to the point where it’s reached art form status. Andy Serkis became the first true superstar of the trade with his captivating portrayal of Golem in the Lord of the Rings film franchise. With the technology’s introduction into video games, then, roles became more than simple voice-overs, demanding greater levels of physical performance as time went on and the technology developed. This has led the gaming industry to produce stars of its own in Nolan North and Troy Baker, whose names frequently appear in the most anticipated games of any year.

When it comes to bona fide Hollywood talent, though, the use of A-listers in a video game is hardly a recent development in the industry either. My earliest memory of an all-star cast of celebrities is in 2004’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which featured the voices of Samuel L. Jackson, James Woods and Peter Fonda to name but a few, while Ray Liotta voiced the lead protagonist in its predecessor, Vice City. But again, the introduction of motion capture performances has led to shifts in the dynamic.

There now seems to be a growing emphasis on casting the right actor in the role, not just the right voice. Perhaps there is no better example of this than last year’s God of War. Terrence C. Carson, who voiced the franchise’s lead character Kratos for eight years, was replaced by Stargate SG-1’s Christopher Judge. This decision came down not just to Judge’s fittingly baritone voice, but also his proven skill in onscreen performance and the imposing physique that Carson simply lacks.

Admittedly, Judge can hardly be categorised as an industry heavyweight like Reeves. In fact, games studios tend to use performers who are less Hollywood leads and more respected character actors, such as Shawn Ashmore in Quantum Break or Jesse Williams in Detroit: Become Human. But what God of War proves is that casting was a significant part of the creative process, which is made even more apparent by Emmy-winner Jeremy Davies’ casting as God of War’s villain. Those of you who have played the game likely noticed how the subtle nuances of Davies’ motion capture performance added a palpable credence to his dialogue, which demonstrates the dramatic difference that can be made by marrying an actor’s physical performance with his vocal one. (If you haven’t played God of War and never intend on doing so, then I would highly recommend watching a compilation video of Davies’ performance as Baldur. You’ll seen what I mean.)

When legendary game designer Hideo Kojima released Metal Gear Solid in 1998, not only was the modern-day stealth genre in video games born, but he introduced a level of cinematic flair to in-game cutscenes that essentially changed the face of narrative gaming moving forward. Over thirty years into his career Kojima is still recognised as a consistently innovative pioneer who seemingly breaks ground with each new release. Actor Mads Mikkelsen even called him “the Kasparov of video games” in response to being asked why he decided to work with Kojima on his latest upcoming release Death Stranding. With a cast that also includes The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus as the lead playable character, Léa Seydoux, and the likenesses of filmmakers Guillermo del Toro and Nicolas Winding Refn, Kojima in unquestionably doubling down on the already cinematic nature of his works, heavily relying on the recognisable likenesses and performances of a cast that is uncharacteristically robust for the video game industry. Oh, and do you know who was originally considered for Mikkelsen’s role? Keanu Reeves.

As it happens, Reeves and Kojima have been in contact for some time and have shown mutual interest in collaborating with one another, leading the media to speculate that it could be in Kojima’s next video game release. Speculation aside, both these artists clearly see the ever-growing potential for the collaboration of heavy hitters from their respective industries. Reeves has even rejected the idea of it being a shallow or promotional tool for video games, as he feels they are in no way in need of “legitimizing.” Instead, it’s simply two creative individuals, whose longevity in their fields is as remarkable as it is telling, seeing the immense potential for video games as a performative art moving forward. 

Hollywood studios have long fallen over one another to adapt key franchises in video gaming, from Assassin’s Creed and Tomb Raider to Warcraft, yet their cinematic counterparts have been so consistently disappointing that the very practice of video game adaptation is jokingly considered cursed. Given recent trends in the area of video game performance, I think it’s justifiable to at least suggest that in some ways video games might come to transcend the very medium that longs to adapt it, and perhaps, in their endeavours, that is the ultimate vision of Kojima and Reeves too.

 

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