It’s difficult enough to act in movies and TV shows, where the pressures of character depth fall squarely on the shoulders of the performer in any given role. But acting in video games? That’s a whole new level of challenge that few have been able to perfect.
In video games, the performer has to inhabit the mind and body of a character, all while realizing that the end experience is entirely controlled by the player and his/her decisions.
As each player plays the game in their own way, their experiences might diverge—and they’ll reach their own unique conclusions. The player doesn’t just watch events unfold, as they might in a movie or TV show; the player lives those events while controlling the character.
Here are our picks for the best video game voice acting performances that truly gave life to characters.
7. Kiefer Sutherland as Big Boss (Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain)
When Keifer Sutherland was announced as taking over the role of Big Boss from David Hayter in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, fans were angry as they’d long adored Hayter’s performance as the voice of Big Boss in the Metal Gear universe.
But when we got to experience what Sutherland brought to his slightly different version of Big Boss, we understood the change and the reason why Hideo Kojima decided to replace Hayter.
Sutherland infused Big Boss with the energy of an angry warrior who was searching for the life he’d lost during the fall of MSF.
His intensity gave Venom Snake a new sense of gravitas and emotional resonance through a new age of gaming, and it left fans utterly spellbound by his surprisingly delicate performance.
6. Michael Hollick as Niko Bellic (Grand Theft Auto IV)
The Grand Theft Auto games often show how much more can be done with an open world with each iteration of the franchise. Rockstar has no mind for following current trends; instead, they use their narratives to explore the wide worlds they craft.
For that to work, the player and the world need to be grounded by a strongly developed protagonist, and that’s what we got with Niko Bellic in Grand Theft Auto IV.
Michael Hollick’s performance as Niko gave us difficult choices, moral complexity, and a rich past that made us want to explore.
He was unquestionably violent and contained an anger that struggled to be quelled, yet there was a likability to him that endeared him to the player. Those qualities made him one of GTA’s finest examples of a leading protagonist.
5. Roger Clark as Arthur Morgan (Red Dead Redemption 2)
Re-introducing the world of Red Dead Redemption to players was tricky for Rockstar, as they needed a compelling enough story to justify making the prequel game in the first place.
With Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar didn’t just deliver an improvement on the original game; it was an improvement on every open-world game to date. Of the many factors that make it stand out, the tragic story of Arthur Morgan is most memorable.
Arthur Morgan is second-in-command of Dutch Van Der Linde’s gang, a trusted friend and advisor to Dutch, and ultimately a good man who ends up engulfed by a fight he didn’t even want.
As we get to know and love Arthur through Roger Clark’s brilliant performance, he slowly slips away through a combination of sickness and mistrust that starts to tear down everything he’s known. It’s a loss that leaves the player heartbroken when he finally passes on.
4. Steven Ogg as Trevor Philips (Grand Theft Auto V)
Trevor Philips is unlike any other character players have handled before. He’s not an anti-hero fighting for a good cause. He’s not a villain hunting down prey. Trevor is simply a chaotic man on two legs, fighting for the riches he desperately wants.
He was the shining light in Grand Theft Auto V, standing out as the character whom players loved most for his unashamed brutality and unpredictability.
His relationship with Michael and Franklin brought out the best and worst in him, all while the trio sought to set everything right between them and those who wanted to threaten them.
Steven Ogg instilled Trevor with a sense of madness that few have ever dared to attempt in a gaming performance, and that left us with memories of the character that we’ll long hold dear.
3. Ray Liotta as Tommy Vercetti (Grand Theft Auto: Vice City)
The dearly departed Ray Liotta’s career will come to be remembered by his two best roles: first, as Henry Hill in Goodfellas, and second, as Tommy Vercetti in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.
He dominated the game with a towering performance that still puts everybody else in the GTA world to shame to this day.
The game’s story was inspired by Scarface, but Liotta brought an entirely different feel to the character. Instead of a money-obsessed killer, he’s a man that’s forced to rise to the top of Vice City’s drug empire as revenge against those who have tried to kill him.
The feeling of being Ray Liotta’s character still remains one of gaming’s best-loved experiences, and his performance inspired more actors to join the world of gaming from the glamour of Hollywood.
2. Troy Baker as Joel (The Last of Us)
We are all Joel in the first The Last of Us. We all feel the same urge to protect Ellie at all costs, even if that means dooming humanity by allowing her the chance to live when she could instead be the cure.
Troy Baker didn’t allow us to just control Joel. He allowed us to feel Joel’s every emotion as he went on a journey that would see him become Ellie’s adoptive father.
The final rescue of Ellie, when he finds out that she’s going to die if he allows her surgery to go ahead, is more emotionally charged than any mission in any video game throughout history. His desperation is tangible as he cuts down guards that dare stand in his way.
Troy Baker’s performance has become the gold standard that every other video game performer strives for, yet we all know that his Joel is a uniquely one-off performance for the ages.
1. Ashley Johnson as Ellie (The Last of Us)
Like Troy Baker’s performance as Joel, Ashley Johnson’s performance as Ellie is another true one-off moment of greatness.
Ellie, the child who could save the world, must endure the pressure of humanity’s fate on her shoulders, all while growing up in a world where death stalks her from every corner.
What makes Johnson’s performance even more extraordinary is how she was able to follow it up in The Last of Us Part II. She returned and gave Ellie a maturity and deep-rooted anger that forced her to do terrible things as she sought to avenge Joel’s death.
Her grief simmers under the surface and burns through the game, infecting the player as we become Ellie, the daughter of Joel, in her hunt for those who stole him away from her.
Whatever your thoughts on the overall narrative of The Last of Us Part II, there’s no doubt that Ashley Johnson’s performance is faultless across both games. It’s truly a work of pure gaming art.