1. Lara Croft, Tomb Raider (2013)
Don’t take grunts for granted. Those vocal punctuations of exertion, pain, or exasperation are hard work for video game voice actors—the aptly named “grunt sessions” are murder on a performer’s vocal cords. But at least they have the solace of knowing that their work matters. No game proved that more than the Tomb Raider reboot, which caused a stir at the E3 trade show in 2011 when developers showed off a 10-minute sequence that was awash with Lara Croft’s utterances of “Unh!” and “Oof!”—perhaps setting a record for grunts per minute in an E3 demo. The psychosexual vibes were hard to ignore. (In fairness, it’s tough for an actor to make sustained, repetitive grunting NOT sound sexual.) And combined with the images on screen of Lara being impaled, battered, and grabbed around the ankles by a growling assailant, Tomb Raider came off partly as an exercise in torture porn. The same sequence was largely unchanged in the final product—it opens the game—but from there on, Lara’s vocal suffering isn’t so gratuitous. A little grunting goes a long way.
2. Link, The Legend Of Zelda series (1986-2011)
Shigeru Miyamoto, the lead creator on the Zelda games, believes that when game heroes speak, it becomes harder for the player to project themselves into their on- screen avatar. So with the exception of cartoons (and a few weird spin-off games produced by Philips in the CD-ROM era), the taciturn hero of the Zelda games has a voice deﬁned almost entirely by grunts. Link has been grunting since the original Legend Of Zelda, in which any injury caused him to let out a little digitized whelp that sounded like he was choking on a glass of milk. It wasn’t until Ocarina Of Time in 1998 that Link produced the exuberant shouts like “Hup!” and “Hyaa!” for which he’s now known. Because Ocarina straddled two different periods of Link’s life, Nintendo had to hire two separate voice actors to render his grunts: Nobuyuki Hiyama for adult Link and, following the common animation practice of female actors voicing children, Fujiko Takimoto for young Link.
3. Every losing fighter, Street Fighter II series (1991-1994)
Within the realm of early video game voice samples, none have seeped into popular culture quite like the utterances of Street Fighter II’s world warriors. Ryu’s battle cries might be the most famous, but each combatant has a suite of grunts and squawks that would put the Wimbledon roster to shame. Of particular interest here are the grunts let out by fighters in their moment of defeat. These over-the-top yawps are made infinitely better by the echo effect Capcom decided to add, simply because it sounded cool. Some cries, like Blanka’s feral wail or Vega’s caterwaul, cross over into scream territory, but lose a fight with Ryu or Dhalsim and you’re treated to one of the most iconic digitized grunts around. The two warriors share a distinctive “OOHUUH” that has remained a series favorite and even weaseled its way onto one of the most revered hip hop albums of the 2000s.
4. Kratos, God Of War series (2005-2013)
The God Of War series of games takes place in ancient Greece, but if it were any earlier, Kratos would be the king of all cavemen. He looks and sounds like one: He’s buff like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Mr. Universe days, and he has a propensity for beating down anyone who stands in his way without speaking a word. There is a lot of primal grunting, though, as he swings his chain blades—permanently grafted to his arms—at demonic hellspawn. “Guh” goes the wrist-ﬂick; “gaaaaaaaah” goes the over-the-shoulder blade slam. Even “Ares!”—the call to the god he’s trying to destroy—comes off sounding something like a broken vuvuzela. Kratos’ grief over losing his family has turned his once-beating heart into a lump of coal and redirected the blood that would go toward speech into other, more punch-y motor functions.
5. Brick, Borderlands (2009)
The “berserker” is a common archetype in role-playing games, often referring to a character who wields two weapons, one in each hand—all fight and zero caution. Brick, the meat-headed Berzerker from Borderlands, embodies the old Norse sense of the word, when warriors were legendary for fighting in an unthinking, trance-like fury. This is especially true when Brick activates his “Berzerk” action skill, launching himself into a brief punch-happy rage punctuated with a nonstop stream of maniacal laughs and guttural grunts. Gearbox toned down the orgasmic sounds of his counterpart, Salvador, in Borderlands 2, who much prefers humming/grunting the melody of “Hall Of The Mountain King” while he shoots stuff.
6. Orc peons, Warcraft II (1995)
The sound of pure submission is not a pleasant one, but that sound is inevitable in Warcraft II (and to a lesser extent in its precursor), as you monitor the military strategy of a tiny town, directing units to move or attack as the situation demands. The brunt of the dirty work is given to the gruntiest of characters. “Peons” on both sides of the battle, humans and orcs, mine resources and do all the building. And while the human peasants speak with a broken Cockney accent, the orcish equivalents don’t speak at all. They attempt to communicate with inquisitive grunts and nonsensical afﬁrmative noises that, over time, become almost quotable, as the inﬂection never changes. Familiarity breeds afﬁnity, and because there’s that extra mental step of trying to understand what the orc peons are grunting at you, it’s tough not to feel bad for them as you assign them endless scutwork.
7. Chell, Portal (2007)
Players formed a deep personal connection with Chell, the resourceful lab rat forced to endure the sadistic puzzles (“tests”) of a psychotic artificial intelligence with little to no explanation as to who she was or why she was there. Chell was something of a blank slate, a canvas onto which players could easily paint themselves, and a big part of that was her refusal to talk back to the distorted computer voice that tormented her. Oh, Chell’s vocal cords worked just fine. She would let out satisfyingly sympathetic yelps and groans when under physical duress—dropping from particularly daunting heights, getting grazed by gunfire, or getting in the way of a falling Weighted Companion Cube. She never asked for any of this, and Chell’s mewls and grunts echoed our own as we felt her pain trying to get her to safety. Chell’s grunts are absent in Portal 2, though it should be noted our hero suffered severe brain damage between the two titles, and her short-circuited nervous system causes her to jump when she attempts to say the word “apple.”
8. Agent Francis York Morgan, Deadly Premonition (2010)
Pushing and tugging boxes is hard work. Shooting horrific shadow demons as they lurch forth to kill you is harder work. Only one of these actions produces a “HUNNGHHH” from Deadly Premonition’s Agent Francis York Morgan, however, and it’s not the shooting. There are a couple of instances in this weird cult-hit horror game that require Morgan to move a box no more than a foot or two, and yet, from the way Agent Morgan voices his guttural discomfort, you’d think he were being devoured by his spooky pursuers. Thankfully, there are scant few sidequests involving sokoban-style crate pushing. Rearranging a convenience store’s stock room does make an oddly enjoyable diversion to your high-stress FBI job, though, grunts and all.
9. Everyone, Gauntlet (1985)
Modern games like Dark Souls may be difficult, but no video games were more cruel than those of the arcade era, designed to separate adventuresome button-clickers from their quarters. Atari’s Gauntlet is the poster child for classic arcade churlishness. The little warriors you steer around those blocky dungeons are losing health as soon as you press start, and they lose even more as swarms of club-wielding goblins swarm them. They “NEED FOOD BADLY!” to restore their stamina, which brings us to the game’s startlingly orgasmic exhalations. Let a ghost touch your elf in Gauntlet and the little masochist lets out a throaty “Hng!” That pales in comparison to when they actually pick up some food, though. The tremulous “Haaaaaaaah!” these characters let out would make Meg Ryan blush during her most attention-seeking meal at Katz’s Deli. Somehow, the pleasure in all these guttural noises makes Gauntlet’s unfairness easier to swallow.
10. Centurions, Altered Beast (1988)
Sega’s Altered Beast has a fantastic ending. The story’s pretty simple. Zeus brings two guys in Richard Simmons workout clothes back from the dead and tasks them with descending into the underworld to save a lady from a bald guy. They get the job done by punching white wolves in the face and eating their hearts to turn into bipedal wolves, tigers, bears, and dragons. Once the heroes have saved the day, rather than a token victory screen and some credits, all the characters reveal themselves to just be actors in costume, stripping off their blob and demon masks to have a post-show kegger backstage. That means that the whole time all the silly exaggerated “oofs!” and “args!” these two let out weren’t from exertion but overacting! That’s what it sounds like when an underpaid actor does his impression of a wolfman getting hit with a devil head. Sega had some memorable digital voice work in those late-’80s arcade games, but Altered Beast is the king of them.
11. Dracula and Alucard, Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night (1997)
The vampire family tree in Konami’s Castlevania games is full of snappy dressers. Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night shows Dracula and his mopey son Alucard to be deeply stylish in an Adam Ant kind of way. Style, grace, and eternal elegance is a natural part of the vampire lifestyle. But where does grunting fit into that? If Drac and his boy Alucard are immortal and have superhuman strength, does that mean all their grunting and groaning in fights is purely for show? Dracula’s bad enough—he lets out a loud “HA!” every time he tosses a fireball at some unsuspecting vampire hunter—but Alucard is ridiculous. Nearly every single jump and sword swing is accompanied by a terse, “HUT!” He may play it all demure in conversation, but Alucard is a showoff at heart. We get it. You’re tough. Stop it.
12. Diddy Kong, Donkey Kong Country (1994)
Rare’s Donkey Kong Country goes far beyond the original Donkey Kong arcade games in defining Donkey’s world. The Super Nintendo classic gives him an island home, a whole bunch of friends, and some funny enemies in the pirate lizard Kremlings. It’s a testament to Rare’s sound design that all of Donkey Kong Country’s characters and enemies are so memorably vocal, considering none of them speak. They grunt and squeak and snarl at one another, and each one has a very specific personality. The best of them is Donkey Kong’s sidekick Diddy Kong, whose little yelps and ooks perfectly match the image of a little ape in a T-shirt and cap. He’s as well defined through those tiny noises as Donkey Kong was in the broad visual strokes of the old arcade machine.
13. Solid Snake, Metal Gear Solid series (1998-2008)
Solid Snake is a guy’s guy—a cigarette-smoking, ass-kicking super spy who tops off his uber-manliness with a voice like a gruff, gravely Clint Eastwood in his later years. Voiced by David Hayter, Snake speaks each word as if it takes a supreme amount of effort. It’s often the case that Snake doesn’t speak at all, opting instead for a series of grunts that have different meanings. There’s the “This is very physically taxing” grunt, the “I’m very frustrated right now” grunt, and one distinctive utterance that comes up often during Snake’s interminable conversations with Metal Gear Solid’s supporting cast: the “I’ve just pondered some sweeping philosophical statement on the horrors of war/technology/life and realized there is no satisfying conclusion to take from it” grunt.