In What Are You Playing This Weekend? we discuss gaming and such with prominent figures in the pop-culture arena. We always start with the same question.
Having already worked in short films, commercials, TV, and theater, William Watterson recently added video game voice and motion actor to his performance credentials. He played a small role as Sam Turner in the 2011 detective game L.A. Noire and landed the starring role in Capcom’s Lost Planet 3 as lead character Jim Peyton. The Cleveland native spoke with The Gameological Society about the creative ways he plays Atari 2600 and what it’s like to act in a video game.
The Gameological Society: What are you playing this weekend?
William Watterson: I play what is called “Pacifist River Raid,” my own invention of sorts. It’s a version of River Raid for the Atari 2600 where you’re only allowed to shoot the bridges. You can’t shoot the boats or the helicopters, and you can’t get extra lives by racking up the points. You gotta dodge like mad and shoot the bridges. Every once in a while you have to cheat because there are alleys the exact length of the helicopter, and you can’t fly by it without shooting it, but other than that…
Gameological: That’s interesting. River Raid was pretty challenging as it was.
Watterson: I just got to the point where I was cruising through it and just mostly dying out of boredom. I thought, “Okay, I have to switch this up.” Eventually, it really improves your game, it’s almost like doing kung fu underwater—okay, it’s really not at all like doing kung-fu underwater, but it sort of teaches you how far you can get with evasion as opposed to being on the attack. A lot of times, you’ll end up dying because you’ll go to shoot a helicopter, and you’ll crash into it before you can shoot it, and you realize you could have made it and gotten further if you didn’t have to shoot everything. It really ups your game.
Gameological: Talk about your Warlords drinking game.
Watterson: Warlords is great because it’s a four-player game, and it’s more social than your average Atari game. There’s an inherent flaw in the game with the purple guy—I think he’s on the bottom right. He’s slower and a lot more prone to some of the special attacks. The Pong ball doesn’t really adhere to the physics of Pong, and it just curls and stuff like that. The purple guy is always at a big disadvantage, and so we try to level the playing field by making the winner of a round take a big shot, and they end up losing some hand-eye coordination.
Gameological: What it was like to be an actor in Lost Planet 3?
Watterson: I did motion capture, facial capture, and the voice for the protagonist—the guy you play as in Lost Planet 3. It’s funny. There’s this perceived divide, and it happens a lot, in L.A. at least. It’s like the scene from Swingers, where he couldn’t get the goofy gig because he didn’t have mascot experience. It’s like, “Oh, do you have motion-capture experience? Well…” But ultimately, the big secret is that it’s all just acting. It’s not different from doing theater or movies. There are aspects of the technology that you need to pick up on, and you have to get comfortable in the suit and being surrounded by the tech, but it’s not different from green screen or black box theater or improv, where someone says “Hey, there’s a giant bug there,” and you’re like, “All right, now there’s a giant bug there.”
If you break it down to its blue-collar essence, which is how I act anyway, it’s all “Where do I stand? What do I say? Okay, got it.” The motion-capture suit is just a costume, and the marks on your body are just props, the same as a hat or anything else. The big advantage of the way we did it for L.A. Noire and Lost Planet 3 is you’re actually playing out the scene with the other actors. Yes, it’s weird that you’re looking at a tennis ball, or you’re in a skintight suit and your nuts are hanging out, and you have a camera on your head, but if you turn and look into the eyes of the other people, you’re fine. And it’s just about what’s happening between you and the other actors. It’s the same muscles. All the other stuff just has to go away in your head.
Gameological: Are you saying you’re not actually acting these scenes out on some frozen alien planet? Did you at least shoot something in a walk-in freezer or something for the sake of authenticity?
Watterson: No, but you do have to find it in your body—the difference between when you’re walking in the pirate cave versus when you’re actually trudging in the snow. I mean, I grew up in Cleveland, so I know snow. You can find it in your body the same as you would during an improv scene if someone says “Okay, you’re a grandpa,” and you find in your body how old you are and how broken down you are. You play with your spine, so if you’re playing an uber-confident guy, maybe you puff your chest out a bit and straighten up. You try to pick up small physical triggers that then inform the emotional stuff that’s on the page. It’s using a lot of those tools.
Gameological: One thing you don’t hear much about in terms of acting in video games is improvisation and actors putting their own unique touches on characters. Were you able to do any of that?
Watterson: Some of it, yes. I’m new to voiceovers, so I tended to just hit whatever was on the page when I was in the booth because I knew we had a lot to get through. Every once in a while, I might try to make it more like something I’d say or make it sound more real. There’s probably more room for improv if you have more experience and depending on the character. Some of these actors I’d been working with on this game for three years, and we had friendships and history to draw on. The thing is, you have a lot of info you have to get across, and none of the cutscenes are superfluous. You’re driving the story forward, so you can’t screw up too much.
But usually at the end of a scene, especially some of the lighter-hearted scenes with me and Gale in the bay, we’d just throw a barb at each other or something we call a “button” on the scene. The scene is over, and you just look over and say one last thing like a “Fuck you,” or “Well, that was weird,” some observational peg. We did that a few times. I saw at least two cutscenes that ended up using some of our improvisations. That’s great, because you’re always looking for some kind of truth, and that was very true to [Daniel’s and my] relationship as actors and Jim and Gale’s relationship as characters. It’s great that there’s room for that kind of humanity in a video game.
Gameological: Do you think they captured the real you in the game?
Watterson: It’s a head-wreck, man. In a great way, but whoa is it weird. The very first time I saw it all put together, I got dizzy, and I thought, “That’s my voice. That’s…mostly my face.” They made me a bit thicker—I’m a wiry guy—and he’s got a full beard too. I can grow a beard like that, but I had to shave the beard in order to get my face captured by the cameras. It’s not exactly me, but anyone who knows me would see it and go, “Bill, what are you doing in the computer?” But wow, I look awesome. I would totally be afraid of me.
And now, we put the question to you. Tell us what you’ve been playing lately, and which games—video or otherwise—are on your playlist for the weekend.