Recently, I was hoodwinked into making two trips across Texas in the space of a month, and over the course of the 14 hours I spent in my car, I soaked up every Ricky Gervais Show podcast I could download.
Having seen the HBO version of the show, and knowing full well that my Wilson Phillips Greatest Hits album probably wouldn't survive another 13-hour marathon in my car's CD player, it seemed like a good way to pass the time.
As far as understatements go, calling The Ricky Gervais Show a "good way to pass the time" is roughly equivalent to calling Spencer Pratt "a bit of a douche": having all that Ricky Gervais to listen to over the course of those drives (which is a barren wasteland notable only for its utter lack of humanity, a city made of Geodesic domes outside Waco, and the overall scorched-Earth appeal) made them an absolute pleasure. Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, and Karl Pilkington have created something that approaches comedic genius with little more than their voices and a stream-of-consciousness style of banter. If you haven't already done so, I highly recommend—nay, demand—that you download as much as you can get your grubby little mitts on.
It's because of my newfound love for Gervais' podcasts that I was so overjoyed to discover that Stephen Merchant, Gervais' frequent collaborator and director of the original run of The Office, would be voicing a main character in Valve's upcoming video game epic, Portal 2. Like The Ricky Gervais Show, video games are something that I'm a bit late to the party on. After getting a taste of Resident Evil 4 and God of War, I've become a bit of a game snob over the past five years, and the original Portal is certainly a game on my "Must Play" list.
Planting Stephen Merchant, typically excellent in the clip above, into Portal 2 is a decision on Valve's part that seems to have been made specifically to entice me into picking up their game on day one. It also calls to mind a sad truth about games: we just don't get enough decent, funny voice actors in our gaming. For a while, the vast majority of actors that appeared in games were the kind of people you'd see cluttering up the late-night offerings on HBO 3 on any given night: your Tim Currys (though one still has to show love for Dr. Furter), your Michael Dorns (take it easy, Trek geeks—not all of us are as impressed with your preferred sci-fi franchise), your Barry Peppers (I don't care what else he's done: he was in Battlefield: Earth and as far as I'm concerned, that's good for a lifetime pass on my shit-list).
Over the past few years, it seems like game studios have really stepped it up in the dramatic actor department—Liam Neeson, Terrence Stamp, Vin Diesel (I know, but still), Martin Sheen, and others have appeared in recent games—but what about someone like me, who is far more entertained by comedians? Why am I forced to settle for a single line of dialogue by the brilliant David Cross in Halo 2 when I'd rather hear him voicing every character's every line of dialogue in every game I've ever played? Why am I forced to report that Larry The Cable Guy, due to his work in Cars: The Videogame, is the comedian with the largest amount of lines to date in a video game?
It likely ties in with the overall lack of humor in games. For every Deathspank, there's a metric ass-full (American equivalent: twelve) of World War II shooters or role playing games involving tedious spell-castings and elf-slayings. Rather than beat anyone over the head with the eighteenth version of the "Why aren't more video games funny?" article, here is a list of funny people that should appear in video games if developers suddenly decided, as with Stephen Merchant and Portal 2, to start injecting a little character into their WW2 shooters and dungeon-grinds.
Let's start, as many conversations about comedy tend to, with Arrested Development: David Cross is probably the first person that comes to mind for a reason: he has a very specific voice tailor-made for sarcasm and jet-black cynicism. His Arrested Development cohort, Will Arnett, was given the chance to headline his own game last year with Eat Lead, but the less said about that game, the better. The developers had the right idea to cast Arnett, but the character and the game's sub-par control system failed him. Let's hope someone else picks up on the brilliance that one of (or both) these guys could bring to their games. Resident Evil 6 could be greatly improved with Cross and Arnett as the two most underpaid, unappreciated Umbrella employees of all time. Maybe the two guys that the company sends in when they don't think the situation really calls for someone of Leon Kennedy or Chris Redfield's talents? How much more awesome would RE 5 have been if our hero, voiced instead by Will Arnett, had been fending off a chainsaw-wielding stereotype with David Cross rather than Shiva, Queen of The Broken A.I.?
Patton Oswalt has a voice that belongs in games as well. Pixar picked up on all the character and mischievousness in Oswalt's voice and cast him in Ratatouille; how great might he have been whining his way through Deathspank's series of bizarre sidequests? Oswalt might be even better as a reluctant squad member in a Call of Duty game, or as the Medic-in-training that just can't fucking believe how many bullets are flying around right now. I'm bored to death with the WW2 genre, but I'd buy one in an instant if I knew I'd be playing through a campaign while a character voiced by Oswalt offered up tips, complaints, and anecdotes in between missions. You could even make his character's lines optional, just in case the "purists" wanna shit their pants over the change-up in formula.
Better yet, I am absolutely frothing at the mouth to play Fallout: New Vegas, and I would be clawing at the walls and drawing up plans to break into Obsidian's home office if I knew that Zach Galifianakis would be playing a lounge lizard character in the game. I know New Vegas has a slew of celebrity voices, but screw Matthew Perry—I'm talking about Zach G, son. In fact, Galifianakis' brand of unhinged/absurdist lunacy would be right at home in the Fallout world, a perfect fit for some godforsaken hut-dweller off in the middle of nowhere. In the midst of replaying Fallout 3 I have found myself skipping through dialogue trees, but I can guarantee this would not happen if but one of the characters in the game had the vocal personality, delivery, or bizarre worldview of Galifianakis.
The list could go on. Many comedians have distinctive or unusual voices or verbal tics that set them apart from other actors. They're more apt to use their voices—in inflection, in volume, in any way you can name—to mine a situation for all its potential even more so than a dramatic actor, because that's what they're used to doing onstage. Having spent an unreasonable amount of time on comedy club stages and dive bar patios, I can tell you that the way you say a single word can determine whether or not a joke is funny. Comedians train themselves for voiceover work every time they're on the job, so why not turn them loose in some games? Why not give games some more personality?
I can't help but think it all comes down to developers wanting to make "serious" games.You know, stuff that won't be considered "entertainment," but more like an Oscar-caliber movie. The developers probably think that unless they insert some really solid gravitas into their game, there's a good chance that no one's going to take their game about exterminating colonies of alien-bug-mutant-solider things seriously—and that would be unreasonable. The developers, if this is the case, are missing the point, though. We don't always want Inception when we go to the movies. Sometimes, we want Piranha 3D. And one thing's for sure: nobody wants Larry the Cable Guy.
Scott Wampler is a standup comic, humor writer, entertainment blogger, and man of constant sorrow from Austin, TX. When he's not mainlining vodka tonics, he's contributing articles to a variety of entertainment websites— Chud.com, Collider.com, Gawker.com— and operates primarily as the National Comedy Examiner for Examiner.com, where he specializes in a form of entertainment reporting that can best be described as "frequent jokes made at Jay Leno's expense." If you feel like contacting Scott about anything—advice, naming your child, learning who your favorite character on Arrested Development should be—feel free to contact him here.