May 4, 2011

Not Bad For a Non-Player Character: Lance Henriksen and Video Games, Pt 1 (2002-2008)


I'm playing Roach, an Army Ranger, and I've just infiltrated my main enemies' stronghold somewhere between Georgia and Russia. I've fought waves and waves of Russian bastards coming at me from all sides.

I've been flanked for hours (and a number of reloaded save points) but I've managed to recover the necessary intelligence I need to take down Makarov, the bad guy ruining my day and making the adventure in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 possible.

I flee through the Russian wilderness, getting tagged by enemy bullets but managing to live and approach the rescue plane. I can see General Shepard, voiced by Lance Henriksen, extending his hand.

He is all that stands between death and life and seeing his face and hearing his voice. . .the one that's been guiding me for hour upon hour in this video game world. . .is comfortable. I've basically defeated evil and beat the game. But, not all is what it seems. Here is a recap:

That rat bastard Lance Henriksen shot me! And burned me alive!


An Actor Across Mediums

Lance Henriksen has graced our large and small screens since 1972 in about every part you can imagine: good guy, bad guy, father, son, brother, murderer, tailor, tinker, spy, etc. Since 1972, he has 174 total credits. 

He's graced us with big budget Hollywood films, low key independent movies, made for TV and straight to video flicks, and has even appeared on our TV sets week to week. Lance is everywhere and despite the massive exposure, in every genre, we want to see more.

And since 2002, Lance has spread out even further: from Movies and Television to video games. And as varied as Lance's career has been in film, he repeats that process in the video game world. Need a leading man to headline your game? Lance Henriksen is there. Need a spunky character actor? Lance Henriksen will provide a voice.

Be it bad guy or good guy, horror, sci-fi, or western, Lance Henriksen has done it. And the adventure continues. But let's take a look at Lance's history in the video game market, in chronological order. For as the world turns, so does Lance's role in the history of video games. What follows is a bumpy, wide ranging, and up and down road. . .but in the end, Lance Henriksen prevails in providing his voice and making something special, sometimes out of nothing.

RLH (2002)

For a visual medium that is known for voice acting, on both sides of the spectrum, it's surprising it took Lance Henriksen so long to get a call and join in on the fun. Or, rather, to bring some legitimacy to a market that was known, at least in the early days, for atrocious acting and even worse vocal work.

The video games of today are known for their super-famous celebrities and extensive voice work. Part of that is due to technology but another part is that video game creators and producers realize the voice is key in making what is an animated character seem real.

To me, current video games rely too much on big voices that will attract consumers then voice actors who can actual voice act. The 2002 game Run Like Hell: Hunt or Be Hunted, released originally on the Playstation 2 and later on the original XBox, was the first video game to cast Lance as a voice actor.

In the game, Lance plays Nicholas Conner, the main hero of the piece, and is surrounded by lesser known celebrities, but amazing voice actors, such as Thomas Wilson, Kate Mulgrew, Clancy Brown, Michael 'F&*^ing' Ironside (that's the only way to say his name), and Brad Dourif.

The game, initially conceived as a trilogy, went through the video game equivalent of development hell. It took five years to develop and went through a number of creative changes as well as problems with physical production itself. 

The lead designer, in a forum post on Neoseeker, admitted numerous staff changes and concept changes and that production was rushed, so much so that the game and it's developers 'ended up with something that really didn't know what it was'.

That said, game critics and game players seem to be split on the game's quality. According to Metacritic, the Rotten Tomatoes for video games, twenty seven critics were all over the board, with five in the positive, four in the negative, but 18 'mixed' for an overall rating of 58 out of a 100. However, the players themselves see the game as a success, with an 81% success rate. 

As for Lance's role, many were pleased he was in the game. Gamespot, in it's preview of the game, said: 

"In what may be the biggest relief of all for "survival horror" fans, all of the voice acting will be done professionally, and using big-name talent. We've already mentioned that Connor's gruff visage will be perfectly complemented by his gravelly voiced real-life speech thanks to Lance Henriksen, but other big names like Kate Mulgrew and Clancy Brown will ensure that we don't have to groan our way through another "master of unlocking" festival of noise".

The game itself looks a little outdated but as the video shows below, it exudes atmosphere, no doubt aided by Lance's authentic and unique voice. The story revolves around a standard sci-fi/horror template but it appears, at least in the cinematics, as effective.

Nicholas Conner, the hero voiced by Henriksen, must get from one side of a space station to the other all while fighting off an alien group called The Race. Though we had seen this kind of thing in Aliens and Star Trek: First Contact, very few video games had attempted this type of storytelling.

While RLH seems to be a mixed bag with critics and game players a like, Lance was not done putting a voice print on the video game medium. A whole year didn't even go by before Lance was lending his talents again. . .

Red Faction II (2002)

Not unlike movies, video games like to establish franchises and pump out as many 'title' games as the cash cow will allow. A lesser known franchise which, as of 2011, has spawned five total games, is the Red Faction franchise.

Much like Total Recall, the original Red Faction is about a blue collar Martian fighting a corporate entity. Like a lot of video game sequels, Red Faction II continues to extend the story and, with more advanced technology and lessons learned from previous games and tests, expand the gameplay and eliminate the bugs.

Red Faction II is somewhat removed from the first game, taking on a more epic feel and increases the consequences of what happens to the hero and the universe he lives in. Lance plays that hero, Molov, and is joined by Jason Statham in the vocal talent department.

Results seem to be mixed on the game on different platforms. A majority of critics feel the PC version was weak but console versions were highly praised. Most critics, per Metacritic, in regards to the Playstation 2 version, either summed up their experience as 'vastly improved from the first game' or 'fun, if not original'.

Critiques on the voice work were never negative, at least towards the actors. IGN stated in it's review:

"The voice actors generally do their best with the lines as written. When the dialogue comes off badly, it's usually because it should have been retooled at the script stage".

In the end, Red Faction II was Lance's first true success on the video game front. He was providing leading man talent on a game that sold 1.3 million copies worldwide. His next project would not do so well. In fact. . .it doesn't technically exist.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Never Released)

The project to end all projects never got off the ground and while video of the game exists, Lance's work in Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse has technically never seen the light of day.

And what a shame, as the game would be Lance's third straight leading role in his third attempt. And unlike Run Like Hell, which was often delayed and took half a decade to finish, or Red Faction II, which was a sequel to a fairly successful franchise, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was actually a 'can't wait until it's here' kind of game.

The plot was a pure Lance Henriksen genre dream: a warrior named Abaddon (Lance) must gather forces together to fight off the actual four horsemen of the apocalypse and stop the end of the world! Better still, Stan Winston, noted designer and filmmaker, who directed Lance in Pumpkinhead, would be hands on during the production process.

But alas, it never came to fruition despite completed voice work by not only Lance but Traci Lords and Tim Curry. The company 3DO, which produced the game, went bankrupt and took the project down with it. Sadly, it wasn't just a concept lost and up for grabs but had gone all the way through pre-production into the design process.

3DO spent close to $10 million developing and designing the game but during it's two year development process, went bankrupt and the game was completely cancelled. An official trailer, however. exists with limited visuals and even smaller gameplay and there is a 10 minute long recording of the beta (complete with Lance's audio and gameplay) in existence.

In the end, a resurrection was attempted first in 2004 and then through word of mouth when the next generations of consoles hit the market but nothing has ever come of it. And thus a Lance Henriksen project goes down the tubes.

Gun (2005)

Since the dawn of the home video game console and the brick and mortar arcade store, video games have been a successful and legit business. Changes in technology always help the video game industry and there have been 'generation' upon 'generation' of game consoles and games that, to this day, seem to keep people from the ages of 2 to 92 in awe.

And while video games have always been seen as entertainment, it's struggled to be taken seriously. Halo 2 changed all that. Halo 2 managed to out gross films that year and before the game was even released almost two million people wanted it, putting down sometimes full price for a copy.

At that point the idea of releasing a game became as much about entertaining the gamers as much as selling a universal product. Video games had not become a niche market but a worldwide one. Yes, many games had come before Halo 2 and some games, before and after, have sold more copies, but the intense interest in Halo 2 made producers realize that a whole new level of consumers was virtually being ignored for every OTHER game.

Thus, the video-game-as-film started to take form. The games were still about strategy, timing, and fun but there was also an intense need to depict games as multi-media events. . .you play, then you watch, and when you finally take a break, buy the soundtrack. Games upped the ante on story and splashed the cash on big names to provide voice talent on the game.

Lance Henriksen, already a veteran at this point, was approached for the Western game Gun and was asked to portray a villain for the first time. Gun, while never reaching the heights of popularity of other games of it's time, still sold past the one million mark and led to, years later, more advanced games like Red Dead Redemption.

In Gun, the hero is an Apache named Colton, played by Thomas Jane, and his is an epic journey in which he goes from hunting in the forest to tracking down a railroad baron named Macgruder (Lance Henriksen). The video game player is tasked with escorting Colton through many towns and avenging the death of Colton's father.

Gun, taking the idea of casting seriously, had an amazing voice cast. Besides Jane and Lance, Gun displays the voice talents of Brad Dourif, Kris Kristofferson, Ron Perlman, and Tom Skerrit. The game, once again not a huge seller, was popular with critics on every platform (Xbox 360, PS2, PSP, GameCube, and PC).

Thomas McDermott of DarkZero said:

"In my opinion I found most of the game audio to be of a high standard with the voice acting having lots of emotion and feeling behind it. The main reason for this high quality voice acting comes from the game using actors from Hollywood to voice their game. Thomas Jane from Deep Blue Sea plays Colton White, while Lance Henriksen from Aliens and Brad Dourif from the TV show Deadwood play other important characters in the game. With these three names alone you should be expecting great things . . ."

Meanwhile, GameSpot, while not completely enchanted with the presentation, put the voice work as it's first positive, calling it 'terrific':

". . .the game's audio is quite good, thanks especially to the excellent voice acting heard throughout the story. Thomas Jane (Deep Blue Sea) is great as the quiet, confident Colton White, and the main villains, played by Lance Henriksen (Aliens) and Brad Dourif (Deadwood), sound at least as wicked and nasty as they look. "

The reviews across the board were mostly excellent and when they weren't the voice acting was usually singled out as the best, or one of the best, aspects of the game. The only real trouble the game had, besides average to above average sales, was a ban from the Association for American Indian Development, who signed a petition asking for the recall of the games due to, according to Wikipedia, "degrading and harmful content".

And if 2005, and Gun especially, was part of the beginning of changing the face of video games in terms of it's marketability, the Lance would once again become a part of it's second revolution in 2007.

Mass Effect (2007)

Every franchise goes through it's experimental stage and while Gun wasn't a world shattering project it made all the right moves. BioWare's Mass Effect, in 2007, was another game changer and Lance was luckily a part of it.

Mass Effect is a RPG enabling the player to control how scenes of dialogue play out and thus can control the story based on sometimes singular reactions to often minute details. Did you snap at someone when they asked you a question? They'll remember that the next time you speak to them. Did you flirt with the girl (or guy, depending on who you play) in your unit? S/he'll approach you less professionally on the next encounter.

What Mass Effect did was take a lot of the playing out and put more movie in but all for the better. Players became captivated by an epic story that, thanks to thousands of different possibilities, was replayable since every decision led to a series of different occurrences, resulting in three to four totally different stories within the same game.

The only way to pull off a dialogue heavy, action-lite game is to have some of the best voice actors around. Less true to the Hollywood-Video Game craze, Mass Effect went for more 'working' actors and allowed celebrities to fill side roles and supporting characters.

In many ways, this allows the player to identify with the main character since you can't match a face to the voice, and gives credibility to the smaller roles as they are voiced by well known and somewhat soothing characters.

Lance joined the Mass Effect team with Keith David in what would not be their final pairing. Marina Sirtis, of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame also joined the cast as did Seth Green, Armin Shimmerman, and Robin Atkin Downes.

Oddly Lance's job was audio only and what I mean by that is that Lance's role, of Admiral Hackett, was not actually seen but simply heard. Appearing at the games opening and closing act and throughout side missions non essential to the game, Lance provides a gravitas that keeps you interested even when straying from the main storyline.

Mass Effect is essentially open world but there is a major story arc, taken at your own discretion. You control a Commander named Shepard. You have the luxury of deciding the sex, first name, and the appearance, making the character utterly unique to your experience. This, of course, has existed in sports games for years but to see a recreation of a character you create in movie-like cut scenes and doing what you want and how you want is quite compelling.

Anyways, you guide Shepard through a fully fleshed out universe, complete with in game back story and an immense mythology, on a quest to stop a maniacal alien (called a Turian) named Saren from opening up a gateway from another dimension that will release creatures perhaps responsible for out existence. To reveal anymore would be giving too much away.

The RPG is nothing new but Mass Effect's seemingly built in familiarity and confidence in it's mythology made the game, originally an XBox 360 only release, an immense hit. Sales figure are always hard to pin down but Mass Effect has sold at least 2+ million, making it a 'Platinum Hit' bestseller for the XBox 360. Eventually, the game was released to different platforms.

And critics loved the game too. Up to Mass Effect's release, the game was clearly Lance's most decorated and well received. Hardly a review can be found that isn't in the A+/90%/90 out of 100 area of critique. And while winning loads of 'Best of' awards from numerous organizations and video game award shows, the most impressive, according to Wikipedia, at least for voice actors like Lance, is Gamespot's 'Best Voice Acting' award in it's 2007 year in review. 

On a personal note, Mass Effect is my all time favorite game. The grand storytelling, the picture perfect design, and epic mythology makes for something special for game players everywhere. I won't lie. Combined with the first sequel, I've played in the Mass Effect universe for close to 200 hours. 

Now a full blown media franchise (there are comics, books, sequels to the games, apps, and soundtracks of music. . .of which I own all of the above), Mass Effect 3, now in production, is highly anticipated by more then just me.

Yes, there was a Mass Effect 2. But Lance wasn't invited. Well, sort of. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Transformers Animated (2008)

We close this first part analysis on a bit part Lance played in a Nintendo DS-only game called Transformers Animated: The Game.

The notable part of this game is that for the first time (and not the last) Lance would get to reincarnate a character he acted in a different medium. His transformer, Lockdown, was a character in the Transformers Animated TV show, of which the game is based.

Lance is once again a Non-Player Character (a character you only interact with) and his role is considerably scaled down compared to Mass Effect and Lance's 'starring' roles. But Lance had already participated in one game that changed the face of voice acting and it did exceptionally well both critically and commercially. 

He hadn't seen nuthin' yet. And neither had we.

To Be Continued. . .


  1. Will -

    Ever since Troy told me you were going to tackle this topic, I've been waiting eagerly. I spent most of 2010 watching Lance's feature films and television performances and talking with him about them... but you've given me insight into another world that I knew relatively little about. Thank you! I'm looking forward to part two...

  2. What a great post, Will! I'm not a gamer by any stretch, but I really enjoyed the coverage you lent in this piece. LH, besides being such a talented actor, is one HELL of voice artist. HIs narration of the Nightmare in Red, White, and Blue film documentary was exceptional. He's even performed the audiobook narration (abridged, unfortunately) of the novelization for Alien³. Fantastic job, man.

    p.s., Michael 'F&*^ing' Ironside is the only way to pronounce that name. I met him once on a golf course here. Even if you didn't recognize him by looks, that voice is a dead giveaway.

  3. Hi Will,

    I want to thank you for a highly-detailed and very original post. I can only echo Joe and Michael here, but this was really an avenue of Lance Henriksen's career that I knew only vague things about. But no more.

    This was really, really excellent, and it is great having you aboard the blogathon.

    All my best,

  4. Thanks to all of you for being so nice with the compliments! I worked FOREVER on this. I was so nervous it wouldn't come out on time.

    It means a lot to here praise from such talented folk as you guys!


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