The Voices of Video Games

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 24, 2008

In a postcard-perfect little yellow house with a baby stroller on the front porch just off Connecticut Avenue, there lives a man, his wife, three young children and about 20 elves.

The couple and their kids are friendly and well-known around the neighborhood. The elves, who aren't always so friendly, are well-known around the world. One is so universally despised that people regularly conspire to kill him. A foul-mouthed kid just moved into the house, too, but he spends most of his time wandering around post-nuclear Washington in a different century.

This becomes more than mildly interesting because the same elves might infest your own living room and, if not, surely they are next door or in a house just down the block. And the potty-mouthed kid is going to show up in homes all over right around Dec. 26, once Santa has completed his rounds.

Craig Sechler, nice guy from Northwest Washington, is the voice behind these and dozens of other characters in interactive video games, an intriguing, sometimes eerie, always challenging subculture that is as invisible to many people as it is all-consuming to others.

"There are just two kinds of people: those who do play and those who don't," Sechler said. "Eventually it will be just those who do."

Sechler is the voice for two of the animated characters in the video game "Fallout 3," a sequel long awaited by gamers and produced by Bethesda Softworks. More than half a million people bought it within five days of its debut last month.

The game is set in Washington, 200 years after the city was devastated by a nuclear attack. A blitz of advance advertising in the Metro Center station so startled some rail riders with depictions of the capital in ruins that one man complained, "We do not need a daily reminder of what our worst fears look like."

If that's what our worst fears look like, then they sound like Sechler, Wes Johnson and 33 other local professional voice actors who took part in the production. The biggest-name voices among them are Malcolm McDowell, Liam Neeson and Ron Perlman.

Whether you're a gamer or not, voice-over actors are a constant in modern life. They narrate documentaries, promote television shows, deliver advertising messages on radio and television, and are the voices-without-a-face on game shows. Almost every American alive has heard the booming voice of Don Pardo, but few have ever seen him.

"It's terrific as a performer because you can play a whole lot of roles without ever looking the part," said Johnson, 47, the voice of Mr. Burke and Fawkes in "Fallout 3." "You know how people say, 'You have a face made for radio?' Well, that's me."

For voice actors, video games present a few new twists on a profession that's been around a least since the introduction of the Victrola. Unlike most voice work, there's no rehearsing of lines. With so many lines to be read by a major character in a session, there's no time for practice.

"They hand you something that's about the size of the phone book and you spend the next four hours doing enough variations on it so that the gamers won't get bored," said Johnson, who also works as the voice of the Washington Capitals when they play at the Verizon Center.

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