Troy Baker is the ubiquitous video game actor. He’s coming back this year as the voice of Talion, the hero known as The Bright Lord in Warner Bros.’ Middle-earth: Shadow of War. He returned to the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) to tout the game in the wake of the release of a new trailer teasing the story behind the sequel to the enormously popular Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor of 2014.
Debuting on consoles and PC on October 10, the sequel promises to be much bigger as an open world, according to creative director Michael de Plater and art director Philip Straub. (That probably means it will take me hundreds of hours to finish it as it took me 80 to finish Shadow of Mordor. And that should yield plenty of airtime for Baker, who returns to the role of the ranger who aims to stop Sauron before the events of The Lord of the Rings. Based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, we know that Talion fails.
In any case, we’ll hear a lot of Baker in his latest role. As for other games, Baker has won numerous awards for playing Joel in The Last of Us, Booker de Witt in BioShock Infinite, and Sam in Uncharted 4. I caught up with Baker at E3 after playing another preview of the game.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: Are you enjoying the show so far?
Troy Baker: It’s crazy. This is my eighth E3, I think. I never thought I’d see cosplayers at E3.
GamesBeat: They’re the new booth babes.
Baker: It’s been an interesting transition into opening it up to consumers, but it’s breathed some new life into the show.
GamesBeat: Can you do Talion’s voice for us?
Baker: Yes, but what’s interesting — it looks so weird coming out of my face. We’ve done such a good job of creating these characters and making them look so real. All of a sudden when you hear that sound come out of me, it’s a weird juxtaposition.
GamesBeat: You’ve done a lot of different voices over the years. Where does that come from?
Baker: You know, I don’t know. There’s a lot of people running around in my head. When I was a kid, this is what I did. I played pretend. Everybody tries to find a way to create a career out what they love doing, what their passion is, what they naturally like to do. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do that. And not just in past games, but now to be able to come back and play a character that is now part of Middle-earth lore. That’s a pretty big feather in my cap. And not just as an actor, but as the director of the performance capture now.
GamesBeat: Is this the first time you’ve done that kind of capture?
Baker: We did it on the first game as well. Then we came back for this and — when I went to Monolith up in Seattle, they wanted to pitch me the game and show me what they were thinking about doing. Took me beat by beat through that conversation. It became an opportunity for me to be like the quarterback, I guess. We have a great coach. Mike de Plater is our coach, and he has the vision for this game. But the able to execute that for the other actors kind of became my job.
GamesBeat: Does it get easier to do your lines if you’re motion-capturing at the same time?
Baker: The more connected you can be to any performance, whatever that means, the better. We shoot this like we would a show or a film. As opposed to just being in a vacuum, being by yourself, having to imagine the world, we do our best on that sound stage with all the actors together on the set. Just like you would — it’s like theater. Stage on film is a great way to put it.
Once we have all our actors moving in the space together, blocking out the scenes, discussing dramatically and narratively what’s at stake in the scenes, working and parsing through those, for me it’s always easier to build a more believable character and invest a more believable performance. You’re actually in the space, holding a sword, fighting somebody, or having a more intimate dramatic moment.
GamesBeat: With Talion, how would you see he’s different as a character and a voice-acting performance in this game?
Baker: I’d actually remove voice acting from it completely. A character is a character and acting is acting. To me, if you focus too much on the voice, you forget that this is a three-dimensional character. He’s not a disembodied voice walking around. This is a person that has legs and arms and face and a body moving around. Especially with Talion — in the first game we saw someone who’d just lost his family. He was hell-bent on revenge. Shadow of Mordor was really a story about revenge.
Shadow of War is a story about domination. We’ve picked a fight with the devil. We’re bringing the war to Sauron’s gates. In order to do that we have to build our army. To me, what makes Talion such a different kind of character is that it’s really up to you as a gamer what kind of character you want him to be. This isn’t a Choose Your Own Adventure, but it’s very much about who you choose to recruit, who you ally yourself with, and how you use those people to accomplish your goals. All that says a lot about you as a person and a lot about Talion as a character.
GamesBeat: There’s some charisma in there. What other range do you find in that character?
Baker: There’s someone who is truly lost, in the sense that — the purpose he thought he had in this world has been taken from him. If you played the first game, at the end he finds out that he’s been used as a pawn. Now he’s taking that and, with the crafting of the new ring, choosing to make his own destiny, choosing to be a man with his own purpose, his own identity. It’s a pretty broad range. It’s a character that, just like Aragorn or Boromir—he stands shoulder to shoulder with them.
GamesBeat: The story trailer was pretty fascinating to me. I wondered what I should guess from that.
Baker: I love that you can do that. What would you guess?
GamesBeat: Well, Shelob is a woman who changes form back and forth, from a woman to this giant spider. She has a ring. Talion’s at one point friendly with her, or trying to kill her. She seems to play an interesting role in the story. It’s a piece of the lore we never knew anything about. The other thing I’m guessing is that he’s forced to raise this orc army to fight against Sauron, but he’ll probably have to deal with Gondor at the same time.
Baker: This, to me — when first put this game out and launched the first trailer, we saw the Reddit threads exploding. This has become a part of our culture. Middle-earth lore has been a part of our culture for 80 years now. In that time, people have become scholars and earned degrees in Tolkien lore. It’s not lost on us that we have to be careful. There’s no one that’s more precious about the lore than Michael de Plater and the people at Monolith. But what I love is watching the conversations going back and forth.
Someone asked me earlier today, “Do you have a problem when people disagree with you and pick your stuff apart?” No. If we’re a part of the conversation, that means we’re a part of the conversation. I’d much rather people be speculating and debating about this than not talking about it at all. Ultimately, you’ll find out what the story is October 10.
GamesBeat: Remind me of some of your other big roles in games?
Baker: I played Joel in The Last of Us. Booker de Witt in BioShock Infinite. I just played Sam in Uncharted 4.
GamesBeat: When you think of those characters, what are you doing differently this time?
Baker: I treat each character as its own thing. I try not to carbon-copy a character. A lot of that starts the same way as anything else. It just starts on the page.
GamesBeat: You can’t let Joel slip into voice here.
Baker: No, because then that’s Troy doing something. It’s not doing a service to this character.
GamesBeat: In some ways, I wonder where this is going as far as — at some point, the ability to capture you and put you into the game is going to get so precise that it could be you that goes directly in, rather than a sort of painted-up you. What do you see as far as this could go?
Baker: To me, the more you want to go one-to-one — there’s that uncanny valley. I think that one thing this medium offers us is the opportunity to be a more fantastical version of ourselves. It’s the same thing people do with Instagram or anything else like that. You don’t necessarily post the most honest pictures of yourself. You take a picture of yourself that flatters you, that makes you look better. That’s one of the reasons why we play games. We want to escape this and be a ranger of Gondor that’s assaulting a fortress full of orcs. That’s why we play games. If it was about doing our taxes, we wouldn’t play games.
GamesBeat: With Talion, he’s a character torn by choices he has to make.
Baker: Absolutely. A good story is all about choices, the choices we make and the consequences that follow. That level of choice extends to you as a player as well.
GamesBeat: It reminds me of The Last of Us in that way.
Baker: That’s a common theme throughout games and throughout everything else. We have choices to make, and every choice has a consequence.