As the world changes, so will the voice of the hero. Where does that leave Nolan North?
North’s natural speaking voice soon became one of the most coveted assets in the entire industry. He’s embodied heroes from “Uncharted” to “Assassin’s Creed,” “Call of Duty” to “Halo,” the universes of Star Wars to Marvel and seemingly everything in between. Considering the ever-increasing influence of video games over the last 20 years, it’s difficult to imagine anyone has done more to define the voice of the modern hero than North.
“I don’t know why,” North says now, in the same familiar tone. “Maybe my voice became popular because it was somewhat unremarkable.”
He’s onto something. North’s voice is a quintessential example of what linguists and academics call “General American.” Technically, General American is simply an accent grouping associated with the United States yet not tied to any particular region. However, its broad accessibility has made it the preferred choice across mass media, and by extension, the de facto voice of the hero.
“General American, even though it sounds general, is a standard,” says Pamela Vanderway, a professional dialect coach. “The rules of that standard depend on what point in time we’re observing.”
As our definition of a hero changes, the voice follows. Any idea of a “standard” dances a fine line between description and prescription, and it’s no mystery General American has up to this point been associated with those who are white, male, and of a certain status. Many have adopted the voice for career advancement, whether it’s minority performers trying to “sound white” or even Stephen Colbert telling “60 Minutes” he shed his native South Carolina accent to appear more intelligent on camera. A word may be pronounced “cah” in Boston, or “cear” in Fargo, but it will almost certainly be “car” on the big screen.
Perhaps that won’t always be the case. The representation of heroes in popular culture has been on a decades-long march away from aspiration and toward authenticity. Public figures in the early 20th Century, for instance, preferred the artificial Mid-Atlantic accent, a pretentious hybrid of British and American dialects. After World War II, actors such as Cary Grant and broadcasters like Walter Cronkite ushered in a General American that still sounds unusually formal, even theatrical to the modern ear. Hulking action heroes of the 1970s and 1980s spoke in deep and confident voices.
Then came everyman heroes like John McClane and Indiana Jones, the latter being the primary inspiration for Nathan Drake. Modern General American is marked by qualities like humility, warmth and informality. Vanderway sees all of those in North’s voice, and compliments his broad pitch range from high to low notes, allowing for more diverse emotional content. “It’s more relatable, simple,” North says. “It’s like, hey, that guy sounds like somebody I want to have a beer with.”
Now, the General American consensus may be shifting once more. As money and talent floods the video game industry, and as audiences grow and become more diverse, accommodating a broader swath of voices and accents may lead to a reshaping of the traditional image — and sound — of the hero. Which raises the question: Could a singular voice ever dominate gaming again? “Wow, I’ve never thought about that,” North says. He pauses. “No, I don’t know if it could because I think we’ve evolved too much.”
Why did it have to be Drakes?
North never received any formal vocal training, instead crediting his father — a Shakespeare and drama major from Iowa — for steering him clear of the New England accent shared by his mother and extended family. After a brief stint in broadcast journalism and a few years on a soap opera, North brought his voice to a video game industry lagging years behind the evolution of heroes on the silver screen. As recently as the 1990s and early 2000s, video game protagonists were designed to be silent and strong, blank slates upon which players could project themselves. Gordon Freeman never utters a word in “Half-Life.” Neither does the nameless hero of the “Doom” series.
In time, aided by a new generation of consoles, gamers’ relationship to their on-screen avatars transformed from projection to something closer to empathy. Though they controlled characters less like themselves, a deep connection formed by seeing — in greater fidelity — through a hero’s eyes and walking (and jumping and climbing) in their shoes.
“What we tried to do is make characters that are believable,” says Bruce Straley, a game director at Naughty Dog studios from 1999-2017. “They are relatable because they react the way you as a human would react.”
Naughty Dog cast North as its jeans-and-a-t-shirt hero in 2007, and almost immediately the archetype was everywhere. In a two-year span North voiced, as he puts it, “Nathan Drake without the personality” in “Assassin’s Creed,” “Drake with a jet pack” in “Dark Void,” not to mention a near-clone of Drake in “Shadow Complex,” a Sgt. Drake in “Halo Wars,” and Drake with a six-pack in “The Prince of Persia.”
“They all wanted that,” North says, “and I was like, are you sure?”
North appeared in 29 games in 2009. His omnipresence became a running joke. Gaming website giantbomb.com added a “Northies” category to their year-end awards made entirely of his performances, and the developers of megahit “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” added a North-voiced character from “Portal 2” into the game with a note reading, “Since Skyrim was the only major release of 2011 without Nolan North in it, you should consider this mod a patch to fix that problem.”
Amy Hennig, creative director and lead writer for the “Uncharted” series, says the voice was only part of North’s appeal. During production, he would sit in on play-throughs of the game and record improvised one-liners, which became a cornerstone of the Drake character’s personality. “Beside the fact that his voice is warm and appealing and has that nice baseline character to it, it’s really what else he brings to it,” she says. “He tends to say what the player is thinking, because he’s just such a regular guy.”
North is quick to defer all credit for his success to the developers, and quicker to point out gamers “aren’t going to buy a game because it’s a white male protagonist.” After all, being relatable isn’t a trait exclusive to white male characters. But the “Uncharted” series alone sold over 40 million units, “Assassin’s Creed” over 100 million. Blockbuster games, with North or without, were undeniably fronted almost exclusively by a certain kind of hero.
“The reason why AAA [blockbuster games] kind of became a little pigeon holed into white male protagonists is because it was rooted in shooting and combat,” Straley theorizes. “You’re just now starting to see a broader spectrum of ways of interacting with worlds.”
Another theory has more to do with the people in charge. A Bloomberg report into sexist office culture at Ubisoft cites executives advising the “Assassin’s Creed” development team that games with female protagonists wouldn’t sell as many units.
Recent headlines suggest the democratization of the hero archetype faces similar biases behind the mic. Until recently producers prided themselves on a “blind” casting process, yet the end result was too often white actors voicing nonwhite characters. Over the past two months, prominent white actors such as Jenny Slate (“Big Mouth”), Alison Brie (“BoJack Horseman”), Kristen Bell (“Central Park”) and Mike Henry (“Family Guy”) forfeited their roles as minority or mixed race cartoon characters.
Daisuke Tsuji, who stars in the new blockbuster samurai adventure “Ghost of Tsushima,” says the importance of an all-Asian and Asian American cast cannot be overstated. Growing up seeing only white heroes on screen left him feeling like he could only portray villains or quirky sidekicks. “It was a struggle to really own the protagonist role,” he says. “To have this face, to have my face and be like, yes, I can be a hero.”
In its first three days of release, “Ghost of Tsushima” sold 2.4 million copies. Tsuji is the star of a hit game. Still, he’s very aware of the fact that his hero is Japanese, and his three most recent television roles haven’t even spoken English, let alone General American. Moving forward he wonders if he’ll be able to play heroes who aren’t defined by their race, without totally muting his Asian heritage.
“I think we should be able to embrace that and still be American,” Tsuji says. “Or at least, that’s the America I want to live in.”
Resetting the standard
A future in which North is no longer the go-to voice of the hero — both because the General American consensus will change and so will his voice — is fast-approaching. As he nears his 50th birthday, he’s already noticing a deeper, more textured tone that he thinks could provide a neat pivot into commercial work. Success allows him to be more selective of roles; North has taken on more colorful supporting characters in recent years, like The Penguin in the “Batman: Arkham” series and Edward Richtofen, a German scientist in “Call of Duty’s” Zombies mode.
“If someone said, hey we got a guy and he hunts for treasure, I’m like, hmm, kinda been there, done that,” he says. “I’d give my hands, feet and [posterior] for a car campaign.”
People will always want to categorize and label a standard, but Vanderway predicts the next evolution of General American will integrate speech and accents from more diverse backgrounds, influenced by mass exposure to increasingly unfiltered voices in modern media. Speech is an agreement, she says, and exposure is the bargaining chips. For example, she was shocked to recently hear an elderly relative say, in all seriousness, “for shiz.”
“The more you’re exposed to somebody the more they become part of your life,” Vanderway says. “If [the speech] sticks around long enough so no one knows where it started from, it’s become standard.”
If General American becomes more inclusive, then perhaps it will open the door to more diverse heroes. Especially in gaming, there’s precedent for inhabiting and identifying with a character different from oneself.
“If you’re a part of some unrepresented class, [representation] has a deep impact on how you visualize yourself and what you aspire to,” says Hennig, citing the lack of female heroes in her own childhood. “To be it you have to see it. And we’re seeing it now, thank God.”
There’s perhaps no better example than Naughty Dog’s “The Last of Us Part II,” which brings its young, female sidekick from the first installment to center stage as a dramatically different action hero than the one North fronted a decade ago. The game sold over 4 million copies in its first three days of release, becoming the fastest-selling PS4 exclusive of all time.
Female-led “Horizon Zero Dawn” sold over 10 million units since its release in 2018. The sequel was one of the most anticipated titles out of last month’s PlayStation 5 announcement video, alongside “Spider-Man: Miles Morales,” starring the half-African American, half-Puerto Rican comic book hero.
Nicolas Roye, who deploys a South American accent as The Pilot in the upcoming “Halo Infinite,” says he’s received daily messages since the trailer was released from people in Brazil, Chile, Spain and Mexico thanking him for playing a character they can finally relate to. “When you audition for something you never know if they’re going to think it’s too thick of an accent, that it’s not going to be relatable,” he says. “I just took a shot, and somehow they ended up liking it.”
North, meanwhile, is not going away. He will star as Tony Stark in this year’s “Marvel’s Avengers” game. But while he may represent the voice of the hero for the last 20 years, even he knows the change is coming.
“Truthfully,” he says in perfect General American, “I was in the right place at the right time.”
Matt Craig is a journalist based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Esquire, The Athletic, and the Orange County Register. Follow him on Twitter @MrMattCraig.