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Identity Crisis - Playing a mixed heritage character in a modern day video game

by Vivek Bhurtun on 02/22/17 08:13:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Having been born in the UK but raised in an Indian family, I’ve never really considered myself anything other than British.

I mean, British is my nationality, even though I have always been proud of my Indian heritage and culture. When people ask me where I come from, I instinctively reply with “the UK” - this has been my home since I was born! Of course, the next question is, “what ethnicity are you?” or, in one case, “where do you hail from, brother?”

It was not until recently when I was asked to act as the protagonist in a video game, that I started to ask myself what it actually meant to be raised with eastern spiritual values in a western culture.

Herald is an interactive period drama set in an alternate version of the 19th century, in which the player progresses through the story as the protagonist Devan Rensburg. A 23-year-old born in India (part of the Eastern Colonies), Devan was adopted and raised in The Protectorate, a large colonial empire that spans most of western Europe. Devan is not a slave but is often treated like one in his own household by his adoptive parents. Growing increasingly dissatisfied with his ‘masters’ and society as a whole, Devan runs away in search of his roots and is recruited at the docks onto the HLV Herald, a merchant class clipper set for the Eastern Colonies.

Throughout the game, the player is constantly forced to contend with difficult decisions on race, culture and identity.

The studio that is releasing the game – Wispfire – contacted me last summer about auditioning for the part of the lead character. At the time, I was touring the United States with Global NGO ‘Embracing the World’, a global network of charities inspired by renowned humanitarian and Spiritual Leader Mata Amritanandamayi.

I had never ventured into the world of voice acting: my work had predominantly included narration for infomercials, marketing ads or documentaries. Despite this, the novel concept of the game piqued my interest.

Luckily, I always travel with my sound equipment, so a couple of hours later I had set up a makeshift recording booth in the back room of the school we were staying in.

Business Director and Writer Roy van der Schilden later explained that Wispfire had obtained a grant from The Democracy and Media Foundation, which would allow them to source voice actors for the game. I later learned that this is an area many games often fall down on – lacking the funds or time to hire actors. For games that heavily rely on character development and storyline, it can kill the gaming experience.

Roy stressed that Wispfire was particularly interested in voice actors of similar cultural heritage to the characters, as this would add an extra element of authenticity to the performance. I understood what Roy meant only after reading the script and completing a run through with both his and Bart’s (the sound engineer) guidance.

Profile: Devan Rensburg is a 23-year-old steward of mixed heritage working on board the HLV Herald, a merchant ship sailing for his land of birth, the Eastern Colonies. As a steward, it's his job to take care of all the passengers, be they rich or poor, important or downtrodden. Set during a time of great inequality and injustice, Devan has to deal with the harsh reality of a colonial society divided by race, class and culture.

Voice Description: Devan speaks with a middle-class British accent. His voice is medium-pitched and shows no trace of his colonial heritage.

Profile and Voice Description courtesy of Wispfire

Wispfire received a lot of auditions for this role. A picture from the Wispfire blog, which I saw when I was browsing the studio’s website for more information, showed an inbox full of character auditions. I sent my voice files on 29th June and on 6th July I was confirmed (to my surprise) in the role.

Now came the preparation, a completely new experience for me, putting myself in the shoes of the character, walking a mile as Devan. How would Devan voice these lines? How would Devan react? To my surprise, I found that I had more in common with Devan than I thought.

My parents came (from countries that were previously British colonies) to the UK as students to complete their education, met in college and, well, the rest is history. I was brought up speaking English. I took part in sports and read books from all over the world, but was also introduced to Indian tales and legends of folklore. I was encouraged to play an Indian musical instrument (Tabla) and celebrated Christmas as well as all the Indian festivals. My parents always encouraged me to take the best of both worlds.

Unlike Devan, I was not born in India, but as I’ve grown up, one way or another, I’ve developed a strong bond with my ancestral land. Every time I visit India, I feel at home. Indian music has enriched my life in ways I will never fully understand. Indian philosophy has challenged and broadened my way of thinking on many occasions, and Indian food (home cooked of course)… is delicious, to say the least!

But just like Devan, I have always struggled to reconcile the two cultures. In the UK, I am often treated as an outsider because of my ethnicity. On many occasions, people are genuinely surprised when I open my mouth and a completely British accent comes out. When in India, Indians do not regard me as Indian because I come from the UK, the nation that ruled over India for almost 200 years. Of course, it doesn’t help that I don’t speak an Indian language and, even more importantly, don’t follow cricket. So where do I fit in?

On the one hand, I believe you can’t blame the people of Britain today for the atrocities that have been committed in India in the past. At the same time, I feel saddened at the state of some parts of India and wonder if it would be this way had India not been subject to British rule. The British brought infrastructure to India, but equally death, destruction, and the looting of a nation’s wealth and dignity. These were the kind of thoughts I was having whilst delivering Devan’s lines, and I think this only helped with the delivery.

I had to switch from a man who was proud to be a citizen of the Protectorate to one lost and confused about where he fits in.

With guidance from Roy and Bart, I would deliver each line in my own interpretation, and then in several others suggested by Roy. Phrases like ‘more confused’, ‘more Protectorian’, ‘like you don’t know where you fit in’, ‘like you’re on an adventure to find your heritage’ were bandied around the studio during the five days I was there. By the fifth day, I could recall these feelings just by closing my eyes and thinking of a situation which I had experienced; I was learning how one’s own experiences can greatly help bring a character to life.

Voice acting as a character of mixed cultural heritage hasn’t changed my life per se, but it has made me stop and ask myself important questions about how I regard myself and where I fit in.

I will always respond with “I am British” when asked, “Where do you come from?”. But, culturally, I would conclude I am more Indian.

The rich spiritual and cultural heritage of India has contributed to making me many of the things I am today: spiritualist, introspective thinker, traveller and musician.

You can find out more information about WISPFIRE, the independent game design studio in the Dutch Game Garden and check out their new game HERALD releasing today, 22nd February 2017 at 6 PM GMT

You can also check out more of my Voice-over work here

The Author would like to personally thank the following people for their guidance:


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