Actor Idris Elba is no stranger to the world of video games, but says he has a new-found appreciation for the art form following his latest role.
Elba stars as Solomon Reed in the latest spy-thriller adventure expansion for Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty.
Asked if he sees video games becoming a growing medium of work for actors, Elba calls it “a sign of the times”.
“Games and actors have always worked together but we’re seeing more notable film actors being moved into gaming.”
In recent years the games industry has seen a growing number of A-list actors and celebrities taking on character roles both in voice and appearance, including Kit Harington, Rami Malek and even comedian Conan O’Brien.
Elba says: “Every game now that has a big engine also has these big film-like cut scenes that are equally as entertaining. You can skip them, but most times you sit and watch, because your fingers are hurting from the last round.”
He says as an actor, the process of appearing in a game is the same as traditional acting: “Character work is character work, performance is performance. You’re using the same muscles, whether it’s games, or commercials or whatever else you are doing.
“The difference with games is you definitely have to collaborate even deeper, because you’re relying on an animator and a bigger team around you.”
Elba says he envisages a future in which a hybrid medium of film and videogames will appear, saying: “I think there’s definitely a world where the two worlds really do merge.
“We almost have it with virtual reality. You can be in a virtual world within a movie or a game and just look around.”
Developed by CD Projekt RED, the Phantom Liberty story (which has previously starred Keanu Reeves) takes place after the main game, when the shuttle of the president of the New United States of America is shot down over the deadliest district of Night City.
It’s the player’s job, along with intelligence agent Solomon Reed, to save the president.
The expansion introduces an entirely new story, characters, and abilities to enhance the gameplay experience.
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Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty isn’t Elba’s first venture into the world of video games, having previously appeared in franchises like the basketball game NBA 2K and Call of Duty.
However, this is his first performance as a primary character in a franchise and despite developers telling him it wasn’t going to be an easy process, he felt up to the challenge.
“It was different and it’s multifaceted,” he says.
“There was a component of real performance in CGI and motion caption, and that was the beginning… of this journey. Then there was obviously the voice component.
“My character is very central to the storyline… so their approach to me was, ‘Listen, this is not going to be easy. This is a big game for us and a big character so we want someone that has a certain type of gravitas’.”
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He says it was more complex than he thought it would be. “It took a long time. We started before the pandemic and I had to find ways to try and finish it over the last three years.
“It’s been a journey, and I’m super proud of where it is and what it’s come out as. I’m proud of my contribution.”
Puppet master without strings
Elba says that despite his previous experience in the games industry, technological advancements made the filming process “really fun and interesting” to him as a filmmaker.
“NBA 2k20 was my first motion capture but I only did a little bit and only voice work in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.”
The Luther star adds that he called upon his past experiences working with actor Andy Serkis, often considered a motion capture specialist, when filming Disney’s The Jungle Book.
“I’ve played animated characters like Shere Khan where they filmed my face with multiple cameras while we did the voiceover, so the motion capture was really interesting because you do get a sense of what you’re going to look like.
“After seeing early artists’ impressions of Solomon Reed, I got a sense of it. Then you put the suit on, get the dots on your face, and you start acting.”
He explains: “It’s like being a puppet master but without the strings. You’re using this whole vessel to create something that you can’t actually see. Someone else is going to do the work for you.”
He said the whole process gave him a “full new appreciation for the art form”.
“You have to record all of that dialogue, keeping track of where your character is if the player decides to do this, rather than that.
“That was tough, but we had an amazing system on how to do it, plus a really talented voice director who tells you if the gameplayer does this, then we need this type of reaction.”
The Guardian’s Rick Lane described Phantom Liberty as “a strong expansion” but added “it isn’t flawless” while Gamespot’s Michael Higham wrote that “Phantom Liberty is Cyberpunk 2077 at its best”.
The Verge’s Jay Peters says that while, at $29.99, the game was a pricey upgrade, “Elba brings an understated energy to his performance”.
Elba was appointed UN Goodwill Ambassador for IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development) in April 2020 and focuses on issues related to food security, climate change and environmental conservation.
Asked if he would like to see the games industry do more to shine a light on humanitarian and global issues, Elba says: “Games have exactly the same tool sets, if not more, to engage people in things they don’t understand.
“If you want to use gaming as a portal to education, to interface between one culture and another, it’s a really interesting place to do this.
“I’m sure there are companies that are looking at it, but anyone who can get that right… and educate cultures about other cultures is a winner.”
Despite admitting to being an actor who never likes to watch his own performances, Elba said he will definitely be playing Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty, because he is a self-confessed gamer.
“I play video games a lot and have done for most of my life. I had an Amstrad back in the day and pretty much every other console.
“I’m not one to watch my own performances, but I will play this game. I put so much work into it for years”.