I don't think Troy Baker's ever met a person he doesn't like. Or at least, that's the impression I get of the voice that rings loud and clear in all your favorite modern video games. He is talkative; he asks a lot of questions. He rambles. He makes eye contact but also looks away when his thoughts trail off.
We're in the midst of DICE Summit 2020, a multi-day conference that has the chill factor of the Game Developers Conference (R.I.P.), but with even less pressure and a smaller pool of attendees. For the most part, it seems to be for older, white executive types. Baker, while at least one of those things, isn't what you'd consider "old." Though he is aghast when a server cards him after ordering wine.
"There was never a plan," Baker says of how he got into this line of work. "Anytime I did have a plan, it instantly went sideways. I thought I was going to be a musician that was tearing the world up with my music, and this whole thing happened because I walked down the wrong door at the wrong time and then was persistent enough to go back."
One of those doors was Gearbox, around 2007, though his bit roles stretch a few years before that. Over the course of our conversation, he mentions probably 50 names of people who helped in one way or another in both the early, mid, and present days of his career. Audio director Mark Petty at Gearbox. Amanda Wyatt, a voice director on Arkham Origins who Baker says looked out for his vocal health in the booth recording Joker. ("There were sessions that I was booked for four hours. And after an hour and a half or two hours, she's like, 'You're done, because we're getting diminishing returns and it's more important for us to get the quality of performance than it is the quantity of performance.'") Chances are, if you've met Troy Baker, he remembers your name, role, and how you helped him specifically, right down to the year.
"So in 2007, 2008, a guy I had never met before named Jack Fletcher told Square Enix, 'This is the guy that I want to play this new character Snow in the Final Fantasy game, and if you don't say yes, then I quit,'" Baker tells me of how he got the role of Snow in the English dub of Final Fantasy 13. "It was a power play on his part because he wanted to know that the team trusted him, but believe you me, when I walked into that session, he told me, 'Don't you fuck this up, because both of our jobs are on the line.' So all of a sudden I go from just being Soldier A or whoever, to thrust into a lead role in a triple-A franchise. And then next thing you know, I'm chasing after this career, trying to figure out how to do it."
It wasn't constant callbacks from the start though. His resume was terrible, or so he tells me. Audition reel? "Awful." Headshot, a "joke." He credits his career not to himself, but to the people he's met and took a chance on him as a result along the way. Also to failing.
He's been watching his son, for instance, fall—"and I mean eat shit, bust ass fall"—and without fail, stand back up and keep going. In a sense, that's how his career through games has been too.
"Then I also learn to die to myself and my ego in countless ways," says Baker. "It started when Neil [Druckmann, co-director of The Last of Us] put me in a position where I had to trust him. He took my training wheels off, because I used to go behind the monitor after every scene. I want to watch playback, so that I could see what I did wrong, [...] which completely bypasses him as a director. One day after a shoot, he goes hey I need you do me a favor," our server interrupts us, but Baker doesn't miss a beat. "I had to trust him. I didn't even realize until he posited that, and it was a request that I hadn't considered him; I hadn't given him the permission to be my director. And he was absolutely right. Even now, I don't watch playback as a general rule, 'cause it's my job to. That's somebody else's job."
Last year, Baker revealed that he would not be reprising his role as Rhys in Borderlands 3, his character from Telltale's Tales from the Borderlands. The reasoning, he explained to VG247 late last year during a fan event for his YouTube channel Retro Replay with fellow voice actor Nolan North, was because Gearbox "wouldn't go union." Baker, himself a part of the video game actor union SAG-AFTRA, reaffirms to me that he would have loved to work on Borderlands 3, if he could, but it's a line he couldn't cross ethically.
In a separate statement, SAG-AFTRA pushed back against Gearbox saying that the Texas Labor Code was the reason for prohibiting it working with Baker again. "[W]hat we were told is the way that their company operates, that model doesn't work for them," he explains. And it's not the first time Baker's had to turn down a role for not meeting union standards.
"You know, there was this whole situation where during the whole strike thing, games still needed to be made," Baker continues, "and what we saw happening was there was a lot of stuff that went overseas and there was a lot of stuff that people were getting very creative about how they do it.
"And it was it was scary, man, because this is all that I want to do: is make games. And when things that you don't think are gonna be like, if I don't get the job, I understand that. I wasn't the right person for the role, but these kinds of surrounding circumstances to prevent me from doing what I want to do? I didn't see that coming. So that was scary. And fortunately, both sides worked it out to where they came to an amicable understanding, but at the end of the day, I just want to do what I love to do, which is make games. But I have to do that within the confines of what's given me, you know?" In his own words, not verbatim, a dad's gotta pay for his son to eat somehow.
As of late, Baker's been pursuing being on "the other side of the glass." He's directing more, after dabbling with it every now and then with anyone who "was kind enough to go, 'Hey, why don't you do this?'" He got his first shot at formally directing under Monolith Productions, as a performance capture director on Middle-earth: Shadow of War. The bonus gig, on top of him already portraying the lead, Talion, was offered by Monolith after a conversation about looking for directors. It was a teaching moment for the actor.
"I learned then that directing something that you're the lead of is really, really hard to do," he says. "Especially when it's your first big, triple-A title. [You] probably shouldn't be the director and the lead, and they were kind enough to lovingly be patient with me through that."
He tells me he's learned from Druckmann, from JB Blanc (a fellow voice actor as well), from Wyatt, from others. But perhaps the biggest lesson he's taken away is that he's not alone. Over our conversation, he's quick to talk about yes, all the people at other companies, but also his own team, his agent. It's never, he reiterates, just him or just one person ever, really.
"As a director, I've had that thing where I direct a scene like this, and then somebody else will do something, I'm like 'you edited that? I told you the other take was the better take.' And you realize that it's not one person. Not one person makes a game," he pauses, "Unless you're Lucas Pope, and then it's one person making a game. But not one person makes a game. It is a team of people working in concert with each other in order to tell a meaningful story."
Baker's now voice directing the adventure-musical Chorus, which after a successful crowdfunding round on Fig, is in active development alongside acclaimed composer Austin Wintory (Journey, The Banner Saga) and former BioWare lead writer David Gaider, among others. Actress Laura Bailey is the lead. (The two have been co-stars many times over the years, from the upcoming Marvel's Avengers to Catherine.) Baker's background as a musician makes it a project near and dear to his heart.
"It's gonna be, I believe, the first successful musical game ever. I'm able to direct that and not be the lead, which is great," Baker says. "And one of the reasons why I'm here, is because, just like you asked that question, most people don't know that I want to do that. Like, oh, shit. And I feel, just like JB Blanc, I'm able to come at this and go, 'Hey, guys, I've been on that side.' I just want to bridge the gap between the creatives on this side and the creatives on this side and really tell impactful stories."
In November, Baker appeared as the villain Higgs in Metal Gear Solid director Hideo Kojima's latest project, Death Stranding. It's a game that stars more household names than maybe any other video game before it, and among them is video games' own A-list star: Troy Baker. And he was cast, pretty much, before he even knew it.
"Hideo came to me and I think it was actually at DICE, and was like, 'I want to put you in the game.' I was like, 'Dude, I will work for you any day of the week and twice on Sunday.' And then that just kept building. Then one time we were at Comic-Con at the EW party, and I get a tap on my shoulder and [Hideo] goes, come here I want you to meet somebody. And it was Norman [Reedus]. He goes like, 'Here's your costar.' [Norman's] like, 'Oh, you're the guy they've been telling me about!' I'm like, 'What is happening right now?' And that's how I found out I was gonna be in Death Stranding."
Baker's own likeness is used in Death Stranding, just like his co-stars Léa Seydoux, Mads Mikkelsen, and Norman Reedus. A more "emo" version of himself, which he likens to how he actually looked in 2000 ("people would mistake me for Sharon Manson from Garbage"), but his face and voice regardless. Some famous directors even had their likenesses, but not voices, borrowed for the video game—Academy Award-winning Guillermo Del Toro and Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn.
When I played Death Stranding many months ago, I couldn't help but wondering how the deluge of TV and film actors adapted to working on a mocap stage. According to Baker, the adjustment for at least Reedus went off without a hitch. "It's funny 'cause I've worked with people who this is not their gig. Actors who are primarily known for what they do, TV and film, or theater," he says. "The people who have a strong theater background come into this immediately can adjust. People who do TV and film a lot of times, it's a bit of a struggle." Luckily for Baker, a seasoned pro on the mocap stage at this point, his frequent on-screen co-star Norman Reedus was down for basically anything. Even that one scene.
"[H]e had to give me permission to do some stuff like lick his face," adds Baker. "That was the first day of shooting. I was like, 'this is going to get real awkward, real quick.' I think it was the third scene, the second scene that we shot. They were like, 'No, you're gonna actually, we need you to lick his face.' I'm like, [claps], it's mocap. You guys can do amazing things. And [Norman's] like, 'Fuck it dude, let's go for it.' He's a good dude. Really really good dude. [...] A good actor is a good actor. Whether it be on TV film or on stage or on mocap stage."
For his most recent big project, he can only sorta-but-not-really talk about it: The Last of Us Part 2. When it comes to the first The Last of Us, it was a more slow-going process. "We would just workshop on the day, and that to me was... never had that kind of freedom." Naughty Dog had earned the respect and trust to take its time with The Last of Us, adds Baker. When I ask if there was a difference, at least in vibe, when it came to shooting performance capture for The Last of Us Part 2, he compares it (again) to parenthood.
"I've talked to a lot of friends who have two kids, and they always say, you think that you're going to know exactly what to do. Now we say, 'Oh, you think you're going to know exactly what to do the second time.' And you start over, and you're like, 'I have no idea what I'm doing.' The characters felt, you almost have to find them all over again. In some ways, because they've grown. They're in new circumstances, but you're not throwing away what you had. You're building on top of it."
In my many years of interviewing people for a living, I've always found that the quickest way to know someone's true character is to see how they treat people in the service industry. It could be a barista, or it could be a waiter at a restaurant in a hotel in Las Vegas. Perhaps it's my own history as a former tea brewer, but whenever someone's rude to someone in food service, the message is clear: Yikes. Baker, perhaps as no surprise to those who know him already, passes this test, and goes above and beyond the normal niceness threshold at that.
He compliments how our server pours beverages. He talks to waiters like they're long time friends, and is quick to be on a first name basis. He panics when realizing he doesn't know what to do with the gum he was chewing, not wanting to bury it in a nearby shrubbery like most others might or fold it into a napkin for a waiter to deal with. When he sees my recorder as I pull my stuff out to set up our interview, he gets up and asks the hostess to reseat us outside, so that I can get a clearer sound out of the hustle and bustle of the restaurant.
It's indicative of how he talks about his career, too. It's never him, but it's the people he's bonded with along the way that have helped him get to where he is now. That is, being in pretty much 80% of triple-A games, among other things. As our chat winds down, I can't help but ask the obvious, impossible question: What's his favorite role in his career? He can't "Sophie's Choice it," he says, but he does say being Joel in The Last of Us changed his life "fundamentally and unilaterally," for how it helped shape him into the actor he is today.
We'll next be seeing Baker reprising his role as Joel in The Last of Us Part 2, due out this May—provided it doesn't get delayed again. He also stars as Bruce Banner, a.k.a. The Hulk, in Crystal Dynamics' upcoming Marvel's Avengers, out this September. His game Chorus doesn't have a release window, but will release "when the game is done." Which could be this year. It could be years from now. Whenever that is, the industry is ready to see his next act.