Fifty actresses were employed to voice the many female characters in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey from a total cast of around 120, according to IMDb. They include Melissanthi Mahut, whose Kassandra is likely to be in the running for best performance of the year awards.
By comparison, Ubisoft hired nine women for the original Assassin’s Creed (2007) out of a total voice cast of 38. That means that not only does 2018 game includes a much larger cast, but also a higher percentage of women actors: from 23 percent to 41 percent.
According to an online marketplace for gig-seeking actors, Voices.com, demand is increasing for actresses. The company, which allows actors to upload their profiles and reels, says its female clients are now more likely to find a gig in games than the men on their books. The number of women uploading video game work to their demos — and actively seeking work in games — has increased sharply, according to chief brand officer Stephanie Ciccarelli.
“There’s more work for women voice actors than ever before,” she says. “Certainly it’s increased in the last five years, from what was previously a male-dominated field. It’s crazy that we’ve gone from having virtually no roles whatsoever in certain fields, like movie trailer voice-overs and video games, to a situation where women are booking more [roles] than the guys.”
The increase is driven by larger casts all round, but also by more roles, including leading roles for women. Forty-six voice actors are credited in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Half of them are women, including the lead role of Lara Croft, played by Camilla Luddington. Ten years ago, Tomb Raider: Underworld also had a 50-50 split between men and women, but only six actors are credited for that game.
Playing through a game like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, it’s clear just how visible, and plentiful, its female characters are. Many of the game’s best quest-givers are women, like the politician Aspasia, grumpy bowmaker Drucilla, highly-sexed senior Auxesia, and the pirate Xenia, as well as major characters like Phoibe and Myrrine.
“We wanted to make sure that you, as a player, were meeting women from all walks of life,” explains Odyssey narrative director Mel MacCoubrey. “We wanted to give voices and characters to women young and old, rich and poor, and for all personalities on the spectrum. Women get written out of history often, and we don’t want to adhere to that philosophy of erasure.”
To be sure, this shift toward an equal split between men and women actors is patchy at best. In 2018, Sony hired 60 actors for God of War, only 14 of whom were women. About a third of Far Cry 5’s cast of 90 were women.
“None of the progress we have made as an industry in the past decade is wasted progress, but there’s always more work to be done,” adds MacCoubrey. “It’s a never-ending cycle of needing more stories about women, [and] more women developers to bring those stories and experiences to life, to create parts for more women to act in, to share with more women players. Yes, there are more opportunities, but we need to continue to work together and support one another.”
Women themselves are driving the increase in roles for women, and not just when it comes to voice acting. They’re also taking on more positions of influence at game companies and as are a growing audience for games.
“Many more women are getting jobs writing, directing and producing and they’re creating more roles that they see themselves in,” says Ciccarelli. “Games companies want to make content for the people who want to play games. Women want to see themselves the way they would like to be seen, in leadership positions.”
Emily Grace Buck is a narrative designer formerly of Telltale, whose work includes games such as The Walking Dead, Batman and Guardians of the Galaxy. She notes that the balance is still tipped toward male characters, but there’s been an encouraging amount of progress.
“One thing that’s been really beautiful to see over the past bunch of years is the number of female writers in games,” she says. “It’s been steadily increasing, especially at midsize and larger studios.
“Writing teams are becoming more diverse, and at a much faster rate than a lot of other departments. And that’s starting to be reflected in the characters you see in games. If you have a woman writing a scene, you are just more likely to end up with more female characters, because that’s closer to her experience. That’s providing more opportunities to actors to be able to play those characters.”
Shelly Shenoy has been voicing roles in games for years, including Kate Garcia in The Walking Dead Season 3. She also runs training courses for voice actors, placing her students with game development projects.
“The roles in games are getting better,” she says. “Ten years ago, you’d be playing a cartoon character, like, ‘Hey, I’m a talking coffee pot.’ Now, we’re seeing way more authentic scenes of romance or heartbreak or crisis, and they require authentic performances.”
Like many voice actors, Shenoy has her own home studio, which is sometimes a requirement for games on tight budgets. She also gathers small groups of actors, who supply background voices. Under her direction, a handful of people could become a bustling marketplace or even a major riot. With the increasing size of scripts, due to diverging narrative possibilities, games need more voices, after all.
“You need to cast a body of actors who are capable of playing multiple characters, with super-clean character splits,” she says. “When it comes to casting, they need talented, multifaceted actors that have experience bringing several characters to the table.”
Actors often voice multiple characters in a game, and she says that women have a specific advantage in this regard.
“We have a more flexible range,” Shenoy says. “Most guys, they’ve got their range, and that’s beautiful, but they can’t necessarily disguise it. If you take a grown man, and you ask him to play an 8-year-old girl, that’s not going to work. But a woman can play a girl, or a boy, or even a teenage boy. I think the game industry is starting to realize that if you hire the right woman, you can cover a lot of bases.”
None of this means that finding work is easy, especially for actors lacking experience. Ciccarelli, who is a co-author of the book Voice Acting for Dummies, says that anyone considering a career in voice acting has to be prepared.
“You need to be talented, which is to say that you know how to use your voice, to perform and to be an actor. You also need to be technically proficient, with a home studio so you can edit and manipulate your voice recordings. And you have to have some business sense, because you need to be able to market yourself and get yourself out there and share with everyone what you can do.”
MacCoubrey has more straightforward advice for diving into the industry.
“Apply. Apply. Apply,” she says. “It is statistically proven that if women don’t feel they meet every single requirement on a job application, they won’t apply for the job. But at Ubisoft, we always encourage women to apply, because what’s the worst that can happen? You will lose 15 minutes trying to figure out how the application system works? Apply for the job, because, as the industry makes more and more space to include women and minorities, you never know who will be interested.”
The trend of more female characters in games, and more roles for actresses, looks set to continue. Ciccarelli expects to be signing more women who are looking for roles in games — and more substantial, sophisticated ones at that.
“I grew up playing Nintendo and I always liked Princess Peach. But it’s so far beyond that now. There’s a lot of opportunity out there.”