Searching For Me
August 17, 2010 | by Colin Nissan
A modern tale of heartbreak and video games.
For years I’ve enjoyed a mildly successful career as a voice actor. Specifically, an advertising announcer, which means I get paid to say things like, “Get into a Saturn for just $299 a month.” I’ve hawked everything from cars and credit cards to hotels and beer, all with a tone that rarely deviates from that of a pilot announcing a plane’s gradual descent over the intercom.
I recently asked my agent if I could try auditioning for video game character voices. I thought it would be fun and maybe even legitimize the fact that I play more video games than a forty-year-old who has been laid probably should.
I went on a few auditions. Regrettably, and I’d like to think, understandably, I failed to convince anyone that I was a Latino mercenary, a Korean soldier, or a homicidal Midwestern drifter. I frantically practiced accents in anticipation of what might come next. My German sounded like Arnold Schwarzenegger. My French, like Pepé Le Pew.
Thankfully the next audition turned out to be for neither, but for an old, foul-mouthed lawman in a game set on the American frontier called Red Dead Redemption. My agent called. I got it.
A week later, I went into Rockstar Games in Soho for the recording and screamed two hours of lines as Marshall Leigh Johnson. I threatened, chased, arrested, and killed people. I even died. I didn’t just die, I died with an accent. I was in the freaking zone. After signing my paperwork, I left, sweating, voiceless, and thrilled to bid farewell to my voice-over innocence. A new day had dawned for me and my badass larynx.
A month later, New York City was covered in promotions for the game. Subways, buses, sides of buildings. It was the most highly-anticipated game in years. I couldn’t contain my gravelly chuckle as I walked past posters of myself, or the under-my-breath “hee-ya” when a police horse crossed my path.
I imagined kids rushing toward me at Comic-Con begging me to do the voice.
“Sorry, I can’t,” I’d say. (in the voice)
“It IS you!” They’d scream.
“That’s right,” I’d reply, “Now go on and git!”
I’d sign posters right across the yellowed whiskers of my beard. I’d sign the breasts of the kids’ moms. I’d draw the barrel of a pistol as the “i” of my signature. It would be my thing.
I monitored the game’s Web site for the latest news. With the release two months away they put out a trailer that, to my confusion, didn’t feature my voice when the Marshall spoke. I asked my agent about it, she told me not to worry and that it was typical to use different voices specifically for the trailers.
A month later another trailer came out. Still not my voice. IMDB released credits for the game. I wasn’t listed. My agent maintained her position. They must have used the name of the trailer voice actor by mistake, she said. I no longer shared her optimism, but knew where I needed to go for the answer: the GameStop in Park Slope, May 18th at midnight.
I passed by the store early that day to confirm the pickup time for the big release night. During an extremely short lull while chatting with two whitehead-ravaged clerks, I succumbed to a confusing urge to tell them who I was.
“You’re the Marshall?” they said in disbelief.
“That’s what the badge says.” Dear God, celebrity had already wreaked havoc on me.
Not that I expected a banner when I arrived later that night, but I figured the Marshall deserved a cut in line, maybe a free T-shirt. Instead I stood behind dozens of pasty, callous-thumbed virgins on rare leave from their Hot Pocket-scented catacombs. One of the clerks acknowledged me with a tiny wave from behind the counter, I guess it would be our little secret.
I got home at 1 A.M., put the game in, and set out on a journey to find myself. To find the truth. A quest that was greatly exacerbated by a series of lengthy and compulsory tutorials. How to ride a horse, how to fire a gun, how to lasso a cow.
2 A.M. I rode into dusty towns, Blackwater, Port Elizabeth, Cholla Springs. I exchanged pleasantries with townsfolk. 3 A.M. Still no sign of the Marshall. I entered saloons and general stores, swinging open door after creaky hinged door, searching for one man in a frontier of thousands. 4 A.M. I consulted the giant foldout map that came with the game, which only confirmed the reality that this world was massive and that I had only galloped through a tiny fraction of it. I was exhausted. My horse was exhausted. I literally had to tie her to a hitching post so she could recharge. 5 A.M.
And that’s when I met Bonnie. Beautiful Bonnie MacFarlane. The woman who would utter the words I’d been waiting to hear for months, “You should go see Marshall Johnson over in Armadillo.” If there was a button for it, I would have kissed her right on her parched, frontier lips.
I mounted my horse and rode like the wind, due west with newfound purpose. I was close, the silhouette of Armadillo rose in the distance. I slowed my horse to a trot—the town was quiet, small, worn. The sun blazed in Armadillo and was just moments from rising in Brooklyn.
I hitched my horse and walked toward the local jail. Inside a prisoner lay in a rusty cell, a deputy napped in a chair, and still no sign of the Marshall. So I waited. And waited. Finally, I heard footsteps along the creaky floor behind me, and just like that, there he was. Standing before my very eyes, Marshall Leigh-Motherfucking-Johnson. Strong and weathered with a tarnished, pixelated star on his barrel chest, a little taller, and dare I say, more handsome than I had imagined. I felt actual nausea.
Say something you crusty son of a bitch. Speak!
“Well what do we have here?” he asked.
The controller went limp in my hands. My heart sunk.
It wasn’t me.
At that moment, something came over me. Something dark. All the months of frustration came rushing through me, I pulled out my gun and stared at him. He stared back at me. “Be careful with that thing,” he said. And with that final confirmation of this stranger’s voice, I pointed at his chest and pulled the trigger.
I needed closure. More importantly, I needed to know if this son of a bitch died better than me. He owed me that.
But it seems our story wasn’t meant to end this way because an unseen force redirected my point-blank bullets to miss him by a mile. I unloaded every bullet I had into him, they all missed. It turns out my character wasn’t allowed to kill him because they were allies in the game and friendly fire was prohibited.
I holstered my empty gun and shut the game off. Not only was I robbed of justice in the real world, but now in the fake one as well.
The game sat on my shelf for weeks, untouched, until one day in one residual gasp of frustration, I Googled myself and the game. Like a mirage on the arid plains I’d come to know so well, I saw a result. My palms began to sweat. I was listed in the credits, not as the Marshall, but amongst literally hundreds of other names as an anonymous member of the game’s “local population.” A frantic look at the printed booklet that came with the game provided confirmation. I was in the game. But how? Where? Who?
There were so many unanswered questions, but I knew in my heart what it was time to do. Saddle up and continue my search. Just my faithful horse and the shred of hope that some cowhand or stagecoach driver might turn around and say howdy in a voice that I recognized. A needle in a haystack? Sure. But that’s okay, on the frontier you ain’t got nothin’ but time.
Colin Nissan writes TV commercials and humor essays for places like McSweeney's. He also records a legitimate voice-over every now and then.