Sarah Elmaleh is an actor and voiceover artist best known for her work in video games, including indie titles Gone Home, Read Only Memories, and Pyre, to AAA titles Final Fantasy XV, Gears 5, and Anthem. Her credits also include radio dramas and on-screen performances such as Hey Ash Whatcha Playin’?. Last year saw the debut of GameDev.World, an online game developers’ conference that Sarah co-founded and co-organized. She has most recently appeared in Night Studios’ Afterparty, released last month for the Nintendo Switch, and as the voice casting and director for The Red Lantern, coming later this year.
In this podcast interview, I ask Sarah whether it was by accident or design that she found herself in this niche career; the tools a voice actor employs in the absence of makeup, costume, or lighting; how she got into character to play Apollyon, the sister of Satan; how the experience is different working in indie games vs. AAA; which of her characters she’d like to play in a live-action movie; the ways in which GameDev.World complements GDC, and how the pandemic has affected both events; and why Mark Hamill is a great actor.
Stream the audio edition of this interview below or from Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, Overcast, Pandora, Pocket Casts, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, RadioPublic, or the Internet Archive. Click past the jump for links to resources mentioned in this episode.
- Sarah Elmaleh
- SBV Talent (Sutton, Barth & Vennari)
- Brent Spiner & Maude Maggart in Dreamland
- The Red Lantern from Timberline Studio
- GDC 2020 postponed from March to August
- Gamedev.World starts GDC Relief fundraiser for indie game developers on Twitch
- Behind the Game: Sarah Elmaleh spotlight on Tumblr
Voiceover: Welcome to the Polygamer podcast, where gaming is for everyone. Join us as we expand the boundaries of the gaming community.
Ken Gagne: Hello and welcome to the Polygamer podcast. I’m your host Ken Gagne. You know my voice from speaking about video games. Today you’ll be hearing from someone whose voice you know from speaking in video games.
She’s performed in such hits as “Gone Home,” “Uncharted 4,” “Pyre,” “Anthem,” “Final Fantasy XV,” and most recently, “Afterparty,” released just last month for the Nintendo Switch.
She is a labor advocate and co-organizer of the Global Game Developer Conference, gamedev.world, as well as a voice-over consultant. I’m pleased to welcome to Polygamer episode number 100, Sarah Elmaleh. Hello, Sarah.
Sarah Elmaleh: Hi, congratulations on…This is 100, exactly?
Sarah: Oh my God.
Ken: I’ve been doing this show for about six or seven years and you’re here to celebrate. Thank you.
Sarah: That’s a huge milestone. I feel like this should be about you now. [laughter]
Ken: Oh, no, no, no. The whole point of the podcast is for it to not be about me. First and foremost, let me ask you the most important question. How are you? Are you OK?
Sarah: I’m OK. I could be worse. I could be so much worse. As soon as I say that out loud, “I could be so much worse,” [laughs] I immediately begin to take on the gravity of the macro-situation, which is pretty intense.
The micro-situation is more comical sitcom shenanigans like, “I need to clean my house,” and “Oh, my gosh, I didn’t get that chore done,” and “Oh, geez.” It’s a little less serious than how things could be. I’m fine [laughs] is the answer.
Ken: Good. This pandemic is hitting everybody in so many different ways, in ways that we didn’t anticipate, and we’re trying to make the most of it, which for some people is just getting through the day.
Ken: Let’s talk a little bit about your career and how you landed in this profession. From my understanding, you started off as a dancer, got injured, went into musical theater, and now you’re a voice actor. I have to wonder, are you exactly where you were aiming to be or is this just a comedy of errors?
Sarah: I should be really clear. It sounds like I was in American Ballet Theatre and then I did Broadway.
Sarah: We’re talking about high school, people. [laughs] I danced from when I was 3 to 14. Then that injury led me to discover High School Musical theater, which I loved and could do a whole podcast about because save all the arts programs across the country, please, it was so powerful.
Then in college, I did radio dramas, which combined with having played and loved LucasArts adventure games, and BioWare games, and games in general from when I was young. I was aware of games and the people who voice games a little bit and that half of my life.
Then doing radio dramas in college was really the wake up call to exploring my own range and having fun with just using my voice and things like that.
But the answer, did I end up where I was intending was when I spent some time after college in New York, exploring theater, loving theater, not really liking auditioning for theater but loving doing theater and just getting a sense for what this different acting categories means as a lifestyle.
Not just as a medium that’s fun when it’s really works, like in theater when you have a great cast and a great script and all of that in place, and a good director, but what it’s like when things go bad.
How bad is it when things go bad in that category? How frustrating is it, and painful is it or fun is it to audition all day, every day, when it’s most of what your job is? By the time I was a couple of years in New York City, I was enjoying the practice of auditioning for voice-over.
I found that less stressful and more fun, more playful, more casual than other categories, and really beginning to embrace what it would look like to be a voice-over actor in a large sense. In a sense of having it as a career as well as just the fun of our jobs or given project.
Most of my professional credits that anyone would agree are respectable are in games. From that view, from that lens, I would say, I pretty much gone straight for video game voice-over from that realization, and that’s what I’ve been doing.
Ken: I can appreciate how exhausting auditioning can be. I did a lot of community theater. I tried auditioning professionally in New York City, and it’s debilitating, but you’re saying it’s different as a voice actor?
Sarah: Oh, miles. I’m sure there are certainly with time, maybe even I would feel differently if I’d spent all this time shedding my inhibitions and worries and all kinds of stuff that, as a young actor, torture you no matter what category you’re in. But when I was in New York, auditioning for theater and auditioning for voice-over, oh my God, night and day.
First of all, a theater audition or an on-camera audition especially, your audition is almost 90 percent over by the time you walk in a room. Granted, if you look exactly like your headshot, they should have you in on purpose, and they should be expecting what you look like. Being judged out of the gate of whether you look right for something is not something at all that I worry about with voice-over.
I come in, most people are very friendly. I would say New York casting directors, even for commercials and voice-over, are a certain breed of intense, but overall, the mood is so relaxed and easygoing. People in game voice-over tend to be more helpful that you’re going to be with they’re looking for, and that you’re just going to have a nice time together.
The job of an actor is to go in and think of that audition moment as their opportunity to do the job. “Ooh, I get to do this job for half an hour, that’s so fun! Look at this character. They’re great. This is my work day. I got to do this.” Not like, “I hope they give this thing to me,” as sort of a less powerful fun position to put yourself in as a mind-state.
I feel like that’s more true in game voice-over. You go in, you read a little bit, you’re in jeans, it doesn’t matter what you look like or what you’re wearing. You read it a couple of times through easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy. It’s really nice. I was like, “Oh this is good.”
I hated monologues. One day I’ll find theater monologues that I absolutely love. I feel like monologues outside of Shakespeare are really touch and go for me as a thing. They kind of feel like potholes in a play. I did not find my way into enjoying theater auditions, where some people may have, before I decided to commit to this.
Ken: Is that to say that voice auditions don’t have the cattle-calls you see in New York where they just bring in hundreds of people and you’re all sitting in the same waiting room?
Sarah: Oh, God. It’s never more than five or six people in the same casting slot for a voice-over that I’ve experienced. You might see a few people in a waiting room. I feel like in the early days I’d be like, “Uh, that’s what I’m up against, uh, bluh,” but now I know so many other game voice actors, and I’m such a fan of them.
Game voice actors, by and large, are very down-to-earth people, very friendly. We all refer each other for jobs and are excited for each other, and there isn’t the same quite kind of competitive aspect. You realize you’re kind of competing with yourself a little bit, which is always true, but it’s nice to see people in the waiting room for game stuff, usually.
You might be a little nervous or you might be, “They’d be really good for that. That’s a good idea.” [laughs] But it’s also just pleasant to catch up with folks. It’s not so fraught. It’s really not so fraught. [laughs]
Ken: It sounds, in some ways, less competitive.
Sarah: I think as a community we’re less competitive. I think that. I think so. You only meet other voice actors when you do games, mainly, through really conscious, purposeful networking and introducing each other to each other because you don’t work together. You’re mainly recording, if its booth voice-over, on your own, and many auditions are MP3 auditions.
It’s very rare actually to have that casting call kind of experience, auditioning in person, certainly with other people in the waiting room around you. I think we are less competitive. I think so. We all have a good bit of range and different signatures. I don’t know. It’s not quite so…It’s just not the vibe, which I Love.
Ken: That’s wonderful.
Sarah: It’s good. [laughs]
Ken: How do you get the opportunities? Do you apply to audition? Do they come to you and say, “We have a part for you?” Do you have an agent?
Sarah: I do have an agent. This is not something you hear often but I love my agents. I think they’re great. [laughter]
Sarah: I love having someone who’s an advocate for me. If something isn’t quite handled properly, I have someone who can be the bad guy or be firm about something, whereas I just get to say the cozy, sweet talent side of things.
I think that separation, even if you are someone who’s capable of negotiating for yourself and understanding all the details of contracts and things, having that multi-role division, specialization, is really useful to me. They’re just hard-working and sweet people.
I’ve had different agents before, and this particular relationship has always felt like an open communication. I talk about what I’m interested in, what I’m most passionate about, what I’m not really that passionate about necessarily. I feel like they’re interested in and have a sense of my range and what I can do. They’re paying attention to kind of what sticks with me and what I respond to.
I just feel very free to discuss openly where I’m at and what I want with them, which isn’t always true. Especially when you first a get an agent, you want to please them so bad, and I still want to please my agents because they’re awesome.
Sarah: You work for each other. You make money together, so it should be like a partnership. So often, in New York, I didn’t have that feeling where I was like, “Ah, I’m wasting their time. I hope they still believe in me or, gah, uh, pressure to book and blah, blah, blah.”
I wish I had advice on how to find that fit. It’s a really, really, really tricky thing to find and do but I’m lucky. This was my first-choice agency when I moved out here. It was the first meeting I took when I was exploring moving to Los Angeles. When they said they would sign me I was like, “Great, thank you. Thank you. Awesome. [laughs] That’s perfect.”
Ken: Do you want to plug that agency?
Sarah: Sure, SBV Talent. The main reason was they had a lot of my favorite voice actors from games. They had BioWare folks and Naughty Dog folks.
It seems like their agent who is handling games is really passionate about games as a category, because she wound up representing many of these wonderful performances. Many folks who’ve been there had been there for a couple of decades. They stick around. There’s a sense of family, which I really love.
Ken: What is it you’ve told your agent you’re passionate about? What is it that you want to do?
Sarah: Games. [laughter]
Sarah: I told them I love games. Here’s some more shop talk. You do want to present a value proposition to your agency. That can mean versatility. It means maybe being gifted, amenable, or willing to learn up and be competitive in multiple categories.
At the time, when I came to them, I booked a number of Indie games on my own out of New York, but my stronger case was in commercials. I booked a few national commercials. I had a really nice sounding commercial demo.
Coming to them within a bunch of different categories that I was open to and aware of, was key. I still need to give better attention to animation, because animation is so fun. I play games more than I watch cartoons, which is why I’ve focused so hard on this stuff, on games. I would love to do more mainly because they record together more often than they do in games.
The one animation thing I’ve done, which just actually aired for the first time on Netflix, it’s “Glitch Techs” episode six. I got to record in the same room at the same time as Ashly Burch and Nolan North. We just had a hoot. We’re goofing off and improvising. It’s like a party. It’s so fun.
If my agents are listening to this, they’re like, “Sarah, you need to take animation more seriously.” I’m like, “Yes, I will. I will do that. I will be good for you. It’ll make it easier for you to pitch me. It’ll be great”
Ken: Well, that’s wonderful. It sounds like an all-star cast that all people you’ve worked with before. You probably had a lot of fun together.
Sarah: That was so fun. I’ve been a Nolan North fan for… “Uncharted 2” was a huge reason that I thought not only that I would pursue games but that I might focus on them, that they might be creatively fulfilling enough to focus on and commit to. Yeah, Nolan is large.
Ashly is a wonderful human. I’ve known her for a while. We have a similar sense of humor. That is why it’s been so easy to direct her on a different game. That was a great day. I was like, “If every day of animation is like this, sign me up, please.”
Ken: [laughs] We’ll definitely be talking more about voice directing and also about Ashly, but I also want to ask you, you’ve worked on games like Uncharted, and “Gears 5,” and Anthem, AAA titles.
As you mentioned in New York, you worked on Indie titles. Those can include Gone Home, “ROM 2064,” Afterparty. Do you have a preference, or have you told your agent, “I want to work on big AAA titles,” or, “I prefer the smaller Indie stuff”?
Sarah: That’s interesting. I want to work on good things. [laughs] I don’t think that makes me very unique. [laughs] It’s not a very fancy answer, “I want to work on good stuff,” but it’s true.
I love Indies. I have worked really hard with the union as a creative and cultural ambassador from actors to Indies. Indie’s have beautiful experimental stories to tell but have less access to the traditional voice-over casting and recording pipeline.
Everything is very entrenched in AAA and very closed off, mysterious. I’ve done a lot of work personally and then now professionally, consulting-wise, bridging those two worlds and arming Indies with the same information they would need to cast and work with wonderful actors.
I did not want to leave Indies behind when I moved to LA. I moved to LA to work with folks who had more resources and were telling larger-scale stories. BioWare and Naughty Dog were at the top of that list, which is a list that grows, which is wonderful.
Yes, I’ve always wanted to do both. I’ve always wanted to do a breadth of things. That’s true with games, too. I play a breadth of things. I want to see a breadth of styles of games and sizes of games made all the time. A lot of my advocacy work is in making the space more open to inspiration from different places and different kinds of games to be made. I’m all about that variety. [laughs]
Ken: Certainly, the AAA games are telling more expansive stories. They have more resources. Have you found any difference from the voice actor perspective of it’s a different experience working in one versus the other?
Sarah: It’s a good question. I’m trying to remember back to when I had mostly done Indies and was new to AAA. I feel like there are certain classes, types of voice-over days that are more common in AAA. The idea of doing hundreds and hundreds of lines, two takes each, of certain kinds of battle combat call-outs is more of a AAA feature, maybe. Not necessarily but in my experience, it was.
Indies were more likely to be idiosyncratic characters. I was more likely to act outside of a signature that I’ve seem to have developed in AAA, which is more of a tough chick vibe, variations on the tough chick. Indies tended to be more conversational, more whimsical, I would say.
Then in AAA, it would be like, “We have these many lines to get through. It’s a lot of lines. We’re going to just go at a clip. We’re going to do a two in a row of this, this, this, this and this. It’s going to feel same-y. You’re going to make it alive. That’s your job”
Ken: A little bit more deadline-oriented perhaps in AAA?
Sarah: Indies are also…I don’t know that I would say that, because Indies need to…They’re counting their change a little more, maybe. I don’t know if they think about it in the same way.
I don’t even know if they have the wherewithal to break…I think it’s a new exercise for them to look at their line counts and start to budget that way and prepare ahead of time for that, whereas AAA has it down to a science. I don’t know. I guess both. [laughs] Hard to answer.
Ken: Well, here’s another comparison I’m curious about. You’ve done a lot of musical theater. As you know, you have so many tools at your disposal. You have lighting. You have costume. You have makeup. What is it like being a voice actor when you don’t have those tools in your toolkit, and all you have is your voice? Is it harder to perform?
Sarah: It’s a specialization. I don’t know that it’s harder. It’s harder in some ways and easier in others. I think theater maps are better for that active imagining to voice-over than film does. I missed the loss of a costume sometimes. Wearing heels does a certain thing to you. A certain skirt, having a bit of play in it, does a certain thing to you. Costume, maybe, I miss, I suppose.
If you’re on a performance capture set, it’s really not that different from intimate theater in the round except the audience isn’t there yet. You’re not acting to frame. It comes down to your ability to invest your surroundings with realism and gravity, and make the relationship seem true and spontaneous with the people that you’re with.
That’s a very close mapping in a way. Your projection is certainly very different. Performance capture…Amy Hennig distilled it down to having an on-camera face, a voice-over voice which can be very intimate. You can do a lot of intimate things that you would never get away with in theater.
Then a theater in the round body. You’re working that coordination, being a little ambidextrous. I don’t know. Me going from theater to radio drama, I was starting to be aware of what the limitations are, but what the freedom is too. It’s limiting, but it’s freeing.
I find it vastly more freeing than limiting me personally. I’m still using my body, which is so fun. I’m still using my body to make all kinds of shapes just to get sounds out of my voice. It’s just not getting picked up and shown to the player, but it’s still part of the creation process, which is fun.
I love being cast for things that I would never get cast for in life. I would never get cast as the Raider in “For Honor” if someone saw a picture of me, ever. [laughs] It’s so awesome. I love it. I love that.
I tend to relish the subtlety and the richness of what you can convey in your voice. I find that really freeing and very, very full. I don’t feel that loss and that frustration.
Although, I will say that performance capture, adding some of that in where you don’t have to make explicit with dialogue, relationships, and other things, that is really exciting. There’s that you can close distance with each other and interact physically with each other. That conveys information about who you are to each other.
That’s very thrilling. That adds some of that back in, which is good.
Ken: When people appear on stage or in a movie, they expect to be recognized. It’s part of their popularity, their fame that they capitalize on. Do you expect or hope to be recognized in games?
Sarah: I have a bad habit of disbelieving that people do. [laughter]
Sarah: Not because I have some concept that I’m so good at disguising my voice that they never would. I’m shocked that my voice makes an impression on them that they could then summon when they hear it again. I’m just like, “How did you know it was me?” They’re like, “I’ve listened to you before ever. What are you talking about?”
Sarah: Friends and things usually. That’s where I come from.
No, I don’t expect to be recognized at all, for that reason. I don’t know. I feel like I’m somewhere in the middle. I have a range up. I can do higher voices. I’m cast more for lower voices. I have some OK accents in my back pocket and I study, when I get hired for them, which is fun. That does some to disguise my voice, or can.
A lot of it I think is actually sensibility. I was on an Anthem podcast last night. We had this long, lovely podcast-length conversation where I sounded like this. I was goofy and silly, and my voice lived here. At the very end, I just said this slogan from…It’s a little tagline from Anthem, “Strong alone, stronger together”.
It went deeper into my range. That’s where more of my freelancer lives. Their minds were blown. They were like, “Oh my God, it’s actually you. It’s not just some random person.” [laughter]
Sarah: Sometimes all it takes is a degree difference of psychology and where your head’s at. It doesn’t actually maybe even take much to disguise your voice without having to go full cartoon. No, I don’t know.
I think that our industry is changing as far as voice actors. Some voice actors are developing a more visible profile through other means, if they’re streaming or they’re doing other stuff like that. That is seen as a benefit to games who appreciate a recognizability factor when marketing to their fans and things like that.
We may see more of a premium placed on familiarity with voice actors and hoping to recognize them, looking for work that has them in it by their fans. That would be a new thing. That’s new to the last decade or so of voice-over. Before that, it was a fully anonymous deal.
Ken: How do you choose what kind of voice, or tone, or register to use for a character such as in Afterparty, where you played the sister of Satan himself?
Sarah: So good. [laughter]
Sarah: We worked on that. They’re good directors and they had a really specific aesthetic and sensibility that they wanted. I feel like probably what happened is, I went in there with a stronger, slicker version of her, more like corporate lawyer, badass lady running a company vibe and they stripped it back.
They made her power a little more quiet, a little less self-announced. She was, “If I have gone in and been a little bit more like this.” Then, they would’ve been like, “OK, dial it back. What does it sound like if she is just, ‘Yeah, I’m not really that worried about it. You guys will get back to me when you got the information.’?”
It just takes a little less…I don’t know if my example has just demonstrated what I’m hoping to say but they tuned those…Very often, you’re developing a voice on the fly. You send an audition in, you might not hear anything about they liked from that audition until you get in to the session.
I’ve often gone into sessions not knowing what I’m doing or the game I’m in. [laughs] I would be like, “What are we doing today?” They’ll be like, “You are a Russian soldier sniper person.” “OK, cool. Sure.”
Sometimes you go in with an idea that you had and that you had a strong concept for the character right off the bat. Other times, you go in and you have no idea what you are doing and you just build it together.
Ken: What was it like being the sister of Satan?
Sarah: I loved her.
Sarah: I loved that quiet power of her. She had high standards, who’s actually a really good person but she’d lived in this cynical debased world for a long time. That combination of exhaustion but core goodness was really interesting to me.
I have someone in my life, very close to me, super precious to me, who has gone through a journey of addiction and worried about how to reach out to them, how to help them, so all of that storyline was extremely personal to me.
It felt very, very…It’s always important for your character to be believable and to land with people but I felt like I had to do justice to this piece for that personal reason.
I loved “Oxenfree.” I was so thrilled to work with them, so thrilled. I knew that they would be funny, that it would be some of the funniest dialogue I would have the pleasure to speak. That the worlds would be sassy and flavorful and wild. It was a joy. She was cool. I dug her.
Ken: That’s really impressive. I know so many actors prefer to tap into their own experiences, and relate to the character and bring their own life experiences, but I can imagine it would be difficult to do that for such a fictional character in such a hellacious world, and yet you still found a way to do it.
Sarah: Nonsense. No. I think if you’re the kind of person who was going to voice video games, like Nolan North I think said this awhile back, it’s like being a kid on the playground, especially performance capture.
You either as a person, as a human, are able to embrace your imagination and find truth and to believe in it so fully that you can make other people believe in it with you. That’s just like a core fundamental necessity for this particular job.
Again, because you don’t have a set to kind of persuade you. If I were wearing a linen suit, and I was in a tropical island, and I was doing a spy movie, there would be many things, like you say, to help support your belief in the world because it’s the real world.
For games, you don’t have that. All you have is the strength of your own imagination, but if you are that kind of person, it doesn’t matter how fantastical the world is if the human…I mentioned this on a panel with David Gaider who was the lead writer on the “Dragon Age” series for a long time.
What interests and speaks to an actor, what we have no problem investing in is the truth of human physics. You can set your world with dragons and elves and all kind of magic, all kinds of stuff, but if people react to each other in a way that feels familiar from your world, from our world, then you have no problem believing in everything.
That’s the truest thing to me. It’s like it doesn’t matter what people can do and what’s around them. If you recognize jealousy, if you recognize compassion, if these relationships and the way that people bounce off each other are familiar and real, then it doesn’t matter how silly the world is.
I think it might be other people in other categories who find games silly in general that wouldn’t buy in, but me I’m like, “Great, let’s go. Sure. Where are we? No problem.” [laughs]
Ken: Is that one of the things you love about video games as opposed to other media you might perform in, is just the silliness?
Sarah: I don’t even know if I would call it so because I don’t see it as silly. I just see it as fun, and I see it as creative.
Ken: Which is how I meant it. I certainly didn’t mean to diminish it. You’re right.
Sarah: I know you do, but whimsical. I think that if you throw aside what’s supposed to be cool or what’s supposed to be real and you say everything’s game, it doesn’t matter if it strikes us as foreign and odd, then you have new storytelling opportunities. You’ve just expanded what you can do.
For example, in Dragon Age, there’s magic, and that world takes magic really seriously. It’s not just about the flair of waiting around a wand and just having it be there for fun, that world-building feature is a powerful storytelling tool.
Who has magic? Who doesn’t? What people who don’t have magic do to people who do and vice versa. This is a new engine for human relationships and for storytelling that’s really exciting, and that you just wouldn’t have if you didn’t decide to pick up that tool and use it. Yes, I do.
I feel very freed by what games can depict and what they can use to tell stories, and I do think that’s very thrilling. It can be harder to sell fantastical worlds in other contexts but games don’t really seem to have a limit on that stuff. [laughs]
Ken: With all the whimsical, fun characters you’ve played in video games, if you could choose one to be in a live action movie to portray on screen, who would that be?
Sarah: Wow. I get stuck. I have to just assume that I would be cast for it because I would get stuck being like, “I don’t look like that person. I can think of a million actresses who look like that person who’d be great.” I would cast Gwendoline Christie as the Raider, obviously. Why wouldn’t I? It would be crazy not to.
Who would I want to play? Again, I don’t look quite right for her, but I do think Lexi Rivers has a cool look. She has a cool look. If that’s what I’m going with, that’s one way to go with it. She has a cool jacket. She’s got cool hair. She just looks awesome. Running around doing sort of cop stuff, detective stuff as Lexi would be a cool look to have.
I don’t know as far as like, I also think Lizzie would be fun. Lizzie would be so fun. Lizzie, the way that she ended up as she evolved and got kind of wild or a little more silly perhaps, which is possible in a multiplayer mode. It doesn’t have to…It’s a little more unhinged. It’s not pegged to the realism of a single story.
Lizzie is fun as heck and it doesn’t matter what I look like because she’s got her helmet on. I would have to get ripped. I would have to get ripped. But I think I could do it. I could probably do that.
Ken: For our listeners who may not have played these games, Lexi and Lizzie, are from what?
Sarah: Lexi Rivers is from 2064 Read Only Memories, and she’s a protective cop, a detective who encounters the player and has maybe a little bit of a romantic history with the player’s sister. Just fun. She’s cool.
Lizzie Carmine is the first Lady Carmine in an iconic family of redshirts who die off in every game that they appear in, in the “Gears of War” franchise. Lizzie, that was a huge honor to live and then perhaps also not to live as the first female Carmine. That was quite a joy.
Ken: [laughs] It’s an honor just to have been nominated to live.
Sarah: For sure. Oh, yes. I mean, spoilers right, the law of Gears says that she had to pass away, but it was a very, very big, fun, dramatic scene and that is delightful, too.
Ken: [laughs] Wonderful.
Sarah: Dying is great. Dying is fun. [laughs]
Ken: Have you died often?
Sarah: Actually, a fan once called me…I did a lot of adventure games in New York before I moved out here, for a company called Wadjet Eye Games.
Ken: Oh yeah, Dave Gilbert. I know Dave.
Sarah: Yeah, Dave.
Ken: I did a panel with him at PAX East a few years ago.
Sarah: No way, Dave. I did many, many games with Dave, and I died, I think, in every single one. A fan once called me the Sean Bean of Wadjet Eye Games. I was like, “Yes!”
Ken: Oh no.
Sarah: I was like, “I know. I died a lot.”
Ken: [laughs] Dave, Steve Alexander and Katie Hallahan from Phoenix Online Studios and I did a panel at PAX East about the resurrection of point-and-click adventure games.
Sarah: Wonderful, which was my way in. I played games from a very, very early age. The moment that I really, really responded and was fully gripped by game storytelling was the LucasArts era adventure games.
Adventure games have, and in all their new forms, too, they’ve evolved. They’ve been revived. They’ve been recreated, remastered. Adventure games and all their forms are the deepest part of my little games heart, for sure.
Ken: Do you have a favorite LucasArts game?
Sarah: It’s tough. It’s a tough one. The three years in a row where it was “Full Throttle,” “The Curse of Monkey Island,” “Grim Fandango.” Those were ’96, ’97, ’98. That was life changing to me. Life changing to me.
I played The Curse of Monkey Island and I’m pretty sure that it had a very strong effect on my sense of humor. A sort of weird, nerdy, pulling random references to things; very silly, kind of unashamedly silly sense of humor. I think that changed myself as a person. [laughs]
I did love Curse, and then I went back and played and loved the earlier games, too. That was just the one that I hit as I hit the right age. But it’s also a really good one, and it stayed so timeless.
That game it was the big upgrade from pixel art, too but before 3D art. No offense to Escape from Monkey Island, but it was way less expressive, that blocky 3D to the really painterly, animated-looking 2D illustrative quality of Curse. I think it really holds up.
Some of the puzzles might be wacky. That’s a LucasArts thing. It’s no big deal, but the performances are world class. There’s this myth that game voice-over has always been bad. That is not true. LucasArts crushed it. Those performances hold up. I think the jokes are funny as heck. It looks good. It’s a really good game.
Grim Fandango is amazing. Grim Fandango is obviously amazing. Oh, please.
Ken: I’ve never heard the myth that voice-overs are bad.
Sarah: Really? That game voice-over has been bad and is now just getting better. Never heard that one?
Ken: I’ve heard full motion video games, the acting is terrible, but I thought voice-overs were pretty good.
Sarah: It just means you were paying attention, like you knew when you were playing those good games with good voice-over. There’s a joke that’s just like, “Ugh, game voice-over, it’s Jill, the master of unlocking. Meh.” Whatever the joke may be.
Ken: OK, admittedly. [laughs]
Sarah: Whatever, but it’s not true. The reality is it’s not true. There was great, wonderful performances going way back, otherwise I wouldn’t have been so inspired. Mark Hamill in “Full Throttle,” mwah, chef’s kiss. So good.
Ken: Oh, my gosh, yes, absolutely. When the new Star Wars trilogy started, a friend of mine said, “Well, I’m glad Mark Hamill finally has acting again. It’s not like he’s done anything else the last 30 years.”
Sarah: Oh, honey.
Ken: I’m like, “You’re not paying attention.”
Sarah: You’re not paying attention. Baby doll, Mark Hamill is a legend.
Ken: [laughs] I know, right? I mean, “Wing Commander,” Batman.
Sarah: I have that. It’s so funny. I should just remember that I am fans of people that I’m now part of a professional peer community with, because I keep talking about them like a fangirl. I’m like, “They’ll never take me seriously.”
But Mark Hamill, I had thoughts…Remember doing a rewatch of “Empire Strikes Back”? I’m just going to go ahead and lay this on you. [laughs]
Ken: Let’s hear it.
Sarah: My deep thoughts. I used to watch Empire Strikes Back every year for a very long time. It’s one of my favorite movies. I remember the year that I watched Luke’s scenes on…
I used to give Mark a bad rap, like he was always a better voice actor than he was an on-camera actor. That was my smug, self-satisfied opinion, which isn’t accurate or meaningful. It doesn’t matter. Who cares what I think?
In Empire, I love those scenes with Yoda so much. As I get older, my core truth and value in Star Wars shifts ever more into the spiritual, and into the Yoda scenes, and into the essential truth of what the force is, and how to be a good person.
Yoda is this incredible creation. Everything on Dagobah comes together. The lighting, and the puppetry, and the writing, and nothing gets better than Yoda on Dagobah. But you watch Mark and he sells it like Yoda is there talking. Frank Oz is a genius but it takes Mark believing in that puppet to help us believe in that puppet.
Mark is scared of the puppet. Mark is listening to the puppet, learning from the puppet. He’s humbled by the puppet, frustrated, all of those feelings. All of that work to elevate Yoda as a person who we should respect as a mystical being is done by Mark. That is such a voice actor’s…it’s any actor, but it’s a voice actor’s ability.
It’s that same thing I was talking about before. It’s the power of his imagination to stare at a puppet and see all the people working behind the scenes with their hands up its butt and everything, and still give it truth. That’s a voice actor superpower.
He’s always just been this person who is a wonderful actor who has a voice actor’s kind of engine, and it’s just made him an incredible performer. I thought he was amazing in the latest movie. I thought he was fantastic. That his years doing voice-over must have contributed to that and helped deepen his craft, as it must have. I don’t know. That’s my great Empire Strikes Back negativity. [laughs]
Ken: I love it. Have you heard Mark Hamill on the CD he did with Brent Spiner?
Sarah: No. What? [laughter]
Ken: They did a musical CD. “Dreamland” is an “audio film” that Brent Spiner did with Maude Maggart, where they are singing songs. There’s a narrative in between all the songs that weaves them together into a cohesive plot.
Sarah: That’s so cute.
Ken: Brent Spiner played every vocal part in Dreamland that was neither Brent Spiner nor Maude Maggart, basically everybody else.
Sarah: I love that. I love him. He’s so good. [laughs] He’s so good at what he does. I have a Mark Hamill autograph. I have a Star Wars bathroom. This is so much TMI. Were we talking about my career? I’m a cool person. Oh, God.
Ken: We’ll come back to you.
Sarah: We’ll come back to me. In the meantime, my bathroom. Hello. It has like a whole bunch of Star Wars autographs in it. I don’t know why they ended up in the bathroom. They just did.
Sarah: I’ve got Mark on one side, Carrie on the other, Harrison. I’m so deeply inspired by them for such different reasons. Mark obviously for his voice acting.
Carrie for her mind that she’d started as this superhero princess, became this incredible mental health advocate, and just a sophisticated, powerful writer in her own right. Just the process of finding her voice in the spotlight from being this what would have been an ingénue, otherwise.
Then Harrison just being this wonderful tradesman of an actor. I feel like that’s a prior generation of people who approach acting like they’re a tool, and then they work the tool to serve the project. He’s explored his range somewhat to better and worse reaction, but he understands how to slot himself into a project and be of service to it.
I always found that down-to-earth, no-BS approach to being an actor, really, really inspiring and cool.
It reminded me of artists that I had met at my grandparents’ parties. They were all amazing actors from the World War II and beyond who had that same quality, not egotistical, not very vain. Or even maybe vain but a cute, charming, twinkly ’40s way. [laughs] But so practical and down to earth. I love them.
I’m not very mystical about acting. You get a lot of acting mysticism in LA. I was blessed to grow up around people, older actors than me who were very not fancy or self-important about it; about their process or about anything.
Ken: You mentioned that the previous generation saw themselves as tools that they slot into a story. Do you feel that’s different from how you approach acting?
Sarah: No, I don’t think so, especially in games. Games, my God. Games will puncture your ego about how important you are as an actor very quickly. [laughs] On a movie set, I feel like what people get away with whatever is in their riders. I want green Skittles in the green room, whatever, or maybe some voice actors can request Skittles. I have no idea. Possible.
There’s so much more going on in a game than your piece. In fact, the thing that makes me so sad is that we’re so isolated from the rest of the production process. I don’t feel like we get to have a team spirit because of we’re not working alongside each other all the time, ever.
Folks who come from the other categories might find it a little off-putting or a bummer to realize just how much of a tool you are in service of something larger than yourself on a game compared to other things.
The camera stop and start for you when you are on a film. Certainly, performance capture stops and starts on you, but performance capture is just one piece of a lot of stuff coming in, a lot of people working hard on something. You have to be pretty comfortable with coming in and being a humble part of a larger whole, if you’re going to work in games.
Ken: Yet, despite that isolation and the solitary nature of voice acting in a booth without anybody else around, you nonetheless seem to be part of this community. You seem very well connected. You have friends, colleagues. How does one build community as a voice actor?
Sarah: That’s a good question. Do you mean with other voice actors or in general?
Ken: What would you say is your primary community? Where do you find your connections?
Sarah: That’s interesting. Before I moved to LA, it was vastly more developers than it was other actors. I moved to New York and my community was playwrights, writers, journalists, and all kinds of other things.
To be honest, I miss that variety of industry that I haven’t quite cultivated here because I came here for games. I do games, that’s my circle now. For the tenure of the seven years that I was in New York, I was coming to the Game Developers Conference and networking. I was following folks on Twitter.
The real answer is my Mom staged-mom’d me into talking to Richard Lemarchand at the hotel, not even on the PAX floor, at the hotel near PAX East. She was like, “He’s wearing a speaker badge. Go say hi.” I was like, “That’s so rude. I have no reason to accost this man at his breakfast.” She was like, “Just do it.” She was right.
That one meeting spawned everything for me. I happened on the nicest person, Richard Lemarchand being the nicest person in games to just randomly come up to, probably ever. He was the co-lead game designer on the “Uncharted” series at the time. He was with Naughty Dog for a long time. Now he’s a professor at USC.
I’ve told this story a million times. He knows it so it’s fine. He was so encouraging. He was like, “We do cool things with actors.” I was like, “Cool, that seems nice.”
Then I watched all of Uncharted at home. I was like, “Oh my god, I have to do this. I have to work with this people. I have to build everything towards working this way.”
I followed who he followed on Twitter. He was following this wonderful mix of other AAA people, Indie people. It was that way that I discovered Babycastles which was a DIY, very artsy, scruffy, cool collective that would do gallery-style games, showings, parties, and events. They were in New York.
That’s where I met Dave Gilbert. That’s how I started working on Adventure Games with Dave. I met Leigh Alexander there at Babycastles’ party. She’s been a friend for a long time. I just started showing up to games events, really. I got fired for attending my first GDC from my day job. That was great.
Ken: Oh, my.
Sarah: [laughs] Yeah, I came back and they were like, “Bye,” and I was like, “Oh. OK, fine.” [laughs] I started going to games events, and then staying in touch with people on Twitter.
I think that was my secret networking-feedback loop, is you meet someone in meatspace, you have a true connection, then you stay in touch on Twitter. Or you admire someone’s sense of humor or something on Twitter, and then you solidify that connection in person.
I really worked hard to put myself in the mix and learn as much as I could about game development as possible because I played it for a long time. I had an actor background, but I wanted to understand the medium as a whole and the process as a whole. I don’t know how exactly, but there’s no way that learning about this won’t affect and improve my performance and my process as an actor.
I spent a long time attending GDC and just like learning as much as I could for free. Back then, Twitter was an amazing place to learn a lot about game development for free. That was how.
Then I think meeting other voice actors. It was just through other voice actors once I moved here, really. People being like, “You’re a great and she’s great. You should meet each other.” Again, just people being super nice.
I think I met Jennifer Hale actually in a contest, which is a long story. She was great. She invited me to stay in touch, so I did. It was a long process. Very purposeful process, though.
Ken: One person you’ve met and collaborated with bunches over the years is Ashly Burch.
Sarah: That’s true. [laughs] That’s true.
Ken: You two go together like peas in a pod. Do you purposely seek out these opportunities?
Sarah: That’s a good question. Do I purposely seek out opportunities to work with Ash? I would if I knew how to do that. [laughter]
Sarah: I would knock on game developers’ doors every now and then. I probably have already tweeted, “Make me a game so Ashley and I can be best buddies who run a heist.” I’ve probably put those out there, but I don’t actually have that sway to make developers make a game for me, for us.
We have put each other in things. I helped get her cast in…I suggested her for “Red Lantern,” and she has asked me to be in “Hey, Ash” a couple times, which has always been super, super fun. We’re so excited when we get to work together.
I’m pretty sure there’s a game right now where we are technically in conversation with each other, but we obviously aren’t in the same room. We didn’t get to work together. That’s fun which is always how it works. Usually, I discover it once the game is out.
I wish. If anyone listening who wants to make a game with me and Ashley, I’m like, “Yeah, sign me up. [laughs] Sounds good.”
Ken: My first time seeing you two together was at the BostonFIG, the Festival of Indie Games back in 2014 when you two were the keynote speaker…
Sarah: Oh, my God. That’s so long ago. That’s so wild. I can’t believe you’re in that audience.
Ken: [laughs] Boston was my hometown. I would go to BostonFIG every year. It was like seeing all the people who had ever been on my podcast. It was great.
Sarah: That’s amazing. Yeah, we did. I’m trying to remember correctly. I don’t know if Dan, if someone running the show asked me first and I was like, “Well, I want to do this with somebody,” or vice versa. I’ve maybe given one or two talks now on my own, or a handful. I’ve done a handful of lectures now on my own, I suppose.
I always prefer…It’s the same with IndieCade. They asked me to host the IndieCade Awards and I was like, “I want a buddy,” [laughs] so I snagged Asher Vollmer, who made “Threes.” I love that. I love sharing a stage with somebody, taking care of each other on stage, and being focused on supporting the other person.
It’s a distraction from feeling totally on the spot. Ash and I both put our hopes and dreams about what protagonists would be like into that little keynote. [laughs]
Ken: It was a great keynote and very memorable.
Sarah: Thank you.
Ken: Clearly, you had a good time too.
Sarah: We did. We did have a good time. Thank you for coming.
Ken: Of course. You mentioned that you’re working next on The Red Lantern, which I saw on the show floor at PAX East 2020. Can you tell me a little bit about that game?
Sarah: Yeah, that game is the bit you play is a young woman — Ashley will be voicing your person — who goes through a bit of an identity crisis, has tried a number of things, hasn’t really excelled the way she expected to or the people expected her to. She throws caution to the wind, decides to go out to Alaska, and raise sled dogs.
You join her at the moment in her journey when she arrives in Alaska and is just winging it, and is putting together a team of dogs. Trying to get to her first destination, trying to get to her first home base, a little cabin out there in the wilderness, and then begin raising dogs.
It turns out it’s a little bit tougher to survive in the Alaskan wilderness than she expects. A lot of procedurally-generated events can occur to you on your ride out there to your cabin. Who you choose as your dog and who to comprise as your team is significant. Your relationships with the dogs are significant. The wilderness is beautiful and dangerous. I’m really excited about it as a game.
Ashly does an amazing job, so many lines for one actress. She just has so many…I was excited to work with her for a number of reasons, but also her range. I knew that she would be funny.
If you’re out there talking yourself in the wilderness, it can’t just all be like terror, and fear, and boredom. You’re talking to herself. You’re amusing yourself as best as you can. I knew she would be funny. She would be serious.
The moments of action and capability that their character discovers in themselves would be real, and true, and strong. The moments of fear and loss would be real and true. Then the humor would be there. I was confident when we cast Ashly that we would get everything we needed for a pretty challenging part.
Ken: Your role in this production is voice casting and voice direction?
Sarah: Yeah. I signed on as a consultant, which is an interesting menu of things because I started from the very broad thinking that Indies just don’t know where to begin with voice-over even. My goal is to get them from knowing nothing to being ready to record.
In that case, I was providing information about the union process and all that other stuff, contract stuff, just structure, helping them to get the information they needed to budget properly. Then I was like I can also cast and track this for you if you like. I feel like I would serve…Sometimes I refer other directors to the project if I feel like that’s the best move.
Then a casting director for casting directors. Sometimes I cast myself for that role because I think I can give something to that specific project. Yes, I suggested a few actresses. They loved Ashly. Then I voice directed her in the booth. It was so fun. [laughs]
Ken: Walking the PAX East show floor, what drew me to Red Lantern was the dogs. Got to love dogs.
Sarah: They’re so good.
Ken: What was it that drew you to Red Lantern?
Sarah: It was the vibe. It was the atmosphere. I could picture something that would be soothing, and challenging, and surprising. I love that the atmosphere of it was special. It’s the thing that you get moments of in triple-A games. If you’re on your horse out in “Red Dead Redemption” or something, or if you’re in “Horizon,” there’s moments of awe like that at beauty.
This seems distilled, like just that stuff. None of the other stuff. Just this stuff, and that it might be a soothing, cool game. I was drawn to the fact that the character would have so much to go through. It would be a really intimate relationship with the player, between their player, character, voice, and themselves.
Working with a talented actor was exciting to me. I also was drawn to the character themselves. That was nice not to be all rah-rah about it. It was me and Lindsay who’s the creative director of the studio and a very talented producer, a very talented developer who wears a lot of hats and is also the writer on the project.
It’s me, and Lindsey, and Ashly. Lindsey Rostal is her name. Timber Lane Studio is the company. It was just a team of us ladies in the booth.
There was never any whisper of a mandate or threat or worry of a mandate that the character would have to sound sexier or that she would have to perform a certain kind of expected female toughness, or that she couldn’t have all of these notes in her in whatever way felt most authentic to us as women.
We could push her in whatever direction felt true to us and not worry about some focus-tested perception of what a female character can be. That was exciting in a low-key way. That vibe in that room, that creation process was smooth, and comfortable, and fun for that reason too.
Ken: I really like the character and how she defines what it is she’s going after and why. She says that she grew up trying to live other people’s expectations, and she ended up being a disappointment. Now it’s time to shed other people’s expectations and try to fulfill her own destiny, whatever that may be.
Sarah: It’s something that people relate to. We’re all looking for a sense of purpose and how to live authentically. That’s one of the true or more lasting messages or questions to try and tackle with art, maybe not answer, but tackle.
How can we be the best person that we can be in and the truest person we can be? I was just on a different call for a different game yesterday. We were talking about death, actually.
There’s the theme of death in the game and the idea that there is no way to prepare for death, except to live authentically. That’s the only thing you can do that will leave you on your deathbed not regretting things is if you had tried your best the whole time to live as authentically as possible.
That’s one way to think about it. It’s probably not the only way to think about it. That’s certainly how I think about it. That’s what I think about. That’s the only thing I regret, is if I felt like I didn’t do something that I was drawn to do out of fear or something like that.
That’s why I decided to do voice-over. This is a silly career but I will regret not having tried my hardest to do this if I don’t do that, so I better do it. Anyway, sidetrack. [laughs]
Ken: No, a very meaningful one. It’s much better to regret trying something than to regret not trying it.
Sarah: I think so. I mean, you know. Yes. I appreciate that character for doing that. She’s out there trying to answer a question. It’s one that we can all relate to, ladies and other than ladies. [laughs]
Ken: We’ve been talking a lot about your voice acting, but you have this whole other realm of yourself that we haven’t broached yet, which is gamedev.world.
Sarah: Yes. I put the dot in there. My co-founders and other people don’t put the dot in there. They just say GameDev World. I’ve always said gamedev dot world. I don’t know why. I suppose it doesn’t matter. gamedev.world is also the URL at which you can find out more about. It’s handy. I don’t know, whatever.
Ken: Tell me more about gamedev.world which debuted last year. For those who are not familiar with it and have not yet been to gamedev.world, what is it?
Sarah: It is a global, online, free games conference. It offers in its normal conference style iteration — not like the fundraiser, which we just completed although similar — it is a series of talks, live-streamed and translated live from out of eight languages.
These talks are given in a variety of languages by people who make games from around the world, translated into all those other eight languages as a way to spread and share game creation, game development insight, inspiration, knowledge directly with folks in their native language, fluent and confident in their native language to folks around the world.
I can go into how it came about. That’s what it is. You go there for games, talks to learn about how different games are made in different places around the world, and to encounter the global game development community in this intimate, technologically-facilitated way for free. Did I mention it’s free? It’s free. [laughter]
Ken: What need were you looking to fill with this that other events like GDC or AlterConf themselves fill in?
Sarah: My personal inspiration, my side of the gamedev.world creation story, origin story, biblical story, is that I was working as the game-maker relations for IndieCade. I love IndieCade. I’ve loved IndieCade for a long time. I went from doing game-maker relations to hosting their award show, which I love to do.
Like I said before, I already explained what I was getting out of going to games events in person. GDC is expensive. GDC is extremely expensive to attend on your own. Companies that can afford to send their employees do. The folks who very well can’t afford to send themselves have to pay for themselves to go.
I paid for my own ticket for years as an investment in myself. If I hadn’t had those means, I would have been sad. I had that in my experience already of having attended GDC for a long time. I was working as game-maker relations for IndieCade. I had one developer whose native language was not English. It was Japanese. His English was not very good.
I worked very, very hard to communicate. I was the single bottleneck, the access point to the festival for all of the developers showing in the festival. I would send them important things like, “We need these assets from you to help showcase your games on the website, to help show them to press. There’s information we need from you, and information we have for you.”
I was trying so hard to make it very comprehensive, to not lose a single detail and to get it all out there to them.
I realized my emails were very, very overwhelming to this one developer. I happen to speak increasingly poorly Japanese, so I was able to help bridge that language barrier in my own goofy kind of ad hoc way, to help them participate in a festival and have a positive productive experience. It showed to me how big of a language barrier there is in the world of development.
This coincided with a blog post that Rami Ismail had posted about the language barrier in game development — that textbooks were in English, that coding had English kind of syntax baked into it, that there was all this knowledge available at conferences and things that was just locked in English.
I had just had this very personal experience with that barrier. I asked Rami, “What? Can we do something about this?” He was like, “Hmm,” and I was like, “I don’t know what that should be but I bet you do.” He was like, “I think I do.” That was how gamedev.world came about.
I am not like a super savvy streamer. I don’t stream from home. I don’t know the tech stuff Rami does, but that mission of wanting the game space at least in this digital way where it’s not bound by the cost of attending something, and the need to set a physical space and everything. I’m very drawn by that mission to create diversity in the space.
Again, like I said I’m greedy. I want variety. I want lots of different kinds of games. I want lots of different people making games. I want lots of different things to inspire your games. I just want variety for everything and that includes people making games, people who speak different languages, people who come from different backgrounds.
I think that’s true of IndieCade too. IndieCade has a mix of kinds of games. It has LARPing, it has tabletop, it has immersive theater. I’m thrilled by that, a formal variety of games.
That’s a through-line for my…All of my work is more diversity and more collaboration, better collaboration, building bridges, and building communication between people. That’s the answer. [laughs]
Ken: Would you say gamedev.world was successful in meeting your ambitions?
Sarah: It was successful in meeting our ambitions. I’m very proud of the programming that we got and the speakers that we had. I think our graphics package is beautiful and classy. I’m grateful to our sponsors. There were a lot of things about it.
It had hitches and other technical stuff — operational things that I…I have a long list of things that I’d like to improve for next year. Every event does, right? The fact that it exists and the fact that something is out there that people can point to and say, “That should be better,” is already a step above people saying, “Well, I hope that exists someday.”
It’s a success in that it was born and it shall continue to be a success so long as it grows. [laughs]
Ken: That is to say there are plans for it to grow?
Sarah: I can’t say anything specific about it right now. We’re recovering from pulling off this fundraiser that we did a couple of weeks ago to benefit the GDC relief fund because GDC was canceled.
The Wings fund put together a relief fund for folks, marginalized developers in particular, who would have taken the brunt of that cancellation as a financial loss and a business loss the hardest. There’s a fund for them.
We just did a version of gamedev.world as a live-streamed fundraiser to raise money for that. We finished that and then we will set our sights on round two.
Ken: [laughs] I did want to ask you about the GDC relief fund. GDC, the cancellation of it was announced while we were at PAX East.
Sarah: Yes, it was.
Ken: Now that we are in the throes of a pandemic, we can see that it was the right call to make, but knowing that it was the right decision doesn’t help all the people who lost so much money on it.
Your organization, your community, lots of overlap with GDC, but you were not responsible for the cancellation. You were not responsible for their expenses. In some ways, you could say you didn’t have a horse in that race. What motivated you to be the ones to step up and say, “We’re going to help you”?
Sarah: Like I said, a part of our mission was addressing the limitations in GDC. I’ve found GDC…I see them as perfectly complementary. I have had irreplaceable connections built at GDC that I’m not sure would have happened online.
In the negative space around that event, where there was a lot of connections that can be facilitated online. Our event exists in symbiosis with GDC and as a response to GDC. We felt that it was consistent with our mission to try and help and offset those losses by developers. It felt very relevant to us and to what we set out to do that.
We were having meetings about it as that announcement was going down. That weekend as I was doing a bunch of different panels and all kinds of talks and stuff, we were already putting the gears together to help support the Wings fund for relief.
Ken: Howard say you did a great job of supporting it. You’ve raised over $ 81,000.
Sarah: We did.
Ken: How did you go about doing that?
Sarah: There were actually two pieces. I was more involved in the programming of the fundraiser. Reaching out to friends who we thought would have some leisure time in this crisis, [laughs] and also visibility to folks that folks would want to tune in to see.
I was helping build out the programming schedule for the week. Rami, on his end, also put together a game jam. People were making games, all in it for a weekend. They put that in a bundle. There was a bundle that people put their jam games into that people donated their games to.
When you donated to this fundraiser, you’ve got over 160 games from the relief bundle. It was a cool combination of all the value offered by the event from the games themselves, to the talks, and to the sense of tuning into something cozy and sweet in this time that was so successful.
We ended the fundraiser at 60-something, and then over the course of the next two days, more people heard about the fundraiser, watched the live streams, or just knew about the bundle that they kicked it up.
I offered a few Anthem codes as well. I have no idea if that moved the needle. [laughs] At the end, the EA team was super, super nice to give me some codes to giveaway as well as our donation total went up.
I was up late at night thinking of ways to scramble the code with clues. People do that so bots don’t scrape it. I was trying to think of clues so people could finish the code and get the stuff. It was a lot of different efforts of ways of trying to get people’s attention and give them some real value for their donation.
Ken: That’s wonderful that you had all these different approaches that people responded so positively.
Sarah: Yeah, that was great.
Ken: GDC, as you mentioned, it’s essential, it’s expensive, and a lot of marginalized people were impacted by it. I hope that you were able to help as many of those people as possible.
Sarah: Me too. I’d love to check in with the Wings fund — I haven’t — people and see how it’s going to be used and what the benefits have been. I’m sure they’ll probably disclose that at some point. It felt nice to be helpful in this way as this was going down.
It was a stressful thing to pull off. For some reason, I have a harder time keeping my cool head doing events in general than I do for other things, including voice-over, which is extremely chill.
That being said, they’ll probably share that and it’ll feel so nice. I’ll get to continue that feeling of feeling helpful in this time, which was a nice feeling.
Ken: I know that the pandemic is affecting not only in-person events like GDC but also some online events. People now are dealing with quarantine and not having access to the resources. I know that you can’t speak to gamedev.world at this time but I’m hopeful that being an online event, it will be able to persist and maybe fill in some of the gaps from events like GDC.
Sarah: It has the potential to. People were speaking from home before and it involves a lot of back-end stuff testing, providing equipment where needed. Intel very, very graciously rented us, essentially, or loaned us computers for folks who needed them.
A lot came together behind the scenes to equip people to give these talks from home. It is something that we have already done. That’s nice. There’s a precedent for doing things that way.
Ken: Is it by running events like gamedev.world and doing fundraisers like the GDC relief fund — you had mentioned that you are a labor advocate — is that how that title manifests itself?
Sarah: It more manifests itself in terms of I’ve worked a lot with the actors union as an ambassador to developers and to represent their perspective as we continue to craft contracts and keep a…A Union has to be in touch with its own community and with the producers to stay relevant, and to stay customer service to say, “Useful and responsive,” and all these things.
There’s so much work to be done to create conversation, and mutual respect, and accommodation in these two communities.
It’s been more that I’ve been trying to help support and craft contracts like the Low Budget Agreement for it so that I could continue — to my point before — to keep working on Indies and to be part of the union. We didn’t have an Indie Game Agreement, Low Budget Agreement before a couple of years ago.
When I found out that it was in the process of getting put together, I involved myself very forcibly to make sure that it was run across the desk of a few Indies that I trusted and had worked with, and make sure that it was tuned correctly to capture the swathe of work that we were aiming for, and to create a real opportunity for low budget games to work with quality actors.
To do that, there has to be all this healing between these two communities. There was this contentious strike and the communication channel was a little bit scrambled. It starts with being you have to…
In order to have someone listen to your needs, and to respect what you say you require to do your job and to live sustainably, healthily, and all that other stuff that we want, you have to extend yourself in the other direction.
I can say, “Listen to my needs all day,” but if I haven’t spent that time, and I have spent that time. I think the benefit of me having all these developer relationships is that I have spent that time investing in, listening to, and being genuinely curious about my developer friends and how the other half lives.
Doing that labor advocacy to me is about healing that conversation so that we come into a better understanding of what we need to do our jobs and to make beautiful games in the long term. Yeah, it’s a culture shift thing that I’m doing.
Then I also explain and advocate for the contracts themselves. I am here. I’m not involved in game developer unionization because I am not a game developer. But I am very happy as game developers explore their opportunities and their pathways to actualizing themselves as a worker community, and getting what they need to live well into making safely in the long term.
I’m here as a resource. I can connect them with folks in the union who have experience with the stuff, just as an example and a support. That’s I think we’re more of the labor advocacy comes in even though I’m not a legal expert or contracts expert, none of those things.
It has to do with a paradigm shift and how we think about organized labor. That it’s a good thing that it lifts everybody up. That’s a big shift to make, but it’s happening.
Ken: If it is happening, it’s thanks to the tireless advocacy of people like yourself. Thank you so much for contributing your time, your energy, your passion. It’ll be very easy for you to be a part of the community and not be so engaged. Not everybody has that energy or that drive. It’s great that there are people like you who do.
Sarah: Yeah, so it is interesting. It has to come from people who have that bandwidth. Sometimes, it means you trade roles. Sometimes, you burn out and you take a little break, and then you resume again. I’m not even a technical organizer. That’s not my title.
It takes energy and you’re meeting people wherever they’re at in this process of understanding this concept, or resisting it, or wherever they’re at. A lot of listening. Organizers themselves tend to feel…
Not me, but folks at the union tend to feel a lot of frustrations and absorb, sponge up a lot of pain from their membership and from folks who work with them before they can then put everyone at ease, clear the air, and have a productive conversation. It’s like a surprising bit of work.
I am surrounded by people who do it more nonstop, better, and full time than I do. I’m always super, super inspired by them.
Ken: That’s wonderful. We’ve been talking about your advocacy, your event organization, gamedev.world, voice acting, voice casting, LucasArts, Star Wars.
Ken: Is there anything else you want to cover today that we haven’t gotten to?
Sarah: Oh, my gosh. I don’t know.
Sarah: That’s quite of swath. I took a few detours there, huh? [laughs] I don’t know.
Ken: I’m happy for every path we walked down.
Sarah: Me too. I saw stuff I care about. I think I’m good. I have no burning need to cover something. I don’t know.
Ken: OK. Remind our listeners where we can find you online.
Sarah: Sure. I am on Twitter and Instagram @selmaleh, which is S-E-L-M-A-L-E-H.
Ken: Wonderful. There’ll be a link to that in the show notes at polygamer.net. If you want to read more about Sarah, she’ll be doing a Behind the Game Spotlight on Tumblr.
Ken: There’ll be a link to that as well. Sarah, thank you so much for your time. It’s been wonderful chatting with you.
Sarah: It’s been lovely to chat with you, too. Thanks for having me. Oh, my voice. Do you hear that little crack? I got to go drink some water. I’m too tired!
Voiceover: This has been Polygamer, a Gamebits production. Find more episodes, read our blog, or send feedback at polygamer.net. [pause]
Sarah: I don’t know why I feel the need to refrigerate my Sour Patch Kids because they’re made of plastic. They’re not going to go bad. I don’t know. But now, they’re very cold and very hard.
Ken: Is this a voice-acting technique: to chomp on candy while performing?
Sarah: Not while performing.
Sarah: Sour things — excuse me — will get your saliva going. If you have that sort of smacky, thick-sounding situation going on in your mouth, traditionally you’d take a bite of a green apple or something, but anything really sour will make your saliva production go up and start to clean everything out.
Ken: I did not know that. Another trick of the trade.
Sarah: There you go. That one’s for free.