STASIS, video game, box art, title, John, man, tubes, wires

Interview: Ryan Cooper (STASIS)

Originally published on 1001Up:

Adventure-horror STASIS is the work of brothers Chris and Nic Bischoff, also known as The Brotherhood, and was in development for around five years before its release at the end of August 2015. I first heard about the title after receiving a press release in connection with its Kickstarter campaign and decided to become a backer myself as soon as I’d watched the promotional video. Many other gamers obviously had a similar reaction as the project ended up raising a total of $132,523 from 4,298 people – almost a third more than the original $100,000 target.

We published our review of the game last month as part of our Halloween special, giving it a worthy ‘Buy it now!’ award. A lot of recent releases in the horror genre have resorted to overdone gore, with puzzles of blood and close-ups of gruesome death scenes, or so many jump-scares that they become expected after the first thirty minutes. The Brotherhood’s project tries to buck that trend – and it does an awesome job, all the more impressive when you consider that it has been created by such a small team.

In our review round-up, we said that that STASIS is an incredibly atmospheric title and attributed this in part to the audio. We also highlighted that voice-actor Ryan Cooper puts in a decent performance as John Maracheck, considering how many unimaginable things the protagonist is put through! Ryan got in touch with us to thank us for the review so we took the opportunity to ask him more about the project and some of his other work.

Can you tell us about your background and how you got into voice-acting?

Ryan: “My day-job is in architecture and I voice-act of an evening and weekends. It’s not full-time but it’s more than a mere hobby. Mods were where I began as I gathered the skills and equipment needed to break into the indie game market. It’s been gradual, and I am reluctant to call myself an established actor yet. Staying abreast of the latest developments in indie games is a part-time job in itself.”

Are you a gamer yourself? If so, do you have any favourite titles or genres?

Ryan: “I always get excited when a Bethesda game comes around. They have this unique ability to grip me for months like a vice and then dump me just as quickly. I wouldn’t say I have a favourite genre of game as such, but anything that balances innovative gameplay with good story-telling will be near the top of my list. Since the advent of platforms like Kickstarter and Steam Early Access, it’s remarkable how Indie developers have been able to inject bold new ideas into the games industry. Some of the more memorable titles of recent years have come from the grass roots.”

Have you played STASIS? What did you think of it?

Ryan: “I was an early-bug tester and a beta Kickstarter backer, so I played it a couple of times before release. For a one-man development, STASIS is a minor miracle really, and serves as inspiration to other small teams. It has been spoken about in the same breath as peers like SOMA, which had several team members with years of experience between them. The game has a timeless quality and won’t really age in years to come. Chris should be very proud of what he has achieved.”

What was it like working with The Brotherhood?

Ryan: “It was always an open-door working relationship with the Bischoff brothers. Chris trusted me enough to get on with my performance, which was liberating. I drip-fed him the lines so he could implement them on his schedule, and this became an organic way of building the voice work into the game. If I were compelled to revisit takes, he was more than happy to receive them.”

How does John Maracheck compare to your previous roles?

Ryan: “It’s funny. I looked back at my previous work the other day and John is the only character who actually converses with other characters. Being mostly narrators, the others address the player directly. So, the action / reaction dynamic of John’s dialogue is what sets him aside from my other roles.

“I wanted to impart a rawness, a genuineness to John and be satisfied I’d done all I could to make him sound like a real person in an unreal situation. If I had screwed up in making John relatable, I don’t think I could have forgiven myself. There was only $130K+ behind the game and thousands of expectant backers.”

Some of the scenes within STASIS are particularly harrowing. We have to ask: how did you feel when presented with ‘that’ surgery scene? What was it like to record?

Ryan: “It was the toughest scene for me because it was so hard to imagine. A character sobbing over all manner of upsetting revelations is achievable because the actor can draw on their own upsetting experiences and the tears are real. But performing open spinal surgery on yourself while you are still awake? Has that ever actually happened?

“To prepare, I studied a similar scene in the movie Prometheus, albeit the character’s motivation is different. Shaw is desperate to remove her foreign-body from a position of religious and motherly disgust. Her reaction is natural, and therefore the horror lies more in the revelation of the creature than in her slicing herself open. John’s foreign-body is not causing him any immediate consternation, besides blocking the path to his daughter. The decision is on him – and thus the player, to push the button knowing full well what’s coming.

“I pictured Rebecca [John’s daughter] as I was screaming, as that is the only way John could get through it without passing out. This is however a scene I would have recorded differently if I had the time again. It’s a bit tamer and more inward than I would have liked at points; I should have just gone hell for leather until I blew my voice box. The sequence itself though is wonderfully realised in its sheer body horror and becomes one of the game’s most memorable scenes.”

Do you have any techniques for getting into character before a recording?

Ryan: The best technique to get into character is to understand the character. If the client provides a full script, read it, re-read it and reflect on who it is you are playing. If you go into the session happy that your recording space meets your needs, you can concentrate on inhabiting your character. Ensure at the very least the space behind you is well padded to reduce reflections back into the mike (assuming it’s a Cardioid). Even a couple of heavy quilts will help. I made an expensive collapsible coffin for myself out of wood and acoustic foam and the quality difference between that and my earlier recordings is scary. Make sure your computer does not have a jet engine for a fan. Use a laptop if possible.

“My preferred approach at this point is to be practical, step up to the microphone and just accept the first take or ten will probably suck while I build momentum. I guess that’s how novelists get past writer’s block, by spewing out any old rubbish until they have their ‘eureka’ moment.”

Of all of your performances, which has been the most challenging so far?

Ryan: “Jonah in The Old City: Leviathan. Getting into the head space of someone who has spent too much time alone, but has a keen philosophical mind and forms these unique insights into the meaning of life. He comes from a very different place to the average person and therein lay the challenge of making him relatable.

“I put Jonah into terms I could understand, as an actor of sorts. More specifically, someone whose life has become an act, who created Leviathan to avoid the pain of the unknown. Maybe we all create our own personal Leviathan as we get older. Jonah’s life views become his lines, rehearsed to the point of banality, the theatrical pauses more deliberate with the years. Only when he is exposed to the uncertain does the child in him break out. Jonah manages to rekindle a deep ember of childlike curiosity that helps him get off his ass and leave his self-imposed prison.”

Which performance are you most proud of?

Ryan: “Tough call. Probably Maracheck, because I was afforded a wide range of emotions in a somewhat traditional role. There is a familiarity in his character type, but few characters suffer as he does. It was the role that left me the most exhausted and ultimately satisfied. I am also pleased to have been a part of Kholat starring Sean Bean, though I lament not being able to meet him. One does not simply meet him, I suppose.”

What’s your favourite vocal performance from someone else in a video game?

Ryan: “Certainly Troy Baker as Joel in The Last of Us. Grounded, nuanced and utterly believable. You know this guy would stove your face in with a house brick to protect his loved ones. If that performance had been up on the big screen, critics would have raved over it.”

Which existing character would be your dream role?

Ryan: “Batman. My favourite character in all of pop culture growing up and to this day. There is a complexity and contradiction to the character that makes him durable and open to interpretation. He does not represent an incontrovertible ideal. One day he’s a hero, the next a fascist vigilante, the next a rich kid who can’t grow up. He is deeply flawed, perhaps creating more problems than he solves by using fear and violence instead of his wealth and influence. There is a constant tension between two opposites in him.”

What’s your opinion of the voice-acting / motion-capture debate?

Ryan: “Some of the criticism has surprised me. It got to the point where people were questioning the validity of voice-acting altogether. Several Twitter comments read something like, ‘What does voice-acting convey that text boxes can’t?’ While I am not deluded enough to think games are not predominantly about the gameplay, the story and the visual-audio quality are crucial in immersing the player in a different world. You cannot seriously suggest The Last of Us would be an equally affecting experience if it had text boxes instead of Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson. Not every game can tell its story through its environment like Journey.

“Detractors of #PerformanceMatters call the voice-actors whinging, irrelevant prima donnas because the game developers, the most important part of game development, are paid even less. It is a straw man argument. Of course the devs are the most important part of game development, but for whatever reason they have not unionised, or they too would be in a position to rectify their poor pay and working conditions, and we’d all be in full support. The truth is the multi-billion dollar industry that is gaming does not pay its professionals, including voice-actors and developers, remotely well enough for what they bring. Those profits more than likely go into the pockets of people who do not deserve it.

“It is something of a catch-22. A talented young actor who is equally expressive in body and voice would have to be a fool to enter a career in voice-acting because it pays so poorly compared to screen acting, despite games making twice the revenue. This disparity reflects in the standard of acting at the top of the games industry. It just isn’t quite as good as it should be, and rarely am I wowed by a voice-actor’s performance. The Last of Us redefined what I thought was possible for video game acting, but I have not played a game like it before or since.”

Is there any advice you’d give to someone who’s thinking of becoming a voice-actor?

Ryan: “After the last answer, you would think the best advice might be: don’t! However, I am in it because I enjoy it. There is a real thrill when a game where you’ve voiced for is released and heck, maybe even praised by some. The best advice in life is do whatever makes you happy. If that is voice-acting, you will find your way. If you are a part-timer like me who has to dispatch a résumé hundreds of times on the off-chance someone may need an actor, be prepared to handle disappointment. Of the inquiries I make, maybe 10% respond. Of that 10%, 75% say ‘thanks, but no thanks’. You have to be lucky to catch them at the perfect time of their development cycle. Or you could spend money putting yourself onto voice-acting websites like Voice123 and hope your samples speak louder than your competitors’.

“You must have a steady source of income to supplement your endeavours because building your reputation from nothing is slow. You’d think Troy Baker sprang up from nowhere in recent years, but he has been voice-acting since the nineties. I have been acting for two years, and have two character credits and a handful of narrations. At least with a day job, I can pursue attractive roles that will inspire me and might enhance my reputation. Your demo reel can start to sound decent after a while, and that is what gets your foot in the door.”

If a STASIS sequel were to happen, would you return for it?

Ryan: “Absolutely! I loved working on the game and with the Bischoffs. I doubt Chris is done telling stories from that universe, though I am unsure how a direct sequel to the story told in STASIS would work without undermining the themes established during the game. Maybe with this game as proof of his abilities and with more capital behind him, Chris could open things up in scope. A story set during the Eugenics War would be neat.”

A big thank you to Ryan for his time, and to The Brotherhood for making an amazing game! If you haven’t yet tried it we highly recommend that you check it out. Keep an eye out for the upcoming downloadable content (DLC) – if it’s anything like STASIS, there are plenty more scary nights ahead of us.

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