Ali Hillis is a bit of an up-and-coming name in the world of video game voice acting. She only had one voice credit to her name when she took the role of Liara T'Soni in BioWare's Mass Effect, and then in 2010 she's had two massive roles - returning as Liara in Mass Effect 2 and its recently released downloadable content "Lair of the Shadow Broker", but even bigger playing leading lady Lightning in Final Fantasy XIII.
To celebrate the launch of Final Fantasy XIII, we spent a couple of hours chatting to Ali about her acting career, her charity work, how you too can get into voice acting, and what it is like to be the voice behind the first female lead character in one of the most successful franchises of all time.
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RPGSite: Hi Ali, thanks for joining us – how are you today?
Ali Hillis: You’re very kind for asking – I’m fine, I’m doing well, thank you. I’ve done a few auditions already this morning from home and just have a long day [of] recording, for many reasons. How are you?
RPGSite: I’m very well, thank you. You just mentioned auditioning today but you had a very busy year last year, so did you take a break for a while or have you been hard at work this whole time?
Ali: Still hard at work, still very luck and very happy to be booking new jobs, most of them I can’t speak of, of course.
RPGSite: All that hard work has certainly paid off but once upon a time you were an aspiring actor – when did the dream of becoming an actor first start for you?
Ali: I actually started stage acting when I was 10. My family moved around the States and I did stage acting in a few different States before moving to New York City to try Broadway on for size.
RPGSite: How did that work out for you?
Ali: I was actually doing very well; I was getting down to the last few people on very big, famous Broadway shows. But after waiting tables in loud, smoky bars I’d go to my auditions and just blow it. I had no voice quality left after my day job – it was actually a night job – so I kind of gave up on it a little bit and started doing more independent film.
RPGSite: Was that a field that you had any prior experience in?
Ali: I’d actually always shied away from the camera, I was a little scared of it [and] it made me uncomfortable. I’d rather have two thousand eyes on me than one camera, but when I was doing independent film it was different because it was so free.
It was down and dirty guerrilla style shooting in New York City and stealing shots and stealing locations, you know. Riding a bus to a train to a cab to get to some far off dark, strange building – it was a great time. I realised at that point that the camera was an opportunity that I hadn’t explored, not to mention a much more lucrative facet of the industry than theatre, so that’s when I moved to Los Angeles.
RPGSite: Have you ever returned to stage acting since moving to Los Angeles?
Ali: I’ve done a couple of plays out here but they weren’t quite the production quality of New York City. They’re working on it – the Geffen, the Ahmanson – and they’re bringing in a lot of shows.
Unfortunately, when I try to audition, they tell me “oh, we’re only auditioning these roles in New York City.” I’m like, “really? That’s great. So I have to fly to New York and ask my New York agent to get me an audition for that show if I would like to work on it?” “Yes, you should.” “Wow that makes a lot of sense” [laughs].
RPGSite: As a voice actor you have only worked on a few titles but they are almost all critically acclaimed and commercially successful – is it just a happy accident or do you take particular care in choosing which video games you will work on?
Ali: The first few games, no, it was just a happy accident – just a very, very happy, happy accident [laughs]. I’m very delighted that they trusted me with those complex characters. From here on out I’m starting to be a little bit more picky, because they tell me I should be, so I am.
RPGSite: Perhaps your first big success as a voice actor was the role of Dr. Liara T'Soni in Mass Effect and its recent sequel Mass Effect 2. What was it that first attracted you to Mass Effect?
Ali: Money [laughs]. I’ll admit a pay cheque. I’d like to be more interesting than that but when I went into Mass Effect I wasn’t very familiar with voicing video games at all. I have a PS3 but I never really knew the vastness and the complexity of video game characters. My husband plays sports games so outside of an ‘oof!’ or a ‘hey man!’ I didn’t really think that there was a whole lot to the characters [laughs].
When I started voicing Mass Effect, every aspect of the game was simultaneously in process, so there was no artwork at that time outside of still art. I didn’t have anything on the screen to watch, so I just had a drawing of her and that’s all I had to go on initially. When I got to the studio the Director Ginny McSwain carefully explained to me what her background was and who she was and her different layers and immediately I kind of grabbed a hold of an idea and ran with it and luckily it worked, so that was good.
I really enjoyed playing Liara because even though she was a very complex character, she kind of wore everything on her sleeve and everything she thought was out there. She would explain her emotions to you – don’t you wish all women would explain their emotions to you?
RPGSite: If only.
Ali: It would make life so much easier. If only we knew how, if only we could identify what they are and actually articulate them but no such luck. I enjoyed that about Liara, she was very clear about what she wanted and knew very well what she needed and when she was confused she would say “I’m sorry, Shepard. I am confused” [laughs]. You know, she put it all out there. I really liked that about her.
But no, I had no idea what I was getting into. It was a whole new world that the director and Bioware were introducing me to, and basically after getting to see the final version of Mass Effect I felt that movies and video games were starting to morph together into this whole new baby where the gamer can start to control the drama of the situation and the relationship between the characters. I thought that was amazing. I'm very grateful to Ginny and Bioware for taking a chance of a "newbie" and trusting me with this complex character. They introduced me to the world of RPGs.
RPGSite: Did you know from the start that your character would be returning should the game be successful enough for a sequel or did you think it would be a one shot deal?
Ali: You know what, it doesn’t matter if it’s a movie or TV show or game or play, I always assume it is a one shot deal. I don’t even consider it to really exist until I have seen the final product because I have done so many projects that never came to fruition.
I record, I take my money, I deposit it into the bank account and I forget about it until I see it either advertised on television as game or a film that’s actually going to be in the theatres or on DVD, and when they don’t I quite honestly and sadly enough completely forget about them. I have to!
RPGSite: Has that happened with any video games that you have signed on for?
Ali: I’ve never had a game that was not finished and sold, but movies, definitely, it happens all the time. Get cast among a group of A-List actors, so excited, jumping out of my skin, going to have that celebratory dinner, only to find two months later, they call you and say “the whole film folded and I hope you didn’t spend much on that dinner because you’re not going to get paid.”
RPGSite: In the event, Liara did return but she changed from wearing her heart on her sleeve to being quite an emotionally hardened character. How did you adjust your approach to the role in order to incorporate that change in her personality?
Ali: Quite honestly I was very confused by her changes - sometimes even the actor doesn't understand why a character is doing what they are doing, but it's our job to take the player on an adventure... so I follow direction and do my best to give the director and the game creators exactly what they are asking for.
That’s just a pitfall of recording video games. I love how RPGs and gaming are gearing much more towards the drama and the relationships of the characters, and alongside that those storylines are becoming more complex and hard to understand.
RPGSite: Were you disappointed that Liara took more a backseat role in number 2?
Ali: I really don’t know how big the roles are until the game is released, I’m never sure how long the games are and with Liara I think I was doing so much recording at the time that I was just trying to fit my sessions together, quite honestly [laughs].
RPGSite: In our interview with Mark Meer (Commander Shepard), he told us that he will be returning for Mass Effect 3. Are you?
Ali: I don’t know, we’ll find out. I would find out way after he would. Some of the speculation from my fans and friends is that Liara’s role is going to get more important, but that is just speculation.
RPGSite: Were you given any insight as to where they would want to take her character next?
Ali: I’ve got nothing and if I did, if I told you I’d have to kill you [laughs].
RPGSite: It’d be worth it.
Ali: Just to know for that moment [laughs].
RPGSite: Even more recently you could be heard voicing Lightning, the lead in Final Fantasy XIII. While it was released after Mass Effect 2, which did you record first?
Ali: I am trying to remember. Which one did I record first? I believe I might have started Final Fantasy, I might have worked a few days on Mass Effect 2 among others while I was recording Final Fantasy, I believe that’s how it worked. I believe I started Final Fantasy, recorded Mass Effect 2, finished Final Fantasy, because Final Fantasy was a lot longer – it went on for a while.
RPGSite: What was it like to audition for such a high profile role and can you remember where you were when you found out that the part was yours?
Ali: I’m going to disappoint you with my answer, I’m so going to disappoint you with my answer. Do I remember where I was when I booked ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ with Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer? Yes I do. Do I remember where I was when I booked ‘Must Love Dogs’ with John Cusack? Yes I do [laughs].
With Final Fantasy, I audition for so many voice over roles, you just get so many emails – ‘read this, read this, read this, here’s what the character looks like’ – some times you get the look of the character, sometimes you don’t. I don’t think I got a drawing of Lightning, I don’t remember a drawing of her from the beginning.
So that is all that I got for Final Fantasy and I simply recorded it off with every other audition including probably, ‘Now at McDonalds get the Big Mac for just $1.99’, something like that which would gross out my fans.
I’m sure that a few weeks later I got a phone call that said ‘so, you’re booked on Final Fantasy’ and I’d be like ‘OK, cool. When do I work?’ ‘You start your sessions next Tuesday and you’re going to work for the next couple of months.’ ‘Oh, really? A couple of months?’ ‘Yeah, it’s a big game.’ I’m like ‘Oh, great; that’s awesome’.
That’s pretty much what it was. I was very excited to have another booking, but really had no idea what I was booking. Some of the best jobs that I’ve booked in my life are when I had no clue what it was. I think there’s no chance to be nervous and there’s no preconceived notion of what the character should be if you don’t know what you’re auditioning for, which might have been one of the reasons I booked it. Had I seen the earlier games maybe I would have come up with ideas of what the previous characters had sounded like and tried to sound like them and not been Lightning at all, who knows?
RPGSite: Square Enix were very tight lipped about the cast, so was it difficult to keep it secret?
Ali: It was hard to keep it secret once I realised what it was, but I recorded almost half the game before I knew. I recorded literally almost half the game before I knew what I had gotten into. I was neck deep in it by the time I realised what it was. So yes, then it was very hard not to tell people about it, it was hard to keep it under wraps. I think Troy Baker (Snow) was exploding.
I didn’t know at the beginning to keep it a secret. I think they just assumed that I knew not to say anything. Then about halfway through when some other stuffed had been leaked through another actor who didn’t realise either, they made us all sign non-disclosure agreements just agreeing that we wouldn’t speak of it.
And when I signed the NDA, what I understood was ‘don’t talk to publications about it’. I didn’t understand that I couldn’t just tell a friend. It took a little bit for me to understand really that you’re not supposed to tell anyone.
But believe it or not, I don’t really talk about my work very often with my friends; we’re mostly talking about someone’s dog or where someone’s travelling that year. I don’t really talk about my work. If someone asks, ‘what are you doing right now?’ I tell them, but for the most part they just know that I go record and they don’t know what it is. Because I don’t exactly go running around proud when I record a McDonald’s commercial, although I’m very happy to do it.
I get paid the same whether I record a little tag for the end of a burger commercial that’s half a second long or a four hour session for Final Fantasy. No, I don’t mind going in and recording for a couple of minutes and making the same amount. I’ll sell myself. Of course, they’re not going to get the Lightning voice, that’s absolutely saved. I’m not recording burger commercials with Lightning. She is sacred.
RPGSite: Some gamers were able to guess who voiced certain characters from listening to the trailers for the game, so do you find that people ever recognise you by voice alone?
Ali: So far the characters I’ve done have been so different that people can’t believe it’s the same person, which makes me happy, I’m glad. I’m an actor. And when you hear Karin (in Naruto Shippuden), Karin is just ridiculous. Her voice is much more shrill. She’s very different to Lightning. Her whole entire personality. Her whole entire personalities. I think she’s got at least 3 personalities.
RPGSite: Naruto was your first ever anime so what was it like entering that world?
Ali: Again, another one I wasn’t sure about when I went into it because I hadn’t read the manga. I didn’t know what a manga was. I’m learning so much about anime and thank you to all the fans for educating me. I hadn’t read the manga, I didn’t know what Karin was about, so that was a learning experience and just thanks to the incredible directors who helped me through their complicated personalities.
RPGSite: In many ways Final Fantasy XIII received the most thorough localisation of any game in the series so far – was that something that showed through behind the scenes?
Ali: I would say yes. I was directed by Jack Fletcher, a theatre director who went to Juilliard and NYU. He’s such an actor’s director, he’s so fantastic. He’s directed so many games, he’s such an interesting person, and is so well educated.
So, he and I worked really well together, we’ve both had similar classic training, so as far as the localisation of it what we would do – what I requested, not every time but many times when we recorded a line, I would ask to hear the Japanese version first just to hear what Square Enix liked.
I don’t understand a word of Japanese, I wish I did, but the actress from the Japanese Final Fantasy XIII was so fantastic and just listening to her sounds and the emotions behind it, it kind of guided me into the English version of the character.
But it’s funny, when we did the exerts – the exerts being the sound when someone jumps or falls or hits someone – we would always do 3 versions of the exerts; the Japanese version, the Western version, and then just a third one of my choice.
So, if I had an exert where she had to jump off of the cliff and then fly and then land, we would listen to the Japanese version and I would almost mimic it. Then we would do the Western version. And then we’d just another version and I’d throw them some other choice, somewhere between the two, you know, give them a kind of halfway between the Japanese and Western version. It’s bizarre, right? So that is basically what I would do for each exert and then we’d do a similar thing with the lines.
RPGSite: Did anyone from Square Enix give input on your version of the character?
Ali: I have to say after the first week of recording we got the direction from Square Enix that they thought my voice was too low as Lightning and Jack said that it may be more appealing in Japan and other countries to have a higher more feminine sounding voice, but he was convinced that in the Western world we wanted her to have a little bit more texture to her voice.
They were debating and discussing which way they should go, what voice quality the English version of Lightning should have and ultimately we did get to go with a little bit tougher version of her, a little more texture, so we were very happy with that although we would have done whatever they wanted.
Luckily, Square Enix was happy with that. There were a lot of people making the decision – we were just basically submitting Lightning voices to Square and I’m very happy that we found a voice that they were happy with, with some strength to it – we wanted something strong. They wanted strong too but we were trying to figure out interpretation of strength in different cultures.
RPGSite: As part of that localisation, Square Enix even redid the lip sync for everything but the Full Motion Videos. Did you have to approach the recording of those sequences differently due to the animation being designed for the Japanese script?
Ali: I did, yeah. We call it to put your words in the flaps, which means the movement of the lips and the mouths, which was more of a challenge, especially for me being newer at the art. Recording those was fun, it was a challenge but they rewrote the lines so well we were really able to fit everything in there time wise.
It’s just art, it’s a game, fitting the English words into the Japanese flaps is just like playing a game and you get really excited when it looks perfect. You start tweaking words and tweaking phrasing until it works right in those flaps and has the same meaning or similar. That’s fun for me, I love it.
It’s like doing ADR for your own movie except it’s not your own movie. At least when you’ve shot a film and let’s say a helicopter goes over when you said your line so you have to record it so that it sounds better, you know your own tendencies verbally, when you know when you’re going to take a breath. To put it in the flaps of an animated drawing who’s speaking Japanese [laughs] is much more of a challenge but a fun one nonetheless and I absolutely was up for it.
In the booth recording Lightning I think the biggest praise I got from the director was for being able to interpret the Japanese without knowing the language and being able to come up with choices as similar as possible to what I was hearing in the phonetics of the Japanese actress. Because we want to give Square Enix what they like, to give them what they want, and they’d luckily already directed the Japanese version.
RPGSite: Despite working within the confines of the existing script and animation, do you feel you were given the freedom put your own mark on the character of Lightning?
Ali: Yes, I think that’s true. I agree with that statement. My favourite input on Final Fantasy was every once and a while we’d add little Western expletives, something that made sense, and a lot of people are entertained by Lightning’s use of ‘Right’.
And I must say that I can’t remember whether I just threw that in one day or whether the director told me ‘hey, try this’ but the director and I came up with ‘right’ and that was our favourite little signature on the piece, I guess.
RPGSite: It sounds a little like Commander Shepard’s use of ‘I have to go’.
Ali: Yes [laughs]. He found the most opportune times to say that he had to go, didn’t he? It’s so awesome. His ‘I have to go’ and then exit the scene, it always made me laugh. I was like ‘why doesn’t he just say goodbye?’ [Laughs]
RPGSite: How would you compare an average day in Square Enix studio to an average day in the BioWare studio – what similarities or differences were there between the two?
Ali: Differences being that the director and I had actual video content to watch for Lightning, and an actress who had already voiced her in Japanese to listen to, so our challenge was more about timing the lines to match the Japanese version and making sure that Lightning stayed very real and truthful, while also keeping the authenticity of Square's original idea for her.
For Liara, we were creating a much different experience - there were no faces to watch, no emotions to see and capture. The director was expertly guiding me through the darkness, so to speak, especially since it was my first experience with RPGs. I guess it makes sense to say that Lightning was more mapped out from the get go, but we still had to come up with an original character for the English version and choices for each line, whereas Liara was a completely new idea.
I came out of Final Fantasy knowing much more about the full story than I did in Mass Effect, but Lightning is a much bigger character in Final Fantasy than Liara is in Mass Effect - Lightning is sort of the skeleton of the game, so it was imperative that I was very clear of Lightning’s wants and where she’d come from, where she’d been, where she was going, whereas with Liara we focused more on her as an individual than how she fit into the content of the game as a whole.
RPGSite: Both games have massive encyclopaedias built into the game giving lots of insignificant but interesting background information on the world. Did Square Enix or BioWare provide you with any of that information?
Ali: Yeah, I was definitely given that. Both games were very complicated and the directors were responsible for knowing every twist and turn and relating it all to the actors - a tough job! When I walked in on my first day of Final Fantasy, Jack came up to me and gave me a book, basically, and he said “here, read this – you’re not going to understand a word of it but just try to give it a read and I’m going to explain it to you” [laughs]. He was so dry, it’s great.
So I started reading it and I’m reading about Cocoon and reading about crystallisation and I’m trying to understand the world, not having a clue what it was before that day. It was very complicated and it was tough but I just kept reading and reading and then when I got in the booth and the director was on the other side, he started… not quizzing me but just trying to make sure I understood and he was pleasantly surprised that I actually did have some kind of reading comprehension that day.
Whoever wrote the pages that I was given to read was very well articulated and was able to really draw out the story for someone like me who was clueless to the world of Final Fantasy XIII. I was able to grasp the concept and kind of understand the skeleton of what the story was about.
RPGSite: While we are comparing your experiences on the two games, do you have a preference between the high fantasy of Final Fantasy and the gritty space opera that is Mass Effect?
Ali: Hmm. That’s a good question. You know what, I don’t. For me it’s about the character, it really is, and their own story, so I find both the story of Liara and Lightning… it’s funny, their stories are different but they’re similar. They have similar backgrounds but they express emotion in very different ways, well, one being human and one not being human.
But no, I really don’t have a preference, I love every game I’ve become involved with. I take every one as an independent story and independent idea, almost like each one is its own piece of artwork, no matter what medium. Like maybe some are paints, some are clay – I respect each one in its own genre, I just like learning about each kind. I appreciate the differences, it keeps my life exciting.
RPGSite: Your comparison to art reminds me of Roger Ebert’s recent comment that games can never be art because they have an objective…
Ali: Aw, he just aged himself, didn’t he? Unfortunately, I believe that it’s the same thing that the Screen Actors Guild thought because as far as pay goes the contracts were not with the times. They needed to be discussing actor contracts for gaming a long, long time ago and now it’s here and now they’re discussing and it kind of feels like it’s a little late.
RPGSite: So, in your opinion video games are an art form?
Ali: Absolutely. Absolutely. 100% percent. I’m mostly just completely amazed by the artists’ ability to create emotion in the eyes and in the faces of these characters. The artists helped me so much to determine what type of emotion should be passing through the lips of Lightning just watching her.
I’m involved with a charity organisation in North Carolina called A Child’s Place – it’s a little independent organisation that takes no public funding, just private, and they go into the school systems and find children who are homeless and do whatever they can to help them get better marks in school and help them have clothing and food and send them home with backpacks full of food for their family.
I went to North Carolina this past weekend and I spoke to some high school kids who are big gamers. They’re not homeless but they definitely don’t have many influences in their lives to encourage them to do much more than to work at the local fast food place or something like that for the rest of their lives, so I did a talk with them about all of the different opportunities in gaming to earn a living for yourself because there’s so many facets to gaming – there’s the visual art, the sound art, the graphics, the marketing, you could go on and on.
So, that’s one thing that I’ve been trying to do with some of the fans who save their last pennies to run to the local shop or order online; I want to encourage them that while they’re playing the game to let their imaginations run wild and see themselves actually being a part of the machine that helps create games like this.
RPGSite: Since you started working in the gaming industry have you ever been surprised by just how many people with different skills are involved with the creation of a video game?
Ali: One thing that I thought was interesting was that there is a very famous clothing designer from Japan who designed the Final Fantasy XIII wardrobes. It’s like ‘they’re not even real wardrobes made of real clothes’ - it’s not fabric or leather or metal buckles, it’s drawings of it, and yet they had someone design wardrobe for these characters. I just thought that was phenomenal.
RPGSite: Knowing that they are possible is certainly helpful for fans into cosplay.
Ali: That’s true. I’ve seen some Lightning’s and they’ve been fantastic. People ask me if I’m going to dress as her. Some people ask if she was modelled of off me and I take that compliment to heart, it’s awesome, but no, she was drawn way before I was hired.
RPGSite: So, you didn’t dress as Lightning for the Final Fantasy release party then?
Ali: I did not; they want me to dress up and I’m like ‘yeah, but then these girls come up with a costume that is way better than mine and I’m put to shame. I’m not sure that Lightning should be shamed in front of her fans’.
RPGSite: What can you tell us about what the release party like?
Ali: It was a nice affair. A lot of the gentlemen from Square Enix were there and it was beautiful, they did a nice job. Having gone to a lot of star studded premieres myself I would say that it definitely measured up to and/or surpassed any major motion picture premiere I’ve ever attended.
There was a red carpet, drinks and hors d'oeuvres were being passed and along one entire wall there was a row of maybe 30 or 40 Xbox 360 gaming systems and along the opposite wall they had the same amount of PS3’s so that everyone could take a chance at playing the game.
They also had glass display cases with all the action figures and different jewellery that they had designed, and we all had little tattoo’s that we could rub on our skin and put it wherever it was appropriate or not appropriate.
We all signed a big backdrop that had the Final Fantasy XIII logo on it and there was a giant screen and they played the trailer in 3D which everyone really enjoyed and there was an emcee for the evening who did a great job.
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RPGSite: Is there any part of the night that particularly stands out for you?
Ali: At one point they played a scene from the game and Troy and I had yet to be introduced, so we were standing backstage with microphones in our hands, a small monitor displaying what was happening on the big screen and we were actually voicing the characters live.
The audience of course assumed that they were pre-recorded voices and they were watching a scene until Troy and I came out with some more interesting dialogue. I think people were a bit quizzical about Lightning and Snow having a more intense banter, and then we walked out from backstage and got a big reaction from the audience who were very excited to see the actual Lightning and Snow.
And when Troy does his hair blonde I swear he looks just like Snow, but for the release party he darkened his hair, much to my dismay because I thought he looked fantastically like Snow when he had it blonde. And I apparently - I don’t have pink hair but apparently my features resemble Lightning although I think I have a few years on her. Just a few.
RPGSite: No comment.
Ali: [Laughs] You may never get another interview, buddy. Or you may get many more interviews.
RPGSite: Each character in Final Fantasy XIII has a very distinct story with its own beginning, middle and end, so how would you describe the journey that Lightning took?
Ali: It’s interesting when you record or shoot film, most of the time you’re recording out of sequence so in my mind there’s no flow. I get small snippets and of what the story entails and doing it out of order causes some chaos in my mind sometimes; I can’t get a clear picture of what the beginning, middle and end actually are.
But when I think back to finally getting to see the trailer for the first time I was absolutely floored, just amazed by what we had created, I had no idea that it was going to look like that or sound like that. I think watching it, as it always does with film as well when I finally get to see the story from beginning to end, it gives me a better idea of the character we were creating the whole time and I’m always waiting to see if we achieved our goals in sort of pursuing her story, and just by seeing the trailer I felt like we did.
I was very proud of it and I felt the director did an incredible job. I just think throughout she was always confident in herself as a single entity, that’s how I feel, and I feel like as the game grew she became more confident in herself as a leader. I think that’s a simple way of putting how I saw her progress through the game emotionally and within her own character.
RPGSite: Did anyone ever discuss the overall theme or moral of the game with you?
Ali: We discussed everything, we really did, we discussed every single facet of why she did what she did and what she stood for and I think as far as morals go I feel like Lightning gained more as the game went on; she was colder in the beginning, every man for himself, “I’m not responsible for you, my sister is my responsibility, I’m going to do the best for me and my sister”.
She really didn’t want to be responsible for Hope; she was struggling with that, I think. She couldn’t leave him behind but at the same time she sure didn’t want the weight, and I feel like as the story plays out, I felt her becoming just more able to communicate and more inclusive and maybe more accepting of the fact that she doesn’t have to fight alone.
Another awesome fan question I got was one person asked me what I thought the relationship was between Lightning and Hope – did I feel it was more of a mother/son relationship, did I think it was more brother/sister, did I think it was friend to friend?
I replied and said that I thought it was a very intelligent question and very observant for them to have noticed that the relationship did indeed change throughout the game, because we discussed it in the booth, we discussed “OK, in this situation we feel like their relationship has evolved into more of a mother/son relationship” or “in this it’s more of a leader/disciple relationship”.
We were always finding different situations for them, so I thought that was a really good question and I said that I think they have every single one of those relationships at all different times throughout the game. It’s constantly evolving – which is amazing in a video game! Evolution of relationships and character? I’m so proud.
RPGSite: Final Fantasy XIII is just one of three announced games in a collection named Fabula Nova Crystallis – do you have any insight to how it might relate to the other two?
Ali: Nope, not a word. I got nothing for ya on that, but nice try.
RPGSite: Hmm – it sure sounds like you’re hiding something to me…
Ali: [Laughs] I got nothing. I’ve got no idea. I have so many fans asking ‘are you going to be in FFXIII-2?’ Another Final Fantasy game was recording while I was recording and I'm not in that. Never say never, though!
RPGSite: Had you ever played any Square Enix or BioWare games before your recent voice work for them and do you ever play the games that you have worked on?
Ali: I own the games and they get put up on the screen and I start to try to figure them out and then the phone rings and… My friends joke, they always ask me if I got a new sofa, because I never sit on it. If I sit down too long, I fall to sleep [laughs].
I’m not good at sitting, which is why I like the differences all the time, doing voice over, movies, you never know what’s going to happen next, you never know when you’re going to get the phone call – “hey, you’ve got to be in Hollywood in 20 minutes, can you get there?” I’m addicted to the running, running, running.
What I like to do is pop them up on YouTube and watch other people play, because I need to understand the games and I want to know what enjoyment other people get out of them. I think at some point, when I can take a staycation, where I tell everyone that I have left the country and I shut my phone off and I shut my computer down and I stay at home for a week when no one knows I’m here, then maybe I’ll get some gaming in. Until then I rely on everyone who finds me and tells me about what my characters are doing.
RPGSite: We have a few reader questions now, the first of which is somewhat related to the last question. After working on a project and having a chance to see the final product, do you ever wish you could go back and record a line differently?
Ali: That’s such a smart question. Absolutely, absolutely. With so many lines recorded one by one, there are definitely times where after I see the final product if I’m a little more clear as to why the line is being used and the meaning of it you wish you could go back and re-record, just like in film there are always scenes you wish you could go back and re-shoot, but at the same time you just have to trust that the director knows the arc of the entire story and knows all the worlds and I just follow his or her lead.
RPGSite: Did you learn anything specific while recording Mass Effect and Final Fantasy? Firstly, what did you take away from them as a professional?
Ali: I learned a lot in Mass Effect 1 about the technique of recording video games, giving them several different choices knowing that the gamer chooses which direction to go, so understanding that we have to record an identical line in three different ways so that the right intention comes out in whichever choice the player makes.
So that is what I took away from Mass Effect especially because it was my first big, more real character in a game, based in truth. What I took away from Final Fantasy XIII was just how emotionally specific video game characters have gotten and that I shouldn’t be afraid to experience any and all emotions that come as we’re performing the game behind the microphone. Don’t hide anything because they want it to be more real.
RPGSite: And how about personally; did they change your personal views on anything, such as revenge and losing a loved one?
Ali: I am definitely less a fan of big scary monsters [laughs] and I used to believe that guns are bad but that gun sword was very cool.
In all seriousness it also reinforced the idea that within a relationship you can experience several different facets of that relationship and like we talked of Hope and Lightning previously that relationship is much more than what it seems, much more than the literal version - that two friends can often times act as each others siblings and/or parents and/or coaches, you know, that relationships are always changing.
RPGSite: Do you have a preference between screen and voice acting?
Ali: That’s a good question. I don’t think I do, I love it all, and stage acting as well. Stage acting might be my favourite. But of all the different types of acting or different ways you can get yourself out there, I really think it’s pretty much a straight up tie. I really love it. I love changing all the time, I love reinventing myself. Right now, with the economy as it is and much less film being produced out of Hollywood, it’s given me the opportunity to reinvent myself and focus more on voice over and I’m liking where that’s taking me.
RPGSite: Several readers were wondering how they could become voice actors themselves, so what advice would you give to anyone that is hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Ali: My advice to everyone out there who wants to get into voice acting is to first of all get into acting. Take acting classes. Learn how to act. Because it’s not about how you sound, it’s about the person and the talent behind the sound. Anyone can have a fantastic voice but they can’t stand behind a microphone and become a character.
So, take acting classes and then experiment. You don’t have to take expensive voice over classes if you don’t want to. I highly recommend the Blue Snowball Microphone from the Apple Store – I used it to audition to for Final Fantasy XIII – and hook it up to your computer and find a recording program. I use GarageBand. I use a Mac.
It’s a very inexpensive way to do it. Even five years ago people had to spend a lot of money to create their own sound proof little closet in their house with an expensive microphone and an expensive board to work the levels and then you had to teach yourself how to import it into the computer and change it to an mp3 file and email it. But with the Blue Snowball Microphone and Garage Band it pretty much walks you through the entire process. I record right out of my house for auditions and then of course when you book the role you go and record in a booth.
But practice, I tell them practice. Voice acting is anything you hear – whenever you hear a voice and you don’t see an actual persons lips moving, that’s voice acting. I have to remind people because they picture it as only voices in animation or only voices in games and I have to remind them that no, it’s every voice you hear, it’s every commercial where you don’t see a person talking but you hear a voice.
Listen to everything you hear on the radio, everything you see on television, record that stuff and practice it, mimic it, see what you’re good at and then call your local talent agent and see if they represent voice actors. Mostly just practice, practice, practice.
RPGSite: And finally, can we expect to hear your voice in any other video games anytime soon and if so are you at liberty to tell us about any of them?
Ali: You can indeed expect to hear my voice in a few games coming soon. I cannot say anymore than that. You might find some of them on IMDb but someone put on mine that I worked on Castlevania and my manager called and said “I don’t remember this”. I said “me neither!” [Laughs] Someone got creative there.
RPGSite: Haha – I will take anything on there with a pinch of salt. With that said, all that remains is for me to thank you once again for your time. It has been a real honour.
Ali: Absolutely, you’re fun to talk to, and thank you for the questions.
Thanks again to Ali for giving up so much of her time. Be sure to check out the A Child's Place website to learn more about all of their good work and as always stick with us for all the latest on what's next from Square Enix and BioWare!
Full Disclosure: Some elements and answers in this interview were amended on 15/09/2010 at Ali's request. She felt some of her original answers weren't in depth and didn't correctly represent her opinion or experiences, so we chatted with her again to amend some of them.