Xenoblade Chronicles has finally arrived in Europe, more than a year after its Japanese release, but judging by the reviews, including our own, this is the JRPG that fans have been waiting for. We recently had the chance to sit down with Adam Howden, the man behind lead character Shulk, to discuss his career and his work on the game.
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RPGSite: Hi Adam, thanks for taking the time out to chat with us. How are you today?
Adam Howden: Hi Dave, I’m good thanks & thank you for taking an interest in interviewing me.
RPGSite: Your voice is becoming increasingly familiar to those who know where to listen, but yours is still a relatively young career. Can you remember your first experience of acting as an amateur and when did you decide to pursue it professionally?
Adam: I really enjoyed drama at school. I was supposed to study P.E for my GCSE’s but last minute switched to drama because it made me happier and I was better at acting than sport. I then went onto study A-Level drama. My drama teachers and my Mum took me to see lots of really great theatre and that’s when I decided I wanted to give it a go myself.
RPGSite: You trained at the highly respected Drama Centre in London. What was the audition process like and how did the centre compare to your expectations of drama school?
Adam: I auditioned for several prestigious and established drama schools, but when I walked into my Drama Centre audition I had a very good feeling about the place, even though the building was falling apart and it had rats. The audition lasted an entire day but by the end of it I was very keen to go there. The staff and students there were friendly and encouraging. I felt free to play and not inhibited like I had at other drama school auditions. There was also the issue of money. By the time I joined Drama Centre it had become part of The University Of The Arts and so it no longer meant I’d have to pay about £10,000 per year like some of the other schools were charging at the time. However, with what our government is doing to university fees in England it means students will probably have to pay about £9,000 per year. So it looks like I went there at the right time.
RPGSite: John Simm, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and more are all Drama Centre alumni. Did you feel increased pressure knowing the level of success the school has had with former students or did having that kind of heritage inspire you even further?
Adam: I personally found it very inspiring. You’ve gotta be in it to win it. As an actor you can never predict how your career is going to pan out but you should always aim high. All of the drama schools can boast talented and famous alumni, but there is something about having trained at Drama Centre that feels like being in a private members club. I feel great pride that I trained there, as do most DC alumni I’m sure, Colin Firth included. I’m still inspired by people who’ve trained there. Tom Hardy who was at DC about 5 years before me is doing amazingly well, Michael Fassbender too. That school just keeps pumping out talent.
RPGSite: As mentioned, it is your voice that is most familiar to many people. Was developing your voice – breathing technique, accents, etc. – something that was focussed on during your study and is it a field you were always interested in?
Adam: Whilst at Drama Centre I would’ve never predicted that the bulk of my income would end up being from voice-overs. Although, I’m not complaining that it has. However, working on your voice is very important in all areas of acting, not just voice-overs. We did a lot of voice work at DC. We were using our voices all the time and had to learn how to look after them. Everyone has there own preferred vocal warm-ups, breathing techniques etc. I am not an amazing singer but I use a lot of singing techniques for my warm-ups and feel that my voice needs to be equally prepared for screaming battle cries in a booth for hours as it does for performing in a massive theatre.
RPGSite: You have worked on some high profile video games over the years, starting with Dragon Age: Origins. How did you become attached to that project?
Adam: My voice agent got me an audition with SIDE UK who are the studio BioWare employ for the London based recording. I read for a couple of characters and thankfully was picked to be on board.
RPGSite: It was your first time working on a video game, so what was it like walking into the studio on day one and did the overall experience help you develop as an actor?
Adam: I didn’t really know what to expect. I was nervous, as I was new to voice over’s but was eager to impress. With most games I’ve worked on I haven’t been given the script before hand. This can be for different reason. Sometimes to do with game secrecy but sometimes it’s just because the writers are making last minute changes. This means that you have to be on your toes as an actor. My sight-reading and accent skills have greatly improved.
RPGSite: You voiced a variety of roles for both Origins and its expansion The Awakening but which ones stand out most in your mind as being the most fun or challenging?
Adam: I’m quite fond of the Ostagar Prisoner in Origins. I saw an Origins walk through demo on YouTube before the game was released and seeing him was the first time I’d ever seen myself as a computer sprite.
RPGSite: The Dragon Age series returned this year with Dragon Age II and you came with it, this time in the role of Anders, previously voiced by Greg Ellis in The Awakening. How did you wind up taking the reins of that character?
Adam: I don’t actually know why the casting was changed. Maybe Greg couldn’t do it because of other commitments… Who knows? But Anders in DA2 is certainly a different Anders from the Awakening incarnation. I think BioWare did a great job with the development of Anders in DA2. I can understand why I was picked to pick up where Greg Ellis left off. We do have a similar vocal quality.
RPGSite: How did you approach voicing a character that already had a voice – did you spend time studying him and the voice he had been given or did you go your own way?
Adam: I went my own way. I had a listen to the Awakening Anders to work out where the character was coming from but ultimately Anders in DA2 is written quite differently. He maintains a sense of humour but you learn so much more about him in DA2 and you see a much darker side to him.
RPGSite: Anders returned in the Dragon Age II: Legacy expansion pack. For anyone yet to play it, what can we expect from him in this new story? And is there any chance that we could see him again in either DLC or the announced Dragon Age III?
Adam: More wit, more drama and more demonic possession. I hope there’ll be more Anders. I honestly don’t know what the plans are for more DLC or DA3. I understand DA3 is in development but I’ll just have to wait and see like everybody else.
RPGSite: Between the two Dragon Age games you worked on Fable III, yet another high profile release. Were you aware of how big these games were when you first signed up for them - had you ever played previous Fable or BioWare games yourself?
Adam: If I’m honest I didn’t know how big these games were. I certainly do now. I had a go on Fable 2 to see what it was all about. When I got picked to work on Fable 3 I was really pleased because it became clear that it was going to be a great job. The cast is like a dream film cast with some of the best British actors around adding their voices. I was sat in the waiting area at SIDE UK about to go into one of the studios and in walks John Cleese. I nearly shat myself.
RPGSite: Did you have the chance to meet Peter Molyneux, charismatic developer of Fable, and how did the recording process compare and differ to that for Dragon Age?
Adam: I didn’t meet Peter, no. Fable 3 was a mammoth of a game. Every studio at SIDE UK was going hell for leather on it for months. The recording process wasn’t too dissimilar to recording Dragon Age. Like with most games I recorded my dialogue without the other actors in the booth.
RPGSite: As before, who were the most fun or challenging characters among those you voiced?
Adam: In Fable 3 I played lots of villagers and townsfolk and generally the energy was a lot more heightened than in other games. It felt more cartoon-like. Very fun though and some of most hilarious dialogue I’ve recorded.
RPGSite: This year you took on perhaps your largest role to date, voicing lead character Shulk in the upcoming Xenoblade Chronicles. When was your first audition and how long did you have to wait until you were told that the role was officially yours?
Adam: I auditioned for Xenoblade Chronicles in November 2010 and was told I got the part about two weeks later. It was all very secretive. I didn’t know what I was auditioning for. I just knew it was an RPG for Nintendo.
RPGSite: How was the character of Shulk described to you when you got the part and how did you tackle the task of finding his personality and developing his voice – was there something in his look or his dialogue that helped shape who he was for you?
Adam: Shulk looks quite young and innocent and so I was aware that I needed to reflect that in his voice. However, he’s no softy and as you’ll find in the game he really kicks some ass. And he’s very intelligent and curious. He grows from a boy into a man over the course of the game. There’s something quite ‘Neo’ (from The Matrix) like about him.
RPGSite: RPGs, particularly Japanese RPGs, are renowned for having huge scripts – is that part of the attraction for you as an actor and how long was the script for Xenoblade to anything else you have worked on, be it stage, screen or video game?
Adam: Yeah, it was a big script. Certainly one of the biggest I’ve done. Luckily, though, I didn’t have to learn the lines, just read from the page. I didn’t mind at all. I’m paid by the hour. I wish all scripts were longer. I think with RPG’s that people who play them know what they’re about and that there is going to be a lot of story. Well surely that’s a good thing. You want a game to have substance, as you want films and TV to have substance too. These games are epic and demand committed investment from the player.
RPGSite: Often with the localization of a Japanese game, the original developers are involved throughout the process – how the script is being translated, how the characters are being represented, etc. Was that the case while you were in the studio?
Adam: Yes, we had a producer and translator in the studio the whole time, which is actually really helpful because there was always someone there to answer questions.
RPGSite: Were there any difficulties ensuring the script made sense in English or with matching your vocals with the Japanese animation? Did you ever hear the original vocals?
Adam: Sometimes it was difficult because we had to make lines of dialogue fit with the Japanese animation. We had to make some lines longer, some shorter. We always made sure nothing was lost in translation though. I did listen to the original vocals and sometimes that was really helpful for gauging the tone of the scene.
RPGSite: How would you describe the tone of the game – light hearted, gritty, or both? In a similar vein, what are some of the themes that the story touches on?
Adam: The game is quite romantic but jam-packed with action. Some of the fights are pretty gritty and there is definitely a good measure of light-hearted humour too. It’s quite a philosophical game. It explores our place in the universe, do we really exist, God, do we make our own fate or are we on a set course?, as well as love, revenge and friendship.
RPGSite: Xenoblade Chronicles is one of three games that are being released in Europe but not in the United States, prompting fans to launch a campaign for their release. Nintendo has said it isn’t going to happen but were there any whispers behind the scenes?
Adam: There were whispers but nobody ever knew for sure if Xenoblade Chronicles would be released in the States. I don’t know why they haven’t. There must be a reason. I’m sure Americans can get there hands on it if they really want it though…
RPGSite: Western RPGs and Japanese RPGs are very different animals but having worked on both did that difference show behind the scenes, in terms of mentality, approach and what the writers and directors were trying to achieve?
Adam: Generally I would say they are fairly similar but I find with Japanese games the action and what is required of the voice actor is more heightened and dare I say ‘melodramatic’.
RPGSite: While the Western video game industry is still very much based in the US, there is increasing number of games being at least partly developed here in UK – have you noticed a growth in the voice over community and in voice over opportunities?
Adam: Yeah, I have noticed that more games are being developed here and I’ve also noticed that more games are requiring actors to do full performance and not just the voice. I have yet to do mo-cap but am dying to get involved.
RPGSite: Having worked extensively in that voice over community for the last three or four years, who would you say was the biggest influence and help during that time?
Adam: My biggest influences and help has come from the studio SIDE UK and BioWare, who have been amazing in allowing me to develop as a voice actor. I started doing small parts with them and have gradually built up to playing leading roles.
RPGSite: With some big titles under your belt, have you started being recognised in the street yet? You have a Facebook fan page, so you definitely have a following.
Adam: I think I’m still a long way off being recognised in the street, but I do have a loyal following on Twitter. I am aware that somebody has made a Facebook fan page and I’m just glad I didn’t have to make it myself. I haven’t joined it though.
RPGSite: It is almost time to wrap things up but first, when you are not acting, I understand you are also a writer. Is that an interest that has grown hand-in-hand with acting and are you working on anything at the moment?
Adam: I am keen on writing, particularly comedy. I’m pretty new to it but I find it a good way to stay sharp when I’m not acting. It keeps me focussed and is really fun.
RPGSite: And finally, you finished training six years ago now and have been doing very well for yourself ever since. Where do you see yourself in another six years time?
Adam: In another six years time I hope to have broken into and conquered the world of mo-cap, be working on Dragon Age 9, done lots more TV and film and hopefully would’ve made the occasional leap across the pond to America.
RPGSite: Adam, thanks for your time. We really appreciate it.
Adam: And thank you for interviewing me.
Our thanks go out to Adam once again for chatting with us and sharing his thoughts on some of the games he has worked on - be sure to let us know your own thoughts on Xenoblade Chronicles below!