Warner Bros.’ ‘Gotham Knights’ video game blasts open doors for diversity in voice acting
The casting process for the main characters in Warner Bros. Games’ , “Gotham Knights,” started out by being as open as possible during the first round of interviews. This allowed the studio to get a wide pool of talent, but also “so we get diversity in the room,” said narrative director Ann Lemay.
The intent of the second round of interviews, she said, “was about casting the best guy for the job.”
“Gotham Knights” follows the Bat Family — Nightwing, Robin, Batgirl and Red Hood — as they protect the city of Gotham after Batman’s death. The billionaire behind the mask, Bruce Wayne, leaves behind one last mystery for his protégés to solve.
Stephen Oyoung, who’s Chinese, voices Jason Todd, the identity behind Red Hood. When Oyoung auditioned for the character, he recalls that he saw actors from a wide range of ethnicities vying for the same role, including Black, Latino , Middle Eastern and other Asian men.
“It’s literally pretty colorblind, it could go to anyone,” he said. “I went on a Rolodex of my own skills. I can do martial arts. I was a stunt coordinator for feature films with Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves. I trained Adam Driver in ‘Star Wars.’ I can do not only martial arts, but I can also do fighting. I know action, and I already did video games,” Oyoung said, referring to his prominent role as Martin Li/Mister Negative in Insomniac Games’ “Marvel’s Spider-Man.”
“So a lot of times people will say, ‘the guy was hired because it’s a diversity hire,’” Oyoung continued. “Sometimes the best person really just did win.”
Outside of “Gotham Knights,” Red Hood’s most memorable appearance in video games is in 2009’s “Batman: Arkham Asylum,” voiced by Troy Baker, where he is the villain facing off against Batman. In this version’s portrayal, Red Hood is much angrier and holds a grudge against the hero. “Gotham Knights’’’ narrative team wanted to avoid going down the typical “angry guy” route because there’s much more to the Red Hood character than that.
Within the game, players can find collectibles and text documents that shed light on the game’s world building. In one particular file, Bruce recommends that Jason go to therapy. “[Batman] didn’t care about Red Hood, the vigilante, as much as he cared about Jason, a person he considered one of his kids. And that’s a really important aspect,” Lemay said.
She added, “Jason is not by any means a softer Red Hood. He’s still intense and still brutal with his tactics. He’s just got more control. That measure of, ‘I understand my motivations, and I point myself in the right direction.’ He’s still really angry and has just mastered his anger.”
Oyoung said that sometimes he’s been pigeonholed within the entertainment industry, where people of color are often typecast as villains. “You’re Asian and so you’re only going to be the bad guy. I did stunts for over a decade. I was a bad guy, thug No. 5, in a lot of different TV shows and movies.”
However, being Mister Negative in “Marvel’s Spider-Man” was a starting point for him to be given additional opportunities to portray more nuanced characters. “That was one of the first times you saw an Asian guy in a video game, in that kind of role. [Mister Negative] was bad, but he’s actually kind of misunderstood. They made him a three-dimensional character, and it’s a beautiful thing; he’s a human being.” Oyoung said, “And then something like Red Hood opens up!”
Christopher Sean, who’s half Japanese, voices Dick Grayson, the civilian behind Nightwing. Sean says that he originally auditioned for the role of Red Hood. Lemay and the game’s cinematic director, Wilson Mui, fought for Sean to get the role of Nightwing because they wanted to make sure the casting was diverse. When Sean was in the middle of reading during his audition, Lemay turned to Mui and said, “Why is this not Nightwing? This is Nightwing.”
“I’ve always wanted to be a superhero,” Sean said. “Just that fact alone, that [Warner Bros.] was willing to take the risk with Stephen being the first Asian American to portray Red Hood and me as Nightwing. Those are huge steps in the right direction for the entertainment industry.”
In “Gotham Knights,” Nightwing is the second in command and de facto leader of the Bat Family after Batman’s death. Sean explained that he drew from Tim Seeley and Tom King’s “Grayson” comic book series, where Nightwing leaves behind his superhero life to join a spy agency called Spyral. He also was influenced by the “Teen Titans” TV show, where Dick Grayson takes on the Robin persona.
“It was something I absolutely loved. I thought Robin was hilarious. But he was a great leader and he always wanted to emulate Batman,” said Sean. “And so that was kind of something I look towards as my dad was my role model.”
As for his future endeavors, Sean would like to continue pursuing roles in video games. His goal is to eventually be in a video game that uses his likeness, just like how “Marvel’s Spider-Man” has Oyoung’s for Mister Negative. “To me, that’s one of the coolest things. To have my voice — not my face yet, but I’m hoping that my face will be in game soon,” he said.
“We’re accustomed to a white hero, typically male,” Oyoung said. However, he also mentioned his other costars, including America Young, who is Native American and the voice of Barbara Gordan/Batgirl, as well as Sloane Morgan Siegel, who is Jewish and the voice of Tim Drake/Robin.
“People at DC, Warner Bros. and the team that provide these opportunities,” he continues. “They’re not just saying, ‘OK, let’s stick to what works,’ but ‘let’s test the waters and see what happens.’ This is how we are breaking stereotypes.”
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