Elijah Wood interview – 11-11: Memories Retold and being a celebrity gamer

Elijah Wood – he knows his games

Movie star and life-long gamer Elijah Wood talks to GameCentral about his new World War I game and VR title Transference.

It’s becoming less and less of a novelty to find out that prominent celebrities are gamers, but Elijah Wood is one actor that’s never kept his love of gaming a secret. He may be better known to the wider world as Frodo Baggins from The Lord of the Rings, but video game players will recognise him as everything from the voice of Spyro to Shay from Broken Age.

He’s still only been involved in a relatively small number of games over the years, but at the moment he’s got two titles coming out soon: VR game Transference – which he’s helped make via his own production company – and Bandai Namco’s 11-11: Memories Retold. We met him at E3 to discuss the latter: a narrative-driven game set during World War I that’s being developed by French studio DigixArt, whose creative director Yoan Fanise was also present.

11-11 was announced a few months ago and you may remember it from the highly unusual art style, that makes the whole game look like a moving painting. The distinctive visuals are being handled by Wallace & Gromit animators Aardman, who have also dabbled with video games a number of times before. The setting is World War I but the story deals with two characters on opposing sides of the conflict, with Wood playing the role of photojournalist Harry.

We found Wood to be extremely enthusiastic about not just 11-11 and Transference, but video games in general. Rather than being a pretence for publicity he clearly does follow them in his own time and we suddenly found ourselves wishing he’d work on more of them in the future…

Formats: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Developer: DigixArt and Aardman
Release Date: 9th November 2018

GC: It’s very good to meet you.

EW: Thanks! Hey, cool OutRun T-shirt.

GC: Thanks. So, I’ve always understood you are quite a keen gamer.

EW: Yeah. I mean, I grew up with games. Since I was probably five or six. I have an older brother, who’s seven years older than me, so we had every game system from ColecoVision to Atari and then NES on up. But yeah, I’ve been playing games all my life.

YF: What was the game you played in Back to the Future 2?

EW: Oh… man. I had a tiny little role in that film, in the Cafe 80’s.

GC: You’re not the kid that complains about controlling the game with your hands are you?

EW: Yeah, yeah.

GC: Wow, that was such a prophetic moment for video games!

EW: Right, right. I can’t remember the game though… It was a Western shooter.

GC: I think it was a Nintendo game? Sheriff maybe? [It was actually Nintendo’s Wild Gunman – GC]

EW: That could’ve been it!

GC: And you also did the Xbox 360 reveal event in America?

EW: I did do that, yeah! That’s right.

GC: That was a weird show, wasn’t it?

EW: It was, wasn’t it? I think it was on MTV? It was a big show… but, yeah it was strange.

GC: Well, at least it went better than their more recent reveal.

EW: [considerable laughter]

GC: And you’re also the voice of Spyro. Do you realise you’re being remade as we speak?

EW: Am I included in the remake?

GC: I assume so, it’d be a bit inauthentic if they didn’t. They haven’t contacted you then?

EW: No, no.

GC: You want to check that, you could be missing out on your residuals.

EW: [laughs]

GC: And then that leads us up to Broken Age and Transference.

EW: Have you plaid Transference yet?

GC: I played it at Gamescom, I think… last year?

EW: It would have been last year. The Walter test case was the demo that we did, and then this year it’s the first 15 minutes of the actual game.

GC: And that’s being done through your own company?

EW: Yeah, so that’s SpectreVision, my production company. We make films but it was a collaboration with Ubisoft Montreal.

GC: But with 11-11, presumably you were approached by Bandai Namco?

EW: Yes, yes. I was approached by Yoan!

GC: [to Fanise] So how did you pitch the story to him?

YF: The story is about the two characters and the Harry character, that Elijah plays, is an American-Canadian. I think we had in mind he’s a bit crazy. Given his age he’s the type of guy that goes to war but in a bit of a naive way. He goes to war, but what does that mean? You don’t really know if you’ve not been there. But he goes as a photographer, not as a soldier, so he’s an official Canadian photographer at the Front. And he’s brought there by a British major and… well, I will not spoil the story!

GC: [to Wood] I imagine you get approached quite a lot for voiceovers, so what attracted you to this role?

EW: Occasionally I do, yeah. What was interesting was that Aardman are involved with the art style, and I’m a fan of Aardman’s animation – their stop motion animation. I just loved that it was a World War I game with this incredibly unique, sort of painterly style that was expressing narrative, and not war in the traditional sense.

Obviously, we’ve all played Call Of Duty and any number of other war games but it was nice that it was a game that was specifically about two characters and their humanity. And two characters on opposite sides of the war, being forced together and recognising that they’re not really all that different.

And I just thought that was a lovely way to create a game around that kind of narrative. Especially a game that focuses on war from a very, very different perspective. It was exciting.

GC: It’s a subject I often discuss with developers, with DICE on Battlefield 1 recently, were it becomes very awkward the way games portray violence. Because they make violence seem fun, which is okay if the game itself is obviously unreal but it makes it difficult to tackle serious subjects within that context. Have you heard of Battlefield 1?

EW: …Yes.

GC: Is it something you would play, personally?

EW: I don’t know if I played it… Was that last year that it came out?

YF: Yes.

GC: It was two years ago, actually.

YF: Two years?

GC: Yeah, because it’s Battlefield V this year. They’re on a tight schedule.

All: [laughs]

GC: The games you’ve been involved with so far tend to be less violent, is that a purposeful decision?

EW: No, not necessarily. It just depends on what it is, I think. Obviously we’re here at E3 so I’m thinking of a lot of the things that are being announced but, like, Last Of Us 2 looks incredibly violent… but that’s in support of a really incredible story with really strong characters. So something like that I would absolutely love to be a part of. In the sense that the violence is a part of it but there’s a genuine story behind it.

GC: But even that has become controversial, because there was a teaser trailer last year that was extremely violent.

EW: Yeah! That was very intense. That turned a lot of people off.

GC: Oh so you knew about that? You really do keep up with things.

EW: Yeah, yeah, yeah! [laughs] But I think when it comes down to anything that I’ve ever been offered, it tends to not be in that realm anyway. But I just gravitate towards the sort of things that I’m interested in. This was really just like seeing some of the stills of the animation and I thought, ‘Well, I’ve never seen a game like this’. I just wanna be a part of something that feels like it’s moving things forward.

Broken Age was something… I grew up a huge Tim Schafer fan, so for me that was like a dream come true.

GC: World War I is not a subject that’s tackled often by any media, but it has come up quite a bit in games recently.

YF: I had a discussion with the Battlefield 1 team, back then.

GC: Oh did you?

YF: Yeah, and it was interesting because they said basically, it’s a bit poor in terms of the type of weapons. So in terms of a shooter it’s not that interesting, in terms of the types of weapon you can get, so it’s not as interesting as other settings. But for me it’s the opposite, because for emotion it is very interesting because there’s no Nazis. It’s just a silly war and people don’t really know why they’re fighting each other.

GC: I always think it’s a shame World War II makes for such a good video game, because the Nazis are such perfect villains.

EW: That’s the thing, the good vs. evil is so clear.

GC: Exactly, and it gives the impression that all wars are like that, when in reality it’s very much the exception to the rule.

EW: You’re right.

GC: There’s a great Blackadder quote… do you know what Blackadder is?

EW: Sure; yeah, yeah.

GC: It was about why World War I started, and the answer was because it would’ve been too much effort not to have a war.

EW: [laughs]

GC: I assume your game is, in at least some sense, an anti-war game?

YF: Yes, oh yes. But there’s also things like… it was not battle all the time. People know it was four years long and think it was battles all the time, but no. It was 98% nothing: waiting, digging, preparing. And then, ‘Boom!’ you have to go over the top and do the battle, but in fact this kind of thing is important to relay. So, in the game you are mostly in the trenches and in the rear, not at the Front all the time. It’s mostly at the rear in fact. And then you go to the Front and you fight for just a minute. It’s the longest minute ever of your life, but it’s still just one minute.

GC: Being a keen gamer, where you tempted to advise about the game in terms of gameplay or design?

EW: Not at all. I mean, I came on…

YF: He’s too nice!

GC: But he seems to know his stuff.

EW: Maybe the next one! [laughs] But no, I came on about two months ago, to record the voice for Harry. So it was at a stage where they had made their game.

YF: We used a robot voice – the text-to-speech voice…

All: [laughs]

YF: For two years we had the text-to-speech voice.

GC: Well, that would still be better than a lot of video game voiceovers.

EW: [laughs]

YF: [laughs] And then we replaced the robot voice with Elijah, and it suddenly came to life. It’s really good. But having an actor that is also a gamer it is way more easy to explain how to act and why we need these lines…

EW: …and the context of why they’re repeated or just slightly different.

GC: I’m always surprised how little time these things need to record. It’s usually only a day or two isn’t it?

EW: Yeah, two days.

YF: But that’s 10,000 lines!

GC: Were you recording and thinking about bad video game voiceovers you’ve played in the past? Where you thinking, ‘I don’t want to be like Kingdom Hearts!’

EW: [laughs] I think I approached it like I would approach anything. Like, it would be the same for an animated film or whatever. It’s just bringing a character to life, treating the scenario as if it’s real, not at all treating it like it’s a game. I think maybe that’s the difference.

YF: Yeah, it does not sound like a game.

GC: Because often big-name actors can seem to phone it in with games.

YF: We did have a joke that only a gamer would get. At one point there is a crate in the game that blocks something. And there’s this line that’s something like, ‘Damn crate!’ But the way it’s played… all video games have crates in them at some point.

EW: [laughs] It’s true!

GC: [to Fanise] Is this intended to be a series? Or a style of game that you’re going to make more of in the future?

YF: I think beyond this game, if it works well, 11-11 is just one but Memories Retold is wider beyond that. It could be about something else, like I would love to talk about slavery.

GC: Wow, okay. You’re going for the easy subject matter again there.

EW: [laughs]

YF: I know, know. But it could be a way to talk about this kind of thing with two sides, and to understand even a situation that is very asymmetric.

GC: [to Wood] So after this and Transference are you interested in getting more into game development?

EW: I’ve really enjoyed the process of Transference with Ubisoft, so seeing how that goes and how it’s received… I love video games, so it would be wonderful.

GC: I find it interesting that actors who profess to be gamers… when they get involved in development it’s almost exclusive with narrative-led games, with little or no action. But that’s a very small niche of games overall.

EW: That’s true. That’s interesting. I never thought about it that way. I think probably coming from a narrative world – TV and film – that’s probably the obvious way to start.

GC: I made this point earlier actually, with id Software. In that you see it with mainstream award ceremonies as well, which are always heavily biased towards narrative games. But that’s kind of misrepresenting what video games are in the majority.

EW: That’s interesting, that’s interesting. You’re right. You’re not wrong. I mean, there are people that play sports games all the time and that’s what they see games as.

GC: Exactly. Well, I look forward to seeing more from you in the future.

EW: Cool man, thanks.

YF: The next FIFA game?

All: [laughs]

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