What goes into bringing a video game character to life?
The voices behind Overwatch’s Symmetra and Pharah gave us some insight.
At the Toronto Comic Con 2019, a huge group of Overwatch fans turned up to hear from two of their heroes. Anjali Bhimani and Jen Cohn, the voices behind Overwatch’s Symmetra and Pharah, shared their gaming, and voice acting, journeys with the packed audience, which included several enthusiastic Overwatch cosplayers.
Here are some highlights from the talk.
The Overwatch Audition
According to Bhimani, neither her nor Cohn had any idea what the game was about until they reached their recording sessions. That was when details about Overwatch, and their characters, were revealed to them.
Jen Cohn said that she “had done voices for World of Warcraft so the people at Blizzard knew me”. Andrea Toyias, the voice director at Blizzard, sent Cohn’s agent details about an audition for a game called Prometheus. Cohn readied her audition, but she misunderstood the character of Pharah. In the description she got for Pharah, it said, “she’s an aggressive, offense player and she has these very forward lines. So, I immediately assumed this is a villain. I did this super-villainous audition, like a villain Pharah.”
For voice actors, they can do five auditions a day and not hear back for months. Which is what happened with Pharah. Six months later, Cohn learned she had booked an audition for Overwatch, and immediately assumed Blizzard had made a mistake.
It was only at the session, when Cohn met Blizzard Vice President Jeff Kaplan, Andrea Toyias, and writer-designer Michael Chu, that she learned that the audition for evil Pharah she had sent was indeed for Overwatch. The Blizzard team had loved her performance but told her that Pharah was not a villain. “Think of her as the Captain America of the game”. And that is how Pharah was created.
Bhimani’s audition almost didn’t happen. She was travelling in London, and had a late-night event, so her deadline for completing the audition for Symmetra was extremely short. Though bleary-eyed and disinterested in the project, she completed the audition and weeks later booked the role she now calls life-changing.
Stage and Screen Versus Games
Cohn’s love for voiceover works comes from the freedom it affords. “I love doing voices for videogames and animation because it doesn’t matter what you look like!”
But she also talks about the thrill of the job. Unlike stage and screen acting, voice actors do not get scripts beforehand. “You have to commit to a character, and make split-second decisions which create an authentic and spontaneous performances… so you’re very much ‘on’ for the whole length of your session.”
Bhimani added that the principles of the acting roles are the same. “At the core, you’re a storyteller. You’re there to convey this character’s journey, one way or the other, to the audience. The difference is how you use this instrument – your body, your mind, and your heart.”
Bhimani credits musicals as great training for voiceover work – they teach you how to project your voice, and to convey intimate feelings to large groups of people. “You have to be a good actor to be a good voice actor.”
Cohn seconded Bhimani’s point. Preparedness is very important in stage and screen acting, but with voice acting, “because it’s so immediate, you have to have well-honed instincts.”
Cohn became a gamer only after her voice-acting work began. She did voices for Grand Theft Auto and then, after doing Lord Zash’s voice in Star Wars: The Old Republic, Cohn began looking into gaming in earnest. Now, with Overwatch, she’s into gaming much more but admitted she does still miss updates and has to consult with others when things don’t work.
Bhimani, on the other hand, has been playing games since she was eight, when her brother gifted her a Dungeons and Dragons basic set. As a teenager, she was very into RPGs, not so much first-person shooters. “I’m just not fast enough in my brain”. For 10-12 years, she didn’t play games, but when Overwatch happened, she felt like she had finally found ‘her people’.
When asked about who she based her sarcastic Symmetra on, Bhimani was quick to reply. “Every Indian auntie that I’ve ever had! As soon as the line ‘let us discuss your failures’ came out, I was like ‘Auntie, get out of my head!’.”
The voice pattern for Symmetra was based on a cousin, said Bhimani, particularly the British-Indian accent, but for the most part, Symmetra is a combination of Bhimani’s judgemental aunties.
Cohn related an incident at acting school where she was given an important piece of advice – she was told she was a slice of good bread with too much butter. According to Cohn, she can be a bit too all over the place, but with Pharah, she managed to pare it back so that the Blizzard team only got that ‘good slice of bread’.
Favourite Overwatch Skins
Without missing a beat, Bhimani said her favourite skin was Dragon. “Dragon all day. I love that skin!”. However, she also spoke of her hopes for a three-piece suit for Symmetra, like the ones she has seen fan-art of. She also mentioned the Apsaras of Indian mythology – spiritual beings with flowing skirts that Bhimani would like to see on Symmetra.
As for Cohn, she was quick to mention her partiality towards the Asp and Mechaqueen skins. “When I went to Blizz-Con, I wore my beloved platform flame-boots, and several fan artists made a Pharah flame-skin. I would love a Pharah Vintage Flame Skin!”
When asked about favourite character lines, Cohn answered immediately. “Rocket jump? That sounds dangerous.”
Bhimani was more circumspect. “It is really hard to pick because she’s really good at throwing shade, but in an elegant way. You’re not really sure she insulted you, but you think she might have!
“I love the original, ‘Welcome to my reality’. And the new Ultimate, “Yahí param vaastavikita hai!” (This is the ultimate reality!), because it’s the first time she isn’t calm and collected.” ‘Let’s discuss your failures’ was another favourite for Bhimani and the crowd.
Other Overwatch Characters
Cohn enthusiastically shared her love of Junkrat, adding that she met a fan that day who said to her, ‘Pharah grounded is Junkrat’, which made her very happy.
Bhimani’s favourite is Reinhardt, “because I love hearing Darin De Paul’s maniacally happy voice coming at me from the screen. But also, it’s so the opposite of what I get to do in life. I love that ‘run in’ kind of gameplay.”
Symmetra always needs a plan and has “to use her brain”, which Bhimani does not do while playing Overwatch. “I run into walls and fall off cliffs!” Much laughter and applause accompanied this statement. Bhimani admitted that she is better at playing every other character except Symmetra, but she plays Symmetra more because she’s stubborn.
Beyond gameplay, Bhimani shared her fondness for Ana’s story, as well as Sombra’s. Cohn’s favourite backstory is Widowmaker’s. “That whole backstory, it’s tragic. She’s so complicated – you’ve got to have a complicated background to get that dark!”
The talk ended with Cohn and Bhimani stating how hopeful they were for Pharah and Symmetra getting their own animated shorts in the future, though they did not confirm this. They also teased new information about Pharah and Symmetra’s backstories, but admitted that they were as much in the dark as their fellow players.
Fans left the hall delighted to have met the voices behind their favourite Overwatch heroes. Cohn and Bhimani were a joy to watch – infectiously enthusiastic and effervescent – and unabashedly fond of their characters and their roles. It certainly elevates Overwatch from a game to a full-fledged experience.