A few months ago Hollywood actor Nolan North – shiny chestnut hair, porcelain teeth, gym-honed pecs – was flying out of Los Angeles International Airport. As he passed through security he turned to the guard and asked what to do with his laptop. The security man winked. "We'll let it slide for Nathan Drake," he said, beaming broadly: "I'm a huge fan."
This security guard had not identified Mr. North by his looks, handsome though they are, but his voice. For he provides the voice and movement for Nathan Drake, the action hero of Uncharted, Sony's massively successful PlayStation video game.
The fictional protagonist is said to be a descendant of English explorer and buccaneer Sir Francis Drake. Reviewers have described Nathan Drake variously as "dreamy", "handsome" and responsible for many a "man-crush" – a mix of Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis and the type of male leads you would find in pulp movies and fiction.
Mr. North's recognition in LAX, via his avatar, is a mark of the game's wide appeal and the gradual encroaching of the virtual into the real world. The series (parts one and two) sold more than 7.2 million copies in Europe alone, and the highly praised Uncharted 3, released this month, is also expected to sell well.
The gaming market is growing rapidly. Gartner this year reported worldwide spending on gaming hardware, software and online was $67-billion in 2010, rising to $74-billion this year, and is projected to reach more than $100-billion by 2015. This is fuelled by a demographic lurch into the mainstream – gamers are no longer antisocial teenage boys in darkened bedrooms.
Until recently Mr. North had relished the anonymity of a video game. "I won't be in People magazine," he muses. Though he admits he is a neurotic regular at the gym just in case fans do recognize him and look at him with "disappointment."
There is another reason for this exercise regime – his body is the building block for his character. Uncharted uses performance capture – a technique also used in blockbuster films such as Avatar and the Lord of the Rings trilogy – to record electronically the movements and facial expressions of actors before using that information to animate their digital characters.
On a bright autumnal day in London, Mr. North, in a white linen shirt and cargo pants, reflects on his entry into the gaming world. His early ambition was to be a broadcast reporter rather than an actor and he attended the University of North Carolina on a baseball scholarship, majoring in journalism.
After a year of reporting he realized it was not for him, and he did a brief stint as a stand-up comic in New York before relocating to Hollywood. His big break came soon after, when he was cast as Dr. Chris Ramsey in Port Charles, a daytime soap opera.
Mr. North auditioned for his first game in the late 1990s. It was for Interstate 82 - a vehicle combat game for the computer – developed by Activision and released in 1999. He laughs at the memory. "It was a weekend, there were no other cars in the parking lot and I worried I was going to get mugged," he says. "I did a knock-off version of Christopher Walken. There was no agent involved or union." He left with cash in hand.
It was the start of a new career. Now he is the most prolific actor in this brave new world, having featured in more than 100 games including Batman, Call of Duty and Halo 3. "Games are what people know me for. It pays for my children's education," he says.
He rebuffs any suggestion that acting in a video game is the lowest rung of his profession's hierarchy. "The lowest rung of the ladder is bartending, and not acting," he says. His mantra is "actors act."
The skill required, he adds, is very different to people's preconceptions. "A lot of people think for video games you go into a video booth and yell," he says.
He points to Andy Serkis, perhaps the world's leading performance capture actor, who played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings as well as a primate in The Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Captain Haddock in Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin . "Serkis said what we do is proper acting with digital make-up. Uncharted is like that."
Amy Henning, the creative director at Naughty Dog which makes Uncharted, says the key difference between films and gaming is that in the latter, actors "must check their ego at the door."
However, Mr. North has been burnt by the involvement of big film actors. "As games become bigger, money makers, producers start to think they should get celebrities and pay them exorbitant sums," he says. "It's insulting. They won't do as good a job. They make demands."
He recalls one job where he was offered $1,600 for the role only to be trounced by a big mainstream star who cost $100,000. "He was flown across the country and put up in a hotel. I was bumped out," he grumbles.
Nonetheless, Mr. North is hopeful that as video games and film converge – sharing special effects, filming methods and storylines – the snobbery towards games will diminish. Indeed, Christina Hendricks, the actress best known for her portrayal of secretary Joan Holloway in HBO television series Mad Men, revealed in October that she would appear in Electronic Arts' Need for Speed franchise, playing Sam Harper, "a woman with ambition, street smarts and a penchant for lightning fast cars."
A gaming enthusiast asked Mr. North recently if, as a child, the 41-year-old had dreamed of becoming a star in this virtual world. Mr. North cracks up at the idea. "When I was a kid, the only videogame was Pac-Man."