David Hayter is doing fine. The man with the vocal chords made of gravel is mostly known for voice acting Snake (and all other clones, descendants, progenitors, etc.) in the Metal Gear Solid series. He defines what it means to be a lone wolf action hero whose philosophical quandaries outmatch his ability to kill a man to many people, perhaps even an entire generation of gamers, developers, and writers.
Hayter has plenty of other things on his plate, though. Aside from a few one-off live action acting gigs and a plethora of other voice acting roles, Hayter is primarily known for his screenwriting. He wrote the 2009 adaptation of Watchmen, X-Men and X2: X-Men United, and The Scorpion King and will make his directorial debut soon with Wolves. What I’m saying is that Hayter is going to be fine not being Snake anymore (if lacking in a few Twitter lessons).
The question, though, is whether everyone else will be.
Late last month, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (and Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes) was officially announced. It featured a lot of what we already knew about the game due to either sloppy secret-keeping, a desire to avoid another Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty switcheroo fiasco, or some combination of the two. It had Snake, stealth, and narrative nonsense translated into visual nonsense—the Kojima mirepoix, as it were.
What it didn’t have, however, was Hayter’s signature voice backing the grizzled war veteran. It’s a testament to how much Hayter has done for the character and the franchise in how quickly and ubiquitously fans were able to point out the fact that it was not him voicing the sneaky, I’m-too-old-for-this-shit commando. Fans were understandably upset.
So imagine how they took it when they found out Hayter wasn’t even approached to voice Snake. Issued through a *shudder* TwitLonger statement—perhaps the most telling sign of the times—Hayter set the record straight: he’d come back from Canada to LA after working on Wolves to find out that voice recording for the new Metal Gear Solid titles had already started. So he talked with someone involved in the production and found out he wouldn’t be needed.
Handled with aplomb and like a consummate professional, Hayter told fans he valued his time as Snake and, given the chance, would keep doing it. “It’s been fifteen years, nine games, and an enormous blast to undertake,” he wrote. “If it were my choice, I would do this role forever.” Of course, that decision lies with Kojima, but Hayter does take time out to thank his fans for sticking by him.
And I’ll admit that I was a bit sad, as well. Metal Gear Solid was actually one of the first non-arcade games I ever went back to beat multiple times, and ever since then, I’ve always gone back for more on every other (console) release. So the nostalgia weights heavy on me, too, but does the voice necessarily make the character?
To an extent, the answer is obviously yes. Even casual observers were quick to notice that Snake simply did not sound like Snake, let alone the sort of folk that have FOXHOUND tattoos. I remember I used to be a huge fan of the Pokémon animated series. I remember I wormed my way out of a day at the mall with my parents just to watch the US premiere episode (which was, oddly enough, not the first episode of the season and really threw me for a loop).
After eight seasons of hearing Eric Stuart and Veronica Taylor do bang-up jobs as Brock/James and Ash respectively, it was shocking to hear them change. They were swapped out after Pokémon USA took over the rights to the anime and aimed to keep production costs low with simple sound-alike voice actors. I was, as much as you can in such nascent years, livid. How dare they tinker with such a perfect show. I couldn’t believe it.
One week later, it never came up again. Unless some friends and I were shooting the breeze over old episodes, it didn’t even bother me. Ash, as much as I loved the character, had changed. He had been shaped, obviously, by the talents and inflections and personal touches of Taylor to become the personality, but the type of character had changed that a new voice actor seemed natural. The Advanced trilogy was over and Ketchum and the game were off to the Battle Frontier; it kind of made sense that this would be the time to recast.
The same goes for Snake and Hayter. The character was obviously cultivated by influences and knowledge and quirks of Hayter’s that no one else could have brought to the table, but Snake is hardly the same person as before. Hell, he literally is not the same person in some cases. I’d like to think of it as if the original voice actor created and crafted and honed the template, and now someone else can fill it and make it their own as well. Narratively, now is the time; Big Boss has been in a coma for nine years (and in Ground Zeroes‘ case, will be right after the aspirations for Outer Heaven come to light), so why not a new voice?
Changing a voice actor is much simpler than changing a live action actor. It takes fans to notice when a voice changes, but it only takes eyes to notice they’ve swapped out Katie Holmes with Maggie Gyllenhaal. And the change itself may not be necessary, but it’s usually more beneficial than diehard enthusiasts are willing to admit. The originals lay the groundwork, the foundation of a character, and those that follow can then build in their stead and create new characters. Don’t get me wrong; I would love to see Hayter return for this and all other Metal Gear Solid games, but war has changed, and so have voice actors.