By Marty Mulrooney
Dominic Armato is a name that many adventure game fans will undoubtedly be familiar with. Born in Chicago in the 1970’s, he has had an illustrious and much heralded career as a voice actor in video games.
Voice-over work started from a young age, yet his shining moment no doubt came when he successfully auditioned for the part of Guybrush Theepwood in Lucasart’s The Curse Of Monkey Island. It became his signature role, with the previously unvoiced character becoming so infused with Dom’s personality that it is almost impossible nowadays to imagine anyone else. Dominic Armato simply IS Guybrush Threepwood.
A further sequel followed, but after that it seemed as if the series was over. Luckily, and much to Dom’s (and the fan’s) delight, Monkey Island is back, in more ways then one. Here, Dom takes some time from his busy recording schedule (and burping his toddler!) to talk exclusively to Alternative Magazine Online in a refreshingly candid interview…
Thank you for your time! Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do for a living?
My name’s Dominic Armato, I’m the voice of Guybrush Threepwood, and I do way way way too much. Mostly, these days, I take care of my kids. When they’re sleeping, I work for our family’s packaging company. And though I don’t spend as much time in the studio as I used to, I squeeze in a little voiceover whenever I can.
What do you do for fun?
Sleep. Which almost never happens. But occasionally I sacrifice a little sleep to work on my food blog (I thought to myself, what is nobody else doing on the internet?) or play some video games, which turns out to be Guitar Hero or Rock Band 90% of the time these days.
How did you originally end up auditioning for the role of Guybrush Threepwood?
I’d been doing voiceover since I was a little kid, and then in 1995 I moved to Los Angeles because I really wanted to work on character VO (animation, interactive, etc.). I’d drive over to my agent’s office a few times a week to read whatever copy had come in that day. One day I walked into the waiting room, picked up my copy, and lo and behold, there was a drawing of Guybrush Threepwood. The rest was sheer force of will.
Was already being a Lucasarts fan a big plus when it came to being chosen?
It actually may have made the difference between whether or not I got the part. As Darragh O’Farrell (voice director on CMI and now head of the sound department) told the story, Jonathan Ackley and Larry Ahern (the leads on CMI) had narrowed the field to two candidates, but knowing that I was a huge fan of the games and would be familiar with the characters, world, humor and context, they felt I’d already have a huge leg up on anybody else they might cast. Years and years of video gaming instantly justified!
Had you done any voice work before this?
Lots, though this was my first major character gig. I’d worked VO in Chicago since I was six or seven, but there isn’t much in the way of character VO there. It’s almost exclusively commercial and industrial (non-broadcast: training videos, phone prompts, corporate presentations – that kind of thing). But I’d done a lot of it, and getting into character VO was my primary goal in moving out to L.A. Never did get to work a Disney/Pixar film or guest star on the Simpsons, but I landed my dream interactive job within the first year, so I consider the stint out west a success.
Were you worried that fans wouldn’t like your performance or accept you as the voice of Guybrush?
Absolutely terrified. Seriously. I was (and am) as big a fan of the series as anyone, so I fully understood how important it was to get Guybrush right. I knew how badly I’d be crushing/annoying people if I didn’t, and yeah, it scared the hell out of me. But I just tried to put that out of my head and bring the lines to life as I’d always heard them in my head, playing the games for so many years. You can’t imagine the relief when the reception for CMI was almost universally positive. Now that I’ve been doing Guybrush for a while, it’s a little less nerve-wracking, both because I know I’ve done it before and because having spent so many hours recording that character it’s totally second nature at this point. But even now, every time I step into the booth to record, the thought’s in the back of my head that I’d better not screw this up. It’s probably a good thing. Keeps me on my toes.
Do people ever recognise you during everyday life due to your voice?
Oh, gosh, no. Guybrush’s voice isn’t that different from mine – especially when I’m excited about something – but it’s not distinctive enough that it’s easily recognizable outside of context. At least I don’t think so. In any case, nobody’s ever stopped me to say that my voice is familiar. I’d be surprised if it ever happened.
Is your recording always done seperately or do you sometimes get to interact and record alongside the other voiceactors?
It’s almost always done solo. With the bigger budget projects like the old full-fledged adventure games, I got to do a few cutscenes and select clips in studio with a few of the other actors. But for the most part, the economics just don’t allow for it. It isn’t like a television show where you have 23 minutes of dialogue and that’s it. The CMI script filled a binder six inches thick and comprised hours and hours of dialogue. Even if it were economically feasible to have people do their scenes together in the studio at once (it isn’t), the logistical nightmare of trying to figure who needs to be in the studio when to read which lines against which other actor would make it completely impossible. Thus is the nature of interactive VO.
Do you have any visual aids during the recording sessions?
Well, you almost always have some drawings of your character, which is the most important thing to me. I always feel like you can take ten pages trying to describe to me the character’s motivations, habits and needs, but show me a good drawing and I instantly know what that guy sounds like. Also, depending on the production and how central your character is, you might get to see some screenshots or a current build of the game or something else to help you get the feel of it. But for the most part, it’s the director’s responsibility to make sure you’re in the right place, and tell you what you need to know to get there. With Monkey Island, I’ve always gotten to see character drawings, backgrounds and a build of whatever state the game’s in at that point in time. It all helps.
How did you feel about Lucusarts’ turning away from the adventure genre after the release of Escape From Monkey Island?
It stung, same as it did for everybody else who loved the classic adventure games. I feel like I was kind of in an unusual position, though, straddling two worlds. I grew up a fan of adventure games, but by working on the VO and spending a lot of time talking with the developers, I’d gained a lot of insight that the typical fan doesn’t have. And while just about everybody working at LucasArts is there because they were fans of the games at one point, unlike them I got to step into that somewhat insular world, do my few weeks of work and then step back out again. So while it hurt to see the genre dying, I understood that nobody on the inside was happy about it, I understood the reasons why and I couldn’t really fault them. There wasn’t anybody who didn’t want to keep making those games (well… there might have been a notable exception or two), but nobody knew how to do it short of making it a charitable endeavor that would require gobs of money. It’s a puzzle that took nearly a decade and a number of technological innovations to solve, and we’re just recently getting into a time when making professional, polished, high-quality adventure games doesn’t have to be a charitable act anymore. That’s REALLY exciting.
Were you surprised when they recently decided to return to these classic franchises?
Actually, I was. I’d held out hope for a number of years after EMI and Grim, but there came a point where I just gave up and assumed they were dead forever. That was partly logic talking, and partly a defense mechanism. I really missed the games and was sad to see them drift further and further out of people’s consciousness. Better from an emotional standpoint to assume they were cold and dead and in the ground and move on.
Although met with positive reviews at the time, Escape From Monkey Island seems to get some negative comments from fans nowadays. How did you feel about the game personally?
I loved it! I understand the reasons a lot of people didn’t, and if you asked me to rank the MI installments from most to least favorite it would probably be at the bottom of my list, but that’s a function of how fantastic the others are. I understand the criticisms, even if they don’t all bother me personally. I’m a little surprised by how violent some of the negative feelings are, but there’s nothing wrong with that. When reactions are SO positive and SO negative, that’s just indicative of how much love people have for the games. And to be fair, I have absolutely zero ability to look at these games objectively now, anyway.
Was moving from the lush hand-drawn graphics of The Curse Of Monkey Island into the world of 3D always going to prove troublesome do you think?
Absolutely. When you have such a sea change in a series so beloved, how can you not expect some people to react so strongly? Plus, the technology was still pretty young. But this kind of goes back to the whole straddling the fence thing I mentioned earlier. The way the climate was at the time, I’m not sure they could have done it any other way and had any hope of the game succeeding. My only vaguely-informed opinion was that, due to the timing, they were in an impossible position. 2D wasn’t going to sell, but 3D wasn’t ready to do justice to an adventure series famous for lush visuals. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Thankfully, the technology has progressed and “gamers” are a much broader group that isn’t as hung up on 3D as they were in the mid-‘90s and those have kind of combined to open the window again.
Would you be able to put the first four games in order of personal preference, or would it be too difficult to decide?
It’s not too hard, but it isn’t really true. My feelings are way too skewed by the manner in which I worked on them. CMI is always going to be incredibly special to me because working on it was a dream come true, so I can’t place it objectively. But if you twist my arm and ask me to just go with my gut, I’m going to say CMI, SMI, MI2, EMI.
Point-n-click or direct control?
Point-n-click. But I’m flexible.
2D or 3D?
2D. But I can see that changing in the not-too-distant future.
Are you still a gamer? Do you play anything outside of the adventure genre? I know you mentioned Guitar Hero and Rock Band earlier on.
Oh, heck yeah. I don’t have as much time to game as I used to, which is frustrating. But I still play often and love it. I’m actually hopelessly hooked on the guitar games. I ran into a Guitar Freaks cabinet at a casino in Vegas sometime in the mid-‘90s and spent the entire weekend plunking quarters into a video game rather than slots (actually, I hate slots — it’s all about craps, baby!). Next trip to Japan (I was going roughly once a year at the time), I brought back a Japanese PlayStation, two of those rinky-dink little purple and white Konami controllers and all of the Guitar Freaks games I could get my hands on. It gave me enough of a head start that I actually won the Red Octane sponsored Guitar Hero II release competition in Chicago. But I think the rest of the gaming population has caught up with me now. I can destroy almost anybody I come across 🙂 That aside, I’m not really a genre gamer. I just like to play great games of any genre, and now that I have less time to work with, I have to be a lot more selective.
What other Lucasarts games apart from Monkey Island do you rate? Are there any you have yet to play?
I love all of the classic adventure games, of course, though amazingly I’ve never played Maniac Mansion or DOTT. They just somehow eluded me. I played almost everything else. I was also a HUGE fan of the space sims. Tie Fighter is still one of my absolute favorite games of all time.
Where you never contacted to do more voicework for other games due to your success in the Monkey Island Franchise (TM)?
Eh, not so much. I’ve done some other interactive work, but other than the LucasArts titles I worked on (a direct result of getting to know the people at Lucas, obviously), I don’t think directors for other games were sitting there saying, “Oh, hey, he worked on Monkey Island!” I just kept sending in auditions, and when one was particularly good, I was cast.
Before the Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition was announced, did you ever find yourself playing the speechless original games, and reading Guybrush’s dialogue out loud? If not I think you should!
I don’t think I ever did out loud… maybe murmured along 🙂
Many fans bemoan the lack of a true Ron Gilbert sequel to LeChuck’s revenge. Have you ever spoken to Ron about this, and how do you feel about it all personally?
Ron split LucasArts before I was on the scene, so I’ve actually never met him, though I really hope to at PAX this year. As far as his original plans for the series, I’m as deathly curious as everybody else. But I also know that if I were in Ron’s shoes, I’d be scared to death of that opportunity. You think I felt pressure not to screw up Guybrush’s voice? How about ten years of fans wanting to know what the REAL ending to the series was supposed to be? Talk about crushing expectations.
How does Telltale compare to the Lucasarts of yesteryear?
Well, to be fair, I didn’t spend THAT much time at the LucasArts of yesteryear. My experience with the company in general was pretty much limited to whatever stories Darragh told while we were screwing around and a couple of one-day visits to San Rafael. I lived down in L.A., where Darragh flew down to record most of the actors. So it isn’t like I was hanging around the LucasArts offices, soaking in the corporate culture. That said, from the limited amount of time I’ve spent hanging around the various offices, they’re all very distinct – meaning the LucasArts of yesteryear, the LucasArts of today and Telltale. I was joking with somebody about how stark the difference in vibe is, going between LucasArts and Telltale. But no matter how different the experience of walking in the front door is, they share that same incredible passion for these characters and stories, and I love seeing each of them go about making it happen in their own way. The phrase “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” comes to mind.
Do you think that 3D technology, specifically in the Telltale Engine, has finally reached a stage where the charm of the Curse of Monkey Island can be shown with 3D graphics?
Nnnnnnnot yet. And the number of Ns in the previous sentence is meant to convey how impressed I am with Telltale’s engine and the charm they bring out with it. There’s nobody involved in these games who wasn’t blown away by the look of CMI, and while 3D was a big practical concession that had to be made at the time of EMI, it’s getting to be less and less of a concession all the time. In fact, it’s at the point now where I don’t even know that it’s fair to use the word “concession”. 3D has some mighty fine talents of its own that 2D doesn’t bring to the table. But I don’t know how much longer it’s going to be an either/or proposition. When you see something like that fan-made 2D/3D hybrid scene of Woodtick that went up on YouTube a week ago, it gives you an idea of where these games could go. The technology isn’t something I know a lot about, so I don’t know how feasible something like that would be on a large-scale right now, but it sure is exciting, isn’t it? (The fan-made video Dom mentions can be seen here.)
Favourite supporting character of the whole series?
Oh, gosh, probably Murray. Though the storekeeper in SMI:SE absolutely killed me.
Can you tell us about your cooking blog, and the ideas behind it? (Check it out here.)
It’s just something I do for fun. I’m a little food-obsessed, and I was doing a ton of traveling and eating at some really incredible places so I wanted to keep a sort of a journal, and it was suggested to me that I should set up a blog so my friends and family could keep up with our travels. So I did. And then people started actually reading it, which is still kinda weird. I feel a little silly about it. The internet needs another food blog like it needs another conspiracy theory or another quack medical cure-all. So I do it for myself. I write about restaurants, recipes, Top Chef – anything food-related that’s interesting to me, and if anybody reads it, great. If not, no big deal. I’m not in it to maximize readership. I do it for the same reason I’d keep a private journal – I just make it public.
Food or Monkey Island? 😛
Uh… Monkeys as food? *ducks*
Episode 1 specific questions.
You have now probably finished episode one! What did you think overall?
I love it. I’m really thrilled. It’s so fantastic to see new Monkey Island material again, and I think Telltale is doing such a great job with it. The character is there, the dialogue is funny, and unlike you, I’ve read the plot synopsis for the entire season. They’re just getting warmed up, and I’m REALLY excited about where it’s going.
Is the pleasure of playing the new games somewhat diluted because you will know what will happen?
Not in the least. And I get less of a sense of the game than you’d think I would from reading half of the dialogue. Bear in mind, I pretty much see my lines and that’s it. I know the broad strokes, and I might see a screenshot or two. But I don’t see the rest of the dialogue, I don’t hear any of the other characters, I don’t see most of the artwork, I don’t hear the sound design – I only have the vaguest notion of what’s going on from my work. It obviously isn’t like coming at it completely cold, but it’s closer than you think.
Highlight of the game for you?
When Guybrush tries to board the Screaming Narwhal via clothesline only to be wheeled back to the dock, because that absolutely slays my two-year-old for reasons I absolutely don’t understand – and it’s really fun sharing something I love so much with my kid, even if he barely understands it right now.
Do you know why some of the original voice actors have been replaced in the episodes, but will still return for the Secret Of Monkey Island Special Edition?
I imagine it’s budgetary reasons. Like I say, LucasArts and Telltale are structured very, very differently and union VO is expensive (worth it, I think, but expensive). Of course, I’m not looking at the balance sheets, so what do I know? But that’s my best guess.
Have Telltale or Lucasarts hinted about the future of the series after the Tales Of Monkey Island have concluded?
Well, I know the possibility of more Monkey Island is on the table. Like I say, there’s nobody involved who wouldn’t like to keep the series going. But this adventure Renaissance is still very much in an experimental phase. Less so for Telltale, since they’ve been making it happen for a number of years now, but they’re still quite young. And this is very much new territory for LucasArts — at least in this smaller budget, digital distribution format.
I don’t know specifically what the plans are, and I’m not sure that they know themselves just yet, but at the risk of being crass, the same thing that killed adventure games ten years ago is what could bring them back now: Sales. The developers want to make these games, but you have to be able to make money on them. I’m not privy to any sales numbers, but the buzz that’s floating around certainly sounds good. Between the Steam rankings and the XBL leaderboard, it’s clear the games are selling. I believe Dan Connors from Telltale came right out the other day and called TMI their “strongest performing” title. I don’t know what that means from a units standpoint (nor could I say even if I did), and I have no idea where the break-even point is, though I suspect it’s significantly higher than a lot of the fans seem to think. But my impression is that they’re both doing well. Hopefully well enough to do some more.
My guess is that if SMI:SE sells well enough, they’ll do the same with MI2, and if TMI really is one of Telltale’s bestsellers, I have a hard time believing they wouldn’t want to do more, though in that situation, of course, the decision isn’t entirely in their hands since LucasArts owns the IP (unless that option was somehow worked into their licensing agreement for TMI, of course — I have absolutely no idea). To be clear, though, this is an outsider’s and not an insider’s perspective. The folks at LucasArts and Telltale are kind enough to make me part of the family while I’m working on the games, but that doesn’t extend into detailed marketing discussions, for obvious reasons. All we can do is sit back, hope the thing sells like crazy, and cross our fingers. That’s what I’m doing, anyway!
Thank you for your time Dom, it has been an absolute pleasure!