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Interview: Logan Cunningham

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If you’ve seen the video showcasing Transistor at PAX East, you know who Logan Cunningham is. If you’ve played a match of Dota 2, there’s a good chance you know who Logan Cunningham is. And if you’ve played 2011′s Bastion, you certainly know who Logan Cunningham is. Indeed this talented man is the voice of Rucks in Bastion and again as Rucks in Dota 2 filling the role of an announcer. In Transistor, Mr. Cunningham voices a sword. Or rather a guy… who is a sword, or something. We talk about that and more.

It’s a Friday and I’m calling Logan in New York – where he lives. He sounds chipper and excited, very unlike Rucks.

Del:  Howdy.

Logan:  Hello!  How’re you?

Del:  Good, good. Thanks for taking the time to do this.

Logan:  Yeah, no problem.

Del:  I guess the first place to start that makes sense is asking how you’ve gotten involved doing what you do. I assume someone at some point heard you and said, “Wow, you should do voice work for something.”

Logan:  Um… Yeah…  I never intended to do it. I just wanted to be an actor. That’s what I was doing when I was asked to be involved with Bastion. The specifics of it are as simple as Amir Rao – Supergiant’s co-founder and studio director – and Darren Korb – audio director – I grew up with them, in San Jose, California. I’ve known them both since I was about fourteen and they’ve known each other since, like… second grade. That’s how Darren got involved with Supergiant Games.  It was this tiny little thing with virtually no money to go around and Amir sort of recruited people he knew that could do whatever. The only person – of the entire core team that made Bastion – Jen Zee, the artist, is the only one that Amir didn’t know directly before.  So everyone pretty much knew each other.

Del:  So from the ground up the studio was just, “Hey you make stuff with computers. And oh, hey, you do music and…” and now you have a studio.

Logan:  Yeah, exactly.  It was, “You know who’s a really good musician?  Darren.  Let’s see if he’s doing anything,” and of course he’s not.  That’s how we got involved.  The way I got involved specifically, with the character of Rucks, was that they wanted to…  They were experimenting with ways of telling a story without interrupting the player.  So no cut-scenes or no big walls of texts.  How do you tell a story then?  So Amir – I think it was Amir – came up with the idea, “What if we just tried some voice over?”  Like a narration type thing.  Darren and I were roommates at the time that he’d started work on Bastion, so it was just, “Let’s get Logan in there and see if he can try some stuff out.”

Del:  Now the voice of Rucks, was that something you’d played around with before?  Had you spoke in that voice?  Or was that more, “Ok, so you kind of already have what we want.  Can you make it a little different?”

Logan:  I got very rough direction from them.  I knew the overall vibe was kind of, vaguely, western or frontiers-y.  I’d heard some of the stuff Darren was doing so I just tried to find something that fit in with that.  The only real specific note I got was from Amir.  He sent me this email and attached was this video clip, just some YouTube clip, from Deadwood.  It was something with Ian McShane as Al Swearengen.  And he’d given me some point, like, “Listen to one minute and” … whatever.

Del:  Right, sure.

Logan:  It was kind of serendipitous because I had recently, this was like three years ago in 2010. The summer before, summer 2009, a good friend of mine had lent me the entire Deadwood series and I’d watched it start to finish and absolutely fell in love with it. And specifically with Ian McShane’s voice, so I’d do impressions of it. That sort of thing was already happening in me, so it was just perfect timing.

Del:  That’s really interesting that you’d mention that about Deadwood. I was just talking to my brother about this interview. I was saying that now that you’ve done some other voice work, you’re working Transistor and I was on IMDB you did something on a show called The B* in Room 23, or something?

Logan:  Yeah, Don’t Trust The Bitch In Apartment 23.

Del:  Oh [laughs] ok.

Logan:  Which has since been canceled.

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Del:  What I was telling him was that if you continue to get this work it’d be really nice to see you do something, given what I am familiar with, that is a western. Let’s say that Rockstar goes on to make a second Red Dead Redemption that it’d be great to hear you do something, a cameo or a major character. A sheriff in some town, or something.

Logan:  That’d be awesome, yeah.

Del:  So it’s funny that here you are talking about Deadwood.

Logan:  Westerns are just fun in general. I love that genre.

Del:  Yeah, American myth type stuff.

Logan:  Exactly.

Del:  Now with Transistor you definitely sound more like you. Is that the name of the character? The Transistor? Or just Transistor?

Logan: It’s just ‘The Transistor.’ The guy that I’m playing, whose voice it is, I’m not sure if he has a name… yet. It’s still pretty early. Greg is the only one that really knows where it’s going. I learn about it when I see the scripts. Right now he’s nameless. But, yeah, it’s pretty much my own voice. It took kind of a long time to get there. We were experimenting with all kinds of different types of accents and such. “What if he’s a James Bond kind of guy!” We did British accents and South African and… we went to some strange places. Turned out he didn’t need anything extra than what I have already. It seems to be working so far.

Del:  Ok, so from the very little bit that was shown at PAX it starts out with Red pulling the sword from the chest of this dude slumped against a little pillar. So now if I’ve got it right the sword, The Transistor, has taken on the personality of that guy it killed. So now are you trying to voice that guy, that’s dead, or are you giving the sword a voice? Or sort of both?

Logan:  Ah… I guess both. Yeah.

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Del:  That’s interesting. What do you look at for inspiration for [laughs] a sword?

Logan:  Nothing really. I’m just trying to work with what I have. The story that we’re telling and the moment-to-moment stuff. That’s what he’s doing. People are asking me, “Are you narrating again this time?” And it’s, “ehhh, yes and no.” Yes, I’m playing a character who you’ll be hearing the entire time, again. But Rucks in Bastion was like above everything. He was this sort of third eye thing, the omniscient narrator. And that’s not the case with this guy. To call him a side-kick character would cheapen him quite a bit, but he is a companion. He’s figuring things out as you are.

Del:  Ah, I see.

Logan:  So he’ll sound different because of just that.

Del:  So where Rucks was kind of telling you a story, he knows everything. He’s narrating it. The sword is instead giving you a play-by-play. So is this something you want to continue doing? Voice work for games or voice work period?

Logan:  Ah, yes and no. I’m finding success at it. I’ve been super, super lucky. Before Bastion, while I was working on Bastion, I was working a day job living in New York. Trying to act everywhere I could, and when you’re just starting out as an actor it’s a hard thing to do period. It’s hard to find work, most people don’t succeed at it, most don’t make a living at it. You get in wherever you can get in, so that’s what I’m trying to do. At the same time voice over work is really confining. You’re handicapped in so many different ways. It’s interesting. It’s like, is voice acting harder than other kinds of acting? In some ways I kind of think it is, you have to invent so much. It’s also easier on you. You’re not on a set, you don’t have crazy hours, or all those other stresses. I don’t know, if five years from now all I’d done was voice over work I’d be kind of upset. But hopefully that’s not going to happen.

Del:  Well obviously your work on Bastion has already opened some doors.  In the realm of voice work, or even outside of it, is there anyone you’d like to work with? As off thus far you’ve not really chatted with anyone. In Bastion you were the narrator and in Transistor it seems to be primarily you.

Logan:  No one comes to mind immediately. Of course I have my voice actor idols just like I have my live action idols for actors, but I can’t expect or hope to work with those people. If it happens it happens, but… I’d love to, of course. You need other others to be… acting.

Del:  Laughs. Yeah.

Logan:  You can’t do it in a vacuum. And you literally are in a vacuum with most voice acting. It’s you in a booth. Usually by yourself. In the case of animation, anime or animated movies or TV shows, they tend to record those casts together as often as they can. With video games it seems much more segregated, or whatever. But I worked with Wadjet Eye on two games, Resonance and Primordia. Both of those came out last year, and that was more of a normal video game voice over. I was one actor in a cast of half a dozen or something.

Del:  Was that more interesting? More fun? I’d at least imagine it might have been more challenging.

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Logan:  It was more challenging, and it was interesting because I think that’s how it’s normally done. The way we work with Supergiant is very piece-meal and we just do it, and do it, and do it until it’s right. We have that kind of luxury with time and that’s not something you really find. Although I hear Irrational works that way too, which is neat.

Del:  And then with a cast of characters is it, “Ok, now read these lines”?

Logan:  Exactly. You come in for your two hours that you have and you have to get through these two-hundred and fifty lines. You do two takes of every line, and then you’re done.

Del:  Now I suppose it works differently depending on who you’re working with. But there’s been some games I’ve played and it seems as though vast amounts of time took place between these two people talking. It doesn’t seem like Person A is replying to Person B in real-time, it seems like they’re just saying lines. While other games I’ve played it does seem as though they’ve been able to see each other and there’s a bit more interaction there. Is that how it’s done, or was the first instance I gave you just done poorly?

Logan:  Ah, yeah that could be some laziness. It depends on if you have a good actor and the writing is a big part too. Also there’s programming too. If whoever is placing those lines too far apart or too close together it’ll create some dissonance that’ll have an impact on how it ends up.

Del:  How much control do you have over a character? I suppose it’s different between studios. I’d think with Supergiant you’d have more. In the case of Rucks did you give much feedback?

Logan:  Ummm [pauses] I guess in the beginning when we were still filling things out, but we got into sync pretty quickly. With Transistor it’s completely different. It’s a much harder task, a much harder role for me. The thing about Rucks, as well as he and Bastion turned out, Rucks was pretty easy to do. He was kind of a caricature, right? Sort of a stereotype that became a character. He was easy to do though. The challenge with him was purely technical, it just needed to sound like Rucks. It just had to be that voice, he’s got the same kind of cadence, all the lines kind of go down at the end. With Transistor it’s kind of the opposite. It’s all performance based. If lines sound good, it’s because I was a good actor. I acted well in that line and it sounds good because of that. There’s not a specific sound we’re trying to capture every single time.

Del:  Ah ok. Now you might not be able to say, but Red has lost her voice. That’s said right on. So unless she finds it again I doubt there’s much dialog between the two of you.

Logan:  Yeah, not so far. There’s at least one instance in that demo we had at PAX where she sees a poster of herself and… actually I don’t know if it made it into that PAX build. But there were sort of dialog options at one point and it’s like, you could linger on the poster, or you could leave, and while she can’t talk she can – she did – at least then, make some kind of vocalizations. Indicating she agreed with you or didn’t want to do that particular sort of thing. I’m not sure if we abandoned that or not. It is something we experimented with though.

Del:  I’m imagining sort of like the way in Link talks, or whatever he does. His little, “Ah hah” or “hmmm”.

Logan:  Yeah, exactly, kind of like that.

Del:  There was something some months after Bastion came out where you did some work on a wedding. There’s also the, I assume, many hours of lines for Valve’s Dota 2.

Logan:  Laughing–that took forever, yes. Weeks and weeks and weeks.

Del:  So there’s something I’ve been wondering, with Dota 2 specifically. They’ve got a set amount of characters out right now, I’m not sure how many at this point. And I know some characters will say things that pertain to others. Like you’ll say, “Storm Spirt is on a rampage” or whatever. Now I’m assuming you did that for all the characters that currently exist and maybe some upcoming ones. Now when they add more, say a year down the road, is it just, “Ok, well Rucks just doesn’t talk about those”?  Or will they contact you again and say, “Hey, we need some more lines”?

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Logan:  I – I don’t know, honestly. For the sake of consistency I’d imagine they’d want to update that announcer pack. I don’t know though. They’d have to contact Greg though because he wrote all those lines.

Del:  Oh, ok, I see.

Logan:  That’s basically the only reason we did it. I’m not sure who had the idea, Valve or us. Valve has been really cool to us though. I don’t know if you know that in the Steam version of Bastion you can get a Portal turret as a secret.

Del:  I had no idea. That’s what I’ve played it on, Steam, but I didn’t have a clue.

Logan:  That’s only… I think only in New-Game-Plus. But yeah, you find a thing in the world and you bring it back to the Bastion and it spawns–you know, like when you get the various pets and stuff. But yeah, Valve liked us enough to do that sort of an Easter egg thing. So the good news is there’s a history of goodwill between us, or whatever, so the announcer pack was a thing that could potentially happen. But when it comes to Rucks appearing anywhere outside of Bastion we have rules about that. We don’t want, “Hey, so, we’re doing this video and we thought it’d be funny if… like Rucks was like, you know, narrating my life or something”. We’re not going to do that. Then it’s a gimmick. So if we can be responsible for the content, meaning if Greg can write it–whatever it is. So we have these rules about Rucks, as long as it’s us breaking the rules, then it’s ok. So we have this history with Valve, Greg is a gigantic Dota 2 fan, and they agreed to let Greg write all the lines. They met our criteria and that’s how it happened.

Del:  Gotcha. Now when you say you have rules for Rucks, what kind of rules would those be?

Logan:  Ahhh [pauses].

Del:  Like, Rucks will never talk about My Little Pony type rules?

Logan:  Kind of, yeah. Ummm [pauses] we did a bit for Machinima’s Inside Gaming Awards, the awards they have at the end of the year, and there was a bit where they had voice actors auditioning to host the show. One of them was Rucks and there was the Machinima guys in a room and there was a TV on a cart that wheels itself into the room with Bastion playing and it’s like Rucks is auditioning for the part. He says something like – in Rucks voice, “The nominees for this year’s best downloadable game are Bastion on the NeoGeo” or whatever. And we were writing that and said, “You know… it’s weird to hear Rucks say ‘Steam’ or ‘NeoGeo’ or whatever”, so those kind of rules. We’re not going to modernize him.

Del:  Right, just throw that voice into anything and everything.

Logan:  And keeping him in character. Even when we tread that line in some of the Dota lines, because some of those lines are like… kind of like play-by-play lines. So we had to be careful.

Del:  That makes sense.  Rucks doing more narration work makes sense rather than being in an ad for the next Call of Duty, saying something like, “Frag with your friends.”

Logan:  Yeah, exactly.

Del:  Has your work with Bastion gotten you more attention?  With games specifically.

Logan:  It has, not really more work though.  I’m sort of unusual in that it isn’t hugely important for me to be working constantly.  I don’t know, some people have a feeling that if you’re an actor you’re sort of for hire.  That’s your job, to act, and you just do whatever comes your way.  That’s not something I believe.  I guess I’m kind of picky, but it’s not like I’ve been getting a flood of opportunity.  It’s more like I have fans now and I’m like… Twitter famous.  That’s fun, that’s cool.  Bastion was fun, but it’s still a fifteen dollar downloadable game.  It’s not a triple-A thing.

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Del:  It was certainly successful though.  As far as being an indie game.  It is considered indie, right?

Logan:  Supergiant Games is a self funded independent studio.  So if that is your definition for indie, then yes.

Del:  That wraps things up for me, thanks so much for taking the time to do this.

Logan:  You got it.

Del:  I do hope that your work with Bastion and Transistor lands you work on the big or small screen so you can do some actual acting.

Logan:  Yeah, that’d be awesome.

Del:  Peace.

Logan:  Bye, take care.

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