There’s been a Left 4 Dead-shaped hole in gaming for too long, and while there have been some attempts to fill it (World War Z and Aliens: Fireteam Elite for example), nothing has really come close to capturing that spirit. So who better to take a shot than a developer that had a hand in that series?
Enter Turtle Rock Studios and Back 4 Blood, which is hitting consoles and PC next month. With the release fast approaching, we took some time to chat with the game’s Lead Writer Simon Mackenzie and one of its stars; horror legend Barbara Crampton, about the co-op zombie shooter’s story, monsters, and Barbara’s badass biker character, Mom.
Bloody Disgusting: Barbara, I believe this is your first video game performance?
Barbara Crampton: Yes! Shocking isn’t it?
BD: I was sure you would have done one before, but I guess you’d taken time away just as gaming voicework became more prevalent. I suppose you were bound to get into it at some point though!
BC: Sure, and I hadn’t even done that much voice acting before either, but in the last few years I’ve done this, and a couple of voiceover parts for television shows, so maybe this is a sign of things to come. It’s rewarding, and especially with this game, to be offered such a beautiful, well-written character,it was a dream come true for me.
BD: Was there anything in particular that made you decide now was a good time to try out a video game role?
BC: No, the offer kind of came out of the blue, and I’m sure Simon can talk a little bit about that. He knew me from some of my earlier work, and I was actually working on a movie in Norway a couple of years ago now, and in between scenes I was picking up my phone and recording dialogue for my Back 4 Blood audition. I knew how big this game was going to be, and that it was going to be this well-invested big-budget project, so I knew that would be so exciting If I could get this role. I was lucky enough that I wasn’t putting too much pressure on myself because I was also focusing on this movie I was shooting, and I was fortunate enough that they liked what I sent, and asked me to come and play this role.
BD: Did you see the character design for Mom, when you sent in the audition?
Simon Mackenzie: We actually didn’t show Mom’s look to Barbara until after we selected her for the role.
BC: Yeah, all I got before was a description of this tough character, and the lines I was given for her were so strong and brazen. I don’t know how that audition must of sounded but I’d love to listen back to it sometime. It’s normal though. Usually when you audition for something you get something like a paragraph and a little on who the character is and it’s like ‘give your best shot’, you know? And usually, that’s it, you get that one chance.
SM: Barbara killed that audition. After listening to it I was instantly like ‘this is Mom’ and I kind of already knew Barbara was like Mom whilst having to go through the rest of the auditions.
BD: I think in some of your more recent film roles you’ve portrayed characters with something of a surly demeanor, and that seems to fit Mom nicely.
BC: (laughs) Well, it’s something I’ve grown into. This surliness, you know? I’ve earned my right to be surly with my age and how long I’ve been in this business!
BD: I felt there was something of Sarah Connor in Terminator: Dark Fate in your performance. This kind of world-weary, no-nonsense badass.
BC: Yeah, that’s a good reference point, and while Simon gave me a lot of information to work with once we were working together, it was certainly one of those that I thought about during recordings. Certainly one of those archetypes,I mean, Sarah Connor is one of them.
BD: Simon, was that archetype one of the influences for Mom?
SM: Well, actually Mom is based on a friend of mine who is a biker out of the Mid-West, so a big part of that is her, but the heritage of characters such as Sarah Connor, Ripley, and the like, is there. Safe to say it’s definitely a part of the character too.
BD: There’s certainly a tough as nails 80s action woman vibe to the whole character.
BC: You know, it’s probably the toughest character I’ve played…
BD: I remember you saying recently how pleased you were to be getting these parts nowadays where you’re not the woman in peril, and could be these more assertive, perhaps even more dangerous characters now, and this does feel like it’s the most dangerous one!
BC: And she’s also such a brave character as well, which I enjoyed.
BD: You have teenage kids now, right?
BC: Yes! An 18-year-old and a 20-year-old.
BD: Are they into video games at all?
BC: Oh yes! I’m now very popular with my son because he and his friends all know I’m in this game now, so he’s excited, and my daughter is too. They both own a Switch that they take everywhere and are really into games so yes, both very excited.
BD: That must be a great feeling! You have this whole legacy in horror films that people know you for, so something like this could open up a whole new audience to you who can discover the other things you’ve made in the past.
BC: Yeah, people who might know nothing about me might play this game, and wonder who voices Mom, and perhaps look me up and see all the other things I’ve done. This is such a big thing for me to get this part in this game is a big deal, and I’m so grateful to Simon and the creators for having me along.
SM: We’re grateful to have you as Mom!
BD: It’s a big get! Having Barbara, this horror icon if you will, for a horror game no less, really adds something. It’s a tentpole sort of thing to have in a modern horror game.
Simon, Turtle Rock obviously has its own horror legacy in gaming with Left 4 Dead. There are games out there now that are still trying to replicate that formula. Is it pleasing to you to see that legacy going strong to this day?
SM: I can’t really speak for the legacy so much because I wasn’t there for the Valve days, but as someone who’s worked with horror games before such as DONTNOD’s Vampyr,I have such an appreciation for the type of game Back 4 Blood and Left 4 Dead are, because even now, there’s so few games that capture that chaotic action-heavy kind of zombie horror where you’re up against it constantly.
BD: Talking of the infected, there’s so many variations out there now of the zombie template that it must be tough to try and stick out without straying too far from it. So what kind of balance, going into this, did you want to take with how you presented The Ridden? What did you feel you needed to do differently to stand out?
SM: One thing we wanted to do was to ground it. That may seem silly when talking about horror or fantasy, but we believe in having that foundation, which is where the protagonists come in, they’re all fairly grounded, reality-based characters. For The Ridden, we had a lot of conversations with virologists, and went quite deep into that. Some of the things we hinted at in the trailers and in the Beta show that already, but otherwise, we just wanted to hit those horror sweet spots that I kind of love in horror movies. Even from the Beta, we got a lot of feedback about the little homages and Easter Eggs we put in there.
BD: The safe room bookshelf was a fun thing to read, those book titles inspired by films like The Exorcist, Brain Dead, and They Live…
SM: And that’s only a small selection of the ones we’ll have in the finished game. It was important to honor the heritage of horror, but also do our own thing as well.
One of the most important things from the get go was, and this mainly addresses the characters, with a lot of zombie apocalypse scenarios, the survivors end up burned out by it all, and people end up being as much the bad guys as the infected, but we wanted our characters to be like ‘we’re not taking this anymore!’ and fight to try and get back to normality, no matter how hard that seems. These characters don’t give up, and that’s a recurring theme in Back 4 Blood, with a character like Barbara’s Mom out there leading the charge.
BC: A mom never gives up!
BD: There’s a weariness to Mom, a feeling of having seen all this so many times before, but she gets on with it.
BC: Yeah, she’s fighting back, she’s a really strong character who’s supportive of the people around her. It’s almost like they’re their own kind of family.
BD: Simon, taking it back to The Ridden, we saw a few types in the Beta, but are there other variants, mutations and the like still to be discovered in the full game? Some surprises maybe?
SM: There’s always surprises! Plenty of surprises in store!
BD: And with the weapons? We got a look at quite a lot of them in the Beta, lots of familiar, grounded fare, but anything we’ve not seen? Maybe something a little more outlandish?
SM: I can’t personally say, but I know there’s a lot of stuff still in the pipeline, so it’s a possibility!
BD: That’s understandable. More than ever, online games are constantly growing, adding more over a number of years, which can be good for really fleshing out a game world and its stories.
SM: Yes, and there’s plenty more stories to tell, and that means I get to hang out with Barbara more!
BD: So, Simon, I mentioned before about games that had been inspired by the legacy of Turtle Rock. Did any of those more recent attempts such as World War Z provide any inspiration for the team?
SM: Given how long development takes, we were already well in the trenches by the time that particular game came out, and had our plans worked out. I mean, I think I’ve been working with Barbara for like 3 years now, and only recently we’ve been ‘oh, we can actually talk about this now!’
BD: I suppose that’s just one of those things in development where you might see an idea while you’re working on something and be like ‘oh, it’d be cool if we could put that feature in there, but we’re too far along with our plan, and well, we like our plan!’
SM: Yeah, from a writing perspective, before I start out on a project, I look at movies, books and such in the genre. Then, when I start…that’s it, because I only want to take from those things, and in this case, it was a lot of the classics, such as the Romero movies, up to the modern takes like 28 Days Later and Train to Busan, then we thought ‘what can we add to this? How can we elevate some different areas of the genre?’
BD: I can appreciate that. You want to stay true to the vision you set out and letting anything in after that could mess with the recipe.
SM: It always starts with the characters, it’s like Stephen King said a long time ago, ‘you make these characters, you make people care about these characters, then you turn their world to shit’. Even those it’s more immediate with video games, I love that philosophy, so we have very detailed backstories for our characters. Where they grew up, what they were doing before, even what their dreams and aspirations are, and then it’s like ’bang, nobody expected the zombie apocalypse while they were at college’. So in Back 4 Blood it’s then seeing how these characters react to this, how they decide to fight back and not lie down and take this situation.
BD: Finally, Barbara, you’ve now had a taste of performing in video games, and it sounds like it’s been a positive experience, do you see yourself doing more?
BC: I mean yeah, I was so excited going into every session, and these sessions were about 4 hours long, I was coming back from them and having to take a nap because they were so intense as we were covering this intense, passionate material, but I’d wake up after and be like ‘Oh my God, I can’t wait to do that again!’ It was like the best drug, I became high on working on video games! Even though it’s voice work it’s so physical, everything is rumbling around in your body and coming out through your voice. It was such a rush and it’s something I’m definitely looking forward to doing more of.
BD: That’s the thing isn’t it? You still have to put all that emotion and physicality into it, even with it just being your voice because you’re trying to make it feel right.
BC: Yeah, my history at this point with voice work is minimal, but I get that it’s needed, that my body was having to do all these crazy things that nobody will see just to get the right delivery for the voice.
SM: And we do so much weird extra stuff in video game voice acting too. You have all these exertions and pain responses, so you can be stood there for an hour going ‘ooh, ahh, eeh, oof’.
BC: This was interesting to me because they were talking to me about ‘efforts’, and these efforts could be climbing up something, or climbing down, or you just got hit by something and you’re dying, or you’re hurt, or you’re pulling somebody else up from a precipice and you need them to come along with you, so you have to think in your mind ‘how am I doing this? And Simon would explain visually what’s supposed to be happening, so I found myself imagining it, and my body was actually doing the actions while I was recording!
BD: It’s one of those fascinating things about video games where you don’t really think about it when you’ve been around them for a long time, but for someone new to all this, having to learn something like efforts is almost an alien experience.
BC: Yeah, and something else that I learned, that I loved doing, and find myself doing on film sets now is pre-life. Simon would say ‘lets do a pre-life, maybe we’ll use it maybe we won’t’ and I was like ‘what’s a pre-life?’ and it’s before you say a line you do an effort like a groan or something and sometimes they’d use it for the efforts. Sometimes you’d put one in the middle of a line, just to shake things up. There’s all these little tricks these guys know, so I felt I got an education in working on video games just by working on Back 4 Blood.
SM: It’s all about helping you get there, because otherwise, it’s a very cold experience when you’ve been used to working in film or theater or television. Being in that booth alone, it’s often important for the performer to have this little warm-up to the line.
BC: I would sometimes have Simon speaking the other parts to me so I could respond correctly. You were great at all the parts too!
SM: (laughs) there’s a reason I’m on the other side of the screen though!
BC: Sometimes I’d have to stop and ask ‘how am I meant to be feeling with this line? What’s happening around it?’ and we would just stop and have a conversation about it then carry on. It was so helpful!
Back 4 Blood is out October 12 on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Series X/S, and PC.