GDC 2019: Interview with Voice Actor Sarah Elmaleh

I waited by the escalator to flag her down for our chat. I got distracted by the thought of my itinerary for the rest of the conference, what I should eat later for lunch and anxiously perfecting the various ways to introduce myself to my other appointments (my perfectionism runs a tad deep). About fifteen minutes go by and still no sign of my next appointment. Checking my phone, I find an email in my inbox, “I’m in gold pants by the radio!”

I quickly messaged back my phone number and we manage to connect, “stay there and I’ll come to you!” Sarah Elmaleh is incredibly hard to miss. Her aforementioned gold pants flashed brilliantly as she strode across the room towards my location. In a quirky twist of events, we ended up missing each other standing across the room. By this point, fifteen of our thirty minutes had elapsed, but we still went with the flow of things. “That’s okay,” she quipped, “we can do rapid fire questions!”

If you’ve played Anthem, For Honor, Pyre, 2064: Read Only Memories, and other notable titles in the last few years, there’s a very good chance you’ve heard Sarah Elmaleh’s voice work. One could say that’s she’s a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to performance, as she’s worked on everything from AAA titles, to indies and theater work. Her most recent notable role is as BioWare’s female lead in Anthem. Having played through most of the title, I found her performance to be quite captivating. “She sounds like she’s good at what she does, what was your process for creating her character?” I asked.

“Thank you, I was definitely hoping to portray her that way, with a lot of confidence. I changed the character a little in order to develop her. After the events at the beginning of the game [Anthem], she has to adapt in order to be the best.” Sarah continued,”I really pushed her to the edge of naturalism and really wanted to make the conversations as light-hearted as possible. I was actually directed to just be myself with this character, so in a lot of the ways the Freelancer is me.”

“Did you get any hands-on time with Anthem in order to prepare for your role? What is the relationship between gameplay and voice acting?”, I questioned. She took a moment to consider the layers to that inquiry, “I actually didn’t get to play the game itself. Sure, I checked out the open demos, but when working on a large project like Anthem, a lot of things are kept under wraps. I saw concept art and was able to see the space for performance capture, which helped a lot.” At this point, rapid fire led me to skip over some of my other questions in order to create an opportunity to talk about one of Sarah’s passion projects. I asked her to tell me about founding gamedev.world.

“Oh, absolutely. This is something I felt like I needed to do. Rami Ismail, who is a wonderful friend and mentor to me, explained to me how gaming misses the opportunities in emerging communities due to language barriers. This lack of communication blocks off creation and by creating this global developer conference, we can free that up. I feel that often, in the game industry, we have discussions about diversity, but they are limited to certain things. We talk about sex, gender, race, etc., and that’s so important. We also need to include conversations about who is able to create and how we can provide them access. So with gamedev, we plan to broadcast the first global games conferences spoken in multiple languages. How are we on time?”

I check my clock, we have about two minutes before she needs to attend her friend’s talk upstairs. “Do you wanna walk and talk,” she offered. We pick up our things and take the escalator up to the next floor. “So, let me ask you,” I begin, “identifying as a female in the video game industry, what is your experience with discrimination? Have you encountered much sexism?”

“Oh yes, to some degree I have experienced those things. I will say, I definitely have a different, more low-key experience with it than women who work on the tech side of gaming. I feel like women working in technology have more hoops to jump through than those of us working in performance,” she continued to explain to me one particular occurrence where a fairly prominent developer made uncomfortable remarks about her by saying, “they found a cute one, huh.”

“I didn’t really say anything outright about that, but I did make a face at that remark,” she recreates it by raising one brow and curling her lip, almost as if she had just taken a bite out of something bitter. “I think that’s why it’s so important to keep telling these stories about what can occur in our industry,” she continues. “You know, that’s kind of what this talk I’m going to is about. My friend plans to discuss best practices in voice acting, you should see it if you have the time!” I did have about an hour before my next appointment, so I sat with Sarah as we listened to Eve Eschenbacher and Julie Nathanson of ArenaNet discuss the effects of healthy collaboration in order to get the best VO work. Things seemed to come full circle as I sat and listened to their presentation on how group dynamics can affect creativity in the work place. Sarah is utilizing her position in the gaming industry to uplift others and create access to creativity and togetherness. In the end, what makes the best games and best stories is our collective minds helping each other along.