EXCLUSIVE: BTVA Interviews River City Girls' Cristina Vee and Adam TierneyReported on Thursday, September 26th 2019
BTVA has had the opportunity to pursue an exclusive interview with two of the minds behind the vocals of the recently released indie smash, River City Girls, developed by WayForward Technologies. This interview is a conversation with the game's director and writer, Adam Tierney, and voice director (and actor) Cristina Vee! We'd like to thank Adam and Cristina for their willingness to provide the opportunity, and for providing such wonderfully detailed and informative answers!
You can listen to the interview in audio form here, or enjoy reading its transcript, available right underneath.
(NOTE: Transcript has been edited for clarity.)
Hello everyone. Today we've got a couple special guests here at BTVA. We've had the opportunity to interview, from WayForward Technologies, Adam Tierney, the writer and director of River City Girls, along with a name that a lot of VO fans out there might know - Cristina Vee! The game's voice director, casting director, and the voice of Hasebe - as well as a bunch of other characters from shows you probably like. Hey, it's a huge honour to have you two here today. You want to feel free to take a second to introduce yourselves?
Cristina: Hi! I'm Cristina.
Adam: This is Adam, I work for Wayforward, and I wrote and directed River City Girls.
Cristina: I'm Cristina, and I liked your introduction, so let's keep that one.
BTVA: Yeah, that's totally fine. (laughs) So, River City Girls, for those of you who may not know, is a game that came out a couple weeks ago. It's an an entry in the long-running series of Kunio-kun games, which is a series made by Technos. It's kind of a sister series to Double Dragon, which is one of the most famous beat-em-up series. If you're familiar with River City Ransom, another one of the most famous NES beat-em-ups, this game is part of that same series.
The game stars two girls named Kyoko and Misako, and they have to go save their boyfriends Kunio and Riki, in a reversal of how the series usually is; with the two guys going after their girlfriends. So, the reason why we're here is because River City Girls has the two of you go all out on the voice acting side of things. That is something we're going to talk about today, and do a little bit of a deep dive into.
BTVA: So, Cristina, your relationship with Wayforward has clearly been fruitful, and it definitely goes a way back. Do you want to talk a little bit about how you've ended up starting this long line of collaborations with Wayforward?
Cristina: Sure! So, it's kind of a crazy story but basically it was all serendipitous, and it all started online. I have a friend named Maddie, and I've known her from collaborating on music way back in the day. She has a friend, James Montagna, and she came in town; she lives in Australia and we all had a dinner together, and that's how the relationship started.
So I worked on, what was the first game, was it Adventure Time? [Yes.] I met Adam shortly after and he's one of those people that... there are a few people that, in a career, you can point to and say "This happened because of him." Adam's always believed in me and my directing work, and he has really helped me come up as a director, become a better director, and it's so much fun working with him. In the recording environments, we're always laughing, it's so much fun, and that's how I came up.
Adam: Yeah, so Cristina had worked with James, one of our directors, on "Hey Ice King!", you'd done some singing for us, and you actually sang as Shantae before you were cast.
Adam: But the first thing we worked on together was some kind of behind the scenes for us on Cat Girl Without Salad, which is another character you'd voiced for us. So Wayforward, I've been here for over 15 years, and for me the big break into VO was we did a Batman game based on the Brave and the Bold cartoon. That show was very chatty, and we wanted it to feel like the show. So I wrote a 400-page dialogue script on that. We were working with Andrea Romano, we recorded over 2 weeks, and it was just crazy to hear all this professional actors, Steve Blum, Tom Kenny, all these people reading our lines! And so we really fell in love with VO after that, we started putting it in our other stuff.
There's a few things we did kind of solo, like we did a Centipede game [2011's Centipede: Infestation], directed it and cast it myself, working wih Jake Kaufman... We were kind of just fumbling around figuring it out, but once we started working with Cristina as our casting and VO director, it took everything to the next level. So I think every project, including demos, it's always been myself and Cristina teaming up. I'll always write the dialogue, she'll always cast it, find all the actors, get them in the studio, get the best performances out of them, usually she'll play one or two of the characters as well... She's so good at it, and she's so good at finding a good performance but also casting a really wide net. I'm always amazed, I will always have somebody in mind for a role, and she'll usually find someone who talks like that person just cause she knows so many actors.
At this point she's just one of the team; I can't imagine ever doing a game with VO without her behind the panel directing the actors.
Cristina: D'aww, thanks!
BTVA: That definitely segues into a lot of things we wanted to talk about. Because yeah, it's true in general that voiceover has become a really important part of indie games. And the whole point you talking about Cristina and all the great actors she knows is a great example of how there's so many resources and tools at your disposal with indie games that weren't always possible 15 years ago.
So, for a game like River City Girls, it's part of a long-running series with a pedigree, but at the same time it has that Wayforward stamp on it, y'know? It's almost like an original because you had so much freedom to explore the characters and make them as colourful as they are. I was interested in how much freedom you had from Arc System Works in order to play with them.
Adam: I'll talk first about the writing and then Cristina can talk about the casting. Arc was REALLY supportive. They're an awesome studio, super laidback and easy to work with. They own River City, Double Dragon, they bought a bunch of these brands 5 years ago. We wanted to make it, but with Wayforward now, one of our trademarks is taking a brand and putting our own spin on it. So we knew we didn't want to make a standard Kunio-kun game. We knew it should look different, have different music, a different sense of humour... And even all the characters, the vast majority of them are pre-existing characters, but we rewrote and tweaked them, made them our own, and gave them very big, funny personalities. So yeah, they were fantastic with it, they were really useful in that they know this stuff inside and out.
I think the next Kunio-kun game that comes out from them has like, 80 playable characters. There's so many in this world. So they were really helpful in letting us know suggestions on characters, cameos, enemies, letting us know "Oh, this character doesn't go to the same school, so fix this line." They helped with very "brand" feedback, but they were super onboard as far as the style of writing, sense of humour... They liked pretty much everything we did from the get-go. They were super supportive of that.
BTVA: The game makes use of a lot of recognizable "veteran" voice actors, like you have Kayli Mills and Kira Buckland as our leads, but the other thing I was curious about was the game has a lot of roles from streamers and internet personalities. So I was curious about the casting process behind casting such a broad net of people from different backgrounds: professional voice actors and well-known personalities alike.
Cristina: I used to be almost completely oblivious to that world, influencers, streamers, until the past 3 years. I've met so many and gotten to hang out with a lot of great people. They're creators, they want to create, and so many of them have a passion for voiceover acting. I've been talking to Ross about that, and Sean McLoughlin, he's always wanted to be in a video game. But a lot of the credit for reaching out and getting those people, it was Adam's idea. So Adam did a lot of the facilitating, I believe the only one I directed in the booth was Sean / Jacksepticeye. Is that it Adam? I think that's right.
Adam: I think so. Most of the people who have a really big following like them or the Game Grumps, they tend to be more of the cameo characters, like shop entrances, purchasing items. So we coordinated a lot of them offsite, although Sean we got in-studio and Cristina was able to direct him. That's actually a larger role though, he plays Godai.
BTVA: Yeah, he was actually pretty prominent. (laughs)
Adam: So some people we knew just like, "Oh hey, I want more of an Erika voice for this, or an Arin voice for this", but for the main casting, I believe the count Cristina reached out to was almost 100 actors between all the roles. So with this massive, MASSIVE amount of auditions, Bannon [Rudis, assistant director] and I would go through and pick our favourites, we'd tell Cristina and she would give her opinion on which ones we should go with, and we honed it from there. But the amount to choose from was really really astounding: how many she knew to reach out to, and how many actors I'd never heard of who nailed their performances.
Cristina: And the crazy thing too is I believe this is one of the ones where I held back. This isn't one that I sent out to the agencies, but sometimes I do for the union projects and projects with larger casts, so I was like, "I hope they find who they want! I only got 25 auditions for this character, y'know?" But yeah, I've been doing this for a really long time, I love people, so I'm constantly hanging out with other voice actors, meeting new people... I want to hear new people. People who are passionate and looking for a way in. Talking about another game, Skullgirls, that was my main goal - to let people be heard who are not being heard.
Fortunately these days, the work is so abundant now that we ARE getting new talent, and it's really exciting; there's so much to go around, we have the time and the budget to listen to new people and it's amazing. So I'm really happy with the people that we got for River City Girls, because it IS like a blend of veterans, new alent... Maybe this was some people's first VO role, and the more the merrier. I get really excited when we get to cast people. It's my favourite part.
Adam: Oh, I was just going to follow up, the way we cast is usually I'll write a couple of sample lines, Cristina will give those out to the actors, and so much of finding the right actors is just nailing the comedic timing on that stuff. That's so important, because we'll look for people who know where the joke is, where the rhythm is, and a perfect example is in Cat Girl Without Salad. So much of the humour wasn't even in the line, but she creates really weird, interesting deliveries of stuff, and as a writer that's what's exciting. A - People that get the humour on my line and nail it on each joke, and people who bring in additional humour where you didn't even have a joke, but bring a funny delivery, or a compelling, interesting delivery or take on the character. We got so much of that on the River City cast. It was an incredible assortment of people, so different from each other, and they really inhabited these characters.
BTVA: That's a little bit of a segue into my next little anecdote. I noticed that, for example, Patrick Seitz does a lot of additional voices like [BAD RUSSIAN PATRICK SEITZ IMPRESSION] the Russian Chef Body, so that was something that made me wonder: do you consider it important to make the most of your actors, or are the small roles and the directions they go into things that happen organically in the booth?
Cristina: My philosophy is I want the booth time to be fun for everybody. And the #1 way to guarantee a great product and we get the lines we need, is by casting the right actor. If you have somebody who's not the right choice for a role, or think too much about a line, it loses that organic fluidity, and I very much want the actor to be themselves and to play. If we have directions or something's not meshing, then we'll give that. But for the most part, we let the actors make their own choices. And of course, so much was already in the writing.
Adam: For the casting, with someone like Patrick, what we did is we cast most of the major actors first, the major roles, and don't place too much of an emphasis on doubling up. In fact, Cristina's usually the one saying "When you have someone voice a boss AND a main character, no matter how great they both are, you're going to notice." So we don't double up so much on the main cast, but once we have our core cast of all the bosses, playable characters, key NPCs, then we have all those little additional roles. Like you mentioned, the chef and stuff, Cristina and me know the breadth that these actors are capable of, so she'll say "Oh, Kyle can do this one, Patrick can do this one," so it's almost like a secondary mini-casting filling out those additional roles once we have our main troupe of actors.
BTVA: Obviously every project has its own requirements, and its own things you want from it. I was curious about how the process may vary between this, or the average Shantae game, or Indivisible, Batman, or anything like that.
Cristina: For some projects, it all depends on time and sometimes budget. For Shantae, we had an expansion pack that was coming up, and new voices were needed for Rottytops and a couple other characters. For instances like that, they let me suggest actors, and if they liked them, they'd take them. So for that one the way we cast was I knew who would sound great as these characters, so I sent them [Wayforward] voice clips of them [the actors] and they were approved.
For Indivisible, we really wanted to cast a really wide net. I can't imagine how many auditions I got in. But for those ones I go to the top agencies in LA, as well as calling up people I know, and bringing in new people. I believe this one wasn't like that. I have a wide pool of actors that I use who live in LA and some in Dallas. I think the only thing that would differ is that initial casting process. Do I get to recommend people, work from a wider pool, or do I get to use people who I know are good, know what I mean?
It's definitely like, if something needs to be done fast, it's always a bit of a risk if you're working with someone you've never worked with before. Even if their audition is great, sometimes it's just the audition unfortunately. But when there's not enough money to take that chance... That's why it's so great to have the Patricks, the Kiras, the Kyles, because they are just so good, there's a reason why they're in so many projects. They get it done, they're fun to work with, and they know it to a T. So that's the only thing that's different. In the booth, it's all the same.
Adam: As far as the Wayforward side, it's really easy for us: we just call Cristina every time. We've done things like the Cat Girl game, where the ENTIRE game was just Cristina and Todd Haberkorn doing tons of voices each. It's probably the silliest thing we've ever done. River City Girls is close, but we've also done stuff like Til Morning's Light, which was heavier, a lot more dramatic, emotional; so for me it's the same process - I just write whatever story we do and kick it to her. For something like River City Girls, there's not really a lot of growth in the characters, they're these cartoony characters from start to finish. But for something like Til Morning's Light, where Stephanie Sheh was cast in the lead, that's something where the character's growing over the course of the game, becoming more powerful, more confident, less goofy... I can't even imagine doing that.
That's something Cristina does really well in her casting processes, is finding the right "character level" needed. So if you find someone who's kind of a wacky cartoon voice, that's what she gets for us. If we need someone who's really deep, or someone you want to make us cry, she always performs in getting the right person for each role. And sometimes it's you!
Cristina: (laughs) Yay!
BTVA: Another thing that I really appreciated about the voice direction in the game is, I assume most of the voice actors recorded separately.
Cristina: Yes. Except, it's funny you bring that up, because the standard - and I've never worked on a game where I've worked with another person - is to record separately. But for this game, because 90% of the dialogue was Kyoko and Misako, we tried something new where we recorded them together. So, we had Kayli and Kira in the booth at the same time, so all of their lines are them playing off each other. We would run a scene more like original animation, and I think it really helped.
BTVA: That's definitely what I was going to ask about, because I instantly noticed just how natural the dynamic between them is. It really feels like that fluid connection of having two people in a room.
Adam: And I think Cristina, correct me if I'm wrong, but we cast all these people individually, so Kira was best for Kyoko, Kayli was best for Misako, but incidentally the two of them are actually very close friends, right?
Cristina: You know, I think so, but yeah, it was definitely coincidental. But the thing is too that when we work with the pool of LA actors, everybody eventually gets to know each other well. You know? I'm not going to say like "Everybody becomes friends!" but it's kind of that case. Because we see each other so much and we end up travelling to conventions together, bonds are formed... It's pretty cool. It's a good community.
BTVA: That's something that actors and even game developers do have in common. I think in general it's just, a very tight-knit community where everyone's all in it together. And I think that kind of vibe lends to the positive relationships that have arisen from all of this, between Kira and Kayli, and you and Adam.
I had one last real major question that I wanted to ask, because we ended up hitting on many of the beats I was thinking of organically as the interview went on. Regarding the vocal songs in the game, was this a similar process to recording the voiceover?
Cristina: Megan McDuffee did the vast majority of the vocal songs. I got to tune in for the very first song, but I've actually never met her before. Music is very different, usually musicians will have their own setup, do their own thing. But for the theme song, that was with NateWantsToBattle and Adam wrote the lyrics. So it was me and Adam again, but this time I was in the booth. We have a great engineer we work with a lot named Jeff Vicente, and I very much treat singing like it's acting. You want to portray emotion and get a point across. So I give the same values directing myself as I would while directing myself in voiceover work.
BTVA: For one final thought, with River City Girls, you've done a really incredible job of taking an older series, managing to make it feel modern, fresh, and original. I wanted to ask if you had one final thing regarding the process of voiceover that really left an impression on you.
Cristina: You know, I voice act nearly every day of my life, and if I'm not voice acting I'm singing. I do it so often but it's only when I record, and when I'm directing, that I really remember why I love it so much. Watching the actors do their thing, it makes me be like "I want to jump in the booth too! I wanna play a character now, be that cat in the corner of the screen!" Because it's so contagious, y'know? I'm not saying this has ever felt like a day job to me, but it really kind of wakes me up again like "Oh yeah, these people are incredible and I want to keep up with them." Even when I'm directing, I'm in awe of the talent and what they can do with their voices, the differences we all have... It really pushes me forward in wanting to be a better director and a better actor.
Adam: I think for me, on the production side VO is something we're pretty new to; we've only added it in the past decade starting with Batman, but it's such an interesting, critical part of all of our games now. What I like about it is it's a very straightforward way to get a lot of personality in your games. It's so easy to do, we'll have a line and Cristina, Kayli, or Patrick or somebody can record it, we put it in the game as a WAV file, and it injects such a high, high level of personality.
It's generally a straightforward process compared to other ways of getting emotion in a game. Like if you're doing lots of animation, scripting, cinematics, visuals, that stuff takes so much time and sweat to put together. A perfect example is we have anime sequences in the game, and they look great, but we worked on them for 6 months just to get 10-second snippets, because there's just so many hands on them and so many things. Versus some of the funniest "Patrick Seitz doing the principal" stuff, that was a pickup way late in development, we threw it in there, and it's just a disembodied voice that was immediately funny.
Working with Cristina, the actors that she's bringing to the company, gives us such a fantastic route to add so much personality to the game. I think one of the reasons people are really digging this one is in their voices and personalities. They're really resonating with gamers. So honestly, voiceover is probably my favourite aspect of working on games, and so much of it and what she's great at, her instincts as a director and as an actor... The personality you see her bring with the VO, she does it with all of our games, and it really elevates the talent of the studio.
BTVA: Cristina, Adam, thank you so much for your time, it has been a pleasure and privilege to be interviewing you today. The game is great, I definitely recommend it to anyone listening, and yes, that is a great way to put a bow on today's interview. Anything else to say before we go?
Cristina: Thank you for playing! Play it again a second and third time because there are things to discover and I can't wait for you to hear some other things we had in the game!
Adam: Go play the game, go buy the game! I want to do more River City games, I want to do more with these characters, so hopefully it's a hit, and Cristina and I are back in the studio working on the next batch of crazy characters.
BTVA: Thank you so much. Take care everybody!
River City Girls is available now on all major platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Switch.