‘Deus Ex’ Star Elias Toufexis: Don’t Avoid Problematic Content if You Want Games ‘To Be for Adults’

In one of my personal favorite interviews, the prolific Elias Toufexis and I talk voice acting, player agency, and all of the chatter surrounding Deus Ex: Mankind Divided.

Elias Toufexis isn’t new on the scene. If you haven’t seen him, you’ve almost certainly heard him. Most recently he’s been the voice of Takkar in Far Cry Primal and Adam Jensen in the latest entries of the Deus Ex franchise. It was a little bit surreal having a conversation that sounded like it was taken directly from a game I’d just spent so much time with, but the real Toufexis is anything but robotic.

This is a man passionate about both his craft and the potential of games to be “more.” Even in an industry full of passionate people, he stood out. His enthusiasm was contagious. I hope I’ve captured that feeling in this conversation, so you can enjoy it as much as I did.

Nate: You have a resume that includes the Assassin’s Creed 2 “Ezio saga,” where you voiced Frederico Auditore. You’ve shown up in the Splinter Cell franchise, Prince of Persia, Dying Light, The Long Dark, Far Cry Primal, and you’re center stage in both Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mankind Divided. You’ve been all over movies and television, including your current role as Kenzo in The Expanse — arguably the best science fiction on television right now.

I guess what I’m asking is… are you just a big geek?

Elias: I am a geek. I think I’m a certified geek. It’s funny, man, I mean I’m enough of a geek that I have the Boba Fett Mandalorian symbol tattooed on my arm. But I got that when I was younger, and as I got older, I started becoming more of a Star Trek fan than a Star Wars fan, because I would just watch the old shows over and over again, and The Next Generation, and then Deep Space 9 and stuff. So it’s always been that dichotomy in me, with Star Trek and Star Wars, and I’ve always been a fan of both of them. And I know you’re not supposed to be a fan of both of them.

Nate: You heretic! …But yeah, me too.

Elias: [laughs] But I love sci-fi in general. And like, I love — I’m a big Richard Matheson fan, I’m a big Robert E. Heinlein fan. Although to be honest, all of this sci-fi stuff and this video game stuff in my career started with happenstance. It wasn’t my choice. When you’re an actor in — well, I was living in Canada at the time, I’m still in Toronto right now, but I’m spending my time between Los Angeles and Toronto — but when you live wherever you live, you have to audition for whatever projects are being made in your town, or your country, or you have to go to wherever the projects are being made.

Now, luckily I’m at the point in my career where I can audition for pretty much anything, and then they’ll bring me to where the job is made. But when you start out, you’re just kind of doing whatever comes your way, whatever you book. So, I happened to book shows like Alphas, Supernatural, and Smallville, and I happened to book video games because Ubisoft is in Montreal, where I grew up.

I knew all the people there, so they auditioned me for all those, and then they booked them. And Deus Ex also was done out of Montreal — the first one. So it’s really just a coincidence that I get to do all this cool sci-fi stuff, because Montreal and Toronto and Vancouver, they have all these big sets plus tax breaks, so all these sci-fi shows and video games come up to Canada and they shoot a lot of stuff there, and I’ve just happened to book good work on the stuff that they shoot. So, it’s a bonus that I’m a big sci-fi fan.

Nate: Both Alphas and Eureka seemed like great shows that flew under too many radars. I’m really glad The Expanse is getting it’s due.

Elias: Yeah, The Expanse is my favorite so far, probably my favorite TV thing that I’ve worked. Because it’s all about the characters and their place in this world, rather than just action, you know. So, I really like where that show is going. I’m really happy to be a part of that show.

Nate: What are some of the big differences between doing voice acting for a game, versus performing in movies or television?

Elias: Well, that depends, right? If you think of a game like Splinter Cell: Blacklist or Assassin’s Creed or things like that, there’s rarely any pure voice work anymore in these games. It’s pretty much all — in AAA games at least — it’s all performance capture. So, what you end up doing, is you get into the mo-cap suit and you got the dots on your face, and the camera on your face, and a mic. So you’re capturing everything in your performance, just on a sound stage.

With Jensen, anytime you don’t see him — which is a lot — obviously that’s just done in a sound booth. But when you see a cutscene in the game, we’ve performance captured that. When you’re talking about performance capture, it’s not that much different. I mean, the technicality of it is obviously different — the technical aspects — but you perform it like you would a film. Obviously in a sound booth, I mean, it depends, right? From an actor’s point of view, you always approach it from the same place, no matter what the medium is — if it’s a sound booth, you still approach it from “Where is this character coming from?” “What does he want?” “What is the story trying to convey?” and so forth. But you do that with every medium.

Nate: That makes sense.

Elias: For Jensen, I’m very close to the mic when I talk. It’s basically my voice, but he’s a little more stoic than I am. If I’m in a booth with somebody else for a scene, they’re always like half a foot away from the mic. But as Jensen, basically my lips are on the filter, right in front of the mic. I always get really close, because he’s a quiet, kind of stoic guy, right? So, there are technical or stylistic things that are different, but from an actor’s point of view, I approach everything the same, whether it’s film, TV, performance capture, voice, or stage.

Think about it: On stage you’re still doing essentially the same thing, but you’ve got to “reach the people in the back row,” as they say. So they’ve got to be able to see what you’re doing just as well as the people in the front row. But that’s just a technical thing; you still approach it from the same place.

Nate: Unlike [a game like] Grand Theft Auto, you’re working in a very different world than we live in right now. Do they give you the whole script, or just an essential concept for the scenes you’re doing? Do you get concept art to help you visualize what’s going on? Or do they just throw lines at you?

Elias: Well in the first game, admittedly — and they’ve since apologized for it — they didn’t give me much. They would give me some concept art, and they would tell me the over-arcing story, but then we would be shooting or recording like the end of the game, then we’d be in the middle of the game. I’d have to rely on the writers and the voice director, or the mo-cap director, to tell me what the hell is going on, because I had no idea.

You know, that sounds worse than it is. I had sort of a general sense of what was going on, but there were times where I was thinking, “What is this about? Who is this character, and what did I take from him or her?” This time, at least they gave me the main path script, from beginning to end. So this time I had more context for what was happening. Then I would go either shoot the performance capture of that, or record it, and pretty much have a good gist of what was going on.

I’d forget every now and then who this character was, because it’s hours and hours and hours. I think I had 18,000 lines, or something ridiculous like that. I don’t remember, it was a lot of lines. So sometimes I’d forget, and they’d remind me. But then I’d go back and they’d give me side quests, but they’d give me them as a story. So, like “this side quest is this story, and you go here to here to here to here.”

But the thing about this game that’s so great, is that this side quest suddenly intersects with something else. So then we had to go back to the main story and account for that, too. “This is what you have to do now, if the player completed that side quest.” And that’s in the main version of the story. Or, “this is what you have to do now, because the player had never met this person, so instead he’s just meeting them now.” You know what I mean? There’s so much variation. It was good that they kind of kept track of it, because honestly otherwise it would have been, “Dude, what is happening? Who is this again?”

Nate: I can imagine, with so many branches to follow.

Elias: Yeah, because you can meet somebody, if you choose to do one path. Then there’s multiple times in the game where you’re given the option to “go here or go here,” and there’s a lot of pressure on your choice. The first time you play, if you choose to — let’s say, there’s a point in the game where Vega says, “You’ve gotta come now, this is the only way we’ll know.” But there’s another life at stake elsewhere — so you have to make that decision. If you make one decision, obviously there’s an entire path you haven’t taken.

I had to record all of those paths, and then different variations based on the characters you meet in the path you’ve chosen, because you haven’t met characters from the other. You know what I mean? Because there’s all these other characters. Thank God they were there going, “this is from this, and this is from this.” I would have been completely lost.

Nate: Is it hard to get into character when you’re covered in dots or sitting in a booth? Or are you a “method actor?”

Elias: No, no I’m not a method guy. We joke around a lot in the studio. I sometimes define myself as I’m “method” the second before we roll, till the second after we cut. That’s the only time I ever get “method.” When I’m in the moment, definitely if things are screwing up, I’m still in the moment. But I’m not the guy that brings it home with me. Although, Jensen — you could easily get to the point where the devastation that he’s witnessed can get to you.

Nate: The world he inhabits is a dark and violent place, and he’s been at ground zero for most of its worst moments.

Elias: Yeah, he’s been through a lot. And the other thing is — the thing with Jensen is that you have to justify everything he could possibly say in your performance, anything that the player could choose. It’s not just my version of Jensen. Somebody said the other day — I don’t remember what article, but somebody had written an article saying “Jensen doesn’t care, so why should I?” and I was reading it, saying, “Well, let me play the game.” And I played the game through, and thought, “No, your Jensen doesn’t care. My Jensen cares.”

Nate: The Jensen I played cared about a lot of things, but he was — much like The Witcher 3‘s Geralt — a consummate professional as well. I’ve always seen Adam Jensen and Geralt from The Witcher as very similiar characters: both trying to be objective, in situations in which justice and the law don’t perfectly align. Jensen especially, as a former police officer, genuinely wants to “protect and serve.” So I saw him as compassionate, but very professional, detached. But who is he to you? When you’re playing him, who is Adam Jensen?

Elias: Yeah, it’s dependent on the player, right? You could go through the whole game acting like, “I don’t care about anybody, and I’m just going to try to solve the train station bombing or what happened in Dubai. I’m going to figure all of that out, and that’s going to be my goal.” Or you can really delve into it emotionally, because those choices are there. That’s my Jensen, that’s what I do.

No matter what you choose — I mean, you can choose terrible things for Jensen to say or do — but to me, he has an innate sense of justice in his core character, and he usually wants to see justice done. At least, that’s the way I play him. Like — I’m trying to think of parts in this game — there’s a part where he goes into this underground bunker, and he meets somebody who’s waiting for the mafia to get her out of the city.

Nate: Yeah, I know what you’re referring to.

Elias: Yeah, and there’s all these choices. Basically, he can say, “Well, fuck you, I don’t care. I’m stopping this operation.” You know, that’s a valid choice if that’s your choice. My choice — not as the actor, but as the player — was, “Alright, I understand. I’m going to help get you out of here.” And then I figure out a way to get her out, to get her to the train to get her where she needs to go — even at the expense of being “cool.”

Because in that scene, in particular, you kind of have to say, “No, you’re the boss,” to the Dvali family. “It’s fine, I’m going to leave.” You know? And that’s actually a very different way of playing him. To most people, Jensen’ll be like, “Eh, I’m just going to punch this Dvali thug,” and then figure it out afterward. But that’s not necessarily always the case.

Nate: Those choices — and there are even more subtle personal ones, in that scenario alone — have riled some people up. There’s been a lot of contention. There are actually some prominent critics from certain corners, saying it’s “problematic” for any video game to allow you to make the “wrong” decisions. What do you think?

Elias: Oh, I know exactly who you’re talking about. But unless you just want to play Pong or Pac-Man for the rest of your life… Games, now especially, are becoming on par with movies, in terms of the messages they can deliver.

Nate: Some have argued that they’re even better, and I tend to agree. Participation, agency, is a uniquely powerful thing.

Elias: There’s definitely an argument to be made that they’re more powerful. But to me, even a great movie that brings a message — even if it’s pop culture, something like The Dark Knight, a movie buried in a million different social messages — it’s not just about humanity and choices; it’s about a guy dressed up as a bat, fighting a clown.

So, games — I don’t like this idea of, “Well, you’re a video game, so you can’t have a moral code,” or “You can’t present the player with moral choices, because you’re just a game. You can’t challenge a moral code, or examine social issues.” That kind of drives me crazy. I was just at PAX the other day, and a young black guy stood up to ask a question, and he said to me, “One thing I love about this game is that it’s echoing our present day, even to the point where Jensen is talking to the police about how they’re treating the augmented.”

And essentially my response to that was, “That’s great. That’s great that you feel that, and that you see that.” The great thing about this game is that it’s presenting a world, but you meet all sorts of different people with all sorts of different ways that they act in this world, including you, who can act all sorts of different ways. The choices are there for you to make, for you to see the world however you want. But we give you this world that has problems, and yeah, there are moral quandaries, there’s social injustice, there’s corruption — there’s everything that we’re living with now. The idea that we shouldn’t put that in a game — I don’t even understand the reasoning behind it — because it’s “just a game” or because it’s “unfair?” I just don’t get the reasoning behind it.

Nate: In my review, I said that Deus Ex treats its players like adults. It’s something I’ve always appreciated about the franchise. Force-feeding players whatever is the popular definition of the “right” message is just another form of indoctrination. Games have the potential to present you with situations, and allow you to examine them critically. I can’t understand how giving people the ability to interact with those things in a “safer” virtual environment is anything but good.

Elias: Right. I mean, I see what he’s saying, but there are consequences to every action you make, especially in Mankind Divided. You can choose to ignore the plight of augmented people, you can choose not to — one part I love in the game, is that you can walk up to somebody in Golem City and they’re begging you for Neuropozyne. You don’t need it, so you can do the “right thing” in my mind, which is give it to them. But you could also say, “I might need this later, and I have a bigger mystery to solve,” and choose that. I guess if you view that second choice as wrong, you might think that the game shouldn’t be allowed to promote that second choice, if you follow me.

Nate: In which case you have taken away the lesson itself. Without agency, there’s no impact. If there’s no choice to be made there, it’s just something you’re watching happen. Instead, you have the opportunity to participate.

Elias: If you make the wrong choice — that guy, he said something about in the last game, you can do terrible things, and you never get consequences. But there are a ton of consequences in the game; when you choose to do something, there’s a point where all of your power is ripped out from you, and you have to figure out how to go on with no augs, or your augs malfunctioning. There’s a million different consequences for a million different choices. In fact, that’s the best thing about these games is that there’s consequences for every choice.

Nate: And, honestly, not all of the consequences for negative action are negative. But isn’t that a whole lot like the world we live in?

Elias: Yeah, that’s the thing, man. Do you want a game that will only give you the choice to do something right? And then it makes it a boring game. It becomes just another version of Mega Man. Not that Mega Man‘s boring — I love it. But it can’t be anything more. Whereas, the great thing about games like The Witcher and Deus Ex, you make choices that could be construed as wrong, or that you justify to yourself. That makes it much more interesting.

Nate: It’s also virtually impossible to know how every possible player will interpret a choice they’re being given. Some choices may seem pretty obvious, but personal experience can really influence how you perceive a situation. I admire games that force you to make hard calls. Games like Mankind Divided, that don’t shy away from allowing you to make very bold statements about the police versus ARC activists? Those are complex, relevant issues. There are very grey areas. They force you to think, to evaluate your personal ethics. To me that’s not problematic, it’s essential.

Elias: Right! That’s what games can be now. I mean otherwise, you can play another Call of Duty. You make a moral judgement at the beginning that: “I’m going to kill everybody.” So, why can’t you make moral judgments that are varied in a game? I mean, let’s be honest: you could go into any city in Deus Ex and just kill everybody. You could just go through the city, and hope you’ll survive when the cops come after you. Just kill every civilian, and every cop, until the city’s empty. In fact, I might try that. [laughs]

Nate: Just to see if you can make it?

Elias: Just to see what happens! I’ll bet nobody’s going to talk to you after. Anybody you meet to pass a mission will be afraid of you; nobody’s going to want to deal with you. The cops are going to be shooting at you. I accidentally, when I was still trying to learn the controls — because I’ve been playing Rainbow Six Siege so much — I stabbed a citizen in the throat.

It was just an accident. And then I died almost instantly because all the cops converged on me, and everybody starts shooting me, and everybody else was panicking. There are consequences for the choices you make in the game.

Nate: There’s been a lot of furor over just raw terminology — Augs Lives Matter, Mechanical Apartheid — people who feel like you can’t even talk about those things. But science fiction — you mentioned Heinlein, earlier…

Elias: Yeah, if you think about the Starship Troopers, it’s a book about fascism. And there are two main things that people talked about. The “mechanical apartheid” usage, and the “Aug Lives Matter” — I get the “Aug Lives Matter” thing. Maybe it’s too on the nose? I don’t think so, but I could see why people might think that, if you see what I’m saying.

Nate: It’s definitely a sensitive subject. I understand that referencing something directly, like apartheid or Black Lives Matter, or any of this, could be a sore point. There’s a lot of emotion associated with it right now, because of things that have happened. But I would actually argue that it’s an even better reason to address it, unless games are just going to be relegated to children.

Elias: Well, that’s the thing, right? It’s like, do you want some games to be mature, to be for adults? And aside from Leisure Suit Larry, games weren’t really made for adults for a long time.

Nate: [laughs] Very true. That’s… quite an example.

Elias: Yeah, it’s very… esoteric. [laughs] Anyway, because these games are now so expensive and so vast, you can make bold choices in terms of what you’re trying to say. And even if the Aug Lives Matter thing might be on the nose, the mechanical apartheid concept — it’s like, I get that “apartheid” is more or less tied to South Africa, but the word “apartheid,” much like the word “holocaust”… like, it’s a word. Apartheid is exactly what is happening in the world of Mankind Divided. And, so to get mad at that? I never got it. I just thought, “Well, that’s what it is! That’s what’s happening.”

Nate: Right. You also have a history in real life of new movements calling back to old movements.

Elias: Of course.

Nate: Current racial conversations are still calling back to the “I Have A Dream” speech. It makes sense that within a sci-fi universe that the augmented-rights protesters of the future would draw from the current day. They’d pull from their history. My impression was that, if anything, using that language was a way of saying that what’s going on now is important. That it has had lasting effect. Does that make sense?

Elias: Yeah, I know exactly what you’re saying.

Nate: But, that brings me to another question: Let’s say this future actually takes place. Would you get Jensen-style augmentation? Arms, legs, heart replaced?

Elias: I don’t know if I’d go with the full one, but who doesn’t want to be able to punch through walls?

Nate: Right?

Elias: I don’t know what I’d actually do with it. I think if I could get the dermal armor he has in the new game, I would probably do it, then go fight crime. [laughs] I’d honestly do it; I’d become a vigilante. I’d become like Batman. I would probably do it. [laughs] I mean, if you could do all the stuff that Jensen could do and — for all intents and purposes, could make yourself invincible — then why not?

Nate: Even if you had to deal with things like Neuropozyne, and “rejection syndrome?”

Elias: That’s the great thing about the last game was that the rejection syndrome with the Neuropozyne is of course because the Neuropozyne is government controlled. So, they control the people and all that kind of conspiracy stuff. So… no. You know, knowing what I know, obviously I’d want to keep away from it. But if I was Jensen and I didn’t need Neuropozyne, then hell, I’d do it in a second.

Nate: [laughs] Yeah. Before you have to go, would you like to share anything? About your experience, or working with Eidos Montreal? Open mic. Go for it.

Elias: I mean, they’re a great team. What I really appreciated about them is when they asked me to come back, I had like contract requests, like things I wanted. I wanted to make sure that I performance captured all the scenes, because I didn’t in Human Revolution, I only did some. I wanted a pay raise, of course, like anybody would. But one thing I asked was that they include the first four actors names in the opening credits, and they included the first nine.

I really liked that, I really appreciated it. It’s hard, man, because a lot of video games — this is understandable, what I’m about to say — but a lot of video games kind of mix the actor in with the entire rest of the crew, because there’s just so many of them. So, I get it. The only real difference is that once the game is out, for lead characters you know, you are going out there promoting the game.

More often than not — of course some people want to meet the devs and the writers and stuff like that — but more often than not, people want to meet the characters. So, you do kind of go out there and promote the game. Plus, your voice, or face, and body are all over the game, so the idea that you get credit upfront is something that seems obvious in movies, but in games it’s harder and harder to get credit for actors. So the fact that they did that was great, I really appreciated that.

Nate: It’s been great speaking with you. Thanks for taking the time for this conversation. Hopefully we haven’t heard the last from Adam Jensen yet. Mankind Divided suggests that there are many more stories to tell.

Follow Nate Church @Get2Church on Twitter for the latest news in gaming and technology, and snarky opinions on both.


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