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Dirt 5 puts A-list acting in the driver’s seat

Nolan North and Troy Baker’s big collab for 2020 is a ... racing game?

Close up of a driver’s gloved hands on the wheel of a rally car Image: Codemasters

Nolan North and Troy Baker are video gaming’s Boys of November. When you have a holiday window launch, a platform exclusive, a system-selling release, or all of the above, you turn to these guys to bring their jut-jawed heroes and vulnerable everymen to life in the player’s hands.

But in a motorsports game? A mud-slinging rally title like Dirt 5? Yes, that too.

“It’s that very notion, like, ‘Wait a minute, you don’t do this,’” mused Baker, who voices the mentor figure A.J. Janicek in the career mode of Codemasters’ Dirt 5, launching Friday. “No, it’s ‘stick to the driving, make it look good, make people go fast,’ that’s all you need.”

Baker’s right in that the roles offered by driving games usually don’t need the kind of A-list firepower he and North bring (though Baker did star in a racing game, Ubisoft’s The Crew, in 2014). In racers done well — and that’s been Codemasters’ domain for about a decade now — the stars are usually the cars. “People don’t want voices; they want to race,” observed North, who is Dirt 5’s antagonist, Bruno Durand.

“But Codemasters found a way,” North quickly added. “You’re going to get that. You’re going to get all the things you love, and they found an interesting way to tell the story, that doesn’t detract from the fact that you’re in the car. And that’s what appealed to me.”

Dirt 5’s career is another zag in a franchise that’s zigged from hardcore motorsports sim to mass-appeal features over its past four entries. Codemasters’ most direct competitor in rally racing, KT Racing’s officially licensed WRC series, made an unexpected leap in 2019 with a career mode that I thought was the best of the motorsports bunch that year. But WRC mostly stood pat in 2020, while Codemasters is changing up Dirt by implementing a fully acted narrative, which the studio tried, and largely succeeded at, in F1 2019’s career.

In Dirt 5, players will create a driver as they always do, with Baker’s Janicek and North’s Durand as the lenses through which their rookie year is viewed. Janicek is the “good guy,” a top-flight rally driver with a pedigree in the sport, paying it forward to the player character. Durand is not necessarily a “bad guy,” but he is something of a taciturn, demanding artist — North compared him to the New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.

publicity portrait of the actor Troy Baker
Troy Baker
Photo provided by Codemasters

“Especially at the beginning, when this guy’s a jerk, you’re gonna be like ‘I can’t wait to beat him,’” North promised. “It’s not just a faceless driver; it’s not just a car, it’s not just a time that you have to beat. It’s a personality. I think that’s an extra level, I don’t know of any other [motorsports] games that have done that.”

Baker said the character treatment he received from Codemasters rivaled, in length, the background he’s gotten for nearly any other role — and this is the actor who portrayed Joel in The Last Of Us and Talion in the Middle-earth: Shadow series. “It was exhausting,” Baker said, “but I’m not exaggerating. I like what they provided, normally what you get is like, ‘Age, born here.’ This was like, book one, chapter one of a compendium of facts about who he was.”

That included more than just written biographies. “It was also, ‘Here’s a rabbit hole of YouTube clips, this is referring to this specific moment that happened in 1984 that you should be aware of,’” Baker added. “So it was not only information and biographical facts about A.J. it was how things helped shape who he was, the same way you and I are shaped by the events that we live through.”

“I got, I call it a dossier, on my character,” North said. “It was very informative. Typically, a developer will give you something like that, but then there’s a script, but the script and the action, and how they react, usually gives you the clue on how to portray the character. This was completely different; this was, ‘Here’s everything about this guy.’”

It makes sense that Baker and North would get such holistic source material, when you consider the vehicle for their dialogue: a virtual podcast. Most of the acting they do isn’t in a cutscene, or as a voice-over to the gameplay, but as guests on a show hosted by the car culture channel Donut Media. That required conversations that were more top-of-the-mind extemporaneous and authentic, which meant North and Baker would improvise their lines by responding in character. Hence the source material.

promotional still of the actor Nolan North
Nolan North
Image provided by Codemasters

“I look at improv, like, you can’t make a mistake, as long as you’ve done your homework,” North said. “Which I did. You can’t make a mistake when you’re just taking your interpretation of what they’ve told you the character is. So for me, it was such a great opportunity to really be another character, to do what I love to do.”

For Baker, though, playing A.J. allowed him to expand on the kind of emergent scenes that he invents when he plays racing games in his spare time. “There’s my own narrative I’m creating, even if it’s just ‘I’ve failed this race,’ or I’ve placed third or less, six times in a row, and now I’ve created my own Nemesis System,” Baker said (referencing the Middle-earth games’ procedurally generated boss enemies). “It’s just this racetrack. What I think Codemasters did was, they said, ‘What if we give that some structure, and what we want is for the player to have the same level of realism there that we’re giving to the technical qualities of this game.’”

Baker has said one of the most meaningful pieces of character guidance he got is, in the audition for The Last of Us, the writeup from Naughty Dog that told him Joel Miller was a man “with few moral lines left to cross.” After reading that, Baker said, he had a perfect sense of the character he was to deliver. Janicek doesn’t conform easily to pithy descriptions, probably because his conflict is less existential than Miller’s. But he’s the Americanized scion of a rally driving superstar from Eastern Europe, and focusing on the assumptions such a person would live up to helped him complete the picture of A.J. as a father figure, Baker said.

North didn’t approach Durand simply as a heel, or a negative isotope; he says that Durand’s character does make a journey in Dirt 5’s narrative, and players may come to appreciate or admire him, or feel that they’ve earned his respect. He’s just inherently the prickly type, a person who has been misunderstood for so long that he doesn’t see much point in explaining himself to people.

“[Durand is] more like, ‘Are we gonna do this again? I’ve heard your podcast before; I know you don’t like me.’” North said, rolling into character. “‘I know you like A.J., that’s fine, but don’t sit there and start telling people who I am or what I am.’ You know, they just need to know that I’m going to win.”

Dirt 5 launches for PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One on Nov. 6; it launches the next week for Xbox Series X and Series S (on Nov. 10), and PlayStation 5 (Nov. 12).

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