NME presents this article in partnership with Captain Morgan.
all this week, NME is partnering with Captain Morgan to tear down the walls between gaming and the real world, making TV star Sam Thompson’s dreams come true by turning him into the main character of his own game (albeit one that has to do whatever Teddy Soares tells him). You can follow that story on Captain Morgan’s Instagram, but Sam and Teddy won’t be the first public figures to bridge the gap from real-life to the digital world. Celebrities have dabbled in games for many years, with varying results. Pour yourself a Captain Morgan and Cola and enjoy this occasionally toe-stubbing trip down memory lane.
Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City (1995)
Video games are about as mainstream as it gets these days, but back in the mid-90s they were still widely derided as toys for geeks, and celebrity tie-ins were generally limited to games based on movies. But it turns out basketball players were more enlightened than the masses. Shaq Fu (1994) saw the eponymous NBA legend going toe to toe with enemies in a full-blown fighting game (albeit a mediocre one), while Barkley Shut Up and Jam (1994) was a sports title that lent rather more aggressively into its cover star’s on-court personality.
In gaming as in real life, however, MJ was the standout. Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City was a 2D platform game — as ubiquitous in the 16-bit era as openworld games are today — in which Jordan had to rescue his team-mates after they were abducted from a charity basketball match and trussed up at locations around Chicago. “Chaos in the Windy City plays well,” Frank O’Connor wrote in Super Play magazine, awarding the game 83% “The game is huge, [with] lots of levels and sublevels, and plenty of variety between them. The Jordan sprite is smooth and fluid, with plenty of character. You don’t need to like basketball or Michael Jordan to enjoy this. You just have to enjoy platform games.”
Acting royalty in Elder Scrolls (2006-2011)
Bethesda Softworks, these days part of the Xbox family of studios (mind you, who isn’t), creates enormous role-playing games in which players are expected to completely ignore the main story in favour of travelling the world exploring disparate communities of freaks, geeks and Machiavellian guilds. They really are whatever kind of game you want to make of them, which is why fans are often happy to overlook extraordinary, game-breaking glitches (the PS3 version of Skyrim can become literally unplayable thanks to a memory bug) and prefer them to endless follow-the-marker competitors.
As free a rein as they give you, though, they all generally begin with a tight, story-driven introductory chapter, and these opening tranches have a curious habit of luring A-grade talent into service. In 2006’s Oblivion, which helped popularise the Elder Scrolls games among console owners, the player is freed from captivity and set on an adventure by Jean-Luc Picard himself, Sir Patrick Stewart, who portrays Emperor Uriel Septim VII.
Then in 2011’s world-conquering Skyrim — a game so popular that is still being played and re-released on new hardware over a decade later — Bethesda added Max von Sydow, Christopher Plummer and Joan Allen to the glittering list of stars on its call sheet. It remains to be seen who will feature in the upcoming Starfield. How about a bit of Space Captain Jack Nicholson?
Princess Anna in Assassin’s Creed (2007)
These days she’s a global star thanks to the Frozen movies and The Good Place, among other things, but back in the heady days of 2007, Kristen Bell was probably best known as Veronica Mars. For PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 owners, however, she would become a regular presence as one of the ragtag band of rebels working alongside Desmond Miles to bring down the Templars in the Assassin’s Creed series.
Her character, Lucy Stillman, was one of the first people players encountered in the original Abstergo facility where Miles was being held and forced to experience the past life of his ancestor, Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad. Stillman was undercover as an Abstergo operative and was pivotal in breaking Miles out at the end of the first game. She then returned for Assassin’s Creed II, where the series really found its legs, and the peak of that early era, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Given the messiness of the meta story around those opening games, Bell was something of an emotional anchor for the series, and it’s a shame she and the creators were unable to take the character forward.
Fable III (2010)
By the time of its third instalment in 2010, Lionhead Studios‘ Fable series had developed a reputation for taking the straight-faced, reverent storytelling of western fantasy role-playing games and sieving it through a very British sense of humour, and to great acclaim: Fable II, released in 2008, was one of the year’s highest-rated games of any description.
The series had always made use of recognisable British names in voice roles, but its growing success helped widen its appeal, and the highly anticipated Fable III was able to bring in stars from across the British film and television landscape. These included Academy Award winner Sir Ben Kingsley (Schindler’s List, Sexy Beast) and nine-time Olivier Award nominee Zoë Wanamaker (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Agatha Christie’s Poirot) and comedian John Cleese (Monty Python). There were also stars who would grow in stature over years after the game came out, including Naomie Harris, who is probably most familiar to modern audiences as Eve Moneypenny in the Daniel Craig-fronted James Bond movies.
Call of Duty: infinite cameos (2010 onwards)
Conceived as a counterpunch to Electronic Arts‘ dominant Medal of Honour series, Call of Duty had always been the action-packed Hollywood take on warfare, but once the game gathered serious momentum with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007, it started adding acting talent to match the calibre of its set-piece pyrotechnics.
The developers stacked each game with recognisable talent, often sourced from major TV series that would be familiar to gaming fans and the wider world. For Call of Duty: Black Ops III, for example, players were represented by Ben Browder (Stargate SG-1, Farscape) if they chose a male protagonist and Abby Brammell (Six Feet Under, The Shield) as a female character, and the ensemble cast around them included the likes of Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica), while NFL running back Marshawn Lynch made a cameo as a mercenary. The series has moved away from high-profile casting in recent years as it has lost ground to games like Fortnite in the public consciousness and pivoted to more serious narratives for World War II and Vanguard. But for a time there, a Call of Duty role was a mark of honour for the average burgeoning Hollywood CV.
Kojima and friends in Death Stranding (2019)
Outside of games, the name “Hideo Kojima” probably doesn’t mean all that much, but to the average person who grew up with a PlayStation or Xbox around the house, it is a name that commands attention, if nothing else. As Hollywood star Mads Mikkelsen put it in an interview with GQ, “My son is a big gamer, and when he heard I was having a meeting with Hideo, he was like, ‘Daaaaaaaad!’ It was like the coolest thing he’d ever heard. Never mind all the films that I’ve done that I thought he’d find cool. This was the coolest thing.”
That call — along with a word in his ear from regular collaborator Nicolas Winding Refn — was enough to convince Mikkelsen he should star in 2019’s bizarre and brilliant Death Stranding, in which a courier tries to rebuild connections across a haunted American landscape in which people have locked themselves down underground. Eerily prophetic in its depiction of couriers as the lifeblood of society — the game arrived just months before the global pandemic — it also saw Kojima enlist Norman Reedus for the bridge-building courier role, a character called, somewhat improbably, Sam Porter Bridges.
Reedus’ description of working on the game is exactly the sort of things one would expect working with Hideo Kojima to entail. “A lot of times it was just me and Hideo,” he told The Hollywood Reporter, as he reflected on the job. “He would have a plastic baby doll on the ground and want me to cradle it and act like it’s dead, then act like it’s alive. Then freak out because there’s handprints everywhere. You stand up and he goes, ‘Imagine there’s a thousand dead whales in front of you.'”
Yep. Hideo Kojima. We hope he never changes.
Keanu Reeves is breathtaking in Cyberpunk (2020)
Cyberpunk isn’t exactly the feelgood story of video games in the last few years, having launched to critical indifference drowning under a sea of glitches that its creators have yet to completely resolve. Having ridden to giddy heights on the back of The Witcher 3, it was a pretty big fall from grace for the developer, CD Projekt RED. At least it had the smiling eyes of Keanu Reeves to stare into while they contemplated their situation.
Cinematic legend and internet darling Keanu Reeves, of course, was a brilliant bit of casting as Johnny Silverhand, the war veteran turned iconic rock star whose memories become dangerously entangled with those of the player character, V, and one of the few bright spots in an otherwise gloomy story for Cyberpunk 2077.
But perhaps his best Cyberpunk moment actually came months before the game’s release. Taking the stage for a press conference at E3, the industry trade show, Reeves giggled through his pitch for the game until he read a line about how the feeling of being there in Night City was breathtaking. Someone in the audience yelled, “You’re breathtaking!” Without a moment’s thought, an animated Reeves fired back: “No, you’re breathtaking! You’re all breathtaking!” Anyone who wasn’t already eating out of his hand, certainly was after that.
This feature is brought to you thanks to our partnership with Captain Morgan. Join us all this week to see how NME and Captain Morgan are taking gaming from URL to IRL.