You’d be forgiven for admitting that you don’t normally load up a racing game to seek out narrative-focused campaigns filled with AAA voice talent and world-building, but Codemasters is poised to change your mind with the story and career mode of their upcoming off-road racer, Dirt 5. And to prove they’re taking it seriously, they’ve brought on two of gaming’s most prolific voice actors, Troy Baker and Nolan North, to bring life to some of the mode’s most important characters.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with both actors and learn more about their respective roles and the type of narrative experience players can expect when diving into Dirt 5 this month. What I quickly caught onto is that these two are equally adamant that the immense level of detail that has been put into both the story and characters ensures that it rises far above the normal background noise we’re all accustomed to in similar titles.
That being said, they made it clear to me that the story elements aren’t oppressive, either, as the tale takes place via podcasts and radio chatter while you’re working through your career. This frees up those who may be more interested in overlooking the overarching narrative in favor of just racing, of course, but North also promises such a manner of delivery affords players with the chance to get to know the characters in a more candid and moment-to-moment manner than more obtrusive scripted scenes.
“I listen to podcasts exclusively in the car, so you know, I get to know whether it’s Joe Rogan – or whatever you’re listening to – and hearing things, and you can picture them. You can see these people. But it’s not detracting from the fact that I’m driving a car or doing something.”
“I think it was just an interesting way to not detract from the people who go ‘I just want to race’ to ‘Okay, that’s kind of interesting.’ You’re getting to know about the other racers. You’re getting to know about the guy you really want to beat. It makes it a little more personal. I think it helps immerse the player – the racer – just another level deeper.”
Of course, Baker and Nolan are long-time friends who aren’t strangers to starring together in some of gaming’s most beloved titles – sometimes as companions and other times as characters who find themselves morally opposed. Codemasters opted to go with the latter this time, pitting them against one another in a captivating rivalry. Baker plays the player character’s mentor Alex “AJ” Janicek, who will help you throughout your career to stay focused and offer advice, while North takes on the antagonist role as Bruno Durand, a well-established racer with a penchant for being unlikeable and whom you really want to beat on the track.
But the two veteran actors are well aware that their characters need to be compelling and engage you in a way that makes you care about the stakes in a genre that isn’t known for gripping plots. That’s why they shared with me just how in awe they are of how Codemasters designed Dirt 5 with such incredibly detailed character biographies for a racing game, and they seem equally shocked by how much freedom was granted to them to take those backstories and use them to create the podcasts with unscripted dialogue.
Speaking on the subject, North said,
“There was no script for this. There was this character bible of who this character was – his achievements, his likes, his dislikes, and his failures. And then we played it with all of that information in mind.”
Baker echoed those same sentiments, praising Codemasters for giving him the ability to embody AJ with much of his own interpretations of the character’s history,
“I found a studio to partner with that allowed me to participate in the creation of this character that they had worked really, really hard and exhaustively to create. And they did so by providing me a lot of information. So by the time I showed up to the session, it was not about ‘Give me some some backstory, or give me some biography about this person.’ It was more about ‘Okay, how does this specific thing that happened to AJ or this specific biographical fact about him speak to this specific situation that we’re now creating in this story?'”
Having portrayed so many emotionally complex roles over the years, Baker also understands how important it is for players to feel a kinship with a supporting character. He knows the mentor trope has been played out in every medium for decades, but he’s positive that AJ’s extensive backstory and integration into your career will give you reasons to genuinely care about his life journey, his wisdom, and his friendship.
“First of all, you have to understand why he’s your mentor because, if you’ve never met this guy, you’re like ‘Why the hell should I listen to you? You know just as much about this sport as I do!’ So we have to establish why he’s going to be the voice of authority – more than just a talking HUD that’s telling you how you should drive.
What we don’t want to do is take something that really required a lot of attention to detail, a lot of resources, a lot of time, a lot of money to create and have someone just go ‘Didn’t care about it.’
So there was a lot of focus that went into ‘Why is AJ of all people the one that’s coaching you through your career?’ Because if you just played as AJ, we’ve seen that before. What this is doing is basically reverse engineering. Here’s your mentor, and here’s why he’s your mentor. Here’s the obstacles that he met and how he overcame those or used those obstacles not to impede his action but to actually cause his action. So when you’re playing your career, you’re kind of thinking in the back of your mind ‘What would AJ do?’”
Meanwhile, North clearly had a lot of fun playing an antagonist in such an open-ended way, but he doesn’t want players to go in expecting him to be an ominous villain. He, too, believes that layered character development will help you discover a better understanding of what made Bruno arrogant and withdrawn. And he hopes that by the end of Dirt 5, you’ll see the character in an entirely new light.
“He’s the antagonist of the story, but he’s not the villain. He’s definitely the guy you want to get on the track and beat his ass, to which he would say ‘Good luck, but probably not going to happen.
A lot of times he’s very abrupt. You know, he doesn’t like the media – he shies away from it. Bruno’s like ‘Race, go home, train for the next race.’ He’s the kind of guy who would drive into his gated compound of a house, shut the gates, and you have no idea what goes on back there.
But through the course of it, you get to know his humanity a little bit more and see that he’s just a different personality. And he has an arc of where, hopefully, you don’t like him, but then you’re like ‘Oh, actually, he’s not a bad guy, and I kind of admire him.'”
Thanks to their adoration for their characters and the passionate outpouring of love for Codemasters’ ambitious new ideas, I walked away from my chats with Baker and North feeling confident that they’ve brought their A-game to Dirt 5 and its story mode. With five chapters, branching paths, and 130 total events available at launch, I’m also sure that there will be plenty for racing fans of all types to enjoy regardless of their interest in the game’s larger narrative. At this point, it really does seem like the best of both worlds, and I’m interested to see what kind of traction this new direction gains with racing enthusiasts.
We’ll know for sure when Dirt 5 launches on November 6th on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. And of course, you can look forward to upgrading to the Xbox Series S/X and PlayStation 5 versions free of charge on November 10th and 12th, respectively.