Yuffie Kisaragi, the beloved ninja from Final Fantasy VII, was the very first role Suzie Yeung read for and booked after arriving in Los Angeles. “It’s honestly one of the best things that’s ever happened to me,” she says. “If I’m being honest, just to be able to read for her was mind blowing to me.”
Watching her roommates play Final Fantasy VII Remake, she thought it was an incredible game that she’d love to be a part of, even in the smallest way. So to read for Yuffie in the game’s much-anticipated update, much less get the part, was an incredible milestone in a journey she’d started a few years before.
Yeung didn’t play the original Final Fantasy VII on PlayStation, but did know some related media. Her first game in the series was Final Fantasy X, and from there, she played Final Fantasy XII as well the Kingdom Hearts series. Playing that franchise as well as watching Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children would be her introduction to Yuffie.
Griffin Puatu, the voice of Intergrade’s Zhijie, had a similar entry point. He also played Final Fantasy X after experiencing Final Fantasy III on Nintendo DS. Like Yeung, he didn’t play the original Final Fantasy VII as he didn’t have a system to play it on back then. Being a part of Intergrade was his first venture into the world of Midgar. “It was quite exciting not having too much information going in, so I could kind of experience it for the first time,” says Puatu.
Aleks Le, who voices Yuffie’s partner Sonon Kusakabe, had an altogether different experience with Final Fantasy VII. He grew up in Asia and managed to play an imported English-language copy of the original game even though he didn’t understand the language at the time.
“So imagine American viewers getting a little bit confused by the story,” Le says. “I just had no idea what was going on. But, you know, it was such an iconic title. And it was the first 3D [game] that I had played so it really stuck with me.” He thought Cloud looked cool, and could at the very least tell that the story was wild.
Both Sonon Kusakabe and Zhijie are new characters introduced to the Final Fantasy VII Remake lore through Intergrade, so there aren’t really any previous expectations surrounding them. But that isn’t true for Yuffie, a beloved character who’s already been voiced in various other related media, potentially giving fans expectations about how she should sound.
Yet Puatu, Le, and Yeung all took a similar approach when voicing their respective characters, choosing not to rely on previous performances as reference points.
Puatu says he doesn’t frontload too much of the story or worldbuilding when he prepares for a role, as in many cases, those aspects don’t even come up while recording. Sometimes, it could actually end up being distracting for him. While information about Zhijie and his backstory is comparably sparse at the moment, he notes that fans can expect the very laid back and wisecracking Zhijie to be an interesting and unexpected element in the story.
Because Sonon is also a newcomer, Le isn’t beholden to anyone’s prior expectations, nor is anyone comparing his performances to previous iterations. When he’s in the booth, he doesn’t have to worry about any outside input or influence, which as an actor he finds freeing.
“I think the cool part about that is that [Sonon] is someone that I get to be the reference point for,” he says. “So with this character, I’m able to put in my personal acting style and my acting choices.”
As for Yeung, despite having watched Advent Children and played the Kingdom Hearts series, she actually didn’t reference them when formulating her approach for Yuffie’s voice. She remembers that previous Yuffie performances went in the general direction of being peppy and playful, but Yeung wanted to go into recording with a fresh mindset. “I know that this version of Yuffie would be something that people have never seen before”, she says, “and so I kind of wanted to experience that myself.”
Yuffie and Sonon will play foils to each other with their contrasting personalities. Yuffie is much more teasing and mischievous, while Sonon is generally a very calm, pleasant guy. Sonon trained under Yuffie’s father, and Le feels that Sonon has an obligation to support Yuffie and oversee her not as a guardian, but as a partner who can help her out in sticky situations.
According to Le, their camaraderie proves fun as they play off each other’s energy. He likens it to when you meet a new person for the first time and instantly know that you’re going to click with them even though you’re completely different people.
“I think that allows for a lot of fun, a lot of interesting conversations, and that dynamic is very enriching to somebody’s life,” says Le. Speaking personally, Le knows he can be uptight sometimes, but when he meets someone fun, they can persuade him to do things that he usually wouldn’t.
Yeung views the characters’ relationships in a similar way. In the game’s announcement trailer, Yuffie declares to Sonon, “I’m not your sister.” Yuffie doesn’t want to be seen as just a little kid, but she and Sonon always have each other’s backs. Sonon is the one that joins Yuffie on her quest, and so they have this dynamic of boss and subordinate.
“I think Sonon just sort of gives [Yuffie] the benefit of the doubt and calls her boss, just to make her happy,” says Yeung. “She’s like, ‘Oh, well, thanks. You know, I am the boss!’ So I think that’s a very playful sibling-like relationship there. I’ve always kind of wanted an older brother. It’s kind of like, how would I act? If I had an older brother, I would poke fun at him a lot or something like that.”
Yeung and Le actually didn’t have any immediate sibling relationships to draw inspiration from for their roles. Le says, “I only have a half brother, who I don’t keep in touch with. So for me, it was kind of hard to step into the role of being a brother and all.”
Zhijie’s voice actor, Puatu, had originally planned on becoming a computer science major in college, but realized he didn’t feel particularly excited about the subject. Acting and performing, on the other hand, had been a life-long passion, so he ended up pursuing voice acting instead.
“My parents had some skepticism, not over ability, merely stability,” he says. “It didn’t seem to be a straightforward career to them, and they were absolutely right.”
Yet with some convincing and some early successes in his voice acting journey, his parents soon became more enthusiastic about his novel career choice. Puatu now has some impressive voice work under his belt, including roles in games like Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, River City Girls, and Subnautica: Below Zero, as well as the Netflix series Beastars.
Growing up, Yeung enjoyed cartoons and video games, and was captivated by how voice actors could change their voices to become whoever they wanted to be. “I wanted to sort of pursue it as a hobby,” she says. “But you know, Asian standards and expectations! The family’s like, ‘Oh, no, no, no, you’re not gonna be an actor, like, what is that?’”
The standards Yeung refers to are familiar to many second-generation Asian-American children, including being pressured into going to college, maintaining stable employment, and climbing the corporate ladder.
But after a while working at a more typical full-time job in Boston, Yeung didn’t feel fulfilled. Then Yeung’s company started merging with another, so she was let go. “At that point I was just thinking, I don’t think I will have another opportunity like this,” she says. She’d wanted to pursue voice acting for a while, but between her family’s views and her own self-doubts, she hadn’t tried.
“At the time, I was kind of at a crossroads,” she says. “I was asking myself, do I go back to Boston with my family, and maybe try to find another full-time job?”
In her heart it was a really tough decision, in part because, like many young Asian-American adults, she’d been taught to be averse to risk. Ultimately she decided to start down a new path. After spending a bit of time in Texas to pick up a few smaller voice roles, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue more opportunities in the industry.
Yeung’s family wasn’t thrilled, asking questions like, “What do you mean you’re not moving back with us? What do you mean you’re pursuing an unstable career with no steady income?” But she didn’t want to regret not going for it when she had the opportunity to do so. Despite her lack of experience in the voice acting industry, she wanted to chase her dreams. And if she failed, then at least she would have tried.
Compared to his voice-acting peers, Le had an unusual start in his voice acting career. As an immigrant, he came to the United States around the age of 10, and didn’t speak any English. “It was a huge learning curve for me to be able to learn this language from scratch,” he recalls. “When I moved to America, I knew three words: tiger, chicken, and toilet.”
He didn’t learn much English from hanging out around others who spoke it, which is what many people tend to do when they move to America. Le was a shut-in, and spent much of his time watching cartoons and playing video games, mimicking how characters would talk. Young Le spent a good chunk of a year playing Final Fantasy X and imitating Tidus, the main protagonist.
He also spent countless hours researching and studying movies, film, and voice acting, eventually building up enough confidence to put together his own demo. In time he moved out to Los Angeles, and it’s only over the past two years that he feels like he’s learned how to speak English “properly.”
Le eventually booked one of his biggest roles in the anime Demon Slayer, and poured his heart into the role of Zenitsu. More opportunities sprang from there, and it eventually came full circle when Le was recording for Intergrade and the sound engineer running the session told him how much he enjoyed Le’s turn as Zenitsu.
“Everything is connected. But it all started from nothing,” says Le. “I think that’s what I take the most pride in … that I was able to get here from basically knowing only three words.”
Yuffie, Sonon, and Zhijie are all from the nation of Wutai, which draws inspiration from real-world Asian cultures. Fortunately, the game’s English-language localization cast these characters authentically, meaning that the cultural backgrounds of the voice actors matched closely with the real-world cultures that inspired the fictional backgrounds of the characters they were playing.
And the actors were ready, in part because easier access to recording equipment and to wider exposure via social media have made a huge impact in the voice acting industry. “I think the rapid expansion of technology created this situation where there’s a ton of actors who are ready to just go and play characters authentically,” says Zhijie’s actor, Puatu. He’s glad that fame doesn’t seem to be as much of a hoarded commodity anymore, and that being a voice actor isn’t cordoned off behind a massive recording gear paywall.
In Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Puatu voiced Ganke Lee, Miles’ best friend. “Ganke, in particular, is an Asian-American character with a lot of similarities to my own background, so I didn’t feel overly challenged or out of place trying to approach him,” he says. While Zhijie is a more outlandish character who exists in an RPG fantasy world, Puatu felt similarly about that role. “Approaching [Zhijie] with the fantasy element in mind was really fun as well,” he says, “because you get to explore the cultural element in a different context.”
Puatu also worked on Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon. He had a lot of fun there, as the film takes place in an Asian fantasy world that had similar elements to his own Filipino cultural background.
Le agrees that the increasing push for more diversity in the voice acting industry over the past few years has allowed more actors to accurately jump in and represent characters that are closer to their heritage and personal stories. He says that having a person of color who knows the history is not only a benefit to the production, but also to the fans, as they’re receiving a more authentic portrayal. And he also agrees that the industry is changing for the better.
“The fact that doors have opened up to people of color to be able to even audition for roles that they probably wouldn’t have been able to maybe like a year or so ago, is really huge,” says Yeung. “I think it’s going to have a good impact on the industry and I hope it’s not just a passing trend.” With recent world events such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the spike in anti-Asian hate crimes, as well as the newfound prominence of movements like Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate, she says it’s important now more than ever to recognize that people of color are here to stay and deserve to be heard.
Yeung’s parents aren’t really the type to understand games. When she was a kid, she kept playing her favorite game, Final Fantasy X on PlayStation 2, over and over again. Her mom would walk into the room and say, “What are you playing, Final Fantasy?” To her mom, all video games were Final Fantasy, just like how many older parents thought all game systems were called “Nintendo.”
Recently Yeung showed her mom Intergrade. “I told her, ‘Hey guess what, mom? You know that game I always played back in the day? Well, I’m in it now!’”
Yeung feels like there’s a weight lifted now that her parents, seeing how much happier she is, have started to accept her new career path. Her mom still asks the usual questions, like, “Have you considered that after you have this fun little adventure you could come back and get your Master’s degree?” and “Hey, what if you get another job and just lived [in Boston]?”
“So she would have these little pangs here and there, just trying to convince me,” says Yeung, “but I know that deep down she just wants what’s best for me.”
George Yang is a writer who specializes in video games and culture. His work has appeared in places such as Polygon, USgamer, The Washington Post, and Wired. You can follow him on Twitter at @Yinyangfooey.