Why Neil Newbon Needs To Win Performer of the Year at the Game Awards
There's something about the pale elf …
No matter what social network you’re on, you can’t get far on the internet these past few months without running into some kind of fan fervor over Astarion, the sharp-tongued (and sharp-toothed!) vampire from Baldur’s Gate 3, voiced by Neil Newbon, who deserves a Game Awards win this year.
This article contains spoilers for Act 3 of Baldur’s Gate 3.
Flirty, witty, and always down to raise a little hell, Astarion’s flirtatious front has turned him into a veritable poster boy of internet thirst—thanks in no small part to a deliciously charismatic voice acting performance from Newbon. But while Astarion’s sex appeal and sense of humor were what initially made him so popular with fans, to write him off as simply a droll pretty boy would be to grossly underestimate both Newbon’s performance and the strength of writer Stephen Rooney’s story.
Though that’s certainly how the character initially presents himself, the game eventually reveals unexpected layers of tragedy and pain, giving way to a beautifully cathartic arc about escaping abuse and overcoming trauma. Certainly, the charisma and gusto with which Newbon imbues Astarion is awards-worthy in its own right, but it’s the moments of of vulnerability, pain, and honesty that are truly what a Performer of the Year win would be recognizing.
When players first meet Astarion Ancunin, he’s literally playing dumb—feigning incompetence and begging for the player’s help in defeating an unseen monster, only to put his knife to our throats at the first chance. Though he may put on the front of an aristocratic dandy, the real Astarion is cunning, shrewd, and (quite literally) cutthroat—the damsel-in-distress fakeout could not be a more perfect introduction that encapsulates Astarion’s strategy for manipulating others and navigating the world.
It takes a few long rests, but it’s quickly revealed in Act One that the reason for (at least some of) Astarion’s initial caginess is that he’s a vampire and is wary of being ousted by the others at camp—hence the act. But between the red eyes, the pale skin, and the visible puncture wounds on his throat, it’s not exactly a difficult reveal to piece together, and his status as a vampire spawn just barely scratches the surface of the character’s trauma.
Astarion isn’t just a vampire spawn—for several hundred years, he’s been the tortured plaything of Cazador, a cruel vampire lord living in Baldur’s Gate 3. In addition to forcing Astarion to eat only rats and regularly having him (and his other vampire “siblings”) tortured, Cazador also forced the spawn to use themselves as literal honeypots, seducing unsuspecting victims and bringing them to Cazador’s door through seduction and manipulation.
It’s a powerful story on its own, but the situation is further complicated for players by the fact that before these revelations, Astarion has been consistently attempting to seduce the player so he can use them as his own personal “blood bag” over the course of their journey. Suddenly, Newbon’s choice to play Astarion as hyper-seductive and ultra-alluring takes on a more tragic angle: It’s not just harmless (slightly excessive) flirtation born of genuine attraction; it’s a defense mechanism Astarion has been forced to use to survive for years.
The heartbreaking reveal isn’t just a powerful character moment and an opportunity for Newbon to flex his dramatic muscles as Astarion recounts his past, but also a way for the game to challenge the player’s preexisting expectations about seductive characters in gaming and unravel the hypersexualized fantasy version of the character that’s (ironically) become so popular online. Should the player choose, you can opt to end your sexual relationship with Astarion once his past is revealed, and offer to move forward simply as friends—Astarion responds with cautious optimism that he’s never had a real friend before.
Though his stinging insults and snarky comebacks make even the most mundane of encounters entertaining, the rawness in Astarion’s voice in moments where he’s forced to shed his carefully-crafted persona and let himself put faith in others is where Newbon shines most. Players witness in real time as he begins to reckon with his trauma and bring his walls down—eventually culminating in Astarion breaking down in screams and sobs after he finally puts an end to Cazador, freeing himself once and for all.
It’s a dizzyingly tall order for any voice actor to be equally as comfortable (and effective) in moments of extreme vulnerability, trauma, and grief as they are delivering cheeky quips and saucy one-liners, but through it all, Newbon is there to wring every last drop of emotion from Rooney’s dialogue. It’s no wonder, then, why have gamers have taken so ardently to the character: Yes, he’s certainly attractive, but it’s his unexpected depth and familiar uncertainty that make him so deeply endearing. Underneath the barbs and veneer is someone utterly broken but learning to heal.
Perhaps more than anything else, though, it’s his genuine love for and understanding of Astarion that makes Newbon’s performance so effective and impactful. As he explained in his Golden Joystick acceptance speech, Newbon relates to the character beyond just bringing him to life as an actor.
“He is a survivor. He has gone through trauma. And I’ve had so many people from the community reach out to me personally to talk about the stories that our characters have also shared, they identify with many stories and characters in the game, and the game’s story itself has really reached them,” Newbon said.
“And people have come up to me and said that they felt inspired to deal with their own trauma. As a survivor myself, I understand when they talk to me about it what they mean.” Through Astarion, Newbon, Rooney, and the rest of the team haven’t just created an iconic video game character: They’ve crafted a poignant, honest, often heartbreaking but ultimately cathartic and hopeful exploration of what it looks like to confront your past head-on and come out stronger for it.
(featured image: Larian Studios)
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