Living in a foreign land, surrounded by people she could barely communicate with, Stefanie Joosten was lonely.
She had travelled to Japan on an exchange program with university, moving to Kyoto for a year before heading back to the Netherlands to get her bachelor's degree. For the first few months of that year in Kyoto, Joosten was completely isolated.
“I wasn’t able to speak Japanese very well yet, when I was in Kyoto,” the Metal Gear Solid 5 actor tells me. “And there was also the Kyoto dialect, and I really struggled to communicate with people, or [I would] have these experiences of feeling left out.”
She didn’t know it yet, but years later, when she would return to Japan - this time the bustling metropolis of Tokyo - she would draw from this experience to perform a role in a video game that would change her life forever.
“I was raised in the southern part of the Netherlands,” Joosten explains of her background. “Not a very small town, but kind of a rural area. So I was raised there, went to high school, and during high school I developed a passion for Japanese culture. And I was really into - well, it mostly came from me growing up playing Japanese games, and I was a bit of a geek, so that was my first thing that got me in touch with Japanese culture. And I was just really fascinated by it, and I wanted to learn the language. I went on to major in Japanese studies in college.”
When Joosten went to Tokyo for part of her master’s degree, she ended up working with a talent agency, recommended to her by a classmate who was working as a part-time model. She fell into modelling from there, but she never saw it as a career initially.
“So I basically got into that, viewing it as a part-time job,” Joosten says. “But afterwards it became my main job. I got big commercial assignments for brands like Panasonic and Nikon, Canon, McDonald’s, and things were just going really well. So I was already thinking of staying in Japan.
“I was kind of naïve, and I wasn’t really thinking too much about what I wanted to do, because my ambition was learning Japanese and going to Japan. I loved it in Japan, and I really, really wanted to live there. So I was still searching for what I wanted to do. But it was still kind of a secret ambition I always had, to become a model and actress later on, but growing up in the Netherlands I never really considered it to be realistic. Yes, somehow growing up in a smaller town, I just never really thought that was - I just never really chased that dream.”
Then, just as her year in Tokyo was about to end, the agency asked Joosten to audition for a role in a video game. She didn’t know it at the time, but that video game was Metal Gear Solid 5 and the role was Quiet, a mute assassin who can shoot a moving target from 500 metres. If it wasn’t for Metal Gear Solid 5, she would have moved back to her hometown.
The first audition was just for someone to be 3D-scanned, to lend their likeness to Quiet while someone else did the performance capture. But she was called back shortly after to audition for the performance capture as well, tackling the game’s opening scene in which Quiet attempts to assassinate Venom Snake in the hospital. She was also asked to take hold of a replica sniper rifle and pretend to infiltrate an enemy base, using makeshift props for cover off the cuff. She got the part.
“There were many briefing days, when all the actors would be gathered and we would go through the whole script, we could ask any questions, and Hideo Kojima would explain all about the story and the relationships between the characters,” Joosten remembers. “And we were shown concept art, because at that stage there was nothing 3D-wise, it was still the concept art. And I got some training sessions as well, to prepare for, well, to actually be able to portray Quiet as a professional. It was important to them that she looked really confident with her weapon, and, yes, just really like a cold-blooded professional.”
Over the three years of filming, Joosten got to know game director Kojima well. Flipping her original experience of Japan on its head - that sense of isolation - here she had an advantage over many of her English-speaking co-stars: she could communicate fluently with Kojima in his native tongue. This helped Joosten get more input about Quiet’s background, relationships, and motivations. She recalls her time with Kojima positively, calling him a “dedicated” director who was always “participating in every part of the motion capture”.
“It was just really cool, going through the whole story, and especially since we were working on it over a long period of time, and we also did most of the scenes in chronological order,” Joosten says. “I just really, really got into the story, and it was great working with the other motion capture actors. I just remember, the last scene we took in motion capture, when Quiet saves Venom Snake, that was actually really emotional. I remember feeling so sad, and then it was just so bittersweet having that as my last day of motion capture. It was just really beautiful.”
Despite her having the advantage of speaking fluent Japanese, there was one scene in particular where Joosten struggled with the direction, trying to parse what Kojima wanted her to do. It’s a scene a fair bit into the game, where Venom Snake and Quiet return to Mother Base as it begins to rain. Quiet starts dancing.
“At first, the way it was written in the script, I didn’t really understand it very well, but during rehearsals Mr Kojima really explained it to me really well, and what way I should portray it,” Joosten recalls. “For him, it was a really deep scene. It was about Quiet constantly being bullied at Mother Base. The situation she was in, it was actually really hard for her not being able to speak, and feeling so isolated, and not feeling accepted. And it was at that time, when it’s raining, and nobody’s outside, she was with Venom Snake, who was the only person that she was able to trust at that point. It’s her having a moment of finally feeling free for just a moment. It’s just her enjoying the moment, and feeling that freedom, and really bonding with Snake. I thought that was really beautiful, actually.”
Joosten says performing it was a lot of fun, working alongside her co-star, Eric Brown. When you’re working on a performance capture volume, not only do you have tight-fitting motion capture suits on and cameras strapped to your head, you also have to use a bit of imagination. Makeshift boxes become vehicles and buildings, and there’s no way to simulate water for the actors. For the dancing scene, Brown and Joosten twirled around each other, splashing pretend water into each other’s faces.
“I think for every character that you play, you draw something from yourself and your own experiences,” Joosten says. “I feel, for Quiet, the sense of isolation, her loneliness, I drew that from thinking back of when I first got to Japan.”
You see, Quiet is a mute. She meets Venom Snake as an antagonist, is defeated in battle, and joins his crew as an outsider. Because she can’t speak, nobody trusts her. She’s on the fringes of this private army, just like how Joosten herself was initially on the fringes of Japanese society, trying to break through a social barrier. But how does Joosten feel about the stranger parts of Quiet’s character? After all, this is a character who wears barely any clothes - something justified by the story as her breathing through her skin.
“Well, I feel like the people that are sexualising Quiet, or people that feel offended, or at least are negative about it, it’s mostly people who haven’t played the game,” Joosten says. “I feel like all the responses I got from people that played the game, I saw that they looked beyond that, and they see the character for who she is. And I thought that was really fascinating, because it’s understandable that with her design, it draws attention to her sexual image. But I was really content with the character, I think she was very layered. I think if you actually get into the story, you’ll see beyond her being sexualised.”
Mother Base acts as your main hub in Metal Gear Solid 5, and you head out on missions by calling in a helicopter. From there, you can choose a companion to join you on the next mission. Whoever you choose, they join you in the helicopter, which acts as a loading area between missions. If Quiet joins you, she sometimes sits opposite you and looks out the window. Sometimes, she leans into the cockpit, bending forwards, or suggestively stretches across the bench she’s sat on. I can’t help but wonder how Joosten feels about these moments.
“I feel like it’s part of Metal Gear,” she replies. “It’s fanservice. And I was told, you know, only people that have maximised the bond with Quiet will see those scenes. So it’s kind of special, it’s just fanservice.”
The thing that really took Joosten out of her comfort zone was another bit of fanservice. Not only was she asked to wholly portray the character, but she also ended up singing her character’s theme - something Joosten had never had professional experience with before. After the game came out, she also performed it live to an audience of millions at The Game Awards.
“That’s the biggest stage I’ve ever been on in my life, so that was a very special experience, but I was really nervous,” Joosten remembers. “It was quite late in development that they had this idea of implementing a theme song for Quiet, and it was mostly to add something special to Quiet’s character. Something to give the fans closure, I think, to the ending of her story arc. So that was a really cool idea. The way I was told, they ideally wanted me to sing it, and we did some tests on my vocal range, seeing if I’d be able to do it. I was told it was mostly about being really emotional. I didn’t even have to see it as singing, more like I was telling her story, just musically. But I didn’t have to be a professional singer to do it. With that approach, I was pretty comfortable doing it.”
It was an experience that has helped to shape Joosten’s career going forward as well. She’s currently working on a VR game called Last Labyrinth, coming out this October. It’s an escape room-esque game where Joosten plays a 12-year-old called Katia. Katia speaks a fictional language - one Joosten helped create with developer Amata - and helps to guide the player, who is in a wheelchair, through the puzzles. Joosten also sings the theme tune in the same fictional language.
Elsewhere, Joosten is playing a Martian cultist called Sööma in Spacelords, a game where she gets to actually speak in English. She doesn’t sing on this one, though. “She’s a very interesting character,” Joosten says. “So she grew up in this religious cult, where they worship this entity they call the Great Worm, Fëhb, it’s called. And basically they have a power that they can relieve others from suffering and pain. So she’s just super dedicated to her beliefs. She’s just so full of empathy, and sees it as her duty to relieve others of pain. It’s all honouring the Great Lord of the Sand, as she calls it.”
In pushing through her loneliness, through the silence, Joosten found her true voice as a video game actor. We haven’t seen the last of her yet.