Speaking Out: On Voice Direction

By John Walker on May 24th, 2010 at 11:32 am.

Actors, in a studio, recording voices!

As a fan of narrative-led games, there’s one subject that I’ve never taken for granted: voice direction. Which led me to wonder why so many games companies apparently do. Why do so many games have perfectly decent actors struggling with scripts, lines delivered with completely incorrect intonations, and conversations between characters which couldn’t sound more disjointed? Something as simple as this can change the tone of a game, reducing a big-budget epic to sounding like a junior school play.

A few months back for PC Gamer I investigated voice direction by speaking to those who get it right. I spoke to LucasArts’ David Collins, responsible for directing Monkey Island, FunCom’s Ragnar Tørnquist about creating April Ryan and casting The Secret World, and 2K voice director Jack Scalici who is responsible for the enormous voice cast of Mafia II. I also spoke to two of the most respected voice actors. Dominic Armato is the voice of Guybrush Threepwood, and Sarah Hamilton plays April Ryan in the Longest Journey games. Below they discuss the craft, and express their passions and frustrations about voice acting and directing. This article originally appeared in PC Gamer issue 206.

Voice direction, one of the most essential elements when creating convincing gaming fiction, is yet by far the most neglected aspect of game development. There are still significant problems with story writing, but this is an area in which many developers and publishers are taking impressive steps forward. Games are increasingly taking their narrative seriously. However, in many cases this has not been accompanied by the same focus on directing the actors delivering the lines. Voice directing, very often, is woefully lacking. Fortunately there are some who fight back.

While graphics, physics, and sound effects have improved constantly over the years, voice direction is all too often ignored. It is, like so many aspects of generating effective fiction, a thankless task. When done correctly it goes unnoticed, the player enjoying the dialogue without noticing. It’s when it’s gotten wrong it so glaringly stands out.

It would be very easy, and possibly a lot of fun, to write about how games get it so wrong, but it’s my contention that this is something developers can quite easily address. Indeed a few do, to enormous success. I spoke to three voice directors who have had been exceptionally proficient at providing superb voice acting for games, and two well known voice actors, to ask them how it’s done, and how it’s done right. These are people who go the extra mile – a mile all games should be walking.

Jack Scalici in the recording studio.

Just one word

“Whatever it costs us it costs us,” says 2K’s exhausted director of audio, Jack Scalici, when I talk to him at 3am Pacific Time. Working on the voice direction for Mafia II in Hollywood, he stays at the recording studio until the early hours of the morning to make sure he’s around when the Czech developers are in their offices. This is dedication. He explains the importance of getting the voice direction perfect, no matter the price. “If one of those words is off it takes me out of the game, and kills my suspension of disbelief.”

“I think the moment I hear something that’s badly overacted or completely weird screwed up accents, it pulls me out of the context of the game,” echoes an equally passionate Ragnar Tørnquist, currently directing the voice actors for forthcoming MMO, The Secret World. “It’s like a bad actor in a TV show can ruin a scene, or a bad voice in an animated movie can really destroy a character, I think the same happens in a game. Even in an FPS, bad acting is going to remove the immersion for me. I’d rather people just shut up.”

It’s a thought repeated by LucasArts voice director David Collins. “Sometimes audio can get back-burnered, or lost in the shuffle.” But when it’s right, he says, it makes all the difference. “It makes everything come to life. It makes artificial intelligence seem smarter. It makes gameplay seem tighter.”

Scalici, Tørnquist and Collins have a track record that demonstrates why they’re worth listening to. Tørnquist directed the actors for both The Longest Journey and Dreamfall: two stunningly well acted and performed adventure games still noteworthy for the standards they set. Scalici directed the remarkable voice work in BioShock and indeed all 2K’s non-sports games. The footage revealed so far of Mafia II shows this quality being taken to the next level. Collins was responsible for the pitch-perfect voices in the recent remake of The Secret Of Monkey Island (SOMI). It is no coincidence that each brings up the same specific topics throughout. And each explains that the most crucial aspect of successful gaming voice direction is to ensure the actors understand the context of their scenes.

FunCom's Ragnar Tornquist, with Zoe in the background.

Put in context

It may seem obvious, but as Tørnquist explains, it’s something voice actors aren’t used to. “It’s surprising to me. I talk to a lot of actors who do a lot of games and oftentimes they only know whatever little piece they’re given in a script and nothing else. Actors really appreciate getting the grand picture, to know how their character fits into a story, and what lies behind what their script says. The subtext.”

So says Sarah Hamilton, the memorable voice of April Ryan in Tørnquist’s Longest Journey games, remembering the experience of working with the director. “What sets Ragnar apart is he is giving you your lines with back story. He tells you the story, and I’m able to really get into it.”

Scalici takes the same approach. “One thing I found really helpful, every time I get a new build of the game, I’ll bring it in and show the actors how the game’s progressing. I show them how their voice sounds with the character.”

Collins explains that while he ideally will show actors the game running, this isn’t always possible. “It depends on where we are in development of the game. In the early stages when there isn’t a lot of game to show the actors, I bring in concept art and I talk to them about the game, or mention a similar title or situation. I talk them through the story.”

These sound like simple things, but they’re something voice actors aren’t used to. Traditionally they come into the studio, deliver their lines, and move on. Dominic Armato, most famous for providing the voice of Guybrush Threepwood in the Monkey Island games, couldn’t agree more.

“For me, it’s all about context,” he tells me late at night from his New York apartment. “Even down to the dumbest little details – who is this person I’m speaking with, how far away am I, what’s the lead-in like, what other people are standing around? All those details of the scene that you have to imagine. The voice directors who are really good are the ones who can really vividly paint the context for you.”

It's Guybrush, Dominic Armato.

Casting wide

But how do the actors get to the project in the first place? The casting process is of course crucial. All three directors stress the importance of never simply making do. “Good actors cost the same as bad actors,” says Tørnquist. “We’re hiring so many really good, experienced, well known actors for TSW, and they cost the same as bad actors. Why not get somebody who can obviously do a better job?”

“Not all games are created equal,” comments Collins. While spending enough is important, different games have different budgets. “So with SOMI I had to be very budget conscious, but spend the money wisely by going for really good talent. It definitely helps when you go after people with experience, rather than bringing in your best friend. A lot of games companies don’t do that.”

When looking for voice talent a developer will often approach agencies, sending them what’s called a “casting package”. The agency then calls in actors they think are suitable for the part. Armato recalls when he was living and working in LA, before his first gig as Threepwood.

“I’d drive down to the agency’s office maybe three days a week. They’d say they had some copy for me, and usually you wouldn’t know what it is before you get there. I’d go into the studio with my agent, record three or four auditions, and they’d send them off, and I’d be on my way. Once in a while I’d land one of them.”

These audition tapes are received by the director who will either call people in based on these, or request a further live read audition. Armato, who had told a friend shortly before moving to LA that his dream gig would be to play Guybrush Threepwood for a Monkey Island game, explained that he “flipped out” when he saw the script for Curse Of Monkey Island, and even more when he was called back.

“The voice director on that project, Darragh O’Farrell, had a live call-back, came down to LA, rented a studio for the day, and saw people for the roles. I spent the entire audition trying to figure out how I could slip in the fact that I was a really, really huge fan of the game, and understood everything that was going on. “I know the humour, I know the world!” It turned out that this may very well be what put me over the top. Many many years of videogame playing finally justified!”

Sarah Hamilton’s experience was similar. Having received the call from her agent that there was an audition for a game, she attended, and was mistakenly given the impression that eighteen year old April Ryan was in fact fourteen or fifteen. “So I made her voice a little younger, and I thought I did really poorly. It was one of those auditions where you walk out and think, ‘Okay, on to the next one!’” Of course, a month or so later she got the call to say she had the part.

Scalici has found this process even more complex when picking actors for Mafia II.

The game features around three hundred characters, and in order to maintain the authenticity of the script – something that Scalici had spent a year reworking from author Daniel Vavre’s Czech-translated original – the dialect had to be understood by the cast. “They had to grow up in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, Little Italy, Manhattan,” he tells me. “The amount of dialogue they have to do, I can’t be stopping them to direct the dialect.” In fact, one of the lead actors, Robert Costanzo who plays Joe, grew up in Brooklyn around the mob. “That’s probably two thirds or three quarters of getting a good performance,” adds Scalici, “getting the casting right.”

Sarah Hamilton provides the fantastic voice of April Ryan.

Direct to the source

So with a cast in place, who should do the directing? It’s very common during development to hire an agency who take care of everything for the developers. But Tørnquist explains this is likely where most games get it so wrong.

“I think the most important thing is a lack of connect between the designers, the writers, the voice directors and the actors,” says the former short film director. “There’s no through line. There should be more connect between the director and the dev team. He needs to talk to the designers, see the game running, and have an understanding of the game, and have an understanding of games. Someone who gets a kick out of working with games.” Indeed, Tørnquist suggests that too often the directors hired are dismissive of games as a format, they don’t take them seriously, and don’t communicate well with the team making the game. “I think that’s why I do it myself. I really want that connection, so the intent from the beginning is kept to the very end.”

Scalici’s involvement in Mafia II was for very specific reasons, despite not working immediately for 2K Czech but rather publishers 2K. Born in New York, familiar with what he calls “Brooklynese”, he’s uniquely able to understand the dialogue and ensure it’s perfect.

Bobby Castonzo plays Joe in Mafia II.

Acting company

Perhaps the biggest difference a team can make when recording dialogue is also the most difficult: getting actors together in the studio. While it may seem a perfectly natural way to record conversations, it’s almost unheard of in game development. However, when it’s done the results are profound, as anyone who’s played The Longest Journey will attest, and indeed anyone who’s heard the dialogue in Mafia II’s released cutscenes.

“That’s a big disadvantage for voice actors, that they don’t get to play against anybody else,” says Tørnquist, but he stresses there are compromises. “What we do often, if we’ve already recorded the other half of a conversation we’ll play that first to give the actor the sense of what the other character sounds like, what their rhythm is, where their beats are.” However, he wanted to do more than this and The Longest Journey gave him the opportunity.

“When I got the call from my agent to say they were interested in me,” says the game’s star, Sarah Hamilton, “I was told to put two weeks aside. Two weeks?! That’s crazy!” Her expectations were that she’d still be able to leave for other parts or auditions in this time, but it wasn’t the case.

“We had Sarah Hamilton in the studio for two weeks solid, eight hours a day,” Tørnquist explains. “So she played against the other actors all the time, and we recorded her dialogue as she talked to them. Which meant that some of the dialogue works really, really well. They were able to feed off each other, rewrite lines together.”

Hamilton recalled it was an extraordinary experience. “I don’t think I’ve talked that much in anything for anything. I’ve had commercial accounts – I’ve been the voice for Chapstick in America – and I’ve never talked that much in my life. I finally lost my voice at the end of the very last day.”

The actor quotes a tutor of hers who said, “If you’re good, you can act with a telephone pole.” But, she explains, “It’s so much better when you’ve got someone there to say your lines with. If you say something as simple as, “I’ve got it,” the way you say it can be completely different depending on how the other person speaks.

Dominic Armato has some experience of similar recording sessions. “For Escape From Monkey Island I got to do scenes with some of the other actors. It’s a luxury – the budget was there. And you obviously get a better read when you’ve got someone right there you can work off of, and play off of each other.”

Scalici has taken this idea to the next level. The recording process for Mafia II is unlike any other. “One thing I was adamant we’d do in this game is get the actors together,” the director tells me. “So I’ve rented an ADR stage – the one they used for Transformers 2 – and we can fit eight characters comfortably in the room. And the result is a natural conversation. A lot of spontaneous stuff we end up keeping in the game. It’s much more natural.”

Multiple actors recording Mafia II dialogue together.

Off the page

Another striking difference in Tørnquist’s approach to directing his actors is allowing for improvisation. This is something of a luxury, and requires not only actors confident enough in their part to cut loose, but also a game in which deviation from the script is possible. Both Mafia II and The Secret World are using motion captured (mo-capped) actors who physically interpret the recorded dialogue, which means scripts must be locked down early in development. With these limitation, actors need to specifically time their lines, unless recorded extremely early on. While Tørnquist has attempted to do this for some parts in TSW, it’s something he fully embraced in The Longest Journey and Dreamfall. The best example of this was TLJ’s Burns Flipper, voiced by stand-up comedian Andrew Donnelly.

“His stuff was for the most past improvised, based loosely on the original dialogue,” says Tørnquist. “That’s something he enjoyed doing, we had fun doing that.” The result is a highlight of the game, natural and hilarious. And remarkably rude.

“I love that!” says Hamilton when I ask about the experience of working with a director who encourages such diversions. “I love going off script. It’s the best part.”

David Collins also enjoys opportunities to let actors improvise. “I think it’s wonderful,” he tells me. “In The Force Unleashed there was a lot of improvisation. I had the actors improvise their responses to being picked up by the Force. The results were very funny. It’s a great technique.”

“If dialogue is outsourced there’s no way you can do that,” comments Tørnquist. “The actors won’t know what’s possible, if there’s any freedom whatsoever. In my case I know exactly how much leeway we have, so I can tell the actor, here, go crazy here.”

April Ryan.

Imaginary friends

As everyone I spoke to explained, it’s often simply impossible to have actors appearing together. David Collins mentions the scale of the task for recording The Old Republic’s vast script. “There’s a number of voice directors working on it, and a number of script writers, and there are actors in studios literally all over the world all the time. Trying to put together all that dialogue so it works together is very challenging.”

However, there are many tricks that can be used to get good results. Collins talks about one device used when recording SEMI. “With this project I wasn’t able to have more than one actor at a time. Everyone was recorded separately, so I did a few things. I read across from people at certain points, and I could play in how a previously recorded actor had said their line. The inflection in that can completely change how you respond.”

Tørnquist and Scalici also talk about using previously recorded dialogue, and all three stress the importance of making sure the actor knows what’s happening in the scene. Armato explains why the responsibility for success here really lies with the director.

“Usually there’s not a whole lot that I can do. It’s up to whoever’s preparing the script. Whoever’s preparing the script needs to group the lines as logically as possible so you’ve got lines that are related to each other as close to each other as possible. And secondly, the director who’s working on it has to be able to provide the context, being familiar enough with the script to know what’s happening.” Of course, there will be times when confusion arises. Armato continues. “You have to think of four or five things you can imagine leading into the line and read it four or five different ways, and hope that one of those hits. And if not, maybe we’ll have to get it in a pick-up later.”

Guybrush and Elaine in the recent remake of Monkey Island.

Pick-ups

Perhaps the most persistent theme in all the conversations I had was the topic of pick-ups. All three directors recognised the practise of calling actors back in later in development as essential for good results. Once the game is almost finished, and the dialogue put in place, the glaring mistakes, the misplaced inflections, become far more obvious.

Armato found this essential when recording all three voiced Monkey Island games. “Usually after the bulk of recording – for the Monkey games they were 22, 24 sessions – when it’s getting close to release they’ll bring you back in for pick-ups,” he says. “They’ll list all the lines they weren’t happy with for whatever reason, and re-record it.”

Tørnquist heavily stresses this. “It’s really important to have the luxury to say, ‘Okay, if we really screw this up we can go back at a later stage and re-do this line or conversation.’ To me it’s very liberating.”

“We’ve had some of these guys 25 or 30 times in the studio,” says Scalici, matter-of-factly, about the process of recording Mafia II. “For an open-world game, where you have thousands of lines per character, it’s not unusual to have them come back 25 times.”

Mafia II actors back in the studio once more.

Cough up

Finally, everyone stresses that you should not be afraid to spend money. “We’re using union talent in this game,” says Scalici. “It is not cheap at all. Even at scale wages, the union minimum, it costs us a lot of money.” But Tørnquist argues that while it can be pricy, it’s nothing compared to the larger budget for game development.

“This my mission to tell people: writing, voice direction, voice acting, voice recording, those are the cheapest things we do. We spend 30, 40 million dollars making these games, and you’re just wasting so much potential. It’s amazing, it amazes me.” He gives a specific example. “There have been numerous occasions when we’ve re-recorded an entire actor. We’ve said, ‘That actor didn’t work, let’s re-cast it.’ Yes it costs maybe a few thousand dollars, but that’s nothing compared to the impact that it has on the game that costs millions and millions of dollars.”

Armato points out that spending that extra money, going with union actors through agencies, immediately strips out the chaff. “If I’ve been called in as a union actor via an audition process, then already there’s a certain amount of care and concern. That is not present with a lot of developers, who do not put that kind of care and energy into the voices.”

Anyone know who this is? I've forgotten.

That’s a wrap

Good voice directing is about changing priorities. The solutions to fixing the paucity of high quality gaming voices are not necessarily cheap nor simple, but in the greater scheme of game development are a thin slice of a huge pie. If you can get actors in the studio at the same time, do it. If you cannot, go to great lengths to make the context incredibly clear. Show actors the game, show them the concept art, play them the dialogue to which they’re responding, or simply read them the lines to which they’re responding. And absolutely always make sure there’s time and money for pick-ups.

As everyone I spoke to emphasised again and again, the significance of good voice directing is enormous. Certainly games will sell despite poor acting, but for the directors I spoke to, and certainly for very many gamers, one poor line, or one terrible actor, can break a game’s spell – something developers should always be striving against. Of all the aspects of game development that can be improved, it’s easily one of the simplest to change. The last, passionate words go to FunCom’s Ragnar Tørnquist.

“There’s so many good writers, actors and competent directors that there’s no reason why we should get this wrong. It’s just a question of spending the time and having the focus on it. And it pisses me off that people don’t do it. It makes me really angry.”

The Best And Worst Of Voice Acting

Best

Grand Theft Auto IV
Widely applauded for its acting, GTA IV’s actors had realistic accents, interacted in a real-world manner, and most remarkably, were sympathetic despite being thugs and killers. It was a fine achievement by a remarkable cast, taking the series to new heights, confirming Rockstar as great storytellers.

Day Of The Tentacle
LucasArts had only just started adding voices to their games, and they absolutely nailed it with DOTT. While deliberately cartoony, the characters delivered pathos alongside slapstick gags. It’s hard to imagine the game without Bernard, Laverne and Hoagie’s superb, dry performances.

Mass Effect
BioWare’s non-Star Wars sci-fi adventure has a wonderful cast, delivering moments of emotional resonance especially well, even offering a relatively convincing sex scene. Many recommend playing a female Shepard as Jennifer Hale’s performance significantly outdoes Mark Meer’s.

Half-Life 2
While some characters may veer toward cartoony, Merle Dandridge’s Alyx is one of the finest performances in any game. Your constant companion, and your means of communication, she’s sympathetic, enthusiastic, and genuinely funny. Especially since she never gets a reply.

Worst

Legacy: Dark Shadows
Russian developer Razbor Studios delivered what must be the worst acting in any game ever. It’s astonishing. The actors barely sound human, let alone capable of speech. Words cannot do it justice, so click here.

Oblivion
It might have been a remarkable game, but the acting was often dismal beyond belief. Possibly never worse than when two people spoke to each other with the same clodding voice, despite being different sexes. Come on Bethesda, patch up this hole in your otherwise splendid development team.

Limbo Of The Lost
An extraordinary game for many reasons, LOTL not only stole art and cutscenes from multiple games, but had some of the most stunningly bad performances you’ll ever hear. None were professional, clearly, but if you’re able to find a copy it’s well worth the experience.

Men Of War
This year’s splendid RTS surprise hit from Russian developers Best Way and Digitalmindsoft may have been one of the most superb WW2 battle-em-ups of all time, but its voice acting is excruciating. It’s Ukrainians playing Russians speaking English.

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52 Comments »

  1. Ravenger says:

    I don’t know if I was part of the problem or part of the solution, because I’ve actually directed voice actors for a video game. It was a very interesting and fun experience, but it’s more difficult than you think to get the right performance.
    Part of it is due to the budget. Actors aren’t cheap, and good actors are very expensive. Studio recording time is also very expensive, so you have to maximise the amount of work you get out of the actors in the limited time you have available. Depending on the budget you may not be able to get additional recording sessions to add or correct dialogue, so many lower budget games only have one recording session with no way to fix any problems. You also may not have much time for alternate takes of lines – this is very important so you can pick and choose the best dialogue.
    Of course companies like Bioware have the money to hire decent actors and pay for lots of studio time, but it’s interesting to note that even they don’t always get the actors back for DLC content, because it costs so much money.

    • Richard Beer says:

      I’ve directed voice actors for a few viral videos and commercial projects and it was one of the most enjoyable parts of the whole process. There’s nothing like an actor totally ‘getting’ what you’ve written and bringing it off the page. Likewise, there’s nothing worse than someone completely ignoring the sense of a sentence and delivering a monotone bore-fest.

      Given the last few points of the article about the cost of good actors and direction vs the cost of the game as a whole, and given the effect it has on total immersion, giving it a final professional polish, I can’t see that there’s any excuse for bad voice acting in a AAA game these days.

  2. Zwebbie says:

    It’s a good read, although I’m surprised that you can talk about good voice acting without so much as mentioning Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines.

    • id says:

      Or Grim Fandango, for that matter. I hear Manny Calavera’s voice in my dreams.

      …and I sleep like a goddamn baby. *sigh*

    • Uhm says:

      It’s very surprising it wasn’t mentioned.
      Here’s a link to an interview with Brian Mitsoda (Of Vampire), where this very subject comes up.

      Brian Mitsoda Interview

      Oh look, it’s on RPS.

    • airtekh says:

      I remember thinking the same thing when I first read this article in PC Gamer a while ago.

      The voice work in Vampire : Bloodlines is astonishingly good.

  3. Mike says:

    Wow. That was a fantastic read. Extremely interesting too, not a topic you get a lot of writing on. Cheers!

  4. Huggster says:

    Legacy: Dark Shadows – did anyone listen to the second one?
    Oh
    My
    God

    • skalpadda says:

      “Well, the police sealed his room with a laser barrier!”

      Oh how I laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed and then cried a little.

    • Alex Bakke says:

      “Which floor?”

      “The eight!”

    • Ozzie says:

      Oh man, I listened to it three times already. It makes me laugh uncontrollably. It’s so so bad!

      “Ouhkaiiiy!?”

  5. Brumisator says:

    Personally, I almost never care about a game’s story, because to me even when trying to take the high route (like Mass effect’s gloriously detailed back story and immersive level of detail in the created universe), the storytelling itself often boils down to cheap shots that make any game’s story inherently worse than a good book or film.
    Simply because games are made to be played, not read/watched through passively, so story should never ever be the main course.

    Sorry, got a little sidetracked here.
    My point is, it always requires at least some amount of suspension of disbelief for me to enjoy a game’s story, and good voicework surely does splendours.

    • Alexander Norris says:

      even when trying to take the high route (like Mass effect’s gloriously detailed back story and immersive level of detail in the created universe), the storytelling itself often boils down to cheap shots that make any game’s story inherently worse than a good book or film

      To be fair, this is particular of BioWare right now: for both ME and Dragon Age, the setting itself is incredibly detailed and interesting but the plot reads like it was written by a first year Creative Writing student who doesn’t understand the concept of not reusing the same plot in every single game.

      I’d rather they just not try, but then I have a rational dislike of BioWare for producing games with really interesting settings but terrible plots that fail to capitalise on any of the interesting content in favour of reusing the same damn plot in every game.

  6. Marar Patrunjica says:

    Ok, I am the only who thought that Mass Effect had horrible voice acting? the poorly written dialogue didn’t help either, good thing it had a good storyline.

  7. Mike I. says:

    Surprised to see the voice director of the Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition in here. I thought the voice directing/editing in that game was pretty abysmal. The dialogue all sounded disjointed to me, as if every line was being read out of context and then pasted together. Having played it back-to-back with the new Tales of Monkey Island games, I was pretty amazed at the difference. Same actors, same characters, but one really worked and the other just completely took me out of the game.

  8. colinmarc says:

    I hear Keith David in my dreams, personally. His role as that cat in Coraline especially.

    By the way, I missed the note at the top and was really confused by the formal style of the article. This don’t sound like RPS talky-talk!!! Great article. Game music also doesn’t seem to get enough attention, considering that music can add so much to the feel of a game. Mirror’s Edge and Half Life 2 are great examples of good music. I remember a part of episode one where you’re underground in a parking garage or something and the guitar kicks in and I was like yeahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. But even in most rpgs the music is bland and repetitive (Bethesda, I’m looking at you), and it’s like voice acting – the return for your money is really high compared all the other things game companies spend millions on.

    • Poltergeist says:

      “I hear Keith David in my dreams, personally.”

      We all do, we all do.

    • Ozzie says:

      I find the music in Half Life (all parts) generally superfluous. I turn it off, because every time it appears I’m reminded I play a game. It always breaks my suspension of disbelief.
      I’m not sure why it annoys me in HL, but not in other games. I guess because these games build otherwise realistic worlds, and your always this one guy, and you always look through his eyes, it conveys realism. So when this music turns up, which shouldn’t be there in the in-game reality, but is only there for the player, as part of the staging, then yeah, I’m reminded I’m only playing a game.

  9. Schaulustiger says:

    Well written, Mr Walker, enjoyed reading it.

  10. Dr. Derek Doctors, DFA says:

    @Marar Patrunjica: The weekend edition had a link to a discussion on voice acting that I think got to the heart of the problem by asking, in effect, for less recorded dialogue. I’ve just started DA:O (I’m usually a few years behind on my titles), and I’m constantly struck at how hamfisted the writing is: Bioware seems to be completely unable to deliver decent expository dialogue without wasting some five minutes of my time. For example, the first time you’re introduced to a Tranquil, you’re forced through several minutes of thick yammering delivered by what sounds like a refugee from a weekend est seminar.

    Any decent scriptwriter, on the other hand, could give you the outlines of the concept in a ten-second aside by another character. (A poor example: “Him? He’s a Tranqil, innihe? You’d best stay clear of them mages, son — if you got any power, the second they think you’re too excitable, WHAM! Suck your emotions out of yer skull! Spooky bastards, them Tranquils. Right light, you can see that magic mark the mages brand on their foreheads, keep ‘em under control. They ever get loose, Maker help us all.”) For more information, there’s always the Codex, where detailed world-building information is best kept.

    I’m impressed with the details that Bioware brings to their universes, but they’re still a long way from turning those into energetic *stories*. It’s all “Silmarillion,” no “Lord of the Rings.”

  11. Vadermath says:

    I’d just like to point out that while the voice acting of GTAIV was good, the Serbian/Croatian accent some of the characters had was just plain awful. It sounded like Russian.

  12. Dan Milburn says:

    Interesting piece.

    One thing that strikes me regarding the cost of voice actors is that, for example, Bethesda have hired people like Patrick Stewart and Liam Neeson for their games. They do not, I would imagine, come particularly cheap (although considering the latest A-Team themed Orange cinema adverts, maybe Liam Neeson does..).

    In general I prefer not to be hearing the voices of well-known actors in a game. For me it can ruin the immersion, but anyway. What seems clear is that it’s not necessarily that developers don’t want to spend money on voice acting, it appears to be more that they can’t be bothered to put the effort into getting it right.

  13. Alexander Norris says:

    Blimey; John really likes The Longest Journey.

    This is a very informative piece, and the type of thing I wish RPS would actively do since I guess it doesn’t have much of a place in actual mags (I’m surprised PCG commissioned it). Thanks for posting it.

    Also, no Deus Ex in the worst voice acting section? What a shame.

  14. Mario Figueiredo says:

    Absolutely brilliant article! It’s just not I-put-my-opinion-here. It’s actually a talk with the actual people behind the scenes. Well done.

    It’s really my most sensitive area on games. If voice acting doesn’t work, I’m usually out. I do have an hard time dealing with bad voice-acting. And most of us can’t really. It’s for that reasons that even English speaking gamers used to an English language dominated market, will go out and tell you that the polish voice version of the Witcher absolutely rocks when compared to the English one, for instance. No matter it’s a language you don’t understand. Voice acting is an universal, language independent art.

    And people ask me why I come to RPS. Why do I come to such a crude website ran by self-important and opinionated wannabe gaming journalists. Shutup! I come here because of this!

    (Nobody actually ever asked me that. I just want to keep you guys on your toes)

  15. skalpadda says:

    As much as I love Mass Effect, Marina Sirtis’ performance as Matriarch Benezia should disqualify that game from being held up as an example of doing it right.

    • Wednesday says:

      I don’t think one bad perfomance from a fairly underused character should mark down a whole game.

    • skalpadda says:

      To me, that performance completely ruined what was supposed to be a major high point in the plot and I can’t imagine that the devs weren’t fully aware of just how awful it was, but kept it because it had a big name behind it. Had it been a less known actress I assume they would’ve got someone else in to read it.

      Sure, the amount of good voice acting in the game certainly outweighed the bad, but leaving a terrible thing like that in is almost as unforgivable as Bethesda hiring one big name actor to do one tiny part and then using the same 5 crappy ones to do all the other characters in their games. Then again I suppose Bioware may have been contractually bound to use whatever they recorded of her and had no choice, but still.. bleh.

  16. neems says:

    I realise it’s not pc gaming, but Uncharted 2, if anybody here has played it, has excellent voice acting. It’s not the greatest story ever (sub Indiana Jones, probably ona par with Crystal Skull… maybe a bit better), but the lead characters just sound like real people, talking with real voices, using real words and having actual conversations. The actors (primarily Claudia Black and the ubiquitous Nolan North) were actually together on a stage, acting out the script with props, whilst the dialogue was recorded directly. Obviously not everybody has the funds of a Sony First Party Studio, but it can be done well.

    And although Nolan North is everywhere, and it can be a little annoying, he is genuinely good at voice over work. It makes such a difference when you have somebody who can deliver a line. Even bad dialogue sounds better.

  17. phuzz says:

    Also in the Bad categorys:
    Far Cry 2: To be fair, the actual voice work seems ok, but for some bloody stupid reason it sounds like all the dialogue is being played at about 110% speed.
    why? (and you can see from the character animations and the pauses that it was run at normal speed at one point in development)
    yet another demerit for this game :(

  18. Eight Rooks says:

    No, the main characters in Far Cry 2 were terribly acted as well as talkingconstantlywithoutpauseforbreath. One more reason everyone should rejoice that Clint Hocking’s gone. (Oddly enough the voices of the grunts are actually pretty well acted, spoken relatively normally and have some very funny, witty battle chatter.) For an even more unintentionally hilarious instance of the same effect, check out Suikoden Tierkreis on the DS.

    Marina Sirtis was indeed absolutely, irredeemably godawful in Mass Effect, and anyone who thinks otherwise is patently clinically deaf and/or has absolutely no clue what English is supposed to sound like. Mark Meer was a good deal better in ME2; he still fell back into that ridiculous monotone far too often, but he had some really quite moving lines in there, particularly that Paragon moment in Tali’s loyalty quest.

    And both TLJ and Dreamfall had some very good voice acting. Shame the writing for both was nowhere near as good as Tornqvist obviously thinks it is.

    • Oak says:

      No, the main characters in Far Cry 2 were terribly acted as well as talkingconstantlywithoutpauseforbreath.

      Politely disagree. If the delivery were normal I don’t think I’d have any complaint with the acting bar a couple of silly accents.

    • Eight Rooks says:

      (No idea if this is replying properly – WordPress is being consistently terrible – so)

      “Politely disagree. If the delivery were normal I don’t think I’d have any complaint with the acting [in FarCry 2] bar a couple of silly accents.”

      …which is presumably one reason we get so much terrible voice acting, because so many gamers either don’t care or can’t discern it when it’s there. The faction leaders delivered all their lines in this relentless monotone devoid of any inflection, and most of the buddies had their accentuations all over the place. Here’s a tip, Hocking – I tend to care more about fictional characters in videogame worlds when they talk the same way normal human beings do, you know?

      God I hate everything that man says in defence of his ridiculous, poorly-thought-out design philosophies – okay, okay, more good voice acting? PC voice acting, I suppose. Metro 2033 was actually really good, dodgy ‘Russian’ accents aside – one area it definitely outclasses S.T.A.L.K.E.R. in every respect. Thief’s always been consistently good, if a bit am-dram. And I loved Call of Juarez (hey, it was a PC franchise first…); I could hardly believe it when my Trekkie friend pointed out Ray’s voiced by Marc Alaimo from DS9. One of the greatest pulpy, scenery-chewing performances I’ve ever heard, OTT yet always in control, replete with genuine emotion, an absolute pleasure to listen to.

  19. ChampionHyena says:

    I’m reading this section on cost and how cheap voice acting is not, and it’s got me wondering: is this why we’ve had such an epidemic of Steven Jay Blum’s godawful voice acting in every damn game since the beginning of time? Is it just that he’s absurdly cheap?

  20. teo says:

    Grand Theft Auto IV – realistic accents?
    I sincerely hope you’re joking. They were as fake as can be

  21. Hmm.-Hmm. says:

    It does seem so obvious that if you wish to make a game where the player’s immersion and experience of the game are partially done by voice acting.. then you should take it serious.

    And that’s basically whenever you use voice acting in a game.

  22. DoomMunky says:

    I wouldn’t say horrible, but the Male Shepard was pretty bad. He’s very attitudinal without many dynamics. It’s gotta be an incredibly difficult process to record that much dialogue and have it all be contextually appropriate and emotionally true, but he (and the VO director) erred on the side of ‘generally pissed’. And it hurts the character. I’m much less interested in listening to him because he sounds, well, largely the same the whole time.

  23. Wednesday says:

    “A LaYzer Burrier”

    I can’t get it out of my mind.

  24. CantankerousDave says:

    Speaking as someone who’s translated his fair share of videogame scripts, I can tell you that a whole mess of factors conspire against you. The biggest is that the writers and actors tend to operate in a vacuum. They just have a set of lines, with no notion of how they fit into the overall story. I’ve had projects where lines were recorded as I was still translating the game, only to find out that we’d been using the wrong gender for some minor characters (Japanese is gender-free),due to the Japanese studio never getting around to sending us the character bios and artwork that we’d requested on day 1 so we’d at least know what species everyone was. They honestly don’t think it’s important.
    The other is that Western VA’s always record their material separately, so you are, in fact, just recording individual sound bytes with no context. Actor 1 comes in and records his half of the conversation, then actor 2, 3, and so on. It’s literally impossible to build up any kind of rapport or flow this way.

  25. brkl says:

    Burns Flipper was when I stopped playing The Longest Journey. The game crashed after or during the first scene with him, but I didn’t bother looking for a fix. I was already burned out by the quantity approach to writing in the game, and then this really annoying character… What you do with swearing can be funny, but swearing by itself is not.

    • Ozzie says:

      I thought Burns Flipper was the best written character in the whole game. That’s probably the case because he wasn’t much written at all.
      But well, I sympathize with you, that you stopped playing TLJ. The huge amounts of dialogue are truly exhausting. And so much of it is superfluous…

    • drygear says:

      I thought talking to Burns Flipper was one of the most memorable parts of the game (in a good way).

  26. Arglebargle says:

    Bad writing trumps good voice acting.

    Everyone’s seen good actors torpedoed in bad movies because the script stank to high heavens.

    A lot of fairly incompetant writers think they are good at the craft. Some have millions sold to boot.

    While well done voice acting in games is quite impressive, it does lead to a number of other issues. You lose a lot of flexibility in story writing. How many titles are there where the companies involved are willing to do loads of pick up sessions because of changes in the script? I recall seeing this mentioned in an article on Dragon Age Origins, where they had to do cut and pasty type things on the dialogue because of last minute changes. For the voice acting to really matter, there needs to be more emphasis on story. Simple or complex, it really does help if it’s good…..

  27. jarvoll says:

    Yeah….. the voice-acting in TLJ is really not that great. It’s serviceable, sure, but there’s shaky, awkward accents and lopsided intonation all over the place. There are several characters whose dialogue I dread hearing: Flipper, Crow, and An..ax..abus? The not-in-time guy. April herself is okaaaaaay, but every now and then there’s a completely wrong turn of intonation, and it dumps me unceremoniously back into my disbelief. The best one I can think of is Minelli, the New-York policeman, presumably because the actors were cast in New York, and the character is barely more than stereotype anyway, so it’s hard to make much of a mistake there.

    • Ozzie says:

      True. While some of the voice acting was excellent, there was also quite a lot not so good.
      I think Flipper is awesome, as is Crow, but Abnaxus and the Captain are truly annoying with their rather monotone and slow delivery. I know that Abnaxus is supposed to sound…not like a human, but still it’s much too stilted. And again, if he would’ve talked more succinctly, it wouldn’t have been so annoying. I guess the writing was also at fault here.
      But seriously, the captain, the owner of Crow? He’s a boring character, he’s a cliche, and his voice acting is terrible. And the accent of Cortez? Was also rather terrible.
      But Dreamfall had better voice acting. Too bad it was the worse game.

  28. Jannakar says:

    I’d like to nominate Just Cause 2 for absolutely awful voice acting. It seems that they didn’t get any closer to south east Asia than north London and that an accent is simply putting the stress in the wrong place. Horrible horrible horrible. It wasn’t a terribad script, cheesy but not naff, but I simply cannot bear to listen, except to the Panau radio broadcasts which are at least funny.

    Also, nobody every changes their clothes ever.

  29. Zaggy says:

    How much clues are given to the actors about the (non-linear) relationships of the sentences ( in a branching dialog scenario), i wonder.

  30. The Unbelievable Guy says:

    I want to put Persona 4 (even though it’s a console JRPG oh nooo) in for the Best Voice Acting category. One of the best dubs I have ever heard.

    Troy Baker is a vocal magician.

  31. Dan says:

    Great article! Unfortunately, I’m not sure most people assume the directing was the cause of a bad performance. I think they blame the actor. But if the director is happy with a performance, you assume that you got the tone they were looking for and that it fits the context of the story. Then you see the game and each voice seems like they’re in a different movie, aimed at a different audience.

  32. Cian says:

    Very interesting article. I’m always up for abit of love for The Longest Journey, but this really made me consider the impact the acting had on why I loved it so much. Some of the other comments have touched on it already, but I’d be interested to find out more about the translation process, I know Ragnar Tornquist supervised the various other language versions of Dreamfall. Wonder if there was any major differences in how things were played.

  33. Dhatz says:

    more of a study than an article, I mean voiceacting has to use methods that make it the quality of movies(or greater) in games I will at some point in future make.