Voicing concern
For the love of a game

Voice for change


As I wrote in my previous post, voice acting lags behind other aspects of game development for a variety of reasons - derivative stories, poorly conceived and stereotyped characters, insipid dialogue, etc. - but none of these issues weighs as heavily on an actor as the restrictive and creatively limiting process most developers use to record dialogue for their games.

Good actors can often overcome, or at least ameliorate, bad writing with clever characterizations and collaborative interplay. But they are powerless to function as creative artists under the conditions they often face voicing characters for games. I spoke to one voice actor who put it this way:

It's not about being creative. There's no time for that. It's about recording cues. We call ourselves actors, but we're really technicians. There's very little space for spontaneity or imagination in that room. The people I've worked with have been very nice for the most part, but if they could replace me with a robot that can emote in ten different dialects, they would do it in a second.

Another discouraging picture of the game industry's approach to working with actors came at a GDC session I attended last month conducted by a production company that specializes in recording voices for games. The stated purpose of this panel presentation was "to increase creative communication between game producers and the creative talent in the studio in order to generate better storytelling, improve quality of performances in games, and develop a more efficient process." Not a bad idea, I thought.

In the hour than ensued I listened to a professional voice director explain to his audience how actors work. A few samples:

  • "Actors live in the world of feelings and emotions."
  • "When you're talking about an actor, you're talking about 'I want to get this feeling out of this actor.'"
  • "Voice actors use their voices to project the emotional tenor of a character to the audience."
  • The actors tools are:
    • Breathing
    • Placement Pitch (higher for younger, lower for older characters)
    • Music (the way an actor says a line is like singing)
    • Pace
  • "If it doesn't have emotion attached to it, it's just boring information."
  • "Actors are creatures of feelings and emotions."

Is it any wonder that a chasm exists between the people who create the characters and the people who must bring them to life?

Actors have brains. We analyze texts; we sift through psychological traits; we look for connections; we build meaning by tracing the arc of a character's journey. Good actors don't convey characters by delivering their lines angry/sad, fast/slow, or high/low. Certainly, emotions are useful, but they're merely adverbs. They color the far more important verbs: actions, discoveries, decisions, strategies...the meat and potatoes of acting.

Voice actors in games can't find their meat and potatoes because they are routinely denied the basic information they need to do their jobs well. Lacking this, they rely on instructions issued into their headphones: "Say it louder and angrier, and throw in an evil laugh at the end." They deliver the goods, and the result is an amateur performance with a professional sheen.

I recently interviewed another actor about the process of recording voices for games. He has worked in the industry for nearly ten years.

Q: How much time do you generally have with a script before recording?

A: You mean in advance of a session?

Q: Right.

A: Typically, none. When you arrive for the session you're handed a side [a script with one character's lines and lead-in cues]. You have some time to look it over, and the Voice Director and maybe a producer are there to discuss it with you. But basically, you get the script, you set some levels, and off you go.

Q: So you don't know the story or anything?

A: They'll explain the basic gist of it, but mostly you're concentrating on short snippets of dialogue. I like to know as much as I can, obviously, but you have to remember the clock is ticking, and every minute you're not recording costs money. And, no surprise, they like actors who work efficiently. If you're cooperative and you've got some flexibility, and if they get the sense that you're a first-take / best-take kind of guy, you're going to work with them again.

Q: How do you create a character with so little information?

A: You throw out all your training for one thing. (Laughs) If they know your work they might say they're looking for something similar to what you did on another gig, but maybe a little gruffer or more aggressive or whatever. It's very simple stuff. Inflections and modulation mostly. I'm not sure I would call it characterization.

Q: Do you enjoy it?

A: That's a tough question. It's good money and it's a friendly environment to work in. Sometimes if they don't know what they want, it can get a little tense because they don't know how to explain what they want. So you tend to stick to a small range of big blocky emotions. Sometimes you get references to movies or other games because that's what they know...

Do I enjoy it as an actor? I have to say no. It's incredibly stifling because you're giving them about a tenth of what you're capable of, and you feel like you're digging into your same old bag of tricks over and over. But as I said, the money's good. Not great, but good.

Q: What would they do with the other 90% if you offered it to them?

A: (Laughs) I don't know what to do with it myself! The problem is you have nothing to work with. I mean, there's no actual script! You're usually working solo with sheets of disconnected cues. And you have no time. Occasionally you'll be sent a script ahead of a session, but not very often. I know one actor who gets early builds of the games he works on. That would be nice. (Laughs)

Q: Can you see video games ever challenging you to be creative as an actor?

A: Sure. Games are growing up, but it's happening slower than I thought it would...I can pull a character together for a video game in five seconds. It's a nice skill to have, but it would be great if, at some point, that wasn't good enough.

I realize production methods can't be separated from production costs, but it seems to me a few simple changes in the ways game studios work with actors might dramatically improve the quality of games without dramatically increasing budgets. Here are a few ideas to consider:

  1. Bring competent actors into the development process early. Let them help you evolve the script and the characters. You will learn more about what works and what doesn't in your script this way than any other. When you finally record, your actors will have built characters they know well, and you will have a script with far more polished final dialogue.

  2. Whenever possible let your actors collaborate and rehearse. Avoid isolating them for recording sessions. Actors work best with other actors and they feed off each other's energy and ideas. Take advantage of this.

  3. Let the actors who will voice your game also play your game. An actor who has spent time in the world you've created will better understand how to deliver a character who belongs there.

  4. Hire voice directors who genuinely understand the acting process and enjoy collaborating with creative artists. Empower this person to impact the depictions of the characters in your game. Some room must be left open to spontaneity and discovery.

  5. Animators, character designers, and actors should talk to each other. They're all focused on the same task.

  6. Work toward a production model that integrates scripting, development, and recording. Isolating these elements from each other in a traditional workflow arrangement may achieve a degree of efficiency, but is the resulting loss of collaborative creativity worth it?

Some studios are already moving in the right direction. Starbreeze has experimented with "V.O-Cap" technology" for their new Chronicles of Riddick game; Naughty Dog is committed to integrating actors, animators, and voice recording for its next Uncharted game; and other developers like Bioware are trying hard to create nuanced characters that require more from actors than standard inflections.

And then there's Valve. If you're curious to know why Merle Dandrige's performance as Alyx Vance in Half-Life 2 is so distinctive and spot-on, I highly recommend you listen to her commentary track on the game...or simply click on the link below. I'm trying to suggest here that performances like this are no accident. As Dandrige affirms in her commentary, they are made possible by a shared vision and a collaborative synergy between developer and actor rarely found in games.