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April 2009

A phone, a flashlight, and a fistful of flee


I should know better, but advance publicity for an upcoming game can still penetrate my hype-resistance shield and set my flinty heart racing. I'm vulnerable to a big letdown when such a game disappoints; but occasionally - No More Heroes comes to mind - a game delivers, and my giddy anticipation feels rewarded.

We'll see if it unravels, but for now I'm excited about Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, due later this year for the Wii. I'll explain why in a second, but first here are the reasons I must be crazy: 1) It's a remake; 2) Konami farmed it out to another developer (Climax); 3) It's being released simultaneously for PS2 and PSP; and 4) It looks like a cash-in from a franchise on life-support.

And am I the only one who thinks the promo shot looks like it's for a Harry Potter game?

Despite all the alarm bells, I remain excited about this game and here's why: it puts the survival back in survival horror. Or it claims to anyway. SHSM eschews the trend toward action shooters that most survival horror games have become. In this version (which Konami is calling a "re-imagined" edition of the original Silent Hill, ala Battlestar Galactica's reinvention of its source material), Harry Mason's only tools are a flashlight, an iPhone-like device, and his/your wits.

Combat has been stripped from the game altogether, leaving you with no choice but to flee or seek shelter. As producer Tomm Hulett and lead designer Sam Barlow describe it in the May edition of Nintendo Power:

For the nightmare world, the focus is on escape and evasion. We don't want the player to feel empowered; we want them to feel helpless...If you sat down, watched a ton of horror movies, and then asked, 'What is the action mechanic here?' you'd come up with what we did--the "action" is the chase. It's the classic nightmare. As a child you don't dream about beating up on zombies with pipes. You dream of being chased, of being unable to escape. We wanted to make our nightmare sequences just that--nightmares. You are chased. You run, you try to put distance between you and the creatures, try to find your way out of the labyrinth.

This approach appeals to me, as does the developer's decision to eliminate onscreen text and contextual button pressing. Fix your view on an object, and Harry comments on it vocally. Environments stream, so load times are gone; and running away - barricading or busting through doors, climbing fences, jumping through windows - is all controlled by the player. No quick-time events and no preordained pathways.

It seems like a little thing, but I'm especially interested in the flashlight. When the Wiimote was first revealed, lots of people saw it as a potential lightsaber, but I recall thinking "Hm. That would make a great flashlight," yet surprisingly few games have made good use of it. Lara Croft got one in the Wii version of Tomb Raider Anniversary, but it didn't add much to the gameplay. According to its designers, SHSM will make the device much more central to Harry's survival and his exploration of the game's environments. Likewise, the Wiimote will also function as your phone, its speaker employed ala No More Heroes.

I'm not going to bet the farm on a rehashed (or re-imagined) Silent Hill, but I'm choosing to be hopeful. I want a survival horror game that makes me feel vulnerable, desperate, lonely, and nearly helpless. Here's hoping Silent Hill: Shattered Memories will be that game.

Playground hero


Mother 3 is a playground with plenty of room for your imagination to run free. The more you think about it, the greater Mother 3 will become. The more you feel it, the deeper it’ll become. The more fun you have, the more you’ll grow.

--Handwritten note from series creator Shigesato Itoi posted on his website prior to the release of Mother 3 in 2006.

In yesterday's post, I tried to account for the affection and devotion Mother 3 inspires in many players, me included. The game conveys an unmistakably warm, whimsical, yet foreboding vision of life in a small town undergoing vast change. The game's humor and charm, coupled with its quirky but moving storytelling, go a long way in delivering all these intangibles.

StimulatedboarBut Mother 3 is more than a stylish, big-hearted fable. It is an expertly crafted game that manages to remain faithful to its genre roots while extending the boundaries of RPG gameplay and storytelling. Mother 3 may not succeed on every count (the Grind Gremlin rears its ugly head at times), but as a traditional JRPG, it accentuates the positives and eliminates the negatives better than any of its genre contemporaries. As Steve Amodio puts it "Mother 3 does just about nothing new, but its genius is that in its tried and proven framework it finds more value than anyone else ever has..."

 Itoi's design recalibrates the traditional JRPG tropes, rather than attempting to overhaul or eliminate them. For example, in a typical JRPG, we notice an NPC and approach her for an interaction. Why? Because she may have something for us: a piece of food, sage advice, directions to the next town, etc. I don't know about you, but I'm pathologically incapable of walking past an unfamiliar NPC (or any new item for that matter) because 25 years of gaming have taught me not to.

Clayguy Itoi changes the formula in Mother 3 and thereby enriches the game. You will find yourself similarly compelled to speak to all the villagers in Tazmily, but not because you expect them to fill your inventory. You will speak with them to find out how they're doing; what they're thinking; and how they've changed. Itoi's NPC's are responsible for communicating the pivotal changes occuring in Tazmily and its environs, so your interactions with them feel more personal, less mercenary...and less, well, "game-y."

Similarly, Mother 3's rhythm-matching combat system (see Dan Bruno's fabulous series on this), revises standard JRPG turn-based combat by adding, though not requiring, a fun and challenging skill element to the mix. Typical of Itoi's penchant for playing with the player playing the game, as battles grow more difficult, so does the music with tricky meters and uneven tempos. In response, I found myself practicing before striking and creating games within the game: e.g. rhythm-matching combat for weaker team members and single strikes for stronger characters.

Artsyghost Ultimately, your attachment to Mother 3 is likely to hinge on your engagements with two separate families: one family serves as the emotional and thematic centerpiece of the story; the other is the temporary family formed by the playable foursome you control for the final chapters of the game. Once again, Itoi puts a wrinkle in the fabric by intersecting these two families via you and your controller. The first half of the story establishes history, motives, and what's at stake for this family and their village. The second half focuses on the one (and least likely) member of the family who must forge a team, face his destiny, and bring it all home. When the game ends, you have seen it and played it from multiple perspectives.

Not exactly virgin territory for RPG narratives. But again, it's not what Itoi does here that matters; it's how he does it that elevates Mother 3. Locating so much of the game in a central location alters the standard travelogue format of JRPGs and repositions the player and his objectives.

Mrpassion In Mother 3 your imperative is less about traveling than about interacting with and understanding your environment and the people who live there. (See Matthew Gallant's excellent Progression in Mother 3, for more on this). When the game later deviates from this philosophy for several chapters, a bit of the air goes out of Mother 3's balloon.

If you're a young gamer who's never played a JRPG, or if you tried one once and ran for the hills, I encourage you to give Mother 3 a look. It represents the best of what a Japanese role-playing game can be. I realize these games aren't for everyone; but before you decide to write off the genre as threadbare, irrelevent or outmoded, you ought to see for yourself the ardent craftsmanship, harmonious mechanics, and simple elegant storytelling of a game at the zenith of its genre.

Small town love


What is it about a game that stirs devotion? How can a 20x28 pixel character elicit empathy? What possible relevance can a 2-generation-old Japanese game - twice canceled, many times delayed, with no official English translation - contain for a modern audience? And how is it that such an outmoded game can pack a heftier thematic and narrative wallop than most next-gen, hi-def, multiplayer, DLC-riddled games released this year?

I say the reason is love. Mother 3 goes where few games seem willing to tread. Its wide canvas and broad palette convey tenderness and rage; softness and cruelty; memory and regret - all in a fable that slowly unfolds itself and works its way into your heart. It is a surprisingly graceful contemplation on love, loss, and change. Without mawkish bathos, overreaching profundity, or maudlin sentimentality, Mother 3 tugs at you and makes you care about its humble 2-D sprites.

Mother 3 greets you with a wink and an embrace. Tazmily Village, a tiny peaceful town nestled among the Nowhere Islands, welcomes you and reveals itself gradually over time. When a fire threatens to consume a nearby forest, the event functions as more than the customary JRPG curse or cataclysm. Its devastating consequences are played out in the game, and its effects on a family are explored over the course of the following chapters. Thus, the incident is more than an arbitrary plot trigger, and its narrative and metaphorical dimension has genuine significance.

With a unique mix of self-deprecating genre-aware humor and genuine pathos, the game turns the typical JRPG travelogue on its head, replacing it with an evolving portrait of a single town, told from multiple perspectives. The genius of this system is the way it varies the player's experience from chapter to chapter (each character has different skills) while spinning a Rashomon-like story from various angles. Wisely, Mother 3 embraces its JRPG origins, while avoiding its empty grind. It replaces mindless A-button battle mashing with a considerably more organic (and fun) music and rhythm system.

All of this eventually leads to a surprisingly lethal social commentary, the likes of which few contemporary games aspire. Insidious consumerism, mindless escapism, and a fearful city's gradual slide into totalitarianism are all presented simply but forcefully. Mother 3 offers no speeches or ruminations on any of its themes. Like most fables, its story is told in bold strokes, leaving space for interpretation and contemporary application.

An unexpected darkness punctuates Mother 3's whimsy. Characters say and do terribly cruel things that seem to fall outside the boundaries of such a colorful child-like universe. Part of the game's allure is its tonal complexity and the surprisingly wide range of actions it depicts. After discovering his wife has been killed, Flint flies into a wild rage, lashing out at anyone and everyone around him with a fiery plank of wood. It's an unexpected moment of anger and despair that occurs early in the game, and it's a marker of things to come.

I'll return tomorrow with a closer look at how the game fuses its elements, raising the bar for RPGs while reaffirming the potency - and relevance - of the genre.

Brief hiatus

I'm away from the blog for a few days, but I'll be back on Monday with a new post. In the meantime I plan to finish a few games, make plans for the next podcast, and spend some outdoor time with Zoe.

By the way, did I mention she's talking now? Oh, yes. Look for her special "Games for Toddlers" segment in a future episode. ;-)

Happy gaming.

Game trumps story


At a press event in London yesterday, Bethesda's Pete Hines announced the latest expansion to Fallout 3: "Broken Steel." This third DLC pack is sure to please fans of the game - Xbox 360 fans, that is; none of the expansions are available for the PS3. I've yet to complete either of the previous packs, but I'm sure I'll be drawn into the Bethesda DLC vortex yet again when Broken Steel arrives. What can I say, Bethesda? You had me at Horse Armor.

One remark Hines made at the press event caught my attention, and it amplifies something I heard him say at GDC a few weeks ago. In response to protests from fans, Broken Steel removes Fallout 3's ending. Once installed, the expansion essentially re-writes the game's final chapter to enable the player to continue playing indefinitely. If you like, you can even send a companion to complete the game's final task, instead of doing it yourself.[1]

"Broken steel doesn't have an ending," Hines said. "There are no more endings. We got the message."

The message Hines and Bethesda received loud and clear is that players don't want a narrative-driven conclusion to supercede their gameplay. As HInes noted at GDC, the team at Bethesda was committed to telling a story with a dramatic arc and a resonant ending (the game actually contains 3 possible conclusions to the main quest). But a persistent and vociferous outcry from players persuaded them to change their minds. Hines hinted the then-unannounced expansion was meant to accomplish two things: add content to the game, and respond to players demanding the removal of the ending. He called it a "lesson learned" and suggested it's unlikely Bethesda will make that mistake again.

I'm not bent out of shape about this decision because I've had my shot at Fallout 3 as it was originally conceived, and I enjoyed it. I admire Bethesda for drawing their RPG to a meaningful conclusion, especially considering how much easier it would have been to set a level cap, scatter end-game items/loot/creatures throughout the world, and let players wander around finding them.

I understand why fans wish to continue playing the game, and I can't fault Bethesda for enabling them to do so. But it does serve as yet another reminder that storytelling in narrative games takes a backseat to gameplay nearly every time. Fallout 3 exists in the minds of most players as a game with a story; not a story you can play. Bethesda may have originally thought otherwise, but as Hines says, they got the message.

I get it too. But it makes me a little sad.

Pint-sized bomb?


You've probably already heard that GTA: Chinatown Wars appears to be a flop. On the same day I praised the game as a "pint-sized champ," Ben Fritz broke the news that its NPD sales figures fell well below expectations: "a pathetic 89,000 units in its first two weeks on sale...despite stellar reviews, a major marketing campaign and one of the biggest brand names in video games."

I rarely focus on sales figures or the business side of games, but this news intrigues me, and I think it raises a few interesting questions.

First, a bit of perspective. Those 89,000 units account for only the last two weeks of March (GTA:CW was released in North America on March 17), and March is traditionally one of the lightest months for game sales. Easter fell in April this year, and according to NPD, Easter accounted for $121 million in sales last year. Finally, the entire industry is down from the same period last year, with sales of games down 17% and consoles down 18%.[1]

It's also worth noting that certain DS titles have legs, and first-month numbers may not accurately predict future sales. Professor Layton and the Curious Village moved only 91,000 units in its first month (February 2008), but has gone on to sell nearly 3 million copies, two-thirds of its sales coming from outside Japan. GTA:CW hasn't yet appeared in Japan, where the DS rules supreme (and where, it must be said, the GTA series has never really caught on). It's also possible the new, pricier DSi will attract older buyers more likely to consider purchasing GTA:CW.

Nevertheless, 89,000 is a dreadfully low number, especially for a high-quality original GTA game released for a system that's sold over 26 million units in the U.S. alone. And solace is hard to find when you consider that Pokémon Platinum, a slightly modified rehash of a game released more than two years ago, sold 805,000 copies in the same month, despite appearing a week later. Nobody expected GTA:CW to outsell Pokémon, but a 10:1 ratio is hard to fathom.

All this gloom has led some people to predict the death of mature games on the DS, and I understand why. But I'm less concerned about the availability of mature content on the DS than in the potential demise of big, ambitious, fully-realized games on the system. I don't mean to dismiss the slew of RPGs, puzzle games, and "lifestyle" titles on the DS (hey, I like Retro Game Challenge as much as anybody); but GTA:CW represents a major commitment by a premier developer to custom-build a big new game for a system many of us thought could never accommodate it.

As a proof-of-concept of sorts, GTA:CW sends the clear message that if you know what you're doing, you actually can squeeze an artful, content-rich sandbox game into the fun little device with the hinge. But if nobody buys it, that sends a message too.

Missing in all the talk about a naughty Rockstar game appearing on the sweet little DS is proper recognition for Rockstar Leeds' ingenuity in leveraging the system's hardware. I can't think of a game that more effectively integrates the DS's stylus and two screens. Gameplay / menus / interface all mesh intuitively and reinforce the game's stylish aesthetic. Nor can I think of a game that pushes the DS's graphical prowess harder or to better effect. When you're being chased all over Liberty City by cops, it's easy to miss all the little details and activity occurring in the game. I did a double take the first time an elevated train thundered by above me. The weather effects are similarly surprising, as is the sheer size of the world, full of nooks and crannies to explore.

Frankly, playing Pokémon Platinum after playing GTA:CW makes me wonder why Nintendo is willing to settle for so little. I realize Pokémon games have never been about graphics, but why should a brand-new full-priced game look this bad? Charming retro is one thing, but this game makes almost no effort at all. Don't get me wrong. I'm not whining about lack of innovation. Pokémon is what it is, and I've loved it for years. But must it look (and sound!) so bad on a system capable of much more? When your sales numbers beat the ones posted by your more clever and ambitious competitor TEN to ONE, apparently the answer is yes.

So what does it all mean? I'm not sure, but I do have a few pertinent questions. If you have a take on any of them, I'd love to hear from you. I should mention none of these are rhetorical. They're earnest questions prompted by the curiously meager sales of a terrific game on an immensely popular system.

  1. Is the large fanbase for GTA games uninterested in playing an old-school top-down version of the game? Now that players have visited Liberty City in high-detail 3D, is there simply no going back?

  2. Does the DS audience today comprise enough people who want to play a GTA game on their handheld? Did Rockstar overestimate the size of this segment of DS owners? Did Rockstar wrongly assume the game would be a system-seller for "hardcore" gamers who don't own a DS?

  3. Are we simply GTA'd out? Coming so closely on the heels of GTA IV, are fans less excited by the arrival of a new GTA game?

  4. Do current DS owners see GTA:CW as a Grand Theft Auto game they won't know how to play? In other words, is the game unlikely to bring new players into the GTA fold because it's perceived to be a spin-off of a next-gen console game they've never played?

  5. Is an M-rated game on a Nintendo platform simply too incongruous to succeed beyond minor niche hits like No More Heroes?

  6. Could Rockstar have done anything differently? Did their choice to deliver a full-on, unfiltered GTA game seal their doom? Should we salute their integrity or question their business accumen?

See how I squeezed about a dozen questions into those six? Sort of like Rockstar crammed GTA: Chinatown Wars full of genius. Sort of.

Pint-sized champ

Chinatownwars Apparently 13 can be a lucky number. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, the thirteenth installment in a series that's approaching 100 million copies sold, returns the franchise to its core design philosophy: plunging the player into an amped-up world of depravity, mayhem and speed and wringing as much giddy gameplay out of it as possible. This is a GTA I will play through to the end, which is something I haven't done since Vice City.

GTA: Chinatown Wars exemplifies the worn-out adage that less is more, but not in the way you might expect. The game crams more content into its tiny DS cartridge than seems possible. In terms of gameplay, it nearly matches its big brother GTA IV feature for feature, and the geographic scope of the game's Liberty City is vast and surprisingly detailed.

It may be a handheld version of GTA - and it feels very strange (and oddly exhilarating) dealing drugs on my family-friendly DS with the Zelda stickers on it - but this is a full-throttled, no-holds-barred Rockstar GTA game.

GTA:CW got small in exactly the way it needed to. It delivers a limited and perfectly preposterous story, with suitably ludicrous characters, that provide a simple framework for progressing through the game. The cutscenes, such as they are, arrive in the form of comic-book still-frame interactions punctuated by the droll self-mockery that Rockstar's writers do better than anyone. GTA:CW is all about the game. Its clever but simple story exists to accentuate and contextualize the action. Margaret Robertson would be very happy.

Robertson, as you may know if you caught my recent post-GDC podcast, delivered a talk in San Francisco called "Stop Wasting My Time and Your Money: Why Your Game Doesn't Need a Story to Be a Hit." In it, she pointed out that not all games require thick narratives, and sometimes such narratives do little more than hinder developers and players. When you realistically consider the development requirements for such games, you wind up facing a workflow that looks something like this: DEVISE, STORYBOARD, SCRIPT, CAST, VOICE RECORD, MOCAP, BUILD, ANIMATE, IMPLEMENT, TRANSLATE, RECAST, RERECORD, REIMPLEMENT. [1]

Would GTA:CW have benefited from such an approach? No way.

I'm a regular advocate for ambitious storytelling in games, but not every title requires them...not even games like GTA:CW that feature lots of characters. Robertson gets it right, I think, when she suggests that players prioritize their needs when they play games. They want to know (in descending order of importance):

  • Where I am
  • What I can do
  • What I look like
  • Who I am

I'm not sure I agree that "Who I am" always falls last on the list, but perhaps I need to think about the question more carefully. A game like GTA:CW certainly seems to work this way; but, interestingly, GTA IV attempted to emphasize "Who I am" at various times in its narrative, and this is precisely where the game ran into trouble.

Was Niko Bellic a problematic character because the game tried unsuccessfully to reposition "Who I am" at the top of its list? Perhaps the game was built according to Robertson's list of player priorities - just as Rockstar has designed every game in the GTA series - and no amount of contemplating Niko's nature or backstory could overcome this overarching structure.

I don't know. But one thing seems clear to me. GTA: Chinatown Wars succeeds on its diminutive hardware more completely than its older next-gen brother, and that's an accomplishment worth noting..and contemplating.

For the love of a game


Sometimes I get a little squirmy when I hear about the lengths people are willing to go as fans of...well, you name it. The bridegroom who monitors his fantasy baseball team during the wedding ceremony; the Trekkie whose basement is an exact replica of the bridge of the Enterprise; the teenager who mails Zac Efron three handwritten letters a day, seven days a week.

But sometimes such devotion can produce something truly wonderful, as I've discovered recently playing the fan translated version of Mother 3 and reading the beautiful and equally joyful Mother 3 Handbook.

As you may know, Mother 3 is the sequel to the classic SNES RPG EarthBound, and it was released in Japan in April 2006. Sadly, no English localization appeared - despite petitions, letter-writing campaigns, and incessant whining from thousands of fans - so in November 2006 a group of devotees from the community took matters into its own hands. As they describe it:

For two years a team of translators and hackers worked to produce an in-depth, professional translation and localization of MOTHER 3. In August 2007 the team began blogging about their progress, attracting the attention of the gaming industry, media, and more than half a million unique visitors.

Late in 2008 the final translated patch was released, and it received over 100,000 downloads in the first week.

I'm currently playing through the game, so I'm not prepared to say much about it yet (aside from YOU MUST PLAY THIS GAME!), but my friend Dan Bruno from Cruise Elroy has written the definitive series of essays on Mother 3, and I highly recommend it. In addition to a careful reading of the game, Dan performs his special music-analysis magic with a healthy sampling of audio clips and transcriptions of the game's music.

You may also be interested in Gamasutra's in-depth interview with the project's lead-translator Clyde 'Tomato' Mandelin.

I am quite prepared, however, to discuss the Mother 3 Handbook, another fan-produced gem and possibly the finest game guide I've ever seen. (Click here for a sample.) Chock-full of original illustrations, maps, character listings, screenshots, and a full walkthrough, the stylish handbook is highlighted by clever writing that appears to have leaped from the world of the game onto the pages of the book.

If you decide to play the fan translation of Mother 3, you owe it to yourself to have this delightful book sitting beside you for the journey.

Hats off to everyone who devoted such extraordinary time and effort to bring us this exceptional translation and this gorgeous book. In the world of games and gamers, this is what true love looks like.

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.

Voicing concern


Voice acting in games is abysmal. It's amateur hour. It's embarrassing. It's the blind leading the blind. And nobody seems to care. With notable exceptions like Uncharted, Mass Effect and Fable II (and these are uneven at best), what goes for "acting" in video games rarely surpasses the level of competence one finds in a high school musical.

The sad reality is that voice acting in games is bad by design. It's easy to blame threadbare plots and endless iterations of bad-ass heroes; but those aren't the real problem, believe it or not. The problem is the industry's systematic practice of relegating actors and their performances to the lowest priority in the design cycle. Sensible improvements could be made if developers cared to implement them, but it's apparently easier to hang actors out to dry, pay them, and move onto the next project.

I don't make a habit of ranting in this space, but lousy acting makes my blood boil, especially when it arises out of willful neglect or ineptitude on the part of producers. While it's unreasonable to expect games to showcase actors like films or theater (I think games force us to rethink our concept of "actor"), it is entirely reasonable to expect professionals in a profitable industry to deliver work that demonstrates skill and proficiency in all areas of design. We demand high quality character models and animations, but we tolerate poorly conceived, stitched-together performances to accompany them.

When I say "acting" I don't limit that term to a certain style, medium or venue. A well trained actor must respond to a wide array of texts or situations and adapt her approach accordingly. So if it's Shakespeare, children's theater, soap opera, or a toothpaste commercial, a good actor will do whatever it takes to deliver a solid performance. It may sound crazy, but an actor's devotion to playing the Oscar Meyer Weiner isn't terribly different from his devotion to playing Hamlet. Two radically different styles, but each requires 100% commitment. Anything less in either role - even the smallest bit of self-consciousness - and you're left with awkward floundering.

I mention all this because I'm not coming to the voice acting problem as the fussy "theatuh" director looking down his nose at all these silly video games with their insipid dialogue and cardboard characters. Quite the contrary, in fact. We know most video game stories are weak. We know most of the characters are flimsy stereotypes. We wish they weren't, but that's the hand we're dealt for now.

Here's the thing. Good actors know how to manage such characters. We do it all the time. Watch an episode of Days of Our Lives, and you will see an ensemble of seasoned actors making the absolute most out of an awful situation. We're actors. That's what we do. We make characters with the material we're given. We invent details and create nuances where none exist in the script. We're ready to breathe life into your games, if you would only let us.

I regularly defer to the expertise of designers, programmers, and others who know far more about building games than I do. But I can't help feeling this one is in my wheelhouse. Training and enabling actors to create believable characters is what I do. I don't know if "the consumer" cares about how characters are portrayed in games (I think he does), but I care because I have no choice. It's the painting hanging crooked on the wall. I can't help myself.

So I've been trying for the last few weeks to learn why voice acting in games is so consistently disappointing. I attended two sessions focused on the subject at GDC, and I've spoken recently to two actors who have worked on big games we all know. I think I understand why the problem exists and why it persists. I'll return tomorrow with a diagnosis of sorts (an account of how voice acting in games is typically produced), and I'll offer suggestions for ways we might improve games by empowering actors to do the jobs they're prepared and eager to do. Rant end. For now.

Brainy Gamer Podcast: post-GDC edition


This edition of the Brainy Gamer Podcast features a 2-volume post-GDC extravaganza of Gamers Confab goodness. Join me and my guests as we discuss what we learned at this year's Game Developer's Conference.

Volume 1:   

Segment 1: N'Gai Croal, game design consultant at newly-formed Hit Detection and former games and technology journalist at Newsweek; and Manveer Heir, designer at Raven Software and author of Design Rampage.

Segment 2: Corvus Elrod of Man Bytes Blog; and Chris Dahlen of Save the Robot.

Download Volume 1 directly here.

Volume 2:

Segment 1: Leigh Alexander, news director at Gamasutra and author of Sexy Videogameland; Nels Anderson, gameplay programmer at Hothead Games and author of Above 49; and David Carlton of Malvasia Bianca.

Segment 2: Ben Fritz of The Cut Scene; Wes Erdelack (aka Iroquois Pliskin) of Versus Clu Clu Land; and Duncan Fyfe of Hit Self-Destruct.

Download Volume 2 directly here.

Both volumes are available via iTunes here.
You can subscribe to my podcast feed here.


Podcast(s) on the way

This weekend I'm recording several Gamers Confab segments for the next episode of the podcast. This edition features a terrific lineup of guests - so terrific, in fact, that one podcast can't possibly hold all their Confabulous-ness. Be on the lookout for a two-part episode to appear (barring any editing snafus) on Sunday night. I hope you enjoy!

Note: Well, the snafu arrived in the form of torrential rain and a flooded basement. I'll post the podcast as soon as I can on Monday. Sorry for the delay.