Brainy Gamer Podcast: post-GDC edition
Voice for change

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.