Post­cards From The Clip­ping Plane

James Leach dives into the di­verse con­cept of ‘the videogame voice’

EDGE - - SECTIONS - JAMES LEACH James Leach is a BAFTA Award-win­ning free­lance writer whose work fea­tures in games and on tele­vi­sion and ra­dio

Of­ten, I won­der if there’s a point where the en­tire game in­dus­try just jumps the shark. A mo­ment where ev­ery­thing we do is self-ref­er­en­tial and ironic and ev­ery­body, from de­vel­op­ers to the games­buy­ing pub­lic, knows it.

If so, this might be the start. I was at a record­ing ses­sion re­cently for a game re­quir­ing sev­eral char­ac­ters. One of the VO fel­las, when think­ing about how he’d ap­proach one of the char­ac­ters, asked me whether I wanted it in a stan­dard videogame voice. Hold on, wait, what? This was a phrase I’d never heard be­fore. And the ram­i­fi­ca­tions, should it ac­tu­ally be a thing, are huge.

Of course, one of the things we’re all try­ing to do is be orig­i­nal and unique with our games. Un­less there’s a spe­cific rea­son not to, we’re all striv­ing to cre­ate in­di­vid­ual char­ac­ters who ideally look and sound right, but cer­tainly don’t ap­pear sim­i­lar or for­mu­laic. Heck, let’s be hon­est: there isn’t a for­mula, so how can they be?

We had a chat about this and it seems that ‘stan­dard videogame voice’ is ac­tu­ally what VO peo­ple dis­cuss when they’re not in the stu­dio (so our guy slipped up there). It’s born of two in­flu­ences. The first is de­liv­ery, for which the idea is to get a tone which is half­way be­tween straight act­ing and car­toon voice work. My first thought was that this is the re­ac­tion of peo­ple who don’t un­der­stand games. They sound like they’re pi­geon­hol­ing the medium, be­cause games ap­pear to their un­skilled eyes as sit­ting be­tween film or TV and an­i­ma­tion. But I then I re­alised it war­rants fur­ther thought.

So I gave it some thought. Many of the ‘best’ game char­ac­ters – the truly mem­o­rable ones for whom the voices seem per­fect – do oc­cupy the no-man’s land be­tween cel an­i­ma­tion and film. They’re strong, larger than life, and very of­ten filled with an en­ergy which is taken to ex­tremes in car­toons, but which you only see in Bond vil­lains and the like on the sil­ver screen. To be too real and sub­tle with a voice in a game draws the player in, where, from close quar­ters, they can con­trast the Academy-award-win­ning VO work with the Un­canny Val­ley graph­ics. It’s clear that lowqual­ity voice work and writ­ing will grate on the ear, but maybe it’s true if the voices are sim­ply a mag­ni­tude bet­ter than what you’re look­ing at?

So per­haps the VO peo­ple are right. I’m guilty of re­tain­ing the years-old no­tion that they all want to be on telly, and videogame work is some­thing they do to earn a bit when they’re not, so they don’t at­tach as much grav­ity to it. And frankly when I started out in this line of work that was some­times the case. But times have changed and, pro­fes­sion­als that they are, voice ac­tors to­day know what they’re talk­ing about.

Writ­ing di­a­logue for game char­ac­ters is a bat­tle to say as lit­tle as pos­si­ble. You’re not telling a story, the player is play­ing a story, so the goal is to im­merse them to­tally, as ef­fec­tively and ef­fi­ciently as pos­si­ble. We – hu­mans,hu I mean – have the abil­ity to ac­cept an­dan form strong opin­ions about char­ac­ters veryve quickly, and with­out need­ing to hear muchm from them. This goes dou­bly in videogames be­cause what’s im­por­tant to the player is that the char­ac­ter ex­ists for a rea­son, and that rea­son is ei­ther to help or hin­der the player. Once you’ve es­tab­lished which, and ex­tracted any vi­tal game or plot-re­lated info from them, you pick up the con­troller and move on. So in or­der for a char­ac­ter to stand out as one of the greats, it’s about hav­ing them say lit­tle at any one time, but adding depth ev­ery time you do. And when a char­ac­ter isn’t say­ing a lot, the de­liv­ery can be boosted or el­e­vated with­out it be­com­ing over-the-top and an­noy­ing.

Does all this mean that there is a way that videogame char­ac­ters sound? Far-reach­ing re­search, done by me one af­ter­noon, sug­gests not. I can usu­ally tell when di­a­logue has been writ­ten by some­one for whom it isn’t a core skill, shall we say. Again, the give­aways are that the char­ac­ters are too hy­per and they have too many lines. But I can’t de­tect a voice that in­di­cates ‘game char­ac­ter’, as op­posed to any other field. And that’s pleas­ing be­cause it means there’s no short­hand for voic­ing char­ac­ters. No­body’s be­ing lazy be­cause it’s just a game. And yes, the game in­dus­try dwarfs the film world fi­nan­cially, so per­haps that’s why it’s taken so se­ri­ously now.

So thank you, voice peo­ple, for bring­ing some­thing to the char­ac­ters which I have to say I hadn’t con­sciously con­sid­ered. Keep it di­alled up a notch and I’ll prom­ise to keep the lines short. Deal?

I can usu­ally tell when di­a­logue has been writ­ten by some­one for whom it isn’t a core skill, shall we say

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