Postcards From The Clipping Plane
James Leach dives into the diverse concept of ‘the videogame voice’
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