Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Voice Acting and Games (Part 2)

Let's take yesterday's discussion about voice acting and constrain it to the voice acting of characters that the player meets and talks to during the game.

If we've got a character with a small portrait and text without VO, then it's up to the player to infuse that NPC with personality as they see fit based upon one small portrait and their interactions. There is generally a lot of leeway for different players to have a different mental image of that character. This relates to the point I was making in my Nostalgia Reviewing post some time ago.

When we compare portrait & text to a fully voiced and animated character, we're dealing with two entirely different means to engage the player. The former style was all that could be used in older games due to the technical limitations of the time. This meant characters were left more as a blank slate for players to read their own thoughts into the personality of a character based on a single image and the dialogue within the game.  In some cases, I imagine that the personality of those character did not match the personality as it was envisioned by the writers/developers. But no doubt the same is true of books.  And in this way, comparing portrait & text to fully voiced and animated characters is like comparing the difference between a character in a book and a character in a movie.

Is this exactly how you imagined Aragorn from reading Lord of the Rings?

Compare and contrast characters from old RPGs like Ultima Underworld or Infinity Engine games against something like Dragon Age. If you asked players to describe the personality of specific characters, I imagine you would get significantly more variance in the description of characters from the older games. In newer games the characters that players meet have more tightly defined personalities because of the extra details we get in appearance, gestures, expression and voice. The older games allowed us to fill all those details in because it wasn't possible to show them to us.

So with all this extra information that we are being provided, surely we are getting a richer experience from interacting with these characters? We get to see and experience every nuance of our interaction with them on a level that is beginning to approach exchanges that we experience in movies or real-life, all within the context of a video game. All the extra information that the designers can convey to players is phenomenal, allowing them to emotionally manipulate players through cinematic visuals and audio. We can hear the fear and sorrow in the voice of Alyx Vance (Half-life), the indignation of Loghain (Dragon Age), and the snarky exchanges between the Prince and Princess (take your pick of the Prince of Persia games). These give us a real sense of the personality of the characters in these games, allowing us a greater ability to truly understand and hence empathise with these characters.

This scene would not pack as much emotional punch without voice acting

However, while we might be getting an impression of the character that is more closely aligned with that of the people responsible for creating it, does this really help us become engaged with the game in the best possible way?  In a way, while we can become more emotionally engaged with the characters that have been created for us, we become less engaged with our own personal perception of the characters and environment. If everything is shown to the player in minute detail, then a game risks that every player will have exactly the same experience because they are not engaged with the game through their imagination.

For older games, players were almost forced to use their imagination to give characters extra depth simply because it was not possible to give that complete picture of a character. The experience arguably was more personal for older games, because it was up to the player to infuse the game they were playing with the extra personality that was lacking. Just like reading a book, everyone's image of the individual settings and characters was slightly different, providing an individual experience for each person within the set boundaries of its plot.

Have players become lazy and simply demand that they be shown every single thing in games nowadays? Are players losing their imagination as a result of the increasingly cinematic approach to AAA games? Or has the desire to have believable gaming environments created a gaming market in which pure text is no longer acceptable in order to maintain the illusion of reality?


  1. I personally think that voiceacting can have a place in games, and that it can be used to great effect if done well.

    But for me, somewhere along the way, the "experience" has gotten far more important than "the game". I love good stories but listening to voiceacting just takes too damn long for me a lot of the time. I'm here to *play*, not listen. I want to be active. This is partially why I like reading, because I can read fast.

    But it's also due to what you say, about infusing one's own imagination into characters. And there is a fairly big chance that I will just not enjoy a voiceactors performance (or just the voice alone), and thus that will ruin a character that might have been very well written.
    Furthermore, I think it's an easy way for a game designer to get a "story-teller's ego". Meaning that it's more likely they'll focus more on the characters, more on the cinematics, more on telling a story to the player instead of giving the player a lot of freedom to craft his own story.

    From a development point of view, I also think it constricts writers because A) every line of dialogue costs a lot more and B) there is less freedom to reiterate. Once an actor has recorded his lines (especially if we're talking the bigger actors), then it's gonna be hard to convince a publisher to pay the actor to get back in the studio to re-record stuff.

    As far as the mainstream goes, I think RPGs that are text only (or even with *some* voiceacting but mostly text) are a thing of the past.

    That said, again, I think there is definitely a place for voiceacting in games. SHODAN in System Shock 2 wouldn't have been half the menace she was without voiceacting, I don't think Irenicus would've worked at all, Henry Leland or Marburg from Alpha Protocol, Mr House in New Vegas... There are many characters which are better for it.

  2. I confess that I also enjoy reading, and pretty much the first thing I do is to turn on subtitles in a game. I think Alpha Protocol is the only game in my recollection that I haven't played with subtitles on, mainly because I found that subtitles for unskippable dialogue was more frustrating/annoying than not having them at all.

    But there is a definite shift towards voiced games, and as a modder, that means that I seemed destined to require voice actors in order to deliver an acceptable product to players. Unless of course I switch tactics and start making my own games more reminiscent of "classic" games that focus on text delivery... I wonder if there would be a market for an indie game like that?