Thursday, January 3, 2013

Voice Acting P1: A can of really yappy worms

at 11:07 AM
For a subject so rarely mentioned beyond a cursory "good" or "bad" dismissal, voice acting (or voice-over or VO as it were) plays a massive role in a game's storytelling efficacy. What makes this a particularly interesting subject is the (vanishing) debate over whether VO is even necessary at all. Let me start you off with a quote from lead Elder Scrolls designer Ken Rolston, on the subject of adding full VO to ESIV: Oblivion:
"I prefer Morrowind's partially recorded dialogue, for many reasons. But I'm told that fully-voiced dialogue is what the kids want. Fully-voiced dialogue is less flexible, less apt for user projection of his own tone, more constrained for branching, and more trouble for production and disk real estate. Voice performances can be very powerful expressive tools, however."
Rolston gets straight to the point: VO is what the kids want. It's an industry imperative - you just aren't allowed to publish a major mainstream game without it. Is there an artistic justification for why it's become the standard? I don't think so, though most critics and developers would probably throw you that dirtiest of foul, back-handed compliments: "VO makes games cinematic". Regardless of whether this is true, or whether it's a good thing, no one feels the need to cite it as the basis for the pro-voice decision. VO has become opt-out: only to exclude it do you need to provide a reason. 'Universal' standards in an artistic medium are a can of worms (see that period around 2009's Avatar when every film had to use 3D), and voice acting is no different. Allow me to explore why I think games don't need voice acting - not to say many can't (or don't) benefit hugely from it.
Beyond any comment on 3D, was it necessary for this movie to look so retarded?
The progress of games as an art-form for its 40+ year existence has been inextricably bound to technological advancement. With so much in a constant state of flux, it's hard to determine what is strictly progress and what is a matter of creative discretion. Nothing is strictly progress really, because a designer can always make the conscious decision to step backwards, to use 'retro' tools (to continue with the film analogy, 2011 Oscar-winning film of the year The Artist was black-and-white and silent), but it's pure stubbornness  to pretend some advancements aren't indeed exactly that, advancements. They make our stories easier to tell, expand our expressive capabilities, blah de blah else. So here's where it's all: but is VO a true technological evolution, or just another tool in the toolbox? And the cop-out answer is, like usual: "for movies it was a permanent step forward, so it must be for games as well!"

If you're willing to invest a whopping one second of thought, we can jump ship for a second to books. Wait a minute: audio-books never replaced books on paper! It comes down to exactly what Ken Rolston said: part of reading is injecting one's own tone into the experience. We're allowed to come to our own understanding of the characters and narrative voice and present them in that light. Movies don't give us the same luxury - they have actors. As a matter of fact, that might be the primary difference between literature and film. I'm not going to delve into it at the moment. Regardless, as soon as actors come into the picture, we have a human intermediary in the delivery of the characters: our understanding comes through their interpretation. Actors in film predate audio though - they're inherent in the medium - so the introduction of sound can't be compared to games at all. Acting was already there in movies, so voices weren't a fundamental game-changer as they are for books and games.

So really this discussion isn't at all about an advancement in audio technology. Technology opened the door, but what we're talking about is whether actors belong in games. When framed that way, all of a sudden it seems a lot stupider to jump to the conclusion that VO being possible implies VO is necessary. When we come back, we'll go from theory to practice and look at how games have been affected by the historical implementation of VO. Look out for Legend of Zelda, Oblivion, and maybe even a taste of Starf Ox!


  1. You question whether games should have actors, but don't seem to address the issue that even if games got rid of voice acting, there would still be actors of a sort - aren't all avatars in a game actors? What distinguishes actors in a silent film from silent avatars and NPCs in a game? Now, I suppose you could say that games don't require graphics, NPCs, or player avatars (text based games, games where the player is the only character told from a first person view, extremely stylized games where characters are represented through symbols, et cetera), but that is not the argument you are making (especially if the Legend of Zelda, Oblivion, and Star Fox are the games you're citing.

    If your point is that acting should be avoided, then so should physical, animated acting.

    1. Ah, but I do not question whether games "should" have actors - I question whether games *need* actors. The question addressed here is whether VO is a necessary evolution of presentation or an optional creative inclusion. Concluding on the latter, it follows that VO very well can be used to a positive end. However, its mere presence can likewise constitute a flaw. This is contrary to the conclusion taken by the mainstream gaming discourse, that VO is a fundamental and the only point of evaluation is the quality of performance.

      Nonetheless, to address your point as to avatars being actors: this is my fault for not properly defining acting. By your line of reasoning, the words in a novel could be considered actors - which is not necessarily invalid. What I mean here by acting is not physical or auditory delivery, but human interpretation. A dedicated human representation of a character's carriage and delivery - an identification of a fictional person with a real one. To wit (sweet I love getting to say "to wit"): if a video game employed computer-generated speech, this would not be voice acting. Similarly, computer-generated imagery is not physical acting.

      Hopefully that definition adds greater clarity to the discussion.