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Voice acting in RPGs may be more trouble than it's worth


This is a weekly column from freelancer Rowan Kaiser, which focuses on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.

Jennifer Hale, Nolan North and Troy Baker, among others, have become video game celebrities for their voice acting – deservedly so, given how entertaining they can be as characters like Commander Shepard or Nathan Drake. Recorded speech has become a significant component of most all games, notably RPGs, having grown steadily since the shift to CD-ROM games in the mid-1990s. Yet their importance isn't always apparent.

I, for one, didn't realize their impact on games until just a year or two ago, when I commented on game designer Brenda Brathwaite's blog about how an RPG could be done cheaper and faster without many modern components, which included recorded speech. Brathwaite responded specifically to the voice acting component, saying that once her company started making RPGs with voice acting, they discovered that their writing and editing process had to be completed well in advance of what they were used to, with the actor's recording of his or her lines "baking" the narrative section in place much earlier than normal.

"Great ideas were left sitting on the bench because the time to record them (or render graphics) wasn't available," she said in her reply.

Voice acting in RPGs may be more trouble than it's worth
Was this a normal issue facing RPG developers? I started a quick conversation with Chris Avellone of Obsidian Entertainment – designer of famous RPGs like Planescape: Torment, Fallout 2, Alpha Protocol and Fallout: New Vegas expansions – about player choice in cinematic RPGs, and he volunteered, unprompted, some of his issues with recorded speech. "I don't enjoy doing cinematic conversations for a variety of reasons, but I have done them as part of my job."

Avellone described three main issues: first, that it disrupts his design process; second, his personal preference in terms of role-playing; and third, that their hard work that may not bear fruit.

In the first case, he says: "...on the resource end, the flexibility for fixing and editing voice-acted speech often interferes with the later stages of production as well – working on Alpha Protocol vs. Fallout 2, for example, were much different experiences, and I enjoyed F2 more." This aligns him with Braithwaite's experiences.

When I asked him if he had any particular example, he couldn't pick just one, saying, "My best example of voice inflexibility is just about any game I've worked on that was fully VO'd. Whether Alpha Protocol or [Knights of the Old Republic 2], the recording and localization must be done much earlier than the end product. If a quest is edited, changed, a character dropped, a mission removed, an error found, then you spend a lot of time editing lines and trying to work with the story cohesion."

Having played Knights of the Old Republic 2, a game with tremendous potential but one which was clearly hampered by lack of development time, I could sympathize. Huge swaths of that game were removed, rendering the original end of the game an incoherent mess. Modders have patched in parts that were removed, but they lack much of the polish of the original game. The amount of time spent fixing the issues of recorded dialogue must have played a part in the lack of time available to meet the publisher's release date demands.

On the personal level, Avellone says, "Often, conversations where the player is voice-acted detracts from my experience (I want to imagine what my character sounds like, not what a voice actor puts in my mouth)." Now, I don't entirely share this belief, although I do dislike it when a game, especially a role-playing game, makes the character who is supposed to represent "me" sound ridiculous (see the infamous Final Fantasy X scene above for the most notorious, if over-hated, example).

However, I do find that voice acting often disrupts the pacing of the games to their detriment. I tend to read much faster than people speak, especially people trying to enunciate clearly for a recorded story. The slower pacing can be grating, especially if the writing and the voice acting aren't done well.

That's one of Avellone's main points as well: "RPG cinematic conversations are incredibly labor-intensive and something that only a few studios excel at." He cites BioWare specifically, saying that they succeed where so many others fail. "BioWare is good at cinematic dialogue because they have the resources, skilled personnel (and the resources to hire specialized personnel as well), and a pipeline built and established from iterations of a conversation system across several similar titles, which is a damn smart way to do things."

In fact, Avellone isn't even sure that the rewards are worth the effort and hassle: "I am questioning whether developers should ever try to that, as I don't feel there's any value in playing catch-up to someone who's already got it down unless you're adding some new mechanic to the experience." This seems a little extreme to me – The Witcher's use of voice acting struck me as surprisingly effective – but I'm likewise unsure if the rewards match the hassle.

Voice acting in RPGs may be more trouble than it's worth
Many years ago, I remember reading Raymond E. Feist describing the process of creating the accents used for Return To Krondor before it was released. He talked about how, given one of the main characters' geographic location within the fantasy world as well as his class, it made sense to give him a hybrid Cockney/Mediterranean/Pacific Islander accent and how they were working with the voice actors to achieve these accents. The idea sounded good, and having read Feist's plans I understood why James sounded how he did. But other people – who didn't know the intent of the process – simply derided the accent as a ridiculous mish-mash of totally different influences. A lot of work, not a lot of reward.

However, there are cases where good voice acting is critical to a game's success. Obsidian Entertainment is currently working on South Park: The Stick of Truth, which Avellone described as " example where, by the nature of the franchise, removing the voices would hurt the title." He did note "...that doesn't mean we have to voice the (Player Character)/New Kid, however." He also cited the recent Batman games as similar examples, made better by their voice acting. "Arkham Asylum/City benefited from a number of the Animated series actors, so that's another example. Then again, those are established, set characters in a set universe."

It's easy for players to simply consider the presence of voice acting in a game as simply a delivery of text via a different sense, but it's more complicated than that. It affects pacing and role-playing potential on the player's end. It also adds new levels of complexity to the designer's job, making games take longer and cost more money, especially games with complex, large narratives like RPGs. When it works well, it can be a fantastic addition to a game. But I don't think it would hurt for players to adjust their expectations regarding voice acting. It may be more trouble than it's worth.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.

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