Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Hearing Voices: Gaming's Unsung Heroes

This article was written for Forces of Geek and went up on the site Thursday 28th June. During a brief period of research on voice actors for this piece, I discovered a truly awesome fact about the wonderful, Claudia Black; she named her children after a Norse War God and the word for "Warrior" - Odin and Viggo! Anyway, digression aside, I hope you enjoy reading this article as much as I did writing it. Voice actors deserve more praise!

Credible voice acting is important, it influences the atmosphere of its medium and it speaks (excuse the pun) to an audience. Within the games industry, one which constantly strives to be compared to film, terrible voice acting has reigned supreme for years. Why exactly is that?

Perhaps it was never considered important until the gaming industry overtook the film industry in terms of fiscal profit. Or maybe it was much earlier than that. Decades ago, there was no real technological capacity for realistic voices - just background noise, music and the occasional sound effect. As games developed over time, voice acting became an integral part of their make-up. It's only in recent years that it's been honed and perfected. 

During the early years of 'talkies', loading time was an issue that often affected the quality and delivery of voice-over work. A classic example is Resident Evil, during the voice recording I imagine the actors sounded great but add to their performance a five second delay between each line and the dialogue sounds unnatural, stunted and forced, "Oh, Barry!" .... "Jill, are you alright?" .... "Yes, Barry.... now." For a prime example, watch the clip below from 0.42 to 01.14 - priceless.

Not every game went down this path, some of the most iconic characters are famously silent. Most notably, Link, the mute green elf acts as a blank slate allowing the player to immerse themselves completely. Then there's Cloud Strife who needs nothing more than subtitles to convey the powerful story in Final Fantasy VII, one which brought tears to many a gamer's eyes - including me.. especially me (I tear up just thinking about it). I doubt Aerith's death would have had the same emotional weight had a squeaky voiced American bleated out her name as she met her end.

These are the kinds of characters you truly invest in emotionally. Your own imagination fills in the gaps and the characters speak in any way/accent you want them to making them universally accessible; much in the same way as one envisions a character in a book. It makes the game more subjective and creates a unique experience for each player as opposed to a dull pre-determined character with a stock personality. Yawn.

Freeman's eyes tell you "I don't want to talk about it"
There's a lot to be said for silence and subtle nuances. A character who doesn't speak such as Jack from BioShock has no forced identity meaning that players can explore and experience the underwater world of Rapture as the character does, immersing themselves in the horrors and discovering the truth with him. You could say the same of Gordon Freeman, renowned throughout the Half-Life universe yet never says a word - because he doesn't have to. Other character's reactions speak volumes for Dr Freeman and he's still a great character.

Of course some games that have fantastic voice acting end up falling short because they lack variety, repeat phrases or use same accents over and over. When you come across a new character in an expansive world like the one encountered in Skyrim and their voice is identical to the traveller you met earlier on the other side of the map it's a little disorientating. Moments like this take you out of the game, it's a distraction and ultimately becomes an aesthetic, unavoidable flaw in a game which otherwise has very little wrong with it. To the degree that you begin reciting their mini monologue in sync with them: "Quit ya lollygaggin'"   

Some of my favourite titles with phenomenal voice acting include Halo 3: ODST (in fact most Halo games have great casting), L.A. Noire, Fallout 3 and Portal 2. I could go on, although listing these few I realise that the characters in these games are mainly film/TV actors as opposed to professional voice actors (Nathan Fillion, Adam "the man they call Jayne" Baldwin, Aaron Staton, Liam Neeson and Stephen Merchant). Other famous actors to grace the gaming world with their vocal presence include Martin Sheen and Seth Green, who both went down a storm with Mass Effect fans in the second game. Of course, with actors there comes the added appeal of recognising a celebrity and having a "Is that...?" moment. 

Some of the many faces of Halo
Have you ever watched a TV programme and been unable to place an actor on screen? Voice acting is the same thing and it's strangely satisfying when you find out it really is Michael Ironside voicing Sam Fisher and that my dad in Fallout 3 is Liam Neeson. It was also incredibly gratifying when I finally earned enough credits on Halo multiplayer to purchase Buck's voice (Fillion) in multiplayer firefight games, turns out I'm not the only one - most of my Halo playing friends saved up their credits especially! 

Yet, using film and television actors can also disrupt a game; back when I played GTA: San Andreas for example, upon noticing Officer Tenpenny was voiced by none other than Samuel L. Jackson, I didn't really hate the character like I was meant to - sure he was a great enemy but all I did was find amusement in everything his character did or said. I can't help but think my enjoyment of the game could have been slightly improved if I hadn't recognised him in the first place!

Steve Blum doing what he does best
But what about everyone else? What about the deafening myriad of voices that populate our games? Some notable voice actors you might not know and but improve your gaming experience include, Nolan North, Steven BlumDee Bradley BakerJohn Di MaggioPhil LaMarr and Jen Taylor. It's names like these that add to the quality of a game and always (in my opinion) give fantastic performances. 

The problem is, I don't know enough about them... and that's why they work so beautifully. If I hear an actor like Ray Liotta, it can be jarring but I bet you have never heard of half the above actors despite the fact they appear in so many titles.

I'd love to write more about these people and explain how talented they are but instead all I can do is list who they have personified. Desmond Miles, Vincent Valentine, Wolverine, Ra's Al Ghul, Boba Fett, Marcus Fenix, John White, Cortana, not to mention countless background supporting characters and creatures. If that isn't a testimony to their work, I don't know what is.

Nolan North - probably the best known voice in games
Then there are people like James McCaffrey who voiced Max Payne in the first two games and despite being a fan favourite almost missed out on casting, as Rockstar wanted an older actor for the role. Now, for the first time, in Max Payne 3, McCaffrey is not only providing the main character's voice, he is also the model for the physical design and acts out every single movement via motion capture. So, in a somewhat Cinderella story, McCaffrey went from the guy paid to sit in a dark room and read a long script to the face of one of Rockstar's biggest anti-heroes. A wise man once said finish with a quote, so here's McCaffrey talking about fully embodying the character he'd only voiced so many years ago:

Max Payne... er.. I mean, James McCaffrey himself
"I'd never done it or known anything about that [motion-capture] world. The first few weeks were very difficult but I got used to it. Luckily, I was working with a lot of great actors who'd done a lot of motion-capture before, so they were a huge help in adjusting to it. It's a wild experience for an actor."

Is this the future for those who have voiced our favourite video game characters? It's looking likely, either way, we have a lot to look forward to.

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