In the last year or so, I’ve started to notice a trend in the big AAA titles: more and more, we see actors and actresses known for their work in movies, television, and what have you putting on their voice actor hat and trying their hand at doing work in a video game. What spurned this thought process was the revelation that Ellen Page would be playing a major role in Quantic Dreams’ upcoming title, Beyond: Two Souls, and that Camilla Luddington will be voicing Lara Croft in the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot.
This got me thinking about the AAA titles that have gone past lately and even more so on the growth that voice acting has in video games. I’ve always thought it was an overlooked aspect of video games and I could never understand why. Although it may not make or break a game, I believe it goes a long way to providing an experience gamers can truly immerse themselves in. Sure, graphics, gameplay, and the shift to 3D have all seen drastic growth and improvements over the course of video game history, but I think it’s about time that voice acting got the same amount of attention.
First of all, let’s rewind a long time ago, right back to the start of gaming. It took years before voice acting even became the norm in the industry. Bezerk for the Atari, released in 1980, was arguably the first game to feature voice acting work but in a different form known as voice synthesis. This was a major step forward as, at the time, voice compression was incredibly expensive. Estimates would appear to say that it could potentially cost the manufacturer $1,000 USD per word. The game boasted a thirty-word vocabulary that was tied to certain in-game events, such as the line, “The humanoid must not escape,” which sounded when the player escaped a room after destroying every robot. If you thought it was difficult to provide an answer for the question, “Which was the first game to feature voice work of any kind?” it’s even more difficult to discover the first game to feature actual voice acting, an endeavour that led me to so many different answers, I decided to leave them out.
One of the first games to really capture audiences and bring attention to the prominent role voice acting could have in crafting a tale would have to be Final Fantasy X. Until this point, all the Final Fantasy titles relied on text to convey a story rather than full voice acting, a mainstay of many RPGs at the time. That was better back then as the RPGs that did sport voice acting were of terrible quality, a stigma not entirely shaken off today. But as far as recognisable, iconic voice actors would go, the honour goes to David Hayter and his work in the Metal Gear Solid series, where he voiced series protagonist Solid Snake. The deep drawl and husky voice of one of the most iconic characters in video game history became a feature discussed openly in many circles. His impact on the voice acting scene can’t be emphasised enough and opened up the flood gates for voice actors to put in work into the video game industry.
But not everything was all fine and peachy. At around the same time, a game called Resident Evil was released in 1996, kicking off the famous survival horror series. The voice acting was bad, laughably so, to the point where it was almost in the niche known as so bad it’s good. The only thing that could’ve surpassed it in its terrible quality was the script itself, and if you need proof, just take a gander at this ten-minute clip. Trust me, it’s worth it. The lines honestly sound like they were performed on the phone while the actors did a light amount of paper work, but Capcom’s major IP wasn’t the only culprit at the time. In fact, many titles sported similar quality in voice acting; e.g. Castlevania: Symphony of Night.
All that said, things began to improve after David Hayter’s performance in the Metal Gear Solid series. Devil May Cry, released in 2001, was a step in the right direction. Although not sporting the best writing or voice acting, the actors themselves seemed to have had at least some previous experience and were asked to embark on a somewhat emotional experience, with the musical score pushing and complimenting the strengths of the actors. That isn’t to say there weren’t some questionable and downright laughable lines, but we had to start somewhere.
Moving forward, one title I can’t ignore what it brought to delivering a convincing performance is L.A. Noire. Leaving the gameplay aspect entirely out of it (gameplay that I personally enjoyed), the amount of time and emphasis that went in to creating a believable performance is truly astounding. For those who are unfamiliar, L.A. Noire featured Depth Analysis’s newly developed technology called MotionScan. MotionScan, in essence, was a studio where actors would sit in the middle of a white room delivering their lines whilst surrounded by thirty-two cameras that would record the actor’s every emotion that the face was capable of delivering via winces, eye movements, and twitches. You can begin to see why Team Bondi marketed it so heavily. The actor’s performances were translated directly into in-game animation, and in a game that required players to identify truth from lies, the ability to read an individuals face was incredibly important, maybe only surpassed by the delivery of the lines. More often than not, I found that the actual way the line was delivered to me provided a much more accurate reading of a suspect than any facial cue could ever give.
This is certainly a unique approach to delivering a performance that aimed to captivate audiences, but L.A. Noire isn’t the only title to receive such special treatment. A number of AAA titles today require the voice actors to not only record the voice but to do so while performing stunts in a studio for motion capture. A prime example of this is the work that has gone into the Uncharted series, a game that required a great deal of physical actions from the voice actors. It’s the reason why the actor who provided the voice for Cole Macgrath of inFamous was changed in the sequel; the previous voice actor was unable to perform the physical motion capture required for the character.
Not only has the technology improved, but often greater expectations are being placed on the voice actors. Need proof? Look no further than the two trailers for the upcoming title, BioShock: Infinite, which highlights the importance of giving freedom to the actors who bring something to the table that wasn’t anticipated, as Kevin Levine pointed out. Going back to Uncharted, they were given the freedom to improvise lines, which often resulted in some of the more memorable banter between the characters. In the case of BioShock: Infinite, I found that particularly in the second trailer, where the voice actor of Elizabeth is berated by Hooker, which resonates with me personally and highlights exactly why voice acting deserves more attention. It isn’t something for everyone and it can be incredibly taxing on one’s emotions and physical strength.
And that brings us up to today, where a multitude of titles are gaining recognition for standing above the rest for their work in voice acting. The Portal series is renowned for its terrific writing and sarcastic humour, which has been made all the better by the delivery of voice actors Ellen Mclain, Stephen Merchant, and J. K. Simmons. The running jokes and memes borne from the series are a testimony to its quality. But it’s not the only one with quality voice acting; in fact, the list is growing. Red Dead Redemption, Mass Effect, BioShock, Half Life, and the Batman: Arkham games are just a short list of titles that demonstrate the growth of voice acting in our industry.
Sure, some questionable voice acting is still out there, but for the most part, the norm has improved tenfold since its beginnings in 1980. And with this improvement, expectations rise and actors are given more freedom to explore their roles. It’s about time we give credit where credit is due.