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Default Joystiq - Voice acting - more trouble than it's worth

July 8th, 2012, 02:47
Joystiq's Rowan Kaiser returns with his regular column, this time looking at voice-acting in RPGs. The piece references developers like Brenda Brathwaite and Chris Avellone on the pitfalls of voice-acting:
"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.
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.
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July 8th, 2012, 02:47
I think a little voice acting at specific points in a game can truly enhance it. Baldur's Gate II without David Warner just wouldn't be the same. Nevertheless, what I think Avellone is primarily referring to is the industry's over-reliance on voice acting, incorporating it far too often, making it (and cinematics) part of the gameplay itself and not merely a tool for its enhancement.

Not to mention the obvious difficulty in implementing changes to the game itself after recording has been completed.
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July 8th, 2012, 09:57
No, i think he is referring to the designers poor directing skills, and lack of coordination for the voice actors. Some just think, hell, we have a great actor, thats awesome. Most of the time, it will bear worst fruit than a noname.

The pinnacle of voice acting will always be soulreaver and diablo 1 for me.
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July 8th, 2012, 13:12
Good actors alone can't do a thing. A good script and a good VA director is also needed. Take a look at various games that Stephen Russell has been in for example. Thief games had extremely good sound and VA direction, and Russell truly shined in his role as Garrett. In Arx Fatalis on the other hand the whole cast including Russell sounded ridiculous. Everybody did several voices, and they seemingly didn't even try to separate their roles. The only good voices in this game were goblins (they were truly funny).
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July 8th, 2012, 13:19
The path is difficult to follow as it turns the player into an actor.

And a designer has few reins to direct the player in the actor job, other than tuning the gameplay down.

Two cinematographic scenes, well shot etc The between is left to the acting skill of the player.

The first scene conveys the proper emotions, mood etc It then takes the player to manage the between well enough to enter the second cinematic scene with the same emotional state as at the end of the first cinematic scene.

The player misses, reloads, misses, gets frustrated, grows angry, and finally disperse the deliver of the first scene in terms of emotion, mood.

So is ruined the second cinematrographic scene.

It does not rely on the directing or voice acting skills. They can be very good. But as this path leads to transform a player in an actor whose quality conditions the delivery, it grows hard to control the product. It adds unknowns.

The gameplay has to be tuned down to make sure the narrative rythm necessary to connect two cinematics is accessible to the average player.

A designer has little directing control over the player other than the gameplay.

So in the end, in order to try to deliver the story, the gameplay suffers.
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July 8th, 2012, 20:32
I tend to agree with the author. While I enjoy games that have voice acting, it is certainly obvious that the number of dialog choices in RPGs has gone down dramatically as a result. I do believe that the correlation between the emergence of voice acting in RPGs and the lessening of dialog options is real.

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July 9th, 2012, 04:05
Very real. Peoples' comparisons to silent movies is a red herring. There are lots of ways to make textual conversation interesting and engaging without resorting to walls of text. It's not like you have no sound, you're just not committing every word to voice-over. I think greetings and flavor commentary is a marvelous compromise. You don't even have to do full voice conversations like Fallout 1. Just indicate a particular response with the first few words or a line. For instance:

Player: I don't think you want to be doing that partner.

NPC: (spoken suspiciously) And just why not? (text) And just why not? I got my rights to be here same as you. For that matter, what are you doing here?

Stuff like that could be a good alternative. Sadly it's all about controllable movies now. It is undeniably engaging, but it also wears thin when everyone feels they have to do it.
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July 9th, 2012, 10:34
I'm not really sure where I stand when it comes to voice acting. I think it's a matter of how much must be sacrificed to get full VA? Gothic blew me away back in the days by being one of very few fully voice acted RPGs, but Gothic - like the Elder Scrolls - generally sacrificed multiplayer to achieve a stronger single player experience. If multiplayer is the price to pay, I'm fine with it. If other aspects must be sacrificed, I'm not. Roughly.
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July 9th, 2012, 11:41
I think the impact of voice acting depends almost entirely on the game and, obviously, the quality of the people involved.

Some games would be much less immersive without voice acting, and something like Mass Effect is a good example.

It depends on what you want to do with your game, and whether immersion is a primary factor.

I generally prefer unknown actors - because it can take me out of the experience to hear a famous actor in my game. I don't enjoy the merging of Hollywood and the gaming industry - and I'd definitely prefer the two forms of entertainment be kept as separate as possible.

That's not to say it can't work - but just that I don't think a cinematic experience can compete with a truly strong interactive experience. They can definitely be successfully combined, but the "game" part is what I'd prefer to be the main thing.
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July 9th, 2012, 11:47
What makes me still sad is that people demanded full voice acting for Drakensang 2.

I wish Radon Labs didn't listen to them. Because I assume that the costs were really high.

And I assume that this drove Radon Labs into extinction further down the road.

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July 9th, 2012, 13:34
Originally Posted by Bedwyr View Post
I think greetings and flavor commentary is a marvelous compromise. You don't even have to do full voice conversations like Fallout 1. Just indicate a particular response with the first few words or a line. For instance:
I think so for greetings, flavour commentary and am more suspicious over a partially voiced over discussions approach.
Would attract the "it would be so good if the texts were fully voiced over" reaction.
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July 9th, 2012, 17:11
Yeaqh I don't need voice acting to advance the story line and I usually just enable the subtitiles so I can read and advance the scene at my leisure.

I was almost going to make a sweeping generalization that I would prefer no voice-overs, then I remembered the NPC banter in BG 1 & 2. That's about the extent of the voice acting I need. A character speaking when they are selected on screen is fine, but please no long passages. DA:O was the last game I played with significant voiceover, and it annoyed me.
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July 9th, 2012, 17:20
If it's holding up the gameplay I just skip VOs anyway. Unless I can't, then it makes me mad. This goes double if there's subtitles as I can read it so much faster. I also get irritated about having to "click click click" through the subtitles as each dialog sound clip is loaded off disk, where if I got it in one big chunk it'd be a lot easier to consume.

However, it partially depends on gameplay. Would Alpha Protocol, to use the articles example, have been the same game without the VOs? I don't think so because that was about reading people and subtleties of spoken & visual communication get lost in text. But with New Vegas, where the character's VOs were about as subtle as a brick to the head, I wouldn't have missed speech in the tiniest bit. Drakensang, it didn't bother me a bit there was no speech, I was usually surprised when it came up because I'd forgotten the game had any. If it's a TBS, go ahead and hit me with a wall of text, I'll read it, I've got the time to (gameplay wise).

I think VOs are much more important in action games than traditional RPGs. In an action game I'm typically receiving voice orders while concentrating my vision and hands on something more immediate. In those games I typically don't need to respond either. For instance, in my own Unfettered I decided I wanted to do in-flight VOs for any communication because the idea was you're too busy with your hands and eyes to read text.

It has to be much easier to record the dialog for linear or semi-linear action games. Simpler stories, no branching dialog paths and probably < 5% of the dialog needs to recorded. These kind of games probably don't have their story structures radically altered all that often either.
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July 9th, 2012, 17:24
Originally Posted by Drithius View Post
I think a little voice acting at specific points in a game can truly enhance it. Baldur's Gate II without David Warner just wouldn't be the same. .
Agreed. I like it when the first line or two of a conversation is voice-acted, then the rest is just text. Gives me an idea of what the characters sounds like, but then I can go at my own speed.

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July 9th, 2012, 20:06
It depends on the game. While VO obviously aren't necessary to make a great game, I agree with the sentiment that some games wouldn't have been the same without them. I also agree that partial VO is the best way to go.
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July 9th, 2012, 20:11
A game that forces me to listen to it is likely to not be purchased by me, tbh. I like the text, maybe that just comes from an old school perspective on gaming. Put more money into the content of the game, and don't jack up the costs for the consumer, is what I say. For me at least, it's totally overrated.


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July 9th, 2012, 22:24
From a production standpoint Voice-overs and actor capture both undo what is unique about making games: itteration.

During development you can change alot of dialog. Tweaks to the story, some additional exposition can all be added months before release. With VO voices are recorded a year before release, which means dialog has to have been hammered down well before that.

From a consumer standpoint I just hate some elements of VO for different reasons.
1. It sometimes turns games into a movie.
2. The dialogue choices are cryptic words and as a result the 20 second line the character says is not quite how I had it in my head.
3 Dialog becomes more noticeable, and also it's flaws. (Alot of characters are voiced by the same person or several actors in minor roles like guards have the exact same dialog but obviously with different voices. If it's just text it doesn't matter if the dialog is the same, we read similar sentences all-day. We internally give the dialogue a character or voice.

One of my favorite games is Morrowind.

Morrowind had a wiki-style dialog system. No doubt many hated it, but I loved it. Each villager could tell me about interesting objects in the vicinity, or about the region. If I talked to a trader he could tell me about different types of alcoholic beverages. Any ranger could tell me about the large towns in the neighborhood and mark them on my map or about the different regions. Basically each NPC could talk about things you would expect them to know things about not because a designer has chosen this or that particular NPC to clue you in about a certain thing. The only VO in Morrowind were 3 main characters and a few 'tutorial' characters, racial/classbased/disposition opening dialog and racial/classbased idle talk.

Anyway, I can see that some neat things from Oblivion/Skyrim can't be done because of that in Morrowind; like two villagers talking to each other.

But maybe I'm just an old curmudgeon.
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July 9th, 2012, 22:50
Originally Posted by JuliusMagnus View Post
During development you can change alot of dialog. Tweaks to the story, some additional exposition can all be added months before release. With VO voices are recorded a year before release, which means dialog has to have been hammered down well before that.
Thank you for pointing out the real problem: poor production practices. It looks like the voices are recorded too soon and I think everyone agrees that too many last minute changes are made in the games.
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July 10th, 2012, 09:05
Huh no, they are not poor practices. They are necessary practices as explained in the earlier post.

A narrative relies on pace.

For two cinematic scenes to connect properly, the more control on the between, the better the possibility of proper connection.

If the first cinematic is designed to make you feel empathic and enters the second cinematic in an empathic mood, you have to make that between the two scenes, the mood is not changed.

If for any reason, the player enters the second scene frustrated, you lost the benefit of the first scene.

The gameplay has to be tuned down to manage. To trying to make sure that the benefit of the first cinematic is not lost on the player.

With fully voiced over, the gameplay is subordinated to the cinematics. You have to make sure the played sequence does not come in the way of the cinematics delivery.

And cinematics voices have to be recorded in the middle as it gives time to adjust the gameplay in a preserving way, working with the actual material.

Certain demands come with consequences. And players wishing for a story in a game push toward gameplay being subordinated to the story delivery.
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July 10th, 2012, 13:06
I remember one review on the infamous "Inca" game by … I think it was Sierra, back then.
The review stated that the voice actor (voice acting was still a rarity back then !) was totally out of his role … The reviewer wrote something like as if they had hired someone who could vaguely speak German in the middle of the U.S. , had given him ac script in which he should speak a really sad and grieving fther who mourns over the death of his son - without telling the "voice actor" so. The result was someone who was reading a mourning with the voice of someone who had just heard a joke or was in an otherwise humorous mood - totally unfitting the role he has to speak.

What people often forget is that voice acting was mainly done in the U.S. first - and for U.S. customers. Here in Germany even in tha midst of the 90s games were sometimes NOT translated. The famous Indiana Jones And The Fate Of Atlantis was done with English language vouice acting, too. And this is a rare, very rare sought-after collector's item now here in Germany, because it remained untranslated nd was never sold here in Germany anyway.

Same went for Monkey Island, I think I remember.

The impression was often that Europe was treated as second-class citizend in that respect. And you wonder about bad voice acting or bad translations ?

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