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The Problems With Video Game Voice Acting 251

The Guardian's Games blog explores the tendency of modern video games to suffer from poor voice acting, a flaw made all the more glaring by increasingly precise and impressive graphics. Quoting: "Due to the interactive nature of games, actors can't be given a standard film script from which they're able to gauge the throughline of their character and a feel for the dramatic development of the narrative. Instead, lines of dialogue need to be isolated into chunks so they can be accessed and triggered within the game in line with the actions of each individual player. Consequently, the performer will usually be presented with a spreadsheet jammed with hundreds of single lines of dialogue, with little sense of context or interaction. ... But according to David Sobolov, one of the most experienced videogame voice actors in the world (just check out his website), the significant time pressures mean that close, in-depth direction is not always possible. 'Often, there's a need to record a great number of lines, so to keep the session moving, once we've established the tone of the character we're performing, the director will silently direct us using the spreadsheet on the screen by simply moving the cursor down the page to indicate if he/she liked what we did. Or they'll make up a code, like typing an 'x' to ask us to give them another take.' It sounds, in effect, like a sort of acting battery farm, a grinding, dehumanizing production line of disembodied phrases, delivered for hours on end. Hardly conducive to Oscar-winning performances."
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The Problems With Video Game Voice Acting

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  • by BadAnalogyGuy ( 945258 ) <> on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @06:52AM (#31506430)

    Who would have thought it?

    Rush jobs typically exhibit signs of low quality and lack of attention to detail.

    • by somersault ( 912633 ) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @07:32AM (#31506622) Homepage Journal

      Brutal Legend was one game that I was thinking recently had some great voice acting, and it seems this guy was one of the voice actors in it :)

      Voice acting is a very important component for making an immersive game, but you also have to have a good script. Was playing through Bad Company 2 in the last week and the script was awful compared to the first. Same great voice actors, but there was a sudden injection of swearing into every cut scene, and slightly less humour. I don't even have a problem with swearing in general (see Brutal Legend for details :) ), but after the first game having little to no swearing IIRC, it was out of place for those characters to be swearing like troopers all of a sudden. Despite being troopers.

      There are a few games where you can tell that the actors had to record masses of dialog completely out of context - Oblivion for example has a lot of interactive voice dialog and the inflection in some of it can be rather iffy.

      • by theaveng ( 1243528 ) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @08:34AM (#31507056)

        I don't understand people who say "This voice acting is terrible". Sure if I play something like Mario Sunshine, which has atrocious voicing, then I'll notice but for the most part I don't. It's just vocalized reading of the words on the screen.

        Of course I also don't understand people who say "Babylon 5 has lousy acting" or "Japanese anime sounds better in Japanese". To me B5 acting is no worse or better than Star Trek stiltedness. And my copy of Love Hina (old but a classic) is just as funny whether I watch in Japanese or English.

        Maybe I'm just not as picky or sensitive to voice nuances.

        • Sure it doesn't matter for a Mario game but when the game is supposed to be an immersive storytelling game then it stands out.

          In Max Payne the voice acting was mostly good (if a bit cheesy). There was one voice clip that grated every time I heard it. When the baddies spot you they sometimes say "what the hell?". Except that it's said in a tone of voice which makes it sound more like a relaxed "yeah, what the hell, I'm game" than a tense, surprised "what the hell is that?"

          • Ugh, Max Payne? The voice acting was terrible! Some of the most leaden, horrible... oh, wait. You meant the game! Yeah, the game voice acting was pretty good. ;)

            If I recall correctly, there was also a scene in the game where you hear an explosion in the distance, followed by Payne muttering, "What the hell was that?" I smiled every time I heard it because I thought it was so well delivered.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Psmylie ( 169236 ) *

          I almost always watch my Japanese animation in Japanese. There are a couple reasons for this, starting with the fact that sometimes awkward phrasing is needed in English to match the mouth flaps of the character. Also, I don't speak Japanese, so if the voice actor is horrible, I won't know it :P

          It's more important to me that the voice fits the character, that it sounds right. And, often, the Japanese seem to do a better job of that then the Americans. Just my opinion and preference.

          • That's completely besides the point.

            If you have to deliver a line and you're given:

            'You betcha.'

            In a spread sheet, its hard not to do a 'crappy' job. In a cartoon, there is a script that flows progressively. The article is saying that the games don't. So the line could be responding to "So do you want to go to a bar after work?" or "This bowl of rancid meat sure looks appetizing huh?" and there is no context, and either could be menu choices the NPCs need to respond to. If they do it wrong, they get told 'x

          • I suppose I should clarify, that I meant to reply to the your parent post.

        • by grumbel ( 592662 )

          Same here. The trouble most of the time isn't the voice acting, but the technical side of stuff. Having the same lines repeated over and over again gets annoying and breaks the immersion, no matter how good the acting on that specific line is. Having a mute hero and talking NPCs also leads to very unnatural dialogs. Overuse of the same voice actor with the same voice in different games or using the same voice for different characters in the same game is also a thing that should be avoided.

          Another very annoy

        • by feepness ( 543479 ) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @10:27AM (#31508186) Homepage

          Of course I also don't understand people who say "Babylon 5 has lousy acting"

          With coaching even those with Asperger's can learn to read other human's emotions.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by stewbacca ( 1033764 )

            Funny, but true. I've often thought that geeky shows get a pass in acting quality because a large segment of the target audience cannot discern good from bad acting anyways. Dr. Who and Babylon 5 come immediately to mind. Which is weird, when a show like Battlestar Galactica comes on with mostly third rate actors, it is hailed as acting supremacy (relative to other sci-fi shows, of course).

        • by Tekfactory ( 937086 ) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @12:30PM (#31510042) Homepage

          Of course I also don't understand people who say "Babylon 5 has lousy acting"

          Many of the actors in B5 were theatrical stage performers not TV actors, you get some things like Delenn's visual shorthand of biting her knuckle whenever she was concerned, worried, distressed because in the theater people can't see you make a concerned facial expression from the back row. In TV-land and the movies, cameramen will do closeups so you get that shot, but some of the B5 actors hadn't made that transition.

          I expect the actress was better by the time 'Lost' came around, but I never watched.

          Sinclair (can't remember the actor's name) is cut from the same Oak as Kevin Sorbo where wooden acting is concerned. On balance I'd put JaKar (Andres Katsulas) and Londo (Peter Jurassik) up against Alan Rickman and Kenneth Branagh for scenery chewing and watchability anyday.

          And no, B5 (Casablanca in Space) was no worse off than Star Trek TOS with its two-fisted Captain and strong Western influenced (Wagon Train in Space) themes.

      • by jockeys ( 753885 )
        totally agree. I was going to post something up and saw your post.

        Brutal Legend has some of the best voice acting I've ever heard in a game (not surprising from the same dude who brought us Full Throttle back in the day) and a famous cast. (Jack Black, Ozzie Osbourne, Lemmy Klimster(sp), Lita Ford, Rob Halford, Tim Curry). They all did a good job and recorded enough dialog that even during the grind, there wasn't a lot of repetition, it really kept the game fresh on subsequent replays and during multip
    • Rush jobs typically exhibit signs of low quality and lack of attention to detail.

      And also attention and preserverence..

      For a PBX project I had a friend speak about 40-50 phrases.
      The pace went really good to start with, but slowed down to the end and quality went down signigicantly where I had to really motivate her to keep on going. Even though the first 10 sentences she wanted to "perfect" them with nuances and redo them, I urged her to just get as much done and have it reviewed after, which proved the be

    • by Rogerborg ( 306625 ) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @08:22AM (#31506950) Homepage
      Yup. There's nothing stopping developers from doing it well - look at the GTA3+ series games. Even after completing San Andreas multiple times, I still laughed milk out my nose when CJ unexpectedly blurted out "I hate gravity!" on what must have been the thousandth time I cycled him off a cliff. Sheer class.
  • by myocardialinfarction ( 1606123 ) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @07:05AM (#31506472)
    As the legendary tape of Orson Welles walking out of the 'All Your Base' recording proves.
  • Left click (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Threni ( 635302 )

    solves that problem. Left click...left click...left click.....ooh, I can play the game now - cool!

    Note to developers: I play games to avoid having to watch tv (along with all the hackneyed plots, poor acting, terrible dialogue etc), not so I can experience more of it.

    • Re:Left click (Score:4, Insightful)

      by bheekling ( 976077 ) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @07:16AM (#31506536)
      I think they're talking about in-game interaction with NPCs, not cut-scenes. In Modern Warfare for instance, you *need* to listen to your friendlies or you won't get anywhere.
    • While I agree that unskippable cut-scenes are an atrocious, there are many of us who actually [i]like[/i] stories in our game. Why do you think Prince of Persia: Sands of Time is widely considered to be better than its two sequels? It's not the gameplay!

  • Wing Commander II (Score:4, Interesting)

    by tangent3 ( 449222 ) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @07:11AM (#31506506)

    Wing Commander II was the first game I recall that had some sort of voice acting. Now that I think about it, the voice acting was crap... but back in those days where most PC users were probably still using PC Speaker and do not have Sound Blasters, having voice acting in the first place was consider OMGWTFBBQ awesome.

    How times have changed.

    • Yep, times are a changing. I recall the Wing Commander series being amongst the pioneers in story-telling, voice acting, multiple story-pathing, even cinematics. If you look at any of them now, they seem so ridiculously dated in every regard. A time when all the acting was done by the developers, because they didn't have money to hire anyone else. You've got your Lead Developer who was a bit of a shut in during his senior year trying to sound like the hero everyone can relate with. Or better yet - if there

    • And I remember the voice acting in Wing Commander (don't remember which one specifically) because they had Mark Hamill (AKA Luke Skywalker) doing voice work for it. It was memorable in a time when the idea of a real actor, even a has-been, in a video game was sort of mind-blowing.

  • by 91degrees ( 207121 ) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @07:16AM (#31506534) Journal
    Decent writing might help as well. In my experience, dialogue is written by game designers. Writing dialogue is not always their main talent.
    • by deniable ( 76198 )
      Writing helps, so does good talent. Silent Hunter IV kept pissing me off when the American sailors kept speaking with European accents, almost like the used the same talent from the previous U-boat games.
  • For a game that was out in Japan 3 months previously, I am astounded at the quality of the dubbing and voice acting of FFXIII. Even previous titles in the franchise had acting that made me wince (FFX most of all, the first in the franchise to attempt it). There's a heavy cost for this sort of quality, however, and if anyone has the money to throw at this kind of thing, it's Square-Enix on their flagship franchise.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by illaqueate ( 416118 )

      They spent an extra month recording and re-recording voices but even then I'm not too impressed. It's nowhere near as good as the Uncharted series which has a fundamentally better process, including the casting. Bioware uses a traditional process afaik and it turns out decently but they are spending money to hire working actors who are quite good at acting in tv/movies and have a range, not just voices who go way over the top reading lines.

    • by Xtravar ( 725372 )

      I'm not too bothered by the acting. I find it pretty good, actually. But the lips often don't match up, and what's with all the "unh", "ahh", etc. grunting and pouting noises? That's the part that really annoys me. It's like the characters do that instead of possible lines of dialog. "Let's write this whole section in grunts so we don't have to re-do it for the English market."

    • Also FXIII is probably pretty linear compared to many western RPG or open-world titles. The dialog can be more refined and less bits of choppy elements (barring all the "poke every retard in town and see what one-liner they give you" dialog lines seemingly present in every single RPG ever)
    • I absolutely hate FFXIII for very many reasons except three: Gorgeous graphics, nice story and superb voice-acting.

      It's not the process that makes VO bad, it all depends how much time and money you're willing to throw at it.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Then why do the Japanese manage to get it right in every single hentai game?

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by nicodoggie ( 1228876 )

      It's basically because Japan has a HUGE pool of voice talent. They make hundreds of anime and interactive novels every year, it makes sense that they'd have decent voice acting.

      Plus, how hard is it to say "ahn ahhhn, yamete kudasai!!" a hundred times over?

  • JASON!
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @07:28AM (#31506604)

    Getting voice over artists who understand the accents they're meant to be using would also be nice.

    Having CoD4 ruined by the "British" voices pronouncing "depot" and "missile" in the USAian way (DEE-pot and MISS-le; rather than DEP-ot and miss-ILE) and using "cellphone" instead of "mobile". Five minutes work with a British person would have highlight this and minimised that ranting that I shouted at the computer screen.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by dingen ( 958134 )
      Or better even: claiming that someone is British and then letting them refer to someone's butt as her "fanny". That doesn't mean what you think it means, Americans.
    • by HopefulIntern ( 1759406 ) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @08:48AM (#31507140)
      What really threw me is the word "lieutenant" which in US english is pronounced lew-TEN-ant, but in British english "leff-TEN-ant". When one of the british guys in COD4 said it the latter way, the subtitles actually wrote out "leftenant" complete with the quotation marks. A similar thing happens in Need for Speed Shift. The "coach" which appears simply as a voice instructing you, is British. The courses you drive are also mostly British. And yet, instead of driving a "nis-san three fifty zed" he makes you drive a "nee-sahn three fifty zee".... On a similar note, can Seth McFarlane please learn british words/phrases properly, rather than just putting on a faux accent?!! Case and point: "fanny", "sweater", "sneaker" (words americans use, or have a different meaning for).
    • That’s nothing! Every single one of the Wolfenstein games hat ridiculous American accents for their German characters, and the whole think looked more like a parody.


      It’s practically a meme here in Germany.

      And the ridiculous German signs stating “ACHTUNG! VERBOTEN” (Attention! Forbidden!), but no other text explaining what it is that is forbidden. Which makes no sense at all!

      Also the characters’ names... The best one was Dr. B

    • You spelled "minimise" wrong...oh wait...

  • ...the actor playing Sheogorath in the Shivering Isles expansion pack for Oblivion, purely for the comically bad accent. Was Sheogorath intended to be someone who spent equal amounts of time living in Scotland, Ireland and America? Or did Bethesda just decide that one of the pre-existing cast of 4 voice actors was probably good enough to pull off an additional regional accent, seeing as the same person had already voiced half of Oblivion's population of NPCs?
  • by Ransak ( 548582 ) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @07:43AM (#31506696) Homepage Journal
    ... Mass Effect or Dragon Age: Origins (the latter more so than the former). They tend to use real actors, [] not just students or developers that want a shot at it.

    Of course this works under the premise that acting is a profession, which some disagree with.

    • I don't see why acting wouldn't be considered a profession. There are people who are really good at it, and (many, many more) people who are terrible at it.
    • by mackil ( 668039 )
      One of the great things about Thief was the voice acting, particularly Stephen Russell as Garrett. He made such an impression on the fans, that when Thief 4 was announced, that was the first question asked on the Edios forums.
  • Hey now... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    I see Mass Effect 2 has been listed as a game with good VA, which is cool; how about The Legacy of Kain series? Without a doubt, that's the bar for voice acting-- possibly even storytelling for the interactive medium.

    I'd be interested to hear Cam Clarke's take on this issue (primarily known as the voice of Leonardo).

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by illaqueate ( 416118 )

      Amy Hennig who wrote the Legacy of Kain series is also director of Uncharted. She has a film degree and the good voice actors in Legacy of Kain come from a theater background.

  • The real problem with voice acting, is that most people don't really know how the voice of a irish, dwarf, russian, french, spanish, etc.. guy sounds. So you can get a irish actor acting with his real irish accent called fake.

    Another problem is economical. English voices are usefull only on a subset of the users. All your users can share the models and textures, music and sound effects, but voice is only user for english people and the like. And this thing get aggravated wen you hire "know actors". Maybe I

    • My dad's a midwestern folk musician who plays a lot of Irish stuff. His stage "Irish" accent sounds about as authentic as the leprechaun on the lucky charms commercials. And he constantly gets people asking him if he's actually from Ireland. He says he just cringes inside every time someone asks.

  • by fish waffle ( 179067 ) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @09:12AM (#31507322)

    Games have improved tremendously in this respect over the last few years. Using the narrative context more so it's not just a collection of spoken phrases cut-and-paste together would help a lot. But you know, there's some even more basic problems remain:

    1) Use the same actor for the same character. Always. If you need to re-record or add more dialogue, and your original actor isn't available, then live without or re-record everything.

    2) Record the sound in the same place, or use a standard background sound. It is disconcerting when the recording quality and background noise changes between sentences.

    3) Tell your voice actors not to replicate the errors in the text. Convince them they are voice actors, not just fleshy text-to-speech translators.

    4) If your voice actors attempt to mimic strong accents of any form, beat them.

  • Let's talk about some voice acting we liked.

    My favorite example of voice acting is Bioshock. Withing that my favorite is Armin Shimerman. [] [] []

    His speech at the beginning of the game gave me chills.

  • Legacy of Kain (Score:3, Interesting)

    by MoNsTeR ( 4403 ) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @09:47AM (#31507692)

    Which of course is why basically linear games can have excellent voice acting. And by this of course I mean Blood Omen, Soul Reaver, and their sequels, which to this day have the best voice acting in any game ever made. I mean, just watch the intro to Soul Reaver, and play the first 10 minutes of the game, and compare that to more recent rot like Final Fantasy 10 and up, the Metal Gear Solid series, and even Modern Warfare 2 (which is good, but not the equal of, say, SR2).

    • Ah, that takes me back... The LoK games are some of my absolute favourites. The acting is overly dramatic and very thespian, but it fits with the style of the game. Tons of fun, and great writing.
  • Here's two things I wish developers would do:

    - Do NOT change the voices of foreign games. I want my Japanese games with Japanese voice acting, thank you very much.

    - When developing a game set in a specific foreign country, take a hint from Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ -- do it in that country's language. For example, I REALLY think God of War should be spoken in Greek, and Stalker, in Russian or Ukrainian. Is it set in a fictional land? Create a fictional language, like they did for the Panzer Dra

    • by grumbel ( 592662 )

      There is a much better solution: Do Dub, but let the user select the language. See Heavy Rain for example, not only does the game come with quite a handful of languages, it also lets you select the language of the voice acting, the subtitles and the menu independently, something that is still missing in quite a few games. Some PC games (Mass Effect) even require a full reinstall just to change the language, which is pretty stupid. Missing languages due to lack of storage on DVDs is also pretty annoying, the

  • This is quite possibly the most over analyzed story I've read this year.

    Or maybe the reason voice acting sucks in video games is because video games can't pay big time actors...or maybe because video games don't need big time actors...or maybe because some video games are mindless time-wasters that good voice acting would be lost on the target audience...or...

    It's a video game, not a movie. It's expected to make money, not $100 million in the opening weekend.

  • by sootman ( 158191 )

    Techie: Talking doll, take eight.
    Lisa: "When I get married, I'm keeping my own name." Oh, no, that should probably be "If I choose to get married."
    Techie: Uh, look, little girl, we got other talking dollies to record today.
    Krusty: [barging in with cue cards] All right, you poindexters, let's get this right!
    One: "Hey, hey, kids, I'm Talking Krusty."
    Two: "Hey, hey, here comes Slideshow Mel" -- again -- "Here comes Sideshow Mel". "Sideshow Mel".
    Three: [does a Krusty laugh]

  • by kenp2002 ( 545495 ) on Wednesday March 17, 2010 @02:48PM (#31513042) Homepage Journal

    The wife keeps checking in on me playing FFXIII because Vanilla ;) sounds like she's constantly having sex... Worst acting ever.... or best depending on the mood...

You know, Callahan's is a peaceable bar, but if you ask that dog what his favorite formatter is, and he says "roff! roff!", well, I'll just have to...