Experienced Points: Voice vs. Choice

By Shamus
on May 23, 2010
Filed under:
Column

My latest column makes the case that there is a tradeoff between full voice acting and player freedom in an RPG.

Part of this might be the rise of consoles. Console players aren’t less literate than PC players, but it’s not a lot of fun reading tons of text on a standard definition TV. As the RPG genre branched out onto consoles, developers needed to make the game more television-friendly. I’m betting very, very few PC players listen to every line of voiced dialog all the way through. The voice acting in Mass Effect is outstanding, but I still find myself reading and skipping.

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  1. Warwick says:

    Great article. I was mulling over voice acting the other day, and the same thoughts came to mind. The shame is in games like oblivion where everything is fully voiced then mods without voice acting stick out a lot. I think morrowind did it best, voice greetings and important points. Oblivion is clearly over ambitious anyway: there were something like 14 voice actors each doing the same lines which isn’t very good use of the voice actors themselves.

    • Irridium says:

      13 actually. 13 voice actors for, according to Bethesda, 1000 npc’s.

      http://www.uesp.net/wiki/Oblivion:Voice_Actors

      • Blanko2 says:

        when you contrast it with fallout 3 which has http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1073664/fullcredits#cast
        34 if i counted right.
        and in FO3 i rarely felt like i was hearing the same voice over and over.
        one thing that is weird though, is this:
        Mike Rosson … Colin Moriarty / Doctor Lesko / Charon / Gob / Roy Phillips / Male Ghouls (voice)

        …moriarty = gob, for one.

        • acronix says:

          I see you haven´t spent a lot of time in Underworld. I think I only counted 3 different voice actors in the whole town for males, and only one for females. Of course that, if you look carefully, you will notice they have a lot less banter than the settlers in other towns…

          • Blanko2 says:

            hrm.. true, i have not. mostly because it’s just too far out of my way, most days.
            but still, yeah that mike rosson does a pretty much all the ghouls, so it makes sense.
            i guess its mostly because i just was used to Oblivion which is infinitely worse, no matter how you look at it.
            especially the beggars with their rapidly alternating voices.
            and one time, this woman with a voice that changed in ONE SPEECH TREE LINE. shed talk in one voice for two sentences, talk in another for two sentences and then switch back. answering ONE question.
            WHAT IS THAT

    • Jan de Wit says:

      I sometimes wonder why nobody synthesizes voices, or at least morphs recorded voices around a bit for some variety.

      I think that with all the advances in computing the last 20 years, we could be a bit further than Microsoft Sam (which honestly sounds like my Amiga did :-) Also, sound engineers are presumably cheaper than voice actors.

  2. rofltehcat says:

    Good article.
    But you forgot some options for obtaining the knickknack (although half of those options would probably be bugged in one way or another… like sneaking in being impossible ~.~).
    How I’d do it:
    Kill the enemy king, kill all the guards, free Nancy. Lots of bloodshed and still no war!
    Then sell the knickknack to the nearest town smith or trader because it turns out to be crap.

    • Jarenth says:

      Then five hours later, realize you do need the knickknack for a quest. Scramble up and down the gameworld, desperately trying to remember which faceless merchant you sold the knickknack to.

      Good times.

  3. JPLC says:

    You have put into words something that has been scratching in the back of my mind for a while now. Thanks for that.

    That being said, I wonder if graphical fidelity has something to do with it as well. To use the example of older PS1 RPGs (because that is what I am familiar with in comparison to the PC), things were usually from the somewhat-overhead perspective, and it wasn’t really possible to make out the faces of the various character models. In comparison, the games of nowadays can render full faces with lip sync and do so from a closer perspective. I think the text only approach works better in the older style because we are already abstracting the visuals, to an extent. Having text only with the more modern detailed approach, however, would seem somewhat off, especially if the models still “lip sync” to the text.

  4. Nick Bell says:

    The solution I have to the “read and skip” problem is to simply turn off subtitles. You appreciate the voice acting a great deal more if you don’t know what they are going to say. The entire experience is much more immersive.

    Also, I love your Escapist description: “Shamus Young is a toothless old codger who is always muttering about how things were so much better in the old days before videogames were ruined by your newfangled joysticks and your decadent color televisions.”

    • Zukhramm says:

      That is only a solution if the goal is to make the players hear all the voice acting. I’d rather turn of the voices than the subtitles.

      • Nick Bell says:

        I LIKE listening to all the dialog, but my reading of subtitles causes me to hurry and skip. Turning off the subtitles fixes that.

        But turning off the voice and just doing subtitles works too. A great option that should be included in all games. Well, after they included the subtitles in all games (I’m looking at your Ubisoft).

        • Heron says:

          I find that I often have a harder time understanding the voice acting without subtitles – especially if they have an accent of some sort.

          I also find that I tend to listen to the voice acting the first time through a game, but skip it every time thereafter – even if I’m in a part of the game I didn’t see the first time. I guess my patience runs out after the first playthrough.

          • tremor3258 says:

            Agreed – the sloth demon in the Mage Origin in DA had something in its voice that meant I nearly botched the riddle – I kept subtitles on from then on in.

        • Blackbird71 says:

          “I’m looking at your Ubisoft”

          Somehow, that just sounds dirty…

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Sometimes,however,I miss some word(s) and subtitles help out.Especially if I have to turn down the volume.But I usually dont look at them the first time I play,so I can hear the dialogs completely.

  5. gebiv says:

    The first time through a game, I’ll listen to the voice acting. But the second time, and after, I’ll turn on the subtitles and skip through everything. Since I read about 50 times faster than most people speak, it goes a lot faster that way.

    All that said, I kind of actually enjoy the Mass Effect style (where you’re more or less deciding the tone of the statement and the voice acting fills in the rest) over the Dragon’s Age style (where you choose your dialogue verbatim and your mute character just stands there.)

  6. Vipermagi says:

    In Fallout 3 you can kill King Bob, take the knickknack, then go off to rescue the princess and get a duplicate knickknack. The princess will talk as if King Bob isn’t splattered across the floor (and partially through the wall).
    (http://fallout.wikia.com/wiki/Andale#Bugs, first bug note)

    re consoles: This compromise is also visible/audible in FO3 (and half a dozen other games). They made the text so large you can read it across the room, but you’re barely a meter away from the screen anyways. Aditionally, the dialogue stops after every two lines because the text box needs to update.

    A smaller font would allow the dialogue (monologue more like) to flow better, but it would also require the voice actors to play different combinations of dialogue as well. An example is the Wasteland survival guide, where dialogue options depend on Special stats/perks.

  7. Taellosse says:

    I think this is symptomatic of video games going increasingly for the big-budget wow-factor over interactivity. Full voice acting sounds impressive on the box, feels impressive in the first half hour of play, but detracts from the range of choices the player can make. Bleeding-edge graphics do the same thing–so many resources are being dumped into making the game look and sound amazing that the parts that will make it truly amazing for more than the initial impression–the plot, characterization, and range of true choice as the story progresses–inevitably suffer because it is too difficult to maintain the established standard of quality in visual and audio fidelity and also have a truly complex, branching narrative.

    The hope here is that as the raw degree of computing power, and the software built on that, reaches a level of genuine realism (visually, at least. Synthetic voice work is still a long way off), perhaps the drive to sink ever more money into ever more cost-prohibitive graphics will taper off. I doubt it’s there yet, but in a few more years, when in-game graphics can routinely resemble the kind of thing they can do in FMV sequences (or CG in movies), I hope there’s going to be far less impetus to push that particular envelope so hard. It’s probably overly optimistic of me, but I would like to think that at that point, more resources can start getting devoted to narrative choice again.

    • eri says:

      There’s also a really good reason for doing this: most people don’t finish games. Most don’t even get halfway through, when it comes to a good deal of genres. People lose interest too easily in the stories, characters, play mechanics, etc., or they’re just distracted by the next game to come along.

      How do you hook people into buying your games? Well, that’s obvious: give them a great first impression. How many games have you played that have expertly designed openings, and then become completely boring and uninspired past that point? I’ll bet most of them, and it’s precisely because the project leads or publishers felt that they’d rather concentrate most efforts on the parts all players were guaranteed to see.

      Of course, this also means that very often, resources are concentrated into that part of the game, leaving the rest of it stripped-down and anaemic in comparison, so then you’ve also got a sort of vicious cycle going as well. Fun!

      • Allan says:

        I think I can see some of that in my games, but not usually in the RPG category. For my RPGs atleast, after the flashy pre-rendered opening cinematics they’re just about OK for the first hour and I can’t wait to get past it and into the game itself, when it comes to replaying though these sections bore me to tears. Whoever it was that made the Irenicus dungeon skipper for BGII, the AltStarts for FO3, or The Imperial Prison skipper for ESIV etc. I bloody LOVE you!

  8. Reach says:

    This trade-off is especially aggravating when you have companies like Bethesda who have bad, repetitive voice acting, of which they have about 5 varieties used by about a hundred NPCs, not counting the ones that have no dialogue but still trash talk in the middle of battle. Not only does this limit freedom, it also damages immersion.

    Slightly unrelated, Yahtzee also wrote about the limitations of voice-acting this week. Coincidence, or part of a conspiracy by the Escapist to destroy voice acting?

  9. eri says:

    Although you’re absolutely right in suggesting that high production values are killing off open-ended gameplay, and necessitating certain design decisions, at the same time I think that it actually has to do with something slightly more fundamental.

    You’ll notice that the vast majority of role-playing games these days, especially Western ones, have become increasingly geared towards combat, and fast-paced, “visceral” combat at that. What used to be lengthy and strategic battles of attrition are now relatively crude approximations of action games and shooters. Even Dragon Age, one of the deepest and most tactical RPGs to come out of the West in years, still removes attrition by making each fight a self-contained affair.

    Despite the fact that a lot of this combat is indeed more immediate and perhaps easier to jump in and have fun with, not to mention far more accessible for the mass market (or more specifically, players who aren’t fans of traditional RPGs), the trade-off is that these combat encounters both end up being much shorter, but also wind up comprising the majority of the gameplay. Think about it: if you abandon turn-based gameplay for something akin to a hack-and-slash, it’s boring to have enemies that have tons of hit points, not to mention that real-time combat with 3D visuals means that you can’t abstract out or rationalise a lot of elements (for example, in Fallout, enemies could survive multiple headshots, but it’s easy to say “oh, maybe he’s wearing a helmet” or “it just took her ear off”).

    What this ultimately leads to is enemies that are more expendable: you kill them faster and faster, and they also put up less of a challenge as a result. This gives the game a faster and more dynamic flow, but it also has a downside: the game requires more combat to make up for it, and more enemies to fight. Combined with the switch to more shooter-like or action-like gameplay, you also need better AI, more elabourate environments, etc. – all of this requires more play testing, more development time, and ultimately more resources to complete.

    I would estimate that the average player in the original Fallout could finish the game by killing less than 100 enemies, provided that they took a non-combat approach. It’s possible in some games like Deus Ex to avoid killing almost entirely. What about a modern RPG like Mass Effect, Fallout 3, Dragon Age, Fable, etc.? Non-combat skills are far, far less useful in the long run, since often the same gains can be made through brute force, and stealth and the like have been relegated to combat roles.

    That’s not to say that these games are entirely focused on combat, but they certainly are far more than older RPGs, and additionally, they stream the player into particular paths that revolve entirely around fighting. Here’s an example: in Mass Effect, I can become a tech specialist if I want… so why is it impossible to hack into the enemy’s computer systems, reprogram all their robots, and watch as the entire enemy base crumbles on itself, allowing me to stroll in unimpeded and collect my objective? One might answer that it’s “too easy”, but that’s simply due to bad game design. There are dozens of ways you can add challenge to a game that don’t revolve around killing thigns.

    So, in the end, it’s really about creating games that are more accessible, more immediate, and running that “15 seconds of fun” over and over, with long-term gains put out of sight in favour of stimulus-response models of game design. These things aren’t necessarily bad. I love shooters and action games, and I love platform and racing games as well.

    But that’s not what a role-playing game is, and creating games that deviate from the genre isn’t “redefining” that genre, it’s just making games that aren’t RPGs. Would that logic fly anywhere else? Can I really make a flight sim that’s an arcade flight game? Can I make a sports game that’s also a beat-em-up? What about a platform game where you play as a sentient submarine, with no jumping at all? The answer to all these is, of course, no, and we have to draw the line. Fallout 3 isn’t an RPG, Mass Effect isn’t an RPG, Fable isn’t an RPG, Jade Empire isn’t really an RPG… that doesn’t mean they’re bad games, and that they don’t take influences from the RPG genre. What it does mean is that, in attempting to appeal to larger markets, we’ve lost sight of what an RPG actually is.

    • eri says:

      Sorry, typo… that should say “less than 10 enemies”, but you get the idea.

    • Falcon says:

      You have struck right on with what bothers me. ‘This isn’t an RPG (or insert genre here)’ The problem lies with definition. To you RPG means tactical slow form combat, with multiple solutions to a problem. Not a bad definition I might add. I would also add in things like interesting character decisions, deep story driven gameplay, and meaningful choice. Neither your definition nor mine is inherently better than the other, but they have vastly different outcomes.
      To you Mass Effect isn’t an RPG, to me it is. I satisfy my RPG itch of playing a role (charachter) where story trumps all, and combat decisions are secondary. For all I care the combat could be a bejeweled clone, I just want to get from conversation to conversation.
      To you it’s a no because in conflict situations you have to either go shooty McDeath from a sniper rifle, or shooty McBoomboom with a shotgun. There is no real meaningful avoid combat entirely mechanic there.
      I’m not opposed to your type of tactical RPG experienc, the original fallouts and Xcom style combat is something I enjoy as well. I just have a problem with snubbing Mass Effect and others because it doesn’t meet your definition of RPG, when realistically it is a term that is historically ill defined.

      • evileeyore says:

        My definition of RPG:

        1 – Play a role
        2 – Make choices beyond shoot or talk
        3 – Choices have an impact on the game

        My off the cuff question every time some one starts gushing about a new CRPG is “Can you climb walls? Trees?”, if the answer is no, it’s already got checkmarks in the “Not an RPG” box.

  10. Johannes says:

    In Oblivion, eventually I clicked when I was done reading, which usually was way earlier than the NPC’s were done speaking. In Jade Empire, which I recently bought and just finished, even more so, as I find large parts of the dialog too uninteresting to wait for when I can read them much faster.

    • Johannes says:

      Wait, you say exactly this in the column as well. Oh well…

    • eri says:

      If writing and voice acting are good, then I will absolutely listen to it. One huge problem is that writers just love to drop lore bombs on you – big stretches of backstory and exposition that are either unneeded, uninteresting or could be communicated more effectively in different ways. Films have mastered this – a good movie will tell you only what you need to know, or at least extremely interesting.

      Of course, on the other end, you have dialogue that is lengthy and well-written, but boring because of the content. Take a look at Oblivion – I don’t need Farmer Joe to ramble on for a dozen lines about how bears have been harassing him, and I doubt in real life he’d be so willing to talk to me about it anyway. Unless Farmer Joe’s actually an extremely important character, or one who has profoundly interesting things to say, he doesn’t need to say any more than the essentials. Compare the following dialogues:

      Example 1) “Hey… hey you! You there! Well there, traveller, how might you be doing on this fine day? I haven’t seen the sun shining so brightly in some time! The name’s Joe, Farmer Joe… and this here is my proud establishment. It’s a cozy, inviting place, and each season I have a fine harvest to ship off to Skingrad! Ah, delightful Skingrad, they have such fine wines. Which reminds me… unfortunately, things have been a might difficult lately, and I find myself in a bit of a predicament. You see, youngster, bears have been breeding like rabbits lately, and they’ve been harassing me every time I stick my nose out the door! Dreadful creatures! You look like a pretty tough sort of guy… how’s about you earn yourself some coin and take care of them for me? Let’s say… oh, I don’t know, six bear pelts to show that you’ve culled them? Ah, you’re too kind. Thank you so much, sir. Now you be careful out there, it’s dangerous… but then, nothing you can’t handle, I’m sure! Goodbye, and good luck!”

      Example 2) “Hey! Watch yourself! It’s dangerous outside, come over here! There, that’s better. My name’s Joe. Now listen, I’ve had a tough time lately because these damned bears have been roaming all about. I tell you what, you look pretty daring. How about you kill six of them and bring back their pelts as proof? I’ll make it worth your while. Take it or leave it, but either way I don’t have much time to deal with strangers. You will? Thanks, friend, it’s not common to find a helping hand out here.”

      Now, in the first example, we’ve got a whole lot of backstory about Farmer Joe, his problems, where he sells his harvest… but he also comes off as a totally unrealistic character, not to mention a bit at odds with his lot in life. The second example is about half as long, but provides all the information you need, and is also more in character. For a throwaway quest-giver, the second dialogue is far more suitable. If Bethesda, BioWare and the other RPG developers could get a handle on this stuff, it’d make for far more compelling games.

  11. Stephen says:

    I wonder if we’d be any closer to tolerable text to speech VO if a significant fraction of the money that’s been spent on voice actors had been spent on speech synthesis research.

    That is, for exactly the expenses you suggest for voice actors, I’d bet a number of game studios will jump on the first text to speech engine that produces non-jarring results.

    • ps238principal says:

      This.

      I was wondering myself if voice rendering was ever going to make the same leap as sprites-to-polygons did. I’d still hire notable voice actors to do specific parts of their roles (perhaps the more dramatic or important bits), but then they’d record a “sound bank” of syllabic utterances that the game engine could assemble and inflect as needed.

      • X2-Eliah says:

        People already nag about Oblivion/Fallout having bad voice acting due to very few voices and low quality of them.

        I can’t see why having one voice that is vowelized-synthecized would be an improvement in any way.

        I’ve had to encounter with making very short audio ‘voice’ files for a game that already uses ‘synthetic voice’ for notifications etc. (X3-Terran Conflict, if you must know). The actual game made it by recording a live person and applying a ‘computer’ filter to distort the voice a bit. We don’t have that actor available – or a studio equipment, as a small mod team, so we went with really simulated voice. All bits are one to two words long only, and even so, every single word must be checked manually and edited for two hours + to make it even sound legible. The software itself just cannot make it sound good. Perhaps with top-end synth soft that would cost thousands (guessing here) the process could be automated a bit, but at this time, synth V-O is still subpar to real acting and requires more or less the same amount of human intervention per sound second.

        Sure, game developers could spend their cash on voiceSim research, but they need that sound in games now, not in ten years.

        • some random dood says:

          I’m not in the business, and don’t really know the actual details, but you are talking about a *very* hard computer problem.
          Check in a dictionary – quite often they start with a list of phonemes, as just seeing the letters making up a word do *not* let you know how the word is pronounced.
          Right – so all those phonemes need to be recorded. That might just you a monotone that just about lets you understand the words involved. So how about pitch and cadence? How do people speak when they are frightened, or angry, or happy, or sad, or feel that they need to take an action that could hurt someone but is really needful to do for the good of the majority?
          It was mentioned in the article about the titles now employing A-list actors and actresses, and the quality of the speech in, say, Mass Effect is noticeable compared to earlier efforts. That’s why the good performers can command higher wages – they can bring emotion to their roles, and not just sound like they are reading words on a page.
          Now try to imagine programming that… You cannot just simply have a “robot” reading the words as written – you somehow have to get the “robot” to pick all the right emotional phonemes for the word, with appropriate emphasis, pauses, breathing etc. It takes actors and actresses years to learn this stuff, and how many takes do they use to get it just right?
          Even if someone could manage to get an appropriate sound library together, getting an interface to allow the text to be input and put the appropriate phrasing to match the emotions underpinning that part of the performance to every part of the speech would be – tricky? I have a feeling that hiring real people to perform the lines is going to be the cheaper way for a long time, even if the computer version does become possible!

          • krellen says:

            Just to add to the above point: computers are really, really dumb. Phenomenally dumb. Yes, we can program them to do simple things (mostly calculations) really really quickly, but compared to the processing power of a beetle, let alone a higher animal or a human, computers are still really, really dumb.

            A lot of people just don’t see how dumb computers are because we interact with them in such limited fashions, and the few tasks we tend to ask them to do just happen to be in a tiny subset of things we’ve created them to do faster and better than we do. But when you’re talking about things that require real processing power, real memory, real decision making, the human brain is still unmatched in RAM, processor speed, and flexibility. We are still a long way out from replacing people for anything but the most routine and repetitive of tasks.

  12. Vegedus says:

    While this may be an issue with some games, I far from think it applies to the entire RPG genre. You open up the article by describing a “classic RPG quest setup”, at which point I must ponder what a classic RPG is. In this case, it seems to be “stuff made by Black Isle” but I was raised on Final Fantasy and other JRPGs, so it seems less ‘classic’ to me. JRPGs by nature are linear and revel mostly in telling a predetermined story as effectively as possible, and the more voice acting the better, for those games. However, the same applies to some western RPGs as well. Diablo and the entire hack’n’slash genre is linear, with only one approach to every problem (clickclickclickclick) and every Bioware product ever has been a “choose your own railroads”: They’ve never been good at truly offering a load of options, so instead it’s a good thing there’s so much voice acting to flesh out the characters (whom it’s all about) and the story. Bethesda have never gotten “fully voiced” to work well, so it’s easy to conclude it’s not for their games, and a little bit of voice work, rest in text, also work well for other dialogue heavy, freedom fixated RPGs, if there is any being made in this day and age.

    I also click through dialogue when I’ve done reading the text, but I try not to, when I care about the voice actor. I can’t help but feel it might be a problem easily fixed by simply presenting the subtitles gradually or in shorter bytes at a time.

    The point is, RPGs aren’t per definition about choice (hence why it’s a misnormer and a stupid genre name) so it’s by far not all games in them that are hurt by copious amount of voice acting.

    • Sauron says:

      When I read “classic RPG quest setup”, I was thinking a bit more classic than you, honestly. It became clear he meant vidjagames, but for a while he very well could ahve been talking paper & pencil, which is, in my opinion, the place to start discussion.

    • acronix says:

      Bioware was good about voice acting because only some lines where voiced (following the Planescape: Torment example Shamus gave, the greeting was ussually voice acted). For another example, in Baldur´s Gate II, major characters had voice acting in the first line of dialog and then once or twice depending on the extension of the dialogue. Sometimes they didn´t even voice act every word in a given line, and the player´s mind filled the gaps quite nicely.
      When Bioware moved to “Cinematic Playing Games”, text stopped being an option.

  13. Cuthalion says:

    “decadent color televisions”

    That makes me laugh.

    • Wayoffbase says:

      When I was a kid in the mid to late 80’s (around 8-10 years old), I actually played games on an Atari computer hooked up to a 11″ black&white TV. I remember it being ridiculously fun anyway; I hadn’t thought about that in a long time :D

  14. rabs says:

    Nice article, I would have liked to have it when I argued on that subject in a forum, a while ago.

    The argument about form vs content is quite general, though I see your point, specific to dialogs (without animation).

    For me, if it’s just voice acting and everything else is bland (fixed camera and automated animation), then it’s better to read a block of text (though I agree that using it for introduction and maybe key scenes can be nice).

    During full fledged cut-scene or realtime action, it’s different as we (hopefully) have something worth watching while listening…

  15. Ramsus says:

    Yeah I’d thought about this problem too. I still think for various reasons that even if we didn’t have any voice acting at all that games like Oblivion and Fallout 3 would still be as choice limited as they are but we would be a lot more likely to see other games break away from that kind of behavior.

    Also about that bit about hearing several different people with the same voice…it gets so much worse when you start hearing that voice in another game and immediately think of that voice in a previous game. Now you’re not only thinking “wow, lots of people with the same voice in this world eh?”, you’re thinking “wow this voice is like some kind of inter-dimensional virus/parasite.”

    • Jarenth says:

      I have the same thing with cartoons, actually. Also, I’m fairly certain that the voice actor doing Grandpa Max (in the Ben 10 series) is also the announcer for the Protoss in Starcraft 2, which only doubles the aural confusion.

      • krellen says:

        Two words: Cree Summers.

        I like her. She’s done good work. But she’s a horrible voice actress, because she doesn’t voice act; she reads lines with emotion, but it’s always the same voice. And she’s in practically everything.

        Contrast her with the two greats of the voice acting world: Grey DeLisle and John DiMaggio. You can take any two of their performances and listen to them side-by-side and not be able to tell that it’s the same person. That is what voice acting should be, not “famous voice with gravitas delivering lines”.

        If I was developing a game, I’d much rather pay Mr. DiMaggio a million dollars and get twelve characters than pay Liam Neeson a million to get one.

        • Jarenth says:

          I’ll never forget the one time Discovery did a bit on… cartoons, I think, and John Kricfalusi came on to talk about Ren and Stimpy. The man effortlessly switched between voicing Ren and voicing Stimpy. To this day, that’s my ideal image of what a good voice actor does.

  16. meltorefas says:

    Yes yes a thousand times yes! Spoken lines at a few major plot points by major characters, spoken intros for major characters, and everything else text. How I long for those days! Oh Baldur’s Gate II…

    The only games I enjoy full voice in are things like Halo, where free form and choices really don’t enter in to the equation.

  17. Elite says:

    I have felt this way about voice-acting for quite some time. Having full voice-acting doesn’t mean you’ve given a voice to every written line, it means you’ve removed every line that it wasn’t feasible to voice.

    Voice-acting is a great way to bring a character alive but text is so much better for disseminating information. Voice-acting should definitely be used for the most important lines but I really don’t think it adds anything to very minor encounters. Also relying more heavily on the audio to give out instructions leads towards slow & bland deliveries (in order to be more clear). If you’re using text to tell players where to go and what to do then that allows the voice-acting to inject flavor more freely.

    • eri says:

      Remember, too, that efficient use of voice acting is key. You can voice every line just fine, and preserve complexity, provided that you’re smart about how much dialogue you use. A random merchant shouldn’t have the same amount of dialogue as a quest-giving character, and that quest-giving character shouldn’t have as much as a main character, etc.

      • Elite says:

        “You can voice every line just fine, and preserve complexity, provided that you’re smart about how much dialogue you use.”

        I disagree here. If you’re voicing 100 times as much dialogue then either you sacrifice the quality or you end up spending much more money. You could get SOMETHING for every line if you went with the first take from a bunch of amateur dramatics dropouts, but I’d actually prefer no voice-acting over bad voice-acting.

        Games can be written inefficiently but if the driving force behind a revision is “We need to cut this down” rather than “Is there a better way to say this?” then it probably isn’t going to produce a nice result. If you’re trying to compress a complicated idea into fewer and fewer words then eventually something will have to give. Also no matter how efficient your dialogue it’s simply impossible for every single line to be a grand epic revelation or a badass retort or a stunning piece of character development. The other lines aren’t extraneous fluff or filler, they’re necessary but they’re not particularly interesting and well skipping through the boring parts is something that videogames are good at.

        My favorite wRPGs for voice-acting would be Fallout / Planescape: Torment / Baldur’s Gate 2. I just think their approaches work much better than the more modern style. I get the impression that partial voice-acting came from the technological limitations of the time, but these days I think good full voice-acting takes up a lot of money which could be better spent elsewhere. I’d much rather excellent voice-acting for the stuff that really matters over mediocre voice-acting for everything. I mean Jon Irenicus wouldn’t be half as interesting or intimidating without David Warner’s voice work.

        • acronix says:

          I agree in that key-voice acting is better than full voice acting, in the sense that it had almost the same effect without spending lots of money. However, it´s efficiency depends on the gameplay.
          The reason it worked with Fallout, Baldur´s Gate, etc, is because they were not-cinematic: issometric view, unpersonal avatars, dialogue windows taking lots of space. This aproach wouldn´t work on games like Mass Effect or Oblivion because they are either cinematic or more personal: the first is pretty much an interactive movie, while the latter puts the face of the NPC occupying quite a large space when you speak to them (which makes me point out that the Talking Heads in Fallout 1 and 2 were fully voice acted for this reason, besides the fact that they were major characters) so you can´t ignore that their lips are moving but no sound comes out.

  18. Atarlost says:

    I see two solutions to fully voiced non-railroad games. Either you make your development time long enough you can do all the voice acting after your string freeze, or create a setting where you don’t need human voices.

    The former is what you have to do anyways for localization. All the text for the game needs to be fixed before the translators can start work. The same could be done for voice acting. Unfortunately this means that the released game can’t be your final beta, which is the current normal practice. I suppose you could release the voice acting as DLC, but it would be a comparatively huge download. It would be terrible for people with poor internet, but the industry has proven it doesn’t care about them anyways.

    KOTOR did the latter to a degree. There are actual characters that address you by name, but they’re all aliens and aliens all speak the same few chunks of gibberish. (though they really needed at least three chunks per species/gender instead of one)

    Another way would be to use speech synth in universe. If everyone is speaking through universal translator implants you can get away with synthetic sounding speech, possibly overlaid over some low volume gibberish chunks with varying inflection to provide emotion, and the tiny handful of characters that speak the same native language as the PC become the only ones that need voice acting. If all NPCs are AIs you don’t even need the “native language gibberish” in calm, angry, and sad to overlay with the synthetic speech.

  19. (LK) says:

    I will always resent Oblivion most for this decision. They took their own setting with an interesting diversity of 10 different races, each with their own cultures, methods of speech, etc. and because everything was voiced and they hired a very prestigious and expensive actor for the least important non-generic role in the game all of the “everyday person” characters shared the same 3 voices per gender.

    You’d talk to a huge, hulking orc who would have the same voice as a nordic human. Then you’d talk to a lizardman with the same voice as a bipedal cat.

    Oblivion was a very detailed and expensive game… but because of the voice acting, and to a lesser extent the modular dungeon-building system, this huge, expensive game persistently felt cheap and shoddily constructed.

    I always wound up feeling like I’ve stepped into this big, expansive, beautiful world and there’s only ten people in it following me around and putting on different costumes. Most games might give that sense if you deliberately broke the 4th wall and thought about it, but Oblivion rubbed that feeling in your face and forced you to remember it constantly.

  20. Someone says:

    That is an interesting point. Classic Fallouts had “Talking Heads” as the most important characters and others were not voiced. A more recent example of this – NWN 2 where generic npcs, merchants and sidequest people had NWN 1 style dialogue without voice and important characters had fully voiced and animated conversations.

    Another interesting example of voiceacting minimalism – a game called Space Rangers and its sequel. Its an interesting game with utterly uninteresting title that I advise everyone to check out, made by the developers of modern King’s Bounty. Its essentialy Sid Meier’s Pirates! in space.

    Anyway, about the voice acting. A lot of the game is spent interacting with other pilots and taking quests from planet governments. It is all done in text with no voiceover. It doesnt feel synthetic because all conversations have an animated 3d avatar representing whoever it is you are talking to. It may not sound like much but those avatars do a remarkable job humanising what otherwise would be a wall of text. And, due to the nature of the game, some of the dialogue (like pirates demanding cargo and traders negotiating with them) is repeated very often and if it was voiced it would quickly start to feel repetetive and lose a lion’s share of its charm.

    There are also interactive fiction style “text quests” within the game, wich essentialy give you a description of something and let you choose what you are going to do from several variants. For example : “you wake up in a madhouse, you are in a small room with nothing but a door and a window, your actions?” A) Look around, B) Go through the door, С) try to climb out the window and so forth. These quests can vary from serving your sentence in jail to winning a pizza making contest to managing a ski resort. Its one of the more enjoyable things in the game and it features an obscene amount of text voicing of wich would require an obscene amount of money.

  21. Daimbert says:

    I don’t think you can blame the poor TV and poor consoles, especially since most JRPGs actually do BOTH when the do voice-overs. It’s more, as others have said, the idea that voice acting is more impressive than reading text, and is enjoyed more and draws more people in. It hasn’t for me.

    A good example of why this likely isn’t a console issue? The first Shadow Hearts game had limited voice acting and limited cutscenes. You could, then, name almost any character in the game with one glaring — and hilarious — exception. In Shadow Hearts: Convenant, cutscenes and voice acting increased tremendously … and you couldn’t rename anyone, even yourself. Since it’s unlikely that you’d have trouble reading YOUR OWN NAME on the screen, it does seem an example of the trade-off you mention, but one that’s clearly not driven by text on the screen.

    Note that the Persona games let you name the main character whatever you want, but then have to studiously avoid ever mentioning your name in any of the cutscenes or voice-overs …

  22. Louis says:

    This brings to mind the KOTOR video games. I’d love to know who thought it was a good idea to have the Wookie and Twi’lek character enunciate their way through a complete alien translation of a full paragraph of text. It’s not like either language is real, or that the fans at home were getting some kind of thrill out of 5 fill minutes of Wookie groans. I would up ignoring Zaalbar because I didn’t want to go through the effort of talking to him, skippable sounds or not.

    • Josh R says:

      I thought it added a sense of alienity to the whole game… Especially if you used HK:47 to talk to the sand people.

      Mass Effect lost out on this, by virtue of everyone speaking the same language, making it all seem a little familiar.

    • ehlijen says:

      Yet those conversations only ever consisted of 3-5 different sound files.

      Ie “Chhabatai, hotunda” or whatever could mean anything from:
      “Hello”
      to
      “My foot is itchy because I wish to kill you”

      But keep in mind, this game is from the same universe as a fully unsubtitled Wookie grunt holiday special…

      • S. Richmond says:

        True enough, but in my mind it was alien enough to last a long time before it got old. But I’ll admit that it did get old eventually. It did, however, make the game feel richer and I feel it makes a better impact than a whole bunch of generic repeated dialog in english.

        • ehlijen says:

          That is also true. In fact, it was a better good way to add full voice acting and still leave the option for many different dialog changes.

          You don’t need to change the voiceover if it doesn’t mean anything to begin with.

          The only downside was that it ended up populating the entire galaxy with 50% twileks, 20% wookies, 20% fish people and the rest engliish speaking main characters and hutts.

      • Joe Cool says:

        Remember, in Ubese, “Yatay yatay yato” means “I want 50,000, no less,” and “Yato” means “because I’m holding a thermal detonator.”

        So they were basically right-on with the source material.

  23. Josh R says:

    What’s this?
    An article on RPGs in your DRM column?
    :P

  24. S. Richmond says:

    Hrm I think this is a common occurrence throughout almost all design aspects of modern games these days Shamus. Whether its the voice acting that limits mission choices or giant open worlds with less detail. Staying on the subject of voice acting for a moment – I’m generally one who’ll sit a listen to almost all voice dialog, at least the first time through. My favourite flavor is Mass Effect where the players character has a voice. All too often we have games where the most important character (The player!) is not given a voice at all. Some might say that you the player imagine and give the character voice, but I personally feel much more immersed in a game like Mass Effect where a scene plays out with my own character asserting his emotions in more than one sentence clips of text.

    Moving on from that though, something I often love to think about and try to solve is how to make the development of games less expensive, both in actual financial costs and in time and resources. Thus far I’ve come to think of it as the same process we’ve taken with the worlds energy requirements – For a long time we as a human race have been pushing harder for more and more energy without too much thought into the efficiency of the existing technologies. Only in the last decade has the whole global warming facade made us put on the breaks and look as what we can do to increase the efficiency of existing technologies. Whether you believe in global warming or not, I think where we’re at now is an important part of our technological development into highly efficient technologies in the long term.
    I think the same can be said for video games – For a long time its been all about pushing the boundaries in technological development both in graphics and over-all immersion. But I think only just now we’re starting to slow down and take a look at what can be done to improve the efficiency of our game worlds. For example, CryEngine 3 isn’t the mindblowing graphics overhaul that CryEngine 2 was to 1. The real innovation in 3 is its developments tools and efficiency to get the job done. I’m hoping to see much more of this in the future, because I really don’t think we’ll get to the Utopian stage where games can replace real-life until we find a way to remove the inefficiencies in building games.

  25. Blanko2 says:

    yeah this collumn was awesome. i like hearing voices in game, but i hate having to wait for them to shut up. specially when its bad voice acting like *cough* some games i know that are being LP’ed.

    one thing though this article was up on the 21, did they put it up earlier than you thought or has it always been like this and i didn’t notice?

  26. Irridium says:

    There are still a few moments of complete non-linearity in some games.

    I remember in Mass Effect, on Noveria when you were looking for Benezia, there were a lot of ways to get to her. It was fun replaying that part of the game many times.

    In fact I’m fairly sure you mentioned this during your Mass Effect Lets Play.

    But yeah, lots of this “freedom of choice” stuff is really only 2 or 3 options. Or in other words, railroading. I would love to see deep RPG’s have like the first line of dialog voiced while the rest is text, while more linear games be fully voiced.

    In Oblivion and Fallout 3 I just skipped most of the dialog, save for the smooth, buttery words of Patrick Stewart and Liam Neeson.

    I would love to see a return of no voice acting for the sake of a better gameplay experience. I know not many people would like that, but with the quality of voice acting for quite a lot of games, I wouldn’t mind. Since some are so bad they end up breaking immersion more than text boxes anyway.

    But seeing as how everyone seemed to complain at Dragon Age for having the protagonist be “silent”, I don’t think things will change anytime soon. I personally liked it, since I could imagine my character sounding like Stephen Fry.

  27. Peter H. Coffin says:

    So where does contemporary speech synthesis fit into this? They’re really fairly good these days, and can be built with custom voices for far less resources than hiring Marina Sirtis for even a single day, and the payload (the hinted text that is to be spoken) is only marginally larger than plain text.

  28. SatansBestBuddy says:

    There’s an interesting exercise I did recently with Persona 4; I turned off the voices before the game began, and played through the first few hours with just text and the occasional battle cry during fights.

    Why? Cause I had played Persona 3 before, and the voice acting in that game was really bad, with most voices being overly whiny and stiff, and none of them added anything to the characters themselves, so I felt that game was much better without the voices.

    But then I told some friends, and they all told me that the voice acting in P4 was great and that I should turn it back on.

    So, I did, and the next dungeon I played was Kanji’s Bath House.

    I was literally laughing out loud, and it was only because of the voices being so damn funny, and they actually fit the characters really well, to the point where when I do skip the voices, I kinda feel bad, like I’m cutting off the character themselves.

    So, yeah, voices can add a great deal to the game, depending on how they’re delivered, and not everybody skips them.

  29. Blanko2 says:

    oh a few other things:
    Gothic III i believe i fully voice acted (by no means great) but you do get a lot of choices, you can join several groups and kill people without ever hearing their dialogue and such. i havent got very far into it, but that’s what i’ve seen so far.
    and dragon age’s silent protagonist was annoying, as mentioned in a post above, yes.
    but to me he was annoying because he has the capability to have all these facial expressions as shown right in the character creation screen, but you never ever get to see those. theyre jsut for the character creation and nothing else.
    its a bit sad, really. like wasted potential

  30. Ace Calhoon says:

    I think you’re a little off the mark here. Games are definitely becoming more linear, and voice acting probably adds to that trend, but I don’t think that you can really say the voice acting CAUSES the linearity. I also don’t think that doing away with voice acting will lead to less linear game play… The bottleneck is elsewhere.

    The first issue is simply that choice is expensive. Increasing available choices multiplies the number of test cases. If there are three broad ways that a major plot point can go, that’ll triple your testing time.

    And it isn’t a simple matter of a coder somewhere making a minor tweak to correct a typo anymore. Any changes have to figured out (probably by the game’s writer), scripted (triggers, display, etc.), implemented, fully retested, localized, tested for localization, etc. Yes, voice acting requires all that and more, but I most studios probably would by scared off before they even made it through that much.

    You’ll also need additional development time to ENABLE choices to begin with. For example, if you want stealth to be an option, you need to make sure that there aren’t any heavily guarded choke points (unless there’s a way around).

    For example, Deus Ex allowed a great deal of tactical choice in each level while maintaining a relatively linear (voiced) storyline. We don’t see even that level of choice anymore, even though voice acting has nothing to do with it.

    The second issue is that games really do need to be more linear than they once were. Back when I started playing games, levels were huge, sprawling affairs where the player could get lost. This made a few games really awesome, but most of the time it just ended up being boring. If exploration and freedom of choice aren’t conscious design goals, they really should be minimized. Do it well, or don’t do it at all.

    As to players skipping dialog… I doubt that that’s a fault of the voice acting, so much as a benefit of text (which you can easily gain without removing VO). I doubt that the people skipping the dialog are savoring the entire text in all its glory, so much as they are skimming for the high points. It’s because the dialog/text simply isn’t good enough to hold the player’s attention, and text gives them a quick out without the risk of losing game information.

    Finally — Computer monitors are a pretty bad medium for reading text. The interface for displaying/reading text in video games usually makes it even worse. TV screens are “I hate your eyeballs” awful for displaying text, even at HD resolutions.

    • Jarenth says:

      In regards to your second to last paragraph:

      I’m also one of those people who tend to skip over the voice-acted bits, but not necessarily because the text is boring or poorly written — I just read really, really fast. I can usually read all of the text displayed onscreen in the time it takes the voice actor to remember their lines. Consequently, waiting for the voices to play out is extremely boring for me.

      In games with actually decent voice acting (Mass Effect comes to mind), I’ll sometimes try to let the voices play out… but in games that are just hamming it, I couldn’t care less.

      • Ace Calhoon says:

        Fair enough. I was a little broad with my language. Yeah, in games where the writing is solid and the voice acting is sub par people might want to skip the voiced dialog while reading the full written text.

        But that’s more a condemnation of voice acting in specific instances, rather than in general. And it’s becoming progressively less of an issue as time goes by.

        • Jarenth says:

          True, actually good voice acting could circumvent this. Still, if I’m in a hurry, or bored, or talking to someone uninteresting, I’m going to be skipping along the text about as fast as I can read it… which is usually about as fast as it can appear on screen. I put text speeds at maximum in games that allow it for this particular reason.

          • Ace Calhoon says:

            Yeah, exactly. And that’s not a voice acting problem, that’s a WRITING problem (or, in some cases, interface design). You aren’t skipping the voice acting in those cases, you’re skipping as much of the content as you can because it doesn’t interest you. If you had the option of getting a bullet point summary of the important plot points of the dialog instead, you’d probably take it in these cases.

            The best way to fix this problem is to improve the quality and location of dialog in the game. Removing VO isn’t really a fix… It makes the problem a little less noticeable (because you don’t have partially skipped spoken words), but the underlying issue is still there.

  31. Gandaug says:

    I didn’t read anything above my post.

    Choice > Voice! Bring back the old days! Bring back the gaming experiences I remember in the ’90s!

  32. Joe Cool says:

    I would like to say that I listened to every line of dialog in both KOTOR and Mass Effect, even though I was reading along with the character. I just hate skipping dialog. It feels jarring to me when the character is cut off mid-sentence.

  33. Kdansky says:

    This is something I started complaining about years ago. Compare Torment and Mass Effect. In a single play-through, you will spend a similar amount of time with words, because one can read a lot faster than listen. But PST has at least a dozen choices for every single damn simple thing, while ME usually has “do A because I say so” or “do A because he said so”. I also prefer longer paragraphs instead of single banter sentences. Conversations very often have more than a few parts in them where only one person talks for quite a while, such as explaining something or making a point.

    Voicing everything is not actually that much of a technical challenge, and neither that expensive. The Japanese genre of story/hentai games (western people know the hentai ones, but there are actually quite a few that do not have porn in them) has tons and tons of voice acting, often times at a very high quality to boot. They are very bad at doing the one sentence at a time thing though.

  34. Shamus, there’s a third option that kind of makes this tradeoff situation even more interesting: have every line voice acted, but don’t have the NPC’s and PC deliver lengthy speeches and go ON AND ON AND ON with the exposition and explanations and blah blah blah.

    I think Gothic hit this nail right on the head–dialog in that game tends to be short and sweet and worth listening to. The real problem is not that the voice acting is too expensive, it’s that game writers haven’t learned how to WRITE for voice acting properly yet. There’s a world of difference between the information that can be conveyed via straight text and what can be conveyed through expressions and voice acting.

    Dragon Age and Mass Effect are prime examples of this, because many, many times they have perfect opportunities to have NPC’s (or the PC) give a WORDLESS response or a vastly condensed response and yet they still deliver at least two sentences of verbiage.

    *Ruthless* editing and use of the available tools is the way to get the best of this tradeoff, so you can have fully-voiced characters AND lots of choices.

    • (LK) says:

      That is something I hadn’t thought of, but is a great point. My suspension of disbelief must have been pretty durable because I’d never stopped to realize how many unimportant conversations in RPGs were way more verbose than similar examples in my own actual life. Even the vendors tend to speak an awful lot instead of, you know, “What can I get for you?”, and “Have a nice day!”.

      Sure it’s boring but that’s because it’s for a boring encounter. That merchant probably doesn’t want to drag out their workday by making every conversation with a customer longer than it has to be. That city guard doesn’t want to have protracted conversations every time they interview a witness or ask a citizen to do something.

      Real people want to get their jobs done so they can get on with their lives. With voiced RPG characters the abundant enthusiasm in speaking to you kind of says “this conversation is my life. I live to speak to you.”

      It sounds odd, but less people in RPG conversations need to really give a shit.

    • Shamus says:

      That’s really true. You can’t write voiced dialog the way you write dialog intended for a novel.

  35. Hadn’t thought of this, but in WoW they have almost all text, with the voices not always related, but you read the text in voice as a result.

    Good point Shamus.

  36. “Console players aren’t less literate than PC players”
    I BEG TO DIFFER

    Just kidding. I’m just bitter because CONSOLES ARE RUINING GAMING D`:

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