Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

It’s the Voice Acting’s Fault

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 24, 2010

I’ve complained about it before.

Shamus Young complains about it better.

Y’know, for a brief, glowing moment in the history of our hobby – pretty much the late 90’s – it seemed like we almost had it right. The text was supplemented by voice, but it was limited –  enough to help visualize characters.  But after saying the first line or two of dialog, they were silent, and you just read the text.  It worked.  Minsc, Morte, and Imoen would not have been as popular without the life and character given to them by their actors.

For me, as a gaming experience, it was far superior to what I’ve got now. When I was playing Fallout 3, I found that I was either slowing down my reading to match the rate of speaking, or forcing myself to tune out the speaking to read the text at a more comfortable rate. It was an annoying experience.

But that’s a side-complaint. The real complaint is that this inferior form of presentation is a significant reason for inferior gameplay. Is it really a factor?

Well, I remember hearing about William Shatner’s reaction to the script for the CD-ROM version of one of Interplay’s Star Trek games (I can’t recall if it was Judgment Rites or 25th Anniversary). He reportedly exclaimed, “There are three movies in here!” It makes sense. I mean, the average game is many, many times longer than a two-hour movie.  Even though much of a game might not be spent in dialog, the branching decisions means that there’s more dialog than the player will ever hear.

That is a LOT of expensive voice-acting work.  And it has to all be planned out well in advance, limiting flexibility. You’d better believe it’s a limiting factor in the kinds of dialog options available. As a producer worried about the bottom line, I’d be encouraged to see that every single spoken line of dialog that I’d paid for was heard by the player.

Is it too late to go back? Maybe, for the mainstream guys still doing RPGs. Granted, when I played the most recent Persona games, I found the lack of voice on optional parts of the story to be noticeable and just a little bit distracting. So it’s not a perfect solution, and I may be viewing the older games through lenses that are a little too rose-tinted.

What do you think?

Filed Under: Biz, Design - Comments: 11 Comments to Read

  • Noumenon said,

    When I was playing Fallout 3, I found that I was either slowing down my reading to match the rate of speaking, or forcing myself to tune out the speaking to read the text at a more comfortable rate.

    Well, I don’t like watching TV with the closed captions on because I get ahead on the dialogue and then it doesn’t match or I get bored. So what I’m saying is, can’t you just turn off the text?

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I’d rather turn off the voice. Except — I like hearing the voices at first. When I first meet a character. But after the first couple of lines, I start reading ahead, trying to tune them out, and cutting them off.

  • erratio said,

    I also find it jarring when most of the game has lots of voice acting and then the optional parts don’t, but I think the better solution here is to make the dialogue more sparing overall. For some reason the comparison that’s coming to mind here is Final Fantasy X, where the cutscenes gave you characterisation galore, and then the developer is free to use text boxes for the rest of the game (not that FFX did have the main characters saying much outside of cutscenes, but they easily could have)

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah, that was kinda my issue with Persona, but I didn’t remember it being an issue with, say, Baldur’s Gate 2. But it’s been a long time since I played BG2, so those details are fading…

  • Xenovore said,

    I think the optimal solution is to provide a a variety of voiced greetings/farewells for each character, but use text for all other dialogue. For example, World of Warcraft does this 95% of the time and it works very well. (There are some major characters and events with full voice acting.)

    At any rate, voice acting must be absolutely consistent. For example, in Age of Conan all the character dialogues in the newbie area are fully voice-acted. Later, however, in the majority of the areas none of the characters have any voiced dialogues, not even greetings. And with the precedent — fully voiced dialogues — set early on, it’s particularly jarring every time a player runs into a character whose lips move but no sound comes out.

    So, in summary: Voice acting can be cool, but it needs to be used consistently throughout the entirety of the game. And due to the technical limitations of having every bit of dialogue voiced, it’s probably best to limit it to simple bits like greetings.

    (Realistic-sounding text-to-speech would be huge. But unfortunately, in spite of having fairly powerful computers these days, speech synthesis still sounds fake…)

  • tfernando said,

    Xenovore’s probably right about the optimal solution. “Go for the eyes Boo! RAAarrr!!” is what I still find memorable about Minsc, but it’s not part of a branched dialog.

    I don’t remember BG2 all that well… I -think- it might not have been possible to turn off the VA, and at least Irenicus’ cutscenes were fully VA’d? If that’s right, then I think I also remember getting a little bit annoyed (but only trivially) because I could read Irenicus’ text a lot faster than the actor had read the lines, but didn’t want to (or couldn’t) shut off the VA becuase that was part of the game I had paid for. Or I could be totally misremembering the situation because people are talking about things from more than a decade ago. 🙂

    @Nomemnon- Turning on subtitles if they’re not on by default is the first thing I do when installing a game. I’d not buy/stop playing a game before I turned off the text. Television has a long institutional history of providing sound at standard volume levels- I rarely have to adjust volume while watching tv. I think I have to set my speakers differently for every game I play, sometimes I have to change the volume while playing. At this point in time, I can’t trust that game developers will ensure I’m able to hear and understand plot critical dialog, but if it’s on screen I know I’ll be able to read it…

  • Justin Alexander said,

    This also has an impact on the micro-level of the flexibility of each individual conversation: An Ultima VII conversation engine either:

    (a) Doesn’t work with recorded dialogue; or

    (b) Forces the NPCs to constantly be neutral and uninvolved in the conversation.

    With a purely text-based form, you can hit the same set of dialogue from multiple angles and still have it work: If a particular series of responses has left the NPC annoyed with the PC and then you bounce out to an info-dump conversational bit, the reader will supply the annoyance as the NPC spits out the information. OTOH, if they approach the same info-dump from a different angle they might read it with a helpful subtext.

    With voice acting, OTOH, you’d either have to treat that identical text as two separate voice recordings (one annoyed, one helpful depending on the NPCs’ mood which now has to be tracked as a separate variable), or you just have to live with the NPC going through radical mood shifts.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    Speaking of Oblivion and Fallout 3, Bethesda has done something I found very annoying in both games regarding the voice acting. They hire big name actors like Patrick Stewart and Liam Neeson and then have too few voice actors for the dozens and hundreds of other characters.

    Oblivion was particularly bad – I believe there were only 7 voice actors, and you knew every time you saw an elf, or orc, etc. they were all going to have the same voice. I can’t help thinking that for what it cost Bethesda to get Patrick Stewart to do 15 minutes of voice work, or Liam Neeson to voice the intro and three missions, they could have hired a dozen good, but unknown voice actors to contribute to the entire game.

    Celebrity voice overs also telegraph whose going to get killed. Even if you knew nothing about the two games in question, would anyone believe Patrick or Liam were going to be around and chatting to you for 50 hours plus? Such characters may as well skip around holding hands with the Grim Reaper while on screen – it really would be just as subtle a sign of impending doom.

    I believe the solution is giving character’s voiced greetings and doing all the rest with text, at least in RPGs. Ideally, as Xenovore said, the ideal solution we’ll hopefully see in the future is computer speech that sounds natural generated from text. I imagine it will take even longer to get computer speech that can ACT, but hey, maybe before we die, huh? That and the holodeck. 😉

  • WhineAboutGames said,

    I have a slightly weird take on it from playing so many Japanese games. I like having the voice acting in them. But at the same time, I can’t understand a word they’re saying!* The intonation is there, and I can slow down and appreciate it during particular emotional or comedic moments when the delivery of the line adds impact. But it doesn’t otherwise conflict with my reading. Clicking ahead doesn’t feel rude in the same way that cutting them off in the middle of intelligible dialog does.

    In that way, KoTOR and its alien voices kinda worked for me, although the voice samples were still a bit repetitive. The programmer side of me thinks it wouldn’t be impossible to make a tool to babble randomly-generated alien syllables with the correct mood inflections…

    * – Okay, I understand a very small handful of the words they’re saying.

  • WCG said,

    This is one way in which better technology has tended to worsen the gameplay. When you’ve got spoken voices, you need to make a game more linear, simply because you can only afford a limited number of responses. Likewise, fancier graphics have tended to mean environments that are not destructible, so you end up with a rickety wooden fence that’s an impassible barrier.

    Game developers need to focus on the gameplay first, and then utilize the technology that will make the gameplay possible. But that might not be the way to sell more games.

  • Sslaxx said,

    Ah, they murdered the Dunmer voice in Oblivion. Still, could’ve been worse – and I understand that Fallout 3 is a little better than Oblivion in terms of VA.