Argh!

In March of 2004, fourteen other theater students, two professors, and I took a trip to London paid by my college. Because our intent on going was to enrich our knowledge of theater, six out of the seven nights we spent there saw us in theaters, watching plays. Our days were left largely to ourselves, except for some visits to theaters and museums. Those included the new Globe Theater, Drury Lane Theater, National Theater of Great Britian (the Laurence Olivier stage has purple-covered seating because it was his favorite color), and the London Theater Museum.


The most educational of the four was probably the Theater Museum. All of these trips had guided tours, but this one was just chock full of various tidbits that would make any theater historian drool. We saw drawings of the youngest actor to portray Hamlet, heard about the passing on of the Shakespearean actor from the greats (we’re on to Kenneth Branagh now), and the lead-based makeup that proliferated the fashion and devastated the face of the Victorian lady.

During this tour we also learned of the old rehearsal process. Growing up in contemporary theater, and having been involved with it for ten years now, I can’t say I’ve ever been through a rehearsal process where I did not know the entire script–where the story was something I only knew through my lines. There are many things about previous ages of theater that are easy to overlook, including the fact that directors were not always a staple and that people who rehearsed had the entire script in hand.

Therefore, while walking along with our tour guide we were told of one actress who held her script, which only had the lines for her part, who decided to sit in on the other rehearsals to learn exactly what she was playing. That way she would be better able to understand what was going on, what her character may have known, and generally have a better idea of the themes and plot of the entire production. Seems to make sense.

Acting is not something I’ve done professionally or in a theater since moving to Chicago. It takes a lot of time and I’m already stretching my limits oftentimes. Instead, I’ve contemplated the profession of voice acting and wondered about how I would get into the field. Particularly for videogames. There is some painful voice acting out there.

Take, for instance, Deus Ex, which I am currently playing. Curious, I decided to head to Google and do some searching on what others thought. This review seems to think it is phenomenal, with which I would heartily disagree. Honestly, it often sounds as if people with very little idea of what is going on in the scene are doing a cold reading, having seen the lines for the first time before the recording I’m hearing. This isn’t the case for the entire production, but, much like with The Dark Knight’s distortion of Christian Bale’s voice while Batman, even the lines said by JC Denton have me rolling my eyes with how ridiculous they sound (I get it, you’re gruff and in charge…).

One of the non-essential dialogs I heard was between a soldier and Shannon in the UNATCO headquarters on my return trip from a mission. They were sitting on a sofa in front of the restroom when both were engaging in flirting (the soldier was giving a danger fraught retelling of his part in the last mission and Shannon was less than enthusedly flirting with him) that stopped me in my tracks as I tilted my head and furrowed my brows in consternation.

Don’t just take my word for it, though:

Not all voice acting in all games is horrendous, though, and some voice actors and actresses are actually amazing. Therefore, while thinking about this issue, I did some research and came across a wealth of information on Gamasutra. The first was an interview with Sony’s Dialog Manager, Greg deBeer, who confirmed a lot of what I suspected was happening.

The actors are often not given the script beforehand. Their first encounter with the script may be the first time they walk into the recording studio. From an interview with Wendee Lee, a voice actress and director, it appears that sometimes these projects don’t even have a director, they merely have the creative team working on the project. And, for my own personal interest, I read industry advice from David Sobolov. Now, the set of scenarios I’ve illustrated may not be a challenge for the greater actors and actresses, but we cannot all be Jennifer Hale.

Not all acting is the same. Therefore, please feel free to completely disregard my introductory story and the faults I lay out as I (a person with no industry experience) see it. My junior and senior years in high school saw me taking Theaters III and IV, where my time was split between film and theater. Acting for the camera is wholly different than being on stage. I can only imagine it’s all the more different from being in a studio with no other actors most of the time. According to Wendee Lee, it’s even different than working on animation or anything of that nature.

In my first post about Deus Ex, Michael Abbott left the following comment, concerning a throw away line I made about my frustration with the voice acting:

I’m also curious about our responses to the acting (voice-acting and in-game character performances) in video games like this. Even among some of the very best games, to a real actor with training these performances usually range from poor to abysmal. Do we overlook them? Do they diminish our experience? Ahh, there’s yet another post! ;-)

Well, here’s the other post. As to the questions asked? I obviously don’t overlook them. When the Marquis in Final Fantasy XII is named and talked about and the s is pronounced, I cringed. My fellow thespian Dickie and I visibly cringed and it had us going around putting on airs and calling everything a Marquis with an s. Otherwise, the voice acting in the game is passable, though not great.

However, do they diminish my experience? It depends on what other elements are in the game, but it does in varying degrees. My current experience with Deus Ex has me frustrated with the game. The focus of the game has shifted from the moral ambiguity of class disparity in treatment of an engineered disease to my own survival. Not really feeling any empathy for JC, I don’t care. The plot has also spiraled into a conspiracy theory which has little or no explanation right now, which further divorces my empathy with the characters.

Therefore, if the game were feeding my other needs and expectations (it may well shift there again, and this is a personal problem with the game), it could be something I note with passing and then go on. It would diminish my experience, because it grates on my nerves, but it would not be a deal breaker. Right now it’s just the icing on the cake I don’t want to eat. Yet, as was noted by Abbott, and I acknowledge, this may well just be because I have higher expectations from the voice acting (there may yet be another post on in-game character performance) due to my own experiences with a very similar art.

The goods news is that it’s something of which these companies and teams are aware and the quality is slowly improving. The other industries certainly have their fair share of clunkers, too. Don’t worry, we’re not the only ones.

About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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3 Responses to Argh!

  1. I’d be interested to know which games you feel have good voice acting overall. It’d be worth looking into who was involved (On the development side) in those games to see if maybe individuals with film or theatre experience are better able to direct voice actors.I guess I’m thinking specifically of BioShock which I think had both a good script and good voice acting and I wonder how much of that is because Ken Levine has a degree of hollywood experience.

  2. Denis Farr says:

    I do think Bioshock was done well in all of its production values (if not the plot about halfway through). It’s definitely a game where the voice acting added to the experience. It was also largely isolationist, so there wasn’t that much actual dialog. What I can remember of the dialog does stand in my mind as well done, however (I do plan on replaying it to look at the gendered implications of the little sisters).Otherwise, I believe you make a good suggestion. I cannot think of any further games off the top of my head, but now I want to go back and install some and see what I find–then doing research into the development of the titles. You may well have a good point about the interaction of people who know more about acting.As I said, even the best actor can give an underwhelming performance if the conditions are poor (script, time frame, director, et cetera).

  3. Chris Lepine says:

    I’ve always found it strange that gamers have been willing to accept or overlook abysmal voice acting. To me, a poorly voiced character can break an otherwise immersive experience.Good voice acting?– Outcast. Cutter Slade drips with attitude, and his Bruce Willis tough-guy act is all charm.– Curse of Monkey Island, Sam and Max Hit the Road, Full Throttle, pretty much any ‘talkie’ LucasArts adventure– Planescape: Torment (oddly enough!). Even though there technically isn’t much voiceover in the game, what IS in there is beautiful – the one-liners that characters get give you a real ‘flavour’ for their personality.– The Last Express. Every accent, every sarcastic remark, every slip of the tongue, is perfectly voiced. If people want to see some brilliant voice acting – and I mean, top-notch Hollywood stuff, snag a copy of this game.– Blade Runner. Again, absolutely top-notch voice acting. These are obviously trained professionals, and all of them are familiar with the atmosphere of the film. A chilling rendition of William Blake by Clovis (actor: Mark Roltston), “Tiger, tiger, burning bright…”Some examples of rather poor voice acting:– Half Life/Half-Life 2. It’s not so much the voice acting, but the way the characters are animated in relation to the voices.. it always feels like I’m watching a sock-puppet.– Return to Zork (it’s so bad, it’s hilarious – perhaps that’s the point!)– Arcanum: of Steamworks & Magick Obscura – not terrible… simply underwhelming. Very drab… not dramatic or evocative to the point that it detracts from the dialogue.– BioForge. It pains me to admit it, but the VO’s are unsubtle and goal-directed. There are occasionally well-voiced lines.. ie. Caynan yelling “If you’ve come for the fork you’ll be sorely disappointed!” (right before you beat him to death with his dismembered arm).– Ultima IX: Ascension. The voice-overs are so incredibly bad that I had to turn them off. I can’t even qualify how unlistenable they are.– TES: Oblivion. Why is it that so many RPGs voice their characters so badly? You’d think that a tradition that came out of live-in-person drama, they’d find ways of voicing their characters in a more effective way.

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