Rant: Video Game Voice Acting Through the Ages

*** This article was written for The Mancunion Student Newspaper Games section. Link to the website is at the bottom. ***

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Whether you’re into Strategy, FPS or RPG, voice acting is an essential element of the gaming experience. In 1980, Bezerk’s cyborg narrator blew the world away with its barely decipherable arcade chatter (‘DE-STROI. IT’), and down the decades, as gameplay and graphics have improved, so too has the vocal talent of your favourite computer characters.

Take the Elder Scrolls (TES) game series. Spanning almost thirty years, TES is perfect study in the evolution of video game voice acting. Starting in 1994 as 240p hack ‘n’ slash The Arena, the game’s instructions and storyline were presented in Ye Olde English text form – charming, but time consuming. The Arena was rather reminiscent of 8 BIT Point ‘n’ clicker Monkey Island in that it depended mainly on reading to propel the plot, although that game recently got a redux complete with a snazzy audible script to get you in the swashbuckling mood. Moving on a ways to the third in the series, Morrowind , developers Bethesda revolutionised RPGs by hiring professionally trained actors to record hundreds of pages of dialogue written for the in-game characters. For the first time, players could concurrently interact and ‘converse’ with the world around them without any break in gameplay, and the variability was almost endless. Better was yet to come.

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Released in 2006, TES IV: Oblivion boasted an immeasurably open ended realm home to over a thousand reactionary NPCs. However, with fewer than nine actors covering every Orc, Argonian, and Nord in the land, their (undeniably versatile) vocal chords were stretched a little thin. The real draw came in the world renowned baritones of Terence Stamp (aka Zod), Patrick Stewart (aka Professor X) and Sean Bean (aka Boromir), whose involvement in the production speaks volumes for how popularised the video-game (even the ‘nerdy’ kind ) was becoming.

2011 saw the arrival of Skyrim, which broke records with its astronomical cast list. Among the 85+ credited performers were Christopher Plummer, Joan Allen, and the rumbling powerhouse that is Max Von Sydow (‘He could have just read the phone book’, recalls TES Sound Editor Mark Lambert). These enigmatic enunciators lent the Tamriellic lore an irresistible credence , and for once the recordings were in sync with the NPC’s lips. Skyrim truly pervaded popular culture with its knowing humour; the game is responsible for spreading such lethal meme epidemic s as ‘Then I took an arrow in the knee…’, ‘Fus Ro Dah!’, and everyone’s favourite Alduin quote, ‘Zu’u unslaad! Zu’u nis oblaan!’

Some actors have come to symbolise their respective gaming institutions. Michael Ironside’s (Total Recall, Starship Troopers) gruff diction as super-spy Sam Fisher in the Splinter Cell series earned him enormous fandom, all of whom were outraged when Ubisoft dropped him for younger talent. Likewise, cinematic chameleon Gary Oldman reckons he’s better known for his recurring role as the grizzled Reznov in Call of Duty than any of his screen work, and is happy drop a rendition of ‘There, on ze ledge! SHOOT HIM!’ any time. On the flipside, Lara Croft went from a chunky chested avatar to a full blown movie star, but her original digitised form and breathless British accent remained largely preferred to the dismal Angelina Jolie efforts. Of course, voice acting alone can’t save a franchise – see Fable 3, whose dazzlingly bright cast (Michael Fassbender, Naomie Harris, Stephen Fry, Simon Pegg) far outshone the game itself.

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Recently, games have tended to rely much more on emotion and character development to drive the story, with L.A. Noire, Heavy Rain and GTA V being prime examples. LA Noire’s key gameplay gimmick, the interrogation, hinged upon the detection of minor facial tics, something only made possible through the synchronicity of actor and computer. Developers Quantic Dream are at the forefront of this particular field. Heavy Rain was a brilliant exploration of the potential for motion capture in gaming – the shooting went on for 172 days! –and they pushed the envelope even further for last year’s Beyond Two Souls. The behind-the-scenes looks like a stage play inside the Tron grid; gigged out in leotards, Ellen Page and Willem Defoe (among others) wore dozens of plastic balls on their faces to capture every idiosyncrasy as they acted out book-length dialogue and loped around a soundstage for hours on end.

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ONe of L.A. Noire’s famous interrogations.

It’s remarkable to observe how far the industry has come from the monosyllabic days of Bezerk. The Last of Us – widely acclaimed as the game of 2013 for its hard hitting emotional beats – has already earned itself a film adaptation (the smart money is on Josh Brolin to play lead Joel), and with all these 100 page scripts and full body mo-caps, how long is it before we see a ‘Best Performance in a Video Game’ category at the Oscars?

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The Mancunion website: http://mancunion.com/

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