Video games have been an active part of pop culture since the early 70s. With the entrance of Pong into the scene in ‘72, immense crowds gathered at arcades. This opened the door for the lucrative home console and PC gaming markets; in time, the simplistic games of yore gave way to open-ended, narrative-led experiences that rival any other medium. When improving technology opened the door for video game voice acting, gamers marveled.
The previously mute games suddenly exploded into a flurry of characters and performances that breathed life into the medium. Sure, no one seemed to care that the first years of video game voice acting were a little wonky. It took a while for people to get a hang of it, and for video game developers to actually know their stuff.
After the initial growing pains, good voice acting started to become more common in the industry. That’s why today there’s a higher standard than ever. Gamers of all stripes have become more discerning and they have a better ear for quality. Stuff like the voice acting for the first Resident Evil wouldn’t fly today. Feast your ears on this nugget of aural delight!
But apart from the hellish soundscapes of earlier games, what is there to know about the video game voice acting profession? What are some good examples? How far has the industry come?
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This post has been updated in August 2021.
The early days of video game voice acting
Aaah, the halcyon days of mute video games. Yes, young whippersnapper, there was such time as when the line between the video game and the literary world was much blurrier. Text adventures comprised encapsulated the most narrative-driven examples. Early third-person point-and-click adventures continued this trend, like 1990s The Secret of Monkey Island. Lucasarts (a subsidiary of Lucasfilm… y’know, George Lucas?) had cinematic, cartoonish flair.
Still, as quaint as they are, imagination still played a big part in how players perceived characters. Just watch 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’s tie-in graphic adventure. It’s a wonderful, playful take on the story. Lucasarts and early game developers had to have the ingenuity to work with a “less is more” philosophy. This made humor and wit shine in every corner.
Be that as it may, memory limitations were very much an issue for consoles and PCs. These space limitations prevented voice recordings from being used. It was just not cost-effective, space-wise. This didn’t prevent some companies from trying to blow people’s minds. The earliest examples of small-scale video game voice acting were not even acting!
Synth technology was used in ways that mimicked human voices, like in 1980s Berzerk, by Atari. Things gave way to the very earliest digitized snippets used throughout the 80s, in games like Mission Impossible or the original Castle Wolfenstein.
But tech limitations made these limited to very short segments that sounded tinny. At most, they comprised a barked order or an end-of-game message. The use of voice in video games was very much an exception rather than the norm. These limitations hampered narrative possibilities that would’ve benefitted from the inclusion of speech.
And games with speech were mostly PC-only! The 8-bit home-console cartridges didn’t have much space.
When did the tide change?
The most notable event was probably the advent of affordable CD-ROM technology. These discs allowed games to incorporate better graphics, voice acting, and full-length videos into their stories. Games got more epic, their ambitions got more cinematic, and by the mid-90s, voice acting was everywhere.
You couldn’t turn around without finding a game sporting an all-star cast of well-known Hollywood or cartoon starts voicing characters. There were also attempts at creating “interactive movies” in the form of games that used real footage. This genre, known as “FMV games” often had… let’s just say less than A-list talent in them. They occasionally used guests (like Christopher Walken or Dennis Hopper) to up the ante.
Results were typically pretty hammy, as talent mostly acted in front of green screens, not helping the general B-movie feel. But aside from these false starts, the good thing is that video game voice acting did gain traction.
Stories got more intricate, with twists, turns, surprises, and pathos rivaling any medium; original soundtracks became orchestrated, sweeping, grand operas; games became more cinematic, bolder, and interactive in novel ways. This was the perfect environment for actors to imbue video characters with new life.
In fact, you couldn’t tear yourself away from this audio bonanza even if you wanted to! Franchises old and new started having a voice in important sequences, or even in entire games! Lucasfilm started putting out full-length CD-ROM adventures. Full Throttle and The Dig are two notable examples, with their cartoon graphics and full, outstanding voice casts.
Sounds like video game voice acting heaven, only, not
I may be singing the praises of this sudden explosion, sure. Voice acting, 3D, all incredible revolutions that paved the way for the extravagant, blockbuster-quality video games we enjoy today. In fact, even indies have gotten better than ever! But trust me, it took a while for us to get there.
Many video games from this era had laughably bad voice acting. Some are even worthy of their own Hall of Shame. But the race to suddenly fill up CD-ROMs and hard discs with voice acting couldn’t have been won without these fledgling efforts. For every 10 Resident Evils and Castlevanias, there was a hidden gem, like The Curse of Monkey Island.
It took a while, but with gradual improvements in technology, there also came improved standards for video game voice acting. The B-movie-grade level performances slowly started becoming less common. Suddenly, there was not so much to laugh about anymore. Acceptable voice acting became the norm, and it became commonplace to find OK to good voices in most games.
Today, most video games have decent voice acting. Of course, we’re not talking Othello here. It’s not like Peter O’ Toole is going to rise up from the grave and deliver a soliloquy in an indie game. It does so happen, though, that both makers and actors know what they’re doing to a higher degree.
In fact, I think so highly of the way the video game voice over has developed that I gave them a place honor in this article. Check it out if you want some cool examples from the olden days.
Some notable video game voice acting pros
1. David Hayter
is a notable Canadian pro. He’s not only a voice actor, but an accomplished scriptwriter, and actor as well. He came to video game voice acting prominence due to his performance in 1998’s Metal Gear Solid. There, he embodied the role of the main character Solid Snake. With a gravelly voice straight out of 80s action hero tropes, his character could’ve been a one-note “gruff warrior” archetype.
Hayter stuck the landing, though, and humanized the character through moments of vulnerability and insight into human nature. He managed to embody both the wisdom and weariness of a character who had seen too much. During subsequent games, he got to continue and build on his performance for this now-legendary character.
2. Jennifer Hale
is probably one of the greatest voice actresses working today. She’s been in so much, it would be almost impossible to pick standouts. Wikipedia lists Baldur’s Gate, Mass Effect, Metal Gear Solid, BioShock Infinite, Metroid Prime, Overwatch, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic as immediate highlights.
The woman is in so much every year that it’s hard to keep track of. Trust me, just with that resume, you’re practically royalty. But Jennifer Hale just does it all. Superheroes, space captains, secret agents. Her ability spectrum runs the gamut of dramatic possibilities. If I had to choose a personal favorite, it would be her role as the female Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect trilogy. Her acting so good, it was widely regarded by the fandom as the best take on the character.
3. Troy Baker
is a man who has been in everything. Just looking at some of his video game credits may give you a headache. The thing probably runs longer than this article! He’s not only a chameleon, he excels at everything; from main characters to eccentric turns, he disappears into roles so much that sometimes you don’t recognize him at all. Still, when he wants to do his signature “Troy” main character voice, it’s like watching a movie with an A-list star. For my money, his best performance was as Joel in The Last of Us. This included a pretty involved recording schedule which included motion capture for all of his scenes. He’s set to up the bar even more with the upcoming sequel.
4. Nolan North
is an extremely prolific voice actor; he would probably give Troy Baker a run for his money in the longest credit department. He’s been in everything you can think of. Just as with Troy, when he wants you to notice it’s him, he will. If not, he’ll just morph into one of his many voices. His best and most well-known turn is undoubtedly as the character of Nathan Drake in the Uncharted series. Part vulnerable, part clown, part action hero, all relatable human. His wounded, approachable persona, couched in sardonic wit, is no doubt part of the appeal that won over audiences. Without him, it’s hard to believe the series could’ve reached the same record-breaking numbers.
Video game voice acting is not exactly a new profession. But it’s probably the best time ever to get an actor if you’ve got a project that needs one. Through the internet and greater access to information, both voice actors and game directors have achieved higher standards. Gamers will no longer be enthralled by the mere fact of voice being present in your game. That was the 90s, dude! People don’t say words like Xtreme anymore!
So, you know how it is. Get with the times; it’s adapt or die out there. Whatever the scope of your project, if you’ve got the need for a narrator, the main character, a side character — anything! — you’re going to need an actual voice pro on your team. In fact, maybe you’re looking to fill out a cast of dedicated talent that will match your vision.
That is no longer a dream reserved for the wealthiest, or the most connected. With marketplaces that can bring talent remotely to your inbox, what are you waiting for? It’s time to listen to the voices that you think would best suit your project, and get cracking! There’s no need to go for second best or to go with choices that don’t sound just right.
With a world of talent at your disposal, are you going to settle? I don’t think so! This is a game only you can play.
You may not have infinite continues, but I have faith you can get it right! Find the right voice today with Bunny Studio!