I play a lot of video games. In 2020, that should be worn like a badge of honor. Heck, I’m sure you do too! How many formative experiences have you had with games that have shaped your worldview and personal philosophy? After all, games are a medium as influential in scope and reach as books or movies. Most of the success of these narrative gems comes, undoubtedly, from quality voice acting. In these classics, fumbling the delivery of a key emotional scene is not an option. I call these “voice acting games.”
Narrative-led games have understandably high standards of what constitutes good voice acting. Sure, yeah, you might say that video games didn’t always get an A in the voice acting department, and I’ll agree. Truthfully, they had a reputation for quite the opposite; during the mass inception of voice acting in games during the 90s, there were some Hall of Shame-worthy entries. But we’ll get to that later.
Today, we’re going to focus on what works, and why. First, a small definition of our terms.
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1. Voice Acting
refers to the practice of recording voice-overs: offscreen vocal performances. They can be used for character voices, narration, dubbing, announcements, you name it. Voice acting is a diverse field that has wide-ranging applications. If you think about it for a second, it’s very likely that you’ve come across some examples of voice acting in your life today. That’s how prevalent it is in our daily lives — invisible until you start thinking about it.
It doesn’t hurt that we’re also talking of a $4.4 bn industry that is only set to grow. With the current work-from-home bonanza (also borne out of necessity), it should be noted that it’s a great way to make it to $100k a year. Sure, that’s reserved for great talent upwards (some make much, much more), but it’s still usually rated very high in the scale of remote jobs.
That’s because they offer flexibility, versatility, and a freedom that most voice actors swear by.
2. Voice Acting Games
will hitherto refer to games where having quality line delivery is make-or-break. No ifs, buts, or whys. They sink on swim based on having expertly-crafted and executed scripts and performances. In the video game world, think of them as prestige features. These are games where story, character, and emotional resonance are up, front and center. Dramas, adventures, thrillers, RPGs — all voice acting games, without a doubt.
While there are better quality standards across the board in the video game world nowadays, not all of them need memorable turns. While EA certainly is good for blockbuster-level games, one will forgive them is Need for Speed: Heat doesn’t win any voice acting awards. This is not to say they don’t employ A-level talent, though; just think of Sam Worthington in Call of Duty. But, his performance was drawing more on Michael Bay than James Cameron.
Voice acting games are more about great plot, quirky characters, memorable lines, and heartstring-tugging scenes. Sure, “memorable” may not always mean good. There’s always the real of unintentional hilarity to consider.
Let’s take a look at that first to spot what we don’t want.
Memorability for the wrong reasons
Some things stick in our minds because of their unbelievably low quality. Some games have had such hammy, over-the-top performances that they’ve become endlessly quotable. Games like the first Resident Evil, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and many other Playstation-era English dubs.
I guess there was something of a voice acting gold rush in those times. To quote the Goldblum: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” And that defines a lot of 90s voice acting in video games.
Developers were so in love with the idea that they could now fully-voice their games due to CD-ROM technology, they just went for it. It’s too bad that, like any fledgling effort, they didn’t really know what they were doing. Directing voice actors wasn’t exactly at the top of anyone’s list, and even if it was, they didn’t really know how.
If you think this is all writerly hyperbole… bruh. Bruh. If you weren’t there, I’ve got a few treats for you. I hope you’re ready for the horror… the horror of bad voice acting.
Had enough yet? I don’t know whether I’m kicking you when you’re down, or if I’ve inadvertently caused an addiction to hilariously bad voice acting. If you’re going to watch this next video, I urge you to proceed at your own risk.
Schadenfreude is a hell of a drug.
So, how about good voice acting games?
Let’s cut into the meat of the issue. As you’ve probably been able to tell, I’m more of a “Show, don’t tell” guy. I can sing the praises of a thousand voice acting games, but what good would that do you without a few listening aids? No one wants to read a lengthy description when we’ve got the real thing at our beck and call.
Let me present to you:
The Curse of Monkey Island
You probably know about Star Wars and Lucasfilm, the film and SFX company started by none other than George Lucas. They also had their (now Disney-owned) video game subsidiary. Starting in the 80s, Lucasarts produced many creative, characterful, and quirky adventure games. They had a knack for capturing the audience’s imagination, and many 90s kids (like me) regard characters like Guybrush Threepwood as highly as any feature-film protagonist.
When CD-ROM broke into the market, it was a prime territory for Lucasarts to leverage its vast resources to hire talent from the animation and cartoon industries. While there are plenty of examples to choose from, I think few would be as apropos as The Curse of Monkey Island, the third game in the series. Its cartoony, colorful style was well-served by its stellar voice cast and superb comedy writers.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the character of Murray, the adorable talking skull that fancies himself a supervillain. His hammy overacting belies the fact that he’s just some of the best comic relief you’ll ever see in games. His complete cluelessness at the reality of his situation just makes his threats and grand posturing all the funnier.
Here are some laughs for the ages. Bwahahahahaha!
The Longest Journey
Now, this is a voice acting game if there ever was one. The Longest Journey came in the late 90s from a little-known Norwegian developer Funcom. It’s an epic, grand point-and-click adventure that takes players on a lengthy, unforgettable trip through fantastic lands that mix the fairy-tale and the dystopian. None of it would work quite as well if it wasn’t for the great mix of top-notch characters and voice acting talent.
Take a look at this conversation between main character April Ryan and jaded, cynical drunkard Brian Westhouse. Take note: this is how you write and perform adventure-game characters, baby!
This is a voice acting game that deserves more love. Thankfully, the internet has talked up a storm big enough that the renewed interest has made the sequel a reality! But, for more than a decade, this Tim Schaeffer gem was one the best-kept secrets of the gaming community. Well, it wasn’t really a secret, more like a cult gem — any hardcore gamer would try to keep getting their friends into it. It’s simply a mad, psychedelic romp through every possible genre or idea you could fit into an open-world 3D platformer.
Sure, its ambition sometimes outweighed the technical capabilities of the time. It was wonky, hard, sometimes obscure. But it was also packed to the gills with charm, wit, great writing, and out-there moments that had gamers roaring with laughter. It’s also noteworthy that the Saturday-morning-cartoon, childish style was a great fit for the developers to subvert expectations and veer into funny, unexpectedly dark territory. Let’s give it up for Double Fine Studios!
Let’s just take a moment to thank our lucky stars that we’re getting a sequel. Some things just seem too good to be true.
While technically a Valve game, this game also employs star writing talent from Psychonauts. Goes to show that I’m a Lucasarts, and Lucasarts-adjacent talent. Head writer Eric Wolpaw sure has a steady hand when it comes to creating engaging, colorful content.
Now, where to start when it comes to the Portal games? The first gave us GLaDOS, one of the top villains of all time. A sarcastic, murderous, cheating computer that’s got more witty quips than Norm McDonald on Letterman.
Have a look-see:
But, Portal 2 didn’t just have GLaDOS as its only speaking part. It expanded the cast of characters to include the ever-funny Wheatly, a helper robot who’s by turns accomplice and villain. Here are his charming, bumbling British charms for your delight.
I could go all day, but…
Such is life, and all good things must come to an end. I could list examples like the ones above for hours on end because there’s a vast pool of great examples to choose from. If we ever produce a follow-up to this article, you can be sure I’ll be there to grace you with more great voice acting games.
But, if there’s one takeaway from this article, it should be the following:
Good writing, great actors and professional direction make for fantastic results.
And no, you can’t fake greatness. You can’t bet on hopefuls, maybes, or would-bes. If you’re aiming for success, you have to enlist top-level talent for your projects. Voice acting like the first Resident Evil’s is unacceptable in this decade, at with good reason — standards have risen, and that’s that.
So, if you want to take the plunge, do it with people who know their stuff. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did! You can’t ever ensure success, but you can take the necessary steps to put out a great, quality product.
Let your audience, and history, decide the rest!