May 31 2012

“What is This?” The Evolution of Voice Acting in Video Games

Published by at 12:00 pm under Editorials,Video Games

By Sara Clemens

I, like many of you, love video games. I love playing them, over-analyzing them, discussing tips and tricks for beating them, sporting paraphernalia from them, and looking up pictures of people’s tattoos about them. And I’ve been playing them for a long time. My personal gaming history is basically a by-product of the NES I found under the tree at Christmas in 1989 and my only-child status, but it’s granted me a first-person perspective to the evolution of video games for the past 23 years. I’m pretty much the Forest Gump of video games. Seriously, Tom Hanks is currently in talks to portray me in the movie of my life.

In full drag, obviously.

Aside from being a gaming geek, I’m also a theatre/film nerd, and my main areas of study in school were acting and sound design. As video game storylines became more and more complex, the need to also deepen the complexity of the characters became apparent, which in turn led to the hiring of actors to give them voice. Never missing an opportunity to sniff out a gig, I paid particular attention to the vocal performances in the games I played. And man, were some of them bad. The gaming industry’s early attempts to inject pathos through vocal talent were often clumsy at best, and laughable at worst (or also best, depending on your perspective).

Fortunately, someone in some game developer’s office somewhere realized that bad voice-over work was hurting them in the long run, and decided to focus on acquiring actual talent. And thank the Nine Divines. My acting days taught me that a good performance can elevate a mediocre script to something an audience would actually tolerate, but a bad performance will drag even the best writing down into the dreck. Slowly and surely, more and more developers hired better and better voice actors (usually to go along with better scripts, which helped), even reaching a point where A-list actors weren’t afraid to drop into the studio and earn themselves a paycheck. And I saw it all, kid! I saw it all!

You listening to this story, and me telling it. I’m a computer.

Here are 5 examples from my personal play history that I think provide a nice overview of the evolution of voice acting in video games, starting with the earliest and crappiest:

Resident Evil – 1996

So the graphic is from the Gamecube remake. Sue me.

Oh Chris and Jill. Jill and Chris! You and your teammates quite possibly provided the gaming world’s most notoriously bad voice acting, the terribleness of which can only be surpassed by the atrocious script. ALSO, WHY DON’T YOU GUYS EVER KNOW WHAT THIS IS? I still remember how psyched I was to get to play the main character as a girl—and then Barry called me “the master of unlocking.” Warning: this clip is 10 minutes long. And it’s worth every second.

httpv://youtu.be/pVyOCssIXgQ

“You saved me!” “YAAAAAAH.”

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night – 1997

Pantene Pro V: Same Formula, New Look!

While I’m rolling out my various geeky affectations, here’s another: I wrote my college thesis on Dracula. So I’m kind of big into vampires. We can dissect that obsession in another post, but let the record show I don’t like Twilight or anything related to it (lest I lose my carefully cultivated street cred). Needless to say, the Castlevania titles were are in constant rotation at my house.

SotN suffers from the same unholy union of bad acting and bad writing that crippled Resident Evil, but it resides further along the evolutionary scale due to the epic commitment of the actors. While the RE actors sound like they’re delivering their lines over the phone while performing some light paperwork, you can practically hear the grimaces and shaky fists coming from the performers in Symphony. I wouldn’t be surprised if these two guys were actually in the same room together, a rarity in studio recording.

httpv://youtu.be/LTPIfo6R-WY

Upon further reflection, I’m not sure if the actors’ commitment earns them more or less props.





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20 responses so far

20 Responses to ““What is This?” The Evolution of Voice Acting in Video Games”

  1. XenoIrishon 31 May 2012 at 12:09 pm

    The Legacy of Kain series had the best voice acting ever, it’s a shame that they couldn’t figure out decent gameplay.

  2. Grumon 31 May 2012 at 12:29 pm

    going right back to the ps1, the creators of the Legacy of Kain series really new how to make the characters come to life through great voice acting especially in soul reaver 1 and 2 alot of theatre actors were involved i believe.

    cool article and a fun read.

  3. tonyctitanon 31 May 2012 at 12:32 pm

    XENO, I Would hit the like button on your post if there was one.

  4. HarshReality79on 31 May 2012 at 12:47 pm

    CoD Black Ops (aside from it’s huge nods to a number of critically acclaimed war films) has Ed Harris, Ice Cube, Gary Oldman, Sam Worthington, Steve Blum (Toonami fame, but HUGE voice actor with nearly 500 credits), Robert Picardo (Doctor Hologram on ST:Voyager). Cinematic quality. But video games are getting huge budgets for this level of voice acting & cutscenes which in some cases have detracted from gameplay. Fallout, Portal, & CoD:BO have managed to have both solid gameplay and cinematic scope.

  5. Albatraouson 31 May 2012 at 1:03 pm

    Legacy of Kain has good gameplay. Puzzles, exploration and excellent boss battles. Ok so the combat is limited compared with games like Devil May Cry, but it is still fun.

    The voice acting is definitely up there with some of the best voice acted games though and it’s strange it’s not somewhere on here.

  6. Sara Clemenson 31 May 2012 at 2:12 pm

    Legacy of Kain! Thanks for bringing it up, Xeno. I agree wholeheartedly. Not only does the series have great voice acting, but it plays right into my vampire obsession. I have a huge soft spot for Defiance especially, but I also liked Blood Omen 2, even if the gameplay wasn’t the best.

  7. Pijuson 31 May 2012 at 2:37 pm

    +1 For Legacy of Kain. “Cast him in”

    Anything Jennifer Hale does is usualy great. I remember her best from Freelancer.

    My favourite bit of voice active ever is a bit in Samurai Jack, in the episode where Aku makes an evil clone of Jack. At some point when one of his schemes fail, he says Aaa-Blaargh. That really stuck with me. Aku was voice by Mako, aka Uncle Iroh.

  8. Mike aka MonolithTMAon 31 May 2012 at 2:57 pm

    So glad to see several commenters mention Legacy of Kain, such phenomenal voice acting!

  9. ASDon 31 May 2012 at 3:05 pm

    Final Fantasy X:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-5FTJxfV3pc

    This scene leads me to the only conclusion that they hired aliens to do the voice acting. Not the probing kind of aliens since I assume they had some “close” contact with humans, some passersby that only saw the pictures we send onto space to give them guidelines…

  10. Jasonon 31 May 2012 at 3:05 pm

    Great article! For consistency, the Mass Effect series has a really high level of quality. And of course one word for the win: Garus.

  11. Alot_Hunteron 31 May 2012 at 3:10 pm

    ME2 had fantastic voice acting. The whole series is top notch, but the second game had a special sense of crispness and professionalism to it

  12. Calebon 31 May 2012 at 3:49 pm

    Metal Gear Solid From start to finish. That was the first game that took a story to the next level with voice acting for me.

  13. Sara Clemenson 31 May 2012 at 5:35 pm

    @ASD Absolutely hilarious example. I didn’t get into the FF series until way late in the game, but there are some real gems when it comes to bad voice acting. And good, to their credit.

    And you guys, can you believe I’ve never played a Mass Effect game? It’s a gaping, ragged hole in my gaming CV. Not to mention a source of deep shame. Must rectify asap.

  14. Aether McLoudon 31 May 2012 at 6:20 pm

    Pretty much every game from Bioware has awesome voice acting. Mass Effect especially. Garrus is one of my favorite VG voices. Uncharted had an amazing cast too, especially the female leads. I also loved the voice acting in Battlefield Bad Company 2, it made your teammates in multiplayer feel like real people instead of people playing a videogame.

  15. Covalenton 01 Jun 2012 at 12:23 am

    I liked Dragon Age : Origins (even though Liliana was weird) for Morrigan and Allister (don’t know the actors).

    Mass Effect 2 was great too.

    Oh and Heavy Rain. Best voice-acting and acting game ever.

  16. MetFanMacon 01 Jun 2012 at 3:12 am

    Rocksteady casting Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill and Arleen Sorkin in “Batman: Arkham Asylum”.

  17. XenoIrishon 01 Jun 2012 at 9:17 am

    I feel the need to clarify, I wasn’t saying that the Legacy of Kain games were “Bad” when it came to gameplay, just that it wasn’t good enough to sell the games to a wider audience. The series thrived on it’s story over it’s gameplay, especially after the first two games. For instance, Soul Reaver 2 had the best narrative of the sequels but the worst gameplay, with the repetitive back tracking and lack of boss fights being prominent complaints.

    I’m currently burning through the Mass Effect series after getting an x-box and I have to agree that the voice acting is pretty solid. Martin Sheen, Kieth David, and Seth Green stand out as being awesome in the series.

    Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was also pretty good, mainly because of Patrick Stewart.

  18. Cobraon 01 Jun 2012 at 10:55 am

    Another vote here for Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City. Casting the “Batman – The Animated Series” actors to do voice-over on the games was the best decision Rocksteady made. Mark Hamill as The Joker is just absurdly good.

    Also agree with Bioware games as well, but especially DA:O. Alistair is one of my favorite video-game characters of all time and 90% of that is Steve Valentine’s impeccably snarky and sarcastic delivery. Morrigan was also excellent, again largely due to Claudia Black’s performance, and putting Alistair and Morrigan together on a party was a recipe for guaranteed entertainment.

    Another Bioware favorite of mine is Sand from Neverwinter Nights 2 — looks like I enjoy playing alongside snarky bastards. :D

  19. WOLeadon 02 Jun 2012 at 8:52 pm

    Quest for Glory IV CD version from 1995 had some great voice work on the Narrator’s part.

    Of course it was John Rhys-Davies being the narrator and doing basically ALL the talking (Seems like Hours and Hours of lines alone), so most of that goes to him admittedly.

  20. Zaggnitaon 22 Aug 2013 at 12:28 am

    Portal 2 is awesome. My favorite line will always be about the lemons.

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