Voices of reason: Improving vocal performances in your game

Voices of reason: Improving vocal performances in your game
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

August 4th 2016 at 11:55AM

Quality voice performances are becoming the standard, rather than the exception, in games. Audio firms and actors tell James Batchelor how to make the most of your dialogue

Gone are the days of reading reams of text to gather information about story and characters. Gone are the days of the silent protagonist. Now everyone in video games has a voice and something to say.

This has dramatically increased the workload for developers. While Morrowind only had a handful of spoken lines, Skyrim has over 60,000 and Fallout 4 features more than 110,000. Bethesda claimed recording for the latter took several years.

As daunting as this might seem, voice acting has become an integral part of bringing your title to life and devs striving for the best possible performances are raising the quality of games in general.

“When games are produced and recognised for great character and voice work, it’s good news,” says OMUK MD Mark Estdale (pictured). “It sets the bar as a wake-up call to everyone.“

BAFTA’s recent special event in Los Angeles recognising and awarding Amy Hennig for her achievement as a visionary writer and director is a sublime example. Amy has written large what can be done. Even indie games like Her Story and Firewatch help set the bar by demonstrating what can be done.”

Ben Ryalls, Side’s business development manager, agrees: “Quality of performance has become increasingly important over the last few years. Developers are appreciating the relatively low-cost, positive impact this can have on the overall game experience.

“The more titles where high-quality performances are recognised and commented upon, the more noticeable the poor performances in other titles become.”

Casting, directing and recording actors for your game can been a colossal task, with even the biggest triple-A studios turning to the likes of Side and OMUK for help. With good reason, these firms say: they can bring a level of professionalism to the process that almost no developer would be able to recreate.

Always use voice actors who have had training and also have a good microphone technique. If you’re working directly with an actor, make sure they are have a broadcast-quality studio.

“A professional director will make a huge difference to the level of performance you can achieve in a voice recording session,” explains Ryalls. “By having a director involved from casting right through to final pickup recordings, you ensure you have someone focusing on continuity of quality and performance throughout.

“Professional actors will also bring a better performance – the more experienced and the better trained they are, the more equipped they are to bring a character to life.”

Voice actress Posy Brewer adds: “Use proper audio recording studios. Some people rely on using the same resources and end up using the same people that you hear again and again, and it doesn’t bring variation to the game. Always use voice actors who have had training and also have a good microphone technique. If you’re working directly with an actor, make sure they are have a broadcast-quality studio.”

The need for a decent studio is vital, as this will have a major impact on the quality of your recordings – something that can detract from an otherwise impressive game.

“Nothing is worse than a great performance that has been completely spoilt by recording in a room with bad acoustics,” says Soundcuts director Adele Cutting. “Smaller companies may think recording in a studio is cost-prohibitive, but that is certainly not the case.

“Bad acoustics completely break the illusion of believability and bring you out of the game world. And don’t get me started on bad microphones and mic technique.”

 

TIME TO TALK

The process can take longer than developers might think, but that’s not the only reason why voice production firms urge studios to reach out as early as possible. In fact, getting voice actors on board at the start can help shape the game itself.

“The biggest mistake a developer can make is to outsource casting and recording when the script is ready,” says Estdale. “By that time key factors that contribute massively to the quality of the final results are already lost.  

“Cast as early as soon as ideas for your characters are forming. If a character’s voice is in place, it empowers a unified clarity of vision for the character. Voice in place helps focus the design, the writing and animation and, ultimately, fleshes out much stronger characters.”

As soon as they’re in discussions with these service providers, developers need to think about more than just how they want the voice acting to sound, says Cutting.

“There’s a lot of stuff you can talk about – not just script and actor, but how you want to record, what the style of recording is, how the lines are working in game, what speech systems are in game, what is the dialogue doing, and so on,” she explains.

The biggest mistake a developer can make is to outsource casting and recording when the script is ready. By that time key factors that contribute massively to the quality of the final results are already lost.

Brewer adds that experimenting with how actors perform their lines can also help find unexpected levels of quality: “Push them and ask them to try as many ways recording the lines to achieve what you want. Sometimes improvising can help develop a character.”

Finding ways to get the actors together in order to feed off each other’s performance can go some way to improving your game’s dialogue. In addition to having them record at the same time, opting for motion or performance capture can help put them in the shoes of your characters.

“With technology evolving and more people using motion capture, it is becoming more important on the voice element being spot on and syncing with characters,” says Brewer. “Many studios like to use the same actor for both motion capture and voicing. It’s always right to get the best quality for any production and use true voice actors practised in the specialist technique of voice acting.”

Although motion capture tech has advanced significantly over the last few years, delivering realistic performances and celebrity likenesses, there are still tools and pipelines that need refining.

“The biggest improvement could be the toolset to record the actor and link the takes with a database,” suggests Cutting. “Scripts for games are not always locked. They can be very fluid, as when speech is implemented it might not work, so lines are changed or re-written. A database that clearly shows recorded, revised and deleted lines is super important.”

IT’S IN THE SCRIPT

Hiring professional voice actors and production firms is all well and good, but they entirely depend on developers – and the material provided.

“Without doubt the most important thing is the writing,” says Estdale. “Everything else is secondary. If it’s a turd it doesn’t matter how you record and what actors you hire.

“The quality of voice acting is improving but it’s always down to the quality of the writing and great writers have always been around.”

It’s not just the script that matters. Actors need to know the words beyond the words: lore, backstory, personality, motivations. As with so many aspects of development, context is king.

“Get assets to us for prep before the recording session,” Ryalls urges. “It can be character bios for casting, dramatic and emotional scripts for auditions, videos and story overviews. The more our team can prepare and be invested in your story, the better job we’re all going to do. 

“The same goes for the actors – the more time they have to read through their materials, the more committed to their character and performance they’re going to be.”

The quality of voice acting is improving but it’s always down to the quality of the writing and great writers have always been around.

Voice production firms will often go to great lengths to ensure their teams are fully invested in the stories developers are trying to tell. Side, for example, assigned the same production manager and lead voice director to The Witcher 2, III and the recent Blood & Wine expansion in order to guarantee consistency.

Estdale concludes: “It doesn’t matter whether you have the best actor in the world – if the context is wrong, the performance is wrong. 

“Visual and sonic cues during recording are much stronger than written notes in a script or the spoken word of the director, as they enable the actor to live in the moment. And the moment will be right for the game.”

Voice acting has come on in leaps and bounds. It furthers our medium – but only if the dialogue is right. As Cutting points out: without voice acting, Thomas Was Alone is just another puzzle game.

All this week, Develop is taking a deeper look into sound and music in video games through our Audio Special.