Voice acting in games has come a long way since the 1990s, when classic one-liners and terrible acting clangers haunted the industry, even from some of our favourites.
Although it can be argued that some games voice acting nowadays doesn't quite hit the standards of an animated film, the game industry is increasingly attracting star quality, such as Ellen Page in Quantic Dream's Beyond: Two Souls, Uncharted's Nolan North and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West's Andy Serkis.
But is there enough talent available for games voice acting? And do they know the specific techniques and requirements for voicing game characters?
Develop sat down with voice director Hugh Edwards and famed Fable and X-Factor voice actor Peter Dickson about the state of game VO, and how their plans to help train up a new generation of game voice actors through a special course for professionals at audio outsourcing outfit High Score Productions in London.
How did the idea of this voice acting for games course come about?
Hugh Edwards: As a voice director, I have a theatrical background originally, but then became involved in doing game audio about ten years ago and it was really a progression as the industry grew. I started doing more and more, putting real direction into voice techniques and encouraging actors properly, and helping with script development.
And overtime it’s kind of blossomed really to the point where we’re now doing somewhere between 20 and 30 games a year. I originally met Peter Dickson on a game called National Geographic, which is a kind of quiz based game which was done by the late Gusto Games. And we’d worked together ten times on different games. As well as being the voice of X-Factor Peter is a terrific character actor, so we worked for some time on that.
And then overtime I started to notice the drama schools haven’t really caught up yet with the gaming industry. So they’re getting dramatic training, and sometimes they’re getting on mic training, but not an awful lot of it.
Why do you think that is?
Edwards: I think it’s because the game industry is a relatively young industry and the drama schools are still focusing on televisual, filmic and radio, which are the existing, true bread and butter places for actors.
And even the agents still haven’t really caught up with gaming, they’re still behind the times. So I think they’re not putting enough time into it. We were finding that we were getting actors, good actors, but inexperienced at doing gaming. And we were basically training them on the job how to deliver gaming VO in the way that it was needed.
So what do you think needs to be changed to make actors better at game VO?
Edwards: This course for one. The way we approach the course is obviously from my point of view as a voice director from the gaming side, and from Peter’s point of view as the actor, on the character creation side. So approaching it from both of those angels creates quite a safe environment for the actors.
Because almost all of these people are great actors, performers or narrators, but they’re just not aware of the different terms or methods that are used specifically for gaming and not in other areas.
So having created the course, it’s been running about five months now, and we’re now starting to go back in the drama schools to start educating them and start doing the courses.
But for everyone out there who is an actor or a VO professional who has done drama college, it’s too late. Yhat’s why we have created this course as a place where people can come and learn that stuff without having to go back to college.
Do you think enough of that is being done?
Edwards: Well we’re the only course that does this in the UK. There are a couple of other small courses that help with casting and stuff for gaming, and there are some ADR courses, but as a gaming specific course this is the only one.
Why do you think this is, is it because it’s a young industry?
Peter Dickson: It’s been the poor relation up to now. As we said earlier in the course to the students, historically the audio was the last thing that was thought about and consequently the budgets were small.
There was not much attention paid to the quality of the script, and there was not much attention paid to the quality of the audio or the performance because the money wasn’t put into that, the money was put into the visual development of the game. And it still is to a large extent, it takes the lions share of it.
But more and more with the improvement in domestic audio quality in people’s houses, the gaming industry had to up its game and pay more attention to the quality of the sound.
So you get big games like Fable that raise the game for everybody, they’ve got Danny Elfman writing the sound and the score, a lot of foley, a lot of work being done on sound effects, and a lot of attention was paid on that particular game to making sure the dialogue was really well recorded.
From the voice acting point of view, do you think the scripts that you get are done well enough?
Edwards: It’s getting better. If you go back five or six years it was the person in the company who had the most amount of time who did the script, regardless of whether they were a writer or not. Some games have changed that.
There are four or five companies like High Score Productions, which is my company, and the likes of Side, OM, Nimrod, Pitstop, who are good at their job and who are raising the bar.
But at the same time there hasn’t historically been a training environment for the actors, which is what we’re providing now. The story at the minute seems to be based on budget. If you look at companies like Ninja Theory with Enslaved, they got Alex Garland to come in and write the script, and you can see the results pay massive dividends in the end game, it’s just so much better.
So I think the industry is growing and there are areas that are done very, very well, but there are still areas where the storytelling is effectively made by the teaboy and that obviously needs to change, but some people are doing it well.
Do you think enough people are taking game VO seriously enough?
Edwards: Of the agents I would say 20 per cent of them have clocked on to what gaming is properly about and are properly utilising their actors in it. Of the rest of them, I would say some of them are stuck in the commercial world, and they look at one hour voice sessions as a tiny bit of bread and butter but they don’t pay much heat to it.
They don’t end up putting their good actors forward for many castings so they’re also missing out on the big jobs, where there can be 35 hours worth of recording.
They’re also not really used to the buy-out structure and the contract structure. Some of them are, some of them are really getting their heads round it, but in general its still a behind the times, the agents.
With the actors I think there’s a much more higher level of enthusiasm for wanting to get into games, but many of them don’t know how do to it. Not only in technique but how to actually get into it, so we provide a lot of coaching at the end of this course on how to approach people, how not to, how to get your show reel sort for gaming.
99 per cent of voice actors out there don’t have a gaming specific show reel. And it shows. And we get given casting clips initially trying to sell me Galaxy bars or BMWs, and it’s got no representation at all of how good an actor they are, but that’s because the agents don’t understand how to pitch for gaming casting.
Do you think in five years there will be a lot more gaming courses that teach VO, or do you think it won’t be that quick?
Edwards: I would hope that the industry is being more supportive to voice over professionals with regards to gaming in the future than it is now. Yes we pay them well, and yes we employ them where we can, but I don’t think as an industry we’re putting enough support back into the bottom of the industry where people are learning.
At the end of the day our goal is for better voice in gaming, and I don’t think you can ever stop striving to stop getting better. I would say at the peak in the good areas it’s a lot better than it was ten years ago definitely, ten years ago it was a car crash.
Peter you were saying earlier you don’t get the scripts till the day and it’s all under NDA, do you think that’s a problem?
Dickson: It shouldn’t be, no. As I said to the students, they have been cast for a specific role in the game on the basis of their show reel. So the voice director will have cast them in conjunction with the client and considered them from a bunch of other people.
So the actor walks in there not knowing exactly what it’s going to be, but they can rest assured that they would have been picked for a particular sound or character that they’ve shown on their show reel.
That’s half the battle really, is casting it right and getting it right, and that’s why a showreel is very important. But more often than not you don’t see sight of the script until literally five minutes before you’ve got to do it.
Some people, I can see your face, you’re quite shocked by that, because in film, radio and theatre you get to see the script months before.
Again, there are reasons for that. It could be the script hasn’t been written till the last minute or it could be that there are certain confidentiality issues with the game developer that they may not be able to release the script to third parties without having them sign a non-disclosure agreement or confidentiality contract.
Is that not a problem for you as an actor?
Edwards: The more preparation time you’ve got, the better. This is an illustration of why the game industry is still quite young. Because with an audio book or radio play you wouldn’t dream of getting an actor into a studio without either rehearsal or a good two or three weeks worth of prep work to be able to make notes and all of that kind of stuff on an entire script.
I don’t know if it’s because of the secrecy or because of the timing issues or a lack of resources they have, but to base an entire four or five hundred thousand pound game and get a script out to the actors a day before is kind of crazy, and the industry hasn’t really turned round and asked themselves why they’re doing that, because the voice is such a massive, integral part of the atmosphere.
Dickson: I’ve played lots of characters on Fable and Kinect Sports, and I didn’t see them till five minutes before the session. So what this course aims to help these actors cope with are rapid strategies to devise and come up with characters quickly on the fly.
Edwards: I mean really, going back to your question about the industry in five years time, I would like to see the story structure being built at the beginning, and then a separate team going off and writing the story, way in advance of the actors being there, so that they have enough time to prepare.
It sounds like an after thought at times.
Edwards: Well Peter mentioned earlier that game VO has kind of traditionally been the ugly sister in the corner of game design. It’s definitely not like that now, but that’s how it started.
The actors have a responsibility, by coming on this course and doing their upmost to get their technique right and get their characters right and whatever.
But if you put an actor in a room with 30 seconds notice of a script then that’s the game developer’s responsibility to try and change that and write these things in advance, or put it out to writers, and get writers in.
But as I say, our overall objective is for the quality level to go up in game audio, that’s really what we want.