Voice Acting in Digital Narratives

Back in my day (I’m currently 27, but that’s like 256 in video game years) playing a video game with a story meant a lot of reading. Like, a novel’s worth.

When I was little, I would read books, but I would also play Chrono Trigger, and those were very similar actions, as far as I was concerned. Chrono Trigger required a little more active thought, but they were of roughly equal literary value (I still feel that way, though the writing in some of those 90’s-era RPGs was a bit hokey).

But in the last decade, playing a game with a storyline has become a lot more like watching a movie. There are cutscenes that James Cameron would be proud of, skillfully written plot arcs, and voice work by actual real people. At one point, voice acting meant having something to listen to while you read the dialog box in major events. Game development companies lacked the means or the desire to fully voice a game, so you’d get a few lines with highly compressed audio wherever the developers felt like it.

Today, voice acting in video games is so prevalent, that what was once known as the “text box” is now known as “subtitles.” And their default setting when you start the game is “off.”

This a big reason why video games have flooded the mainstream media in recent years. In the same way that movies are more prevalent in the mainstream than books (though most movies are based on books), new games are more mainstream than old games (though most new games are based on old games).

I don’t particularly wish to make a value judgement on whether that’s a good or bad thing in terms of the literary value of modern video games, but it does present a new challenge for those who create narratives in the digital age:

Voice acting is a thing. In the same way bad acting can throw off the impact of a good movie, bad voice acting can ruin a well-written story. The delivery is every bit as important as the composition itself.

Sometimes the distinction between “good” and “bad” voice acting is subtle.

Sometimes… it isn’t.

I’ll give you a minute to let that sink in. I’m sorry.

But it’s not always that bad. Sometimes the issue with voice acting is that characters are written with a particularly cultural sensibility in mind (especially when they are localized from other countries), and the English voice actor fails to capture it.

Sometimes large companies with big budgets think that voice acting is the same as acting, and so they hire Hollywood stars to do a halfhearted job of giving life to a character. And then you get this abomination, starring Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu, and Cameron Diaz.

So this is really, really bad, right? But often problems with voice acting are more subtle. Sometimes the voice acting isn’t actually that bad, but there are issues with the context.

Assassin’s Creed 3, which I’ve just recently started playing, has absolutely phenomenal voice acting, and through the beginning hours of the game, I found myself taken with the use of accents. At first, it does a great job of painting the scene, with a blend of British, Irish, Scottish, and other accents that really help create an environment.

And then those accents get extremely inconsistent. Native Americans speak with contemporary English accents. George Washington sounds like he’s from Chicago. The whole thing is very jarring, and it ruins the immersion.

And mind you, the voice acting is solid. The writing is great and the lines are delivered entertainingly and believably. But because the accents are all over the place, I become very aware of the fact that I am listening to a voice actor, rather than suspending my disbelief.

It’s a seemingly small problem, but an increasingly real one for those telling stories in a digital era. Sometimes, as a writer, you can do everything right, only to have someone tasked with bringing your writing to life make it a shadow of what it could have been.


Note: it turns out the development team of AC3 actually put a lot of thought into how their characters should speak. Sometimes there is no right answer.

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