Tell Me A Story: The Value of Voice Actors

by Bill Henning

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Thanks to snappy one-liners, Duke Nukem became an instant fan favorite.

In 1996, my exposure to video games was limited; at my home we had a computer that had Battle Chess, Chuck Yeager’s Advanced Flight Trainer, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Doom. That is, until my father brought home a little game called Duke Nukem 3D. I didn’t know much about it other than it looked like Doom and that my brother and I played that to bits. Little did I know that this game would change the way I looked at video games with one simple sound bite – “Come get some!

When I heard those words, it was the first time I really, truly heard a voice actor in a video game. Sure, I had heard some bits while at the arcade, or even on some Super Nintendo or Sega games, but I had never really heard a full sentence until I heard Duke say something along the lines of “Damn, those alien bastards shot down my ride!” I was amazed – this character, taking a page from some of my favorite heroes in action films, used quick quips and hilarious one-liners to instantly establish himself as the ultimate badass.

In that moment, I realized that voice acting was a crucial component to video games. Voice acting could dramatically add to the experience, giving emotion to the characters and meaning to the story. But it goes beyond simply giving characters a voice – just as any film can be ruined by poor performances from the cast, so too can a bad voice actor destroy an otherwise good script. Developers must also know when to use them and how.

Sing in Me, Muse

Some of the greatest video games of all time have had silent protagonists – Doom, Wolfenstien 3D, Super Mario Brothers, Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy I through IX and Grand Theft Auto 1 through 3, just to name a few. Most games didn’t include voice actors out of necessity – it would have taken up too much space on the cartridge, and therefore developers relied on text to tell the story. But as technology has advanced, voice acting has become easier to implement; yet many modern games simply do not take advantage of this. But if some of the most classic games did not need voice actors, why should developers use them now?

Over the years, AAA video games have added amazing voice actors to help create some wonderful stories. One of the most recent examples is Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy stepping back into the shoes of the Joker and Batman, respectively, for Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City. Conroy and Hamill not only had the support of many fans from their work on the animated series, but it was clear they understood these characters and understood their relationship to one another, bringing these two giant characters to life.

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Thanks to some amazing voice work, the fight between Batman and the Joker has never sounded better.

Each encounter between the two feels comfortable and familiar, like hearing a favorite song from your childhood come on the radio all those years later. Though nostalgia can account for some of the fan’s positive reactions, it’s clear that these two voice actors know what they’re doing, and it strengthens each game tremendously. Conroy’s Batman has always been the ideal voice, coming off cool and confident without sounding cocky and outlandish. Hamill’s version of the Joker is considered by many to be the quintessential version of the character. The Joker has had many different actors deliver many different takes on the character throughout the history of the franchise, but Hamill’s Joker is the perfect blend of deranged, comical and dangerous, and it shows throughout Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City. Nothing shows this better than the voicemails the Jokes leaves for Batman throughout Arkham City; these bits of backstory can go from sentimental to insane in seconds.

Know When to Change

The Arkham games benefited from having central characters with established voice actors – their inclusion made sense to fans. But not every franchise has these luxuries. An example of a franchise that successfully implemented voice acting is Dead Space. In Dead Space you play as Isaac Clarke in a dark chilling survival horror game in space. I loved the first Dead Space but my only complaint with it was that Clarke didn’t talk, while every other character did. Which would have been fine except that the given story line for Clarke was incredibly personal (the hunt for his missing wife on a derelict space vessel), on top of every other character asking Clarke questions or just giving him orders. I was shocked that developer Visceral Games chose a mute character, crippling his ability to interact with the characters or share his thoughts on his journey.

The most common defense of the silent protagonist is that should be the vehicle for what the player is feeling or thinking during any point of the game. The problem is that you cannot always leave it up the player to project emotions onto the characters and story – doing so is a calculated risk, and the list of games that can successfully tell a story without voice acting is significantly shorter than games who successfully utilize voice acting. Games are a completely different medium from literature and film – not only are they telling the player a story, they are allowing them to live it, feel it and control every action. Without a little help to guide them along the way, the story lacks emotional punch (see: every squad mate’s death scene in Halo: Reach).

With Dead Space 2, Visceral Games realized that Isaac Clarke needed a voice. I remember the exact moment when I realized that Visceral made the right choice. Isaac is slowly moving through a church, and is being guided via radio by a woman, Daina, to meet her at the roof. Along the way a door is locked and Clarke is trapped in a large room with multiple creatures that stalk through the shadows and attack in groups. I was frustrated at this point as tension was high because of the constant monster attacks. I was running out of ammo and health packs, and Daina wouldn’t stop giving me orders.

Finally, the stress getting to me, I yelled at my TV, pleading for Daina to shut up. And at the exact same moment, Isaac yelled “Not now,” cutting off Daina. On top of that, at that same point one of the creatures started to charge at me. It was perfect timing and my jaw just dropped. For a game to orchestrate a moment so well to have guessed how I was feeling, to have my rage build to an exact point, mere seconds before the character within the game felt and expressed the same emotions, was an amazing experience.

Moments like these give the player something to call their own, a small story within an already amazing story. And though people say that giving players a silent protagonist lets them create their own moments, I would trade that for a voice actor in a heartbeat. Because as soon as that connection happened between Isaac Clarke and myself, I had a duty to follow this story to the end and make sure that Clarke finished what he started. It wasn’t just the game telling me what to do – I did these things because it was what Clarke needed to do, and in a way, I needed to do them, too.

Making the Voices Stop

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Gordon Freeman’s lack of input into his current situation is off-putting and alienating.

Although most games can easily implement voice acting, there are examples of games that didn’t, with mixed results. Some games can get away without a voice actor, such as Limbo or ICO. Both are beautiful games that tell a story that voice acting would have cheapened. But more traditional games that went without it felt like something was missing. Like most, when Half-Life 2 first came out, I immediately tracked down a copy, hoping that developer Valve improved on instant-classic Half-Life. And though there are some obvious improvements (such as graphics), I was disheartened to hear that protagonist Gordon Freeman was still a mute. If Freeman’s such a strong, smart character, why does he have nothing to say? Every time someone asked him a question or came up with a plan, it left mas asking, why is Freeman a mute? The player could have benefited from knowing his take on these events, which would have helped establish an identity for Freeman and provide insight into the plot.

There seems to be no sensible reason to choose to make Freeman a mute in Half-Life 2. To put it into perspective, the first Half-Life came out in 1998, two years after Duke Nukem 3D. It was also a year after Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Force II, a game that had both live acting cutscenes and full voice acting. And finally, in 1998 a game called SiN came out, in which the main character took full advantage of voice acting. Yet even six years later in Half-Life 2, Dr. Freeman is silent. Why? Does he have nothing to say?

But it isn’t just having a voice actor, it is also about having a good actors and using them right. In the case of Metroid: Other M, we see that an underperformance of actors and poor directions took a great idea on paper — seeing the life of Samus before the original Metroid — and made it worse, reducing a strong lead character into a weak sidekick to her male counterparts.

Don’t Mess with Success

The impact a great voice actor can have on a game cannot be understated, and can even help salvage an otherwise bad game. One of the largest disappointments in recent gaming history was Duke Nukem Forever, a game that, for many numerous reasons, took over twelve years to come out.

While the game suffered from outdated graphics and weak gameplay, the one thing it did right was it brought back Jon St. John, the original voice of Duke himself. The first time I played the game, the one single joy I had was hearing Duke’s voice every time I killed some alien baddie. I knew the game wasn’t going to be good, but I did know I was going to enjoy hearing Duke say “Blow it out your ass!” when I shot a pigcop to pieces with the shotgun.

It wouldn’t have been the same to have someone trying to do a Jon St. John impression of Duke Nukem. Instead what we got was a game out of time and something that could have been better if it came out five years before. It was great to see that throughout the delays and constant changes, everyone had the right idea to keep Jon St. John on as the voice of Duke.

If It Ain’t Broke…

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Thanks to voice actor David Batson, Agent 47 is more than just a random, emotionless killer.

Changing voice actors between games rarely works and makes it very hard for old fans to continue enjoying a series they love. With the Hitman franchise, Agent 47 had been voiced by David Batson since the very first game, and over time Agent 47 has even started to look more and more like the actor who plays him. When Hitman: Absolution was announced, I was excited to see my favorite stealth game was coming back, but I noticed that something was off about Agent 47 himself.

David Batson’s cold delivery always added an element to his personality that fans enjoyed, so much so that developer IO Interactive actually changed Agent 47’s character throughout the four games to match Batson’s delivery. But when the first video came out for Absolution, I noticed Agent 47 didn’t sound quite right. I later discovered that Batson wasn’t signed onto the game.

Changing Agent 47’s voice actor went beyond simply hiring a new actor – it felt like the developers changed the whole personality of the character. But if the main protagonist is going to sound and feel like an entire new character, what is the point of calling that character Agent 47? Why not introduce a new character? Agent 47 is so critical to the identity of the Hitman franchise that altering his character seemed inconceivable.

Fortunately, there was a happy ending – after getting an online petition signed by fans, Baston was given the part. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t have bought the game if Batson wouldn’t have come back. Fortunately I did, and Absolution ended up being a fantastic Hitman game.

Unfortunately, some developers insist on changing iconic voice actors mid-franchise. A recent casualty is the Splinter Cell franchise. It was a shock to hear that Ubisoft was hiring a new actor to portray the damaged, grizzled special agent Sam Fisher, especially when considering the new actor, Eric Johnson, did not retain the same old, weathered tone that Michael Ironside made famous. Ironside’s interpretation of the character made sense – Fisher has gone through a lot in his career and life, and Ironside’s deep voice was perfect to communicate to the player all of the wounds and scars Fisher has endured.

Ubisoft, unfortunately, did not see things that way. They stated that they wanted an actor that could do all of the motion capture and do the voice acting as well. Although this might make business sense, the problem is the weight of a character is now gone. Similar to Agent 47 in Hitman, Ubisoft seemed to have rewritten Sam Fisher by not only changing his voice but by changing his personality and character.

Tell Me the Story

Voice acting helps connect players to characters and can strengthen a story, giving it much more of an emotional punch. It is an integral component to any successful game, and should be treated with the same respect and care as any other aspect of game design.

But voice acting can also hurt a game, as seen in cases such as Metroid: Other M. Developers should look for actors who are willing to invest time and energy into a character in order to make it their own. An actor who simply goes through the motions won’t cut it. And if an actor owns the character, keep them around – consistency is key, and changing the voice actor right in the middle of a franchise is like changing the main character.

Of course, sometimes a change in voice actor is unavoidable, such as the case with Mark Hamil opting to no longer voice the Joker. Some developers might argue that this is sufficient enough reason to abandon the search for a great voice actor, but this would send the wrong message to gamers and younger developers just getting started. Stay true to your vision, and stick with the voice actor that best works for your character so long as both parties (and fans) are happy.

Voice actors define characters. They give them emotion, depth, a reason for gamers to care for them. And above all, they make characters memorable. The Spartan soldiers in Halo: Reach might have more firepower, might be fighting in a bigger war. But I’d rather have Duke at my side, shotgun in hand, ready to kick some ass.

Come get some.