Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The voice of the oppressive

Above: Guybrush Threepwood, mighty pirate.

The only accurate blanket statement anybody can make is that there are no accurate blanket statements. But this one is close: voice acting never makes a game better, and can only make it worse.

Let's acknowledge the exceptions early. Plenty of games have had good or even great voice acting (The Darkness and Half-Life 2 come to mind). I'm saying that the presence of recorded dialogue is, at best, a net zero for the overall quality of a game, and more often, it's a negative. The history of atrocious voice acting is well documented elsewhere. Yet the campy grandeur of the original Resident Evil is, in its own way, one of the biggest reasons to enjoy that game. It's the games with passable voice acting that can be more insidious -- games where speech adds nothing, while slowing down gameplay or, more often, hammering you with the same few soundbites over and over.

Lots of games suffer from repetition. Recall Marcus Fenix growling "Nice!" after every successful active reload. Resident Evil 4 is still my favorite game of all time, but one of its two noticeable flaws was the merchant's boundless curiosity about what you were buyin' or sellin'.* Recently, Ghostbusters, a game with better-than-average voice acting, decided it would be a good idea for Egon to shout "Aim high!" every four or five seconds during battle. What's the logic behind stuff like this? I think it's, "We've paid for the actors' time; we'd better get our money's worth!"

Nowhere is this a bigger problem than in adventure games. Games like Tales of Monkey Island rely on dialogue for everything. The story is told largely through character interaction, and many puzzles can be solved only by sweet-talking the characters who have what you want. The voice acting is just fine in this game -- totally serviceable. It is not, however, so good that I want to hear the same handful of lines repeated dozens of times in the course of a five-hour game.

Guybrush has only a few stock responses when you attempt to use an item somewhere it has no use. He says something clever about almost each one. And he says the same clever line every time. It's possible -- no, likely -- that many of you are smarter than me, and in the course of playing an adventure game aren't reduced to trying to use every item in your inventory with every hotspot on the screen. That's just how I roll, and in the old days, when the written rejection was superimposed over the action, it was easier to ignore.

Worse, in this case, is that the game seems to provide the player with more dialogue choices than they actually recorded for Guybrush. You'll see four different jokes to choose from, but when you select one Guybrush doesn't say it. He says some canned, plot-advancing line, one that may or may not also be funny. Then, the player has no option to go back and explore the other lines. I think this is also a case of the producers trying to maximize their dollar: you pay the actors as little as possible, and use their work as much as you can. A sensible business decision; not great for the gameplay.

Tales of Monkey Island is pretty fun (my review is coming later this week). Still, I couldn't help but think that it would have been better if the developers had gone the text-only route. They could have packed more jokes and deeper dialogue trees into the game, while saving on costs and even bandwidth for digital distribution. Instead, they hired actors and ended up making, perhaps, a lesser game.

(Then again, it's totally possible that you can choose to disable the speech and enable subtitles. I didn't even think to check that until right this second.)

*The other flaw: QTE knife fight against Krauser.


Matthew Gallant said...

"[...] one of its two noticeable flaws was the merchant's boundless curiosity about what you were buyin' or sellin'"

That merchant can do no wrong as far as I'm concerned.

Jason T said...

Michael Abbot has a series up about the problems with voice acting in games that you might find interesting over at BrainyGamer.com.

I agree that it's handled poorly more often than not, but I wholeheartedly disagree that it is "at best, a net zero for the overall quality of a game." After playing a few games that actually have decent voice acting, I've had a hard time going back to those that transmit dialog entirely with text, or only feature a "silent protagonist."

The voice acting in video games has been improving in recent years, and so long as it continues to improve, I think a bigger issue than the actual presence of recorded dialog is how it's integrated into the game. Left 4 Dead, for instance, does a decent job of cutting down on the repetition by offering multiple takes for the same scenarios.

(But maybe I'll feel more inclined to complain when I go play Tales of Monkey Island.)

Mitch Krpata said...

I feel like if the voice acting is truly good, you won't notice it at all. It'll be part and parcel of the overall experience. You'll be so absorbed in the events of the game that you won't necessarily stop to think about the voice acting as a distinct component, at least not while playing. Obviously good acting is preferable to bad acting. But I'm coming around to thinking that things like nuanced acting are never really the source from which we'll derive the most meaningful gameplay experiences.

J. R. G. Bruno said...

There is no denying that very few games have benefited from voice acting. And yet, I'm not sure that this should necessarily lead us to conclude that "voice acting never makes a game better, and can only make it worse."

I would agree with the idea that voice acting HAS almost never made a game better, but then again, I would also agree with the idea that voice acting has almost always been poorly implemented or scripted. That fact alone makes judging the merits of voice acting in games very difficult.

The deployment of sound in cinema presented a problem to filmmakers: many silent actors did not have a proper "acting voice." But of course, we wouldn't judge the merits of voice acting in film based on these early examples. Games are still in that transitional period, and so it seems premature to just give up on the very possibility that voice acting could enrich some types of games.

You mentioned a couple of games with good voice acting, here's another: No More Heroes. That game is, in my view, truly enriched by the excellent voice acting/script. The fast paced nature of the dialogue, the constant jokey self-references, the seductive French accent of Travis's "love" interest.....all those things greatly benefit from voice acting. The French accent especially adds a lot of character to the game and could never be truly conveyed through written dialogue...if you want proof, just play any old RPG in which there is a character with an accent. The result is often a simplified caricature, such as the substitution of the word "the"for "ze" (e.g., "open ze door!"), etc.

However, you raise a very interesting point in so far as it refers to adventure games and some RPGs. These games arguably share more in common with books than with film or any other audio/visual medium, so it might be the case that it is sometimes better to leave voices to one's imagination.

The famous opera scene in Final Fantasy VI, for example, might not have worked as well if one were not forced to read the lyrics and imagine them being sung. I, for one, will shed a couple of tears when Square inevitably and tragically decides to remake Final Fantasy with a full blown "cinematic" opera scene!

Mads Darø Kristensen said...

I am an avid adventure game player, and have been so for the past 20 years or so. Having played tons of adventure games I can totally connect with what you are saying about how irritating it can be when your protagonist for the 167th time says "No, I don't think that will work.". And maybe that _is_ more annoying now that we have voice acting in games, but I seem to remember it being almost equally annoying in the text-only games where you would just have to stare at the same 7 words all the time :-)

That said, I do think that voice acting is a boon to adventure games in many ways. And in fact I rather enjoyed the voice acting in Tales of Monkey Island. But I'd have to agree with you on that it is annoying how that game sometimes offer up 4 witty conversation lines, and then when you chose one of them he says a completely different thing.

Mitch Krpata said...

Man, can you imagine how obnoxious the insult swordfighting would have been if it had been done with audio? And this blog would have a different name.

Tyler said...

Voice off, subtitles on FTW.

As far as the "choose one dialogue option, say something different" issue, that was a gag in previous Monkey Island games as well, and I think it works pretty well. It's a little overused in Tales, but I think it generally works.

Gary A. Lucero said...

I beg to differ. I don't know about Monkey Island because I haven't played it, but games like Mass Effect, Fallout 3, and even the Penny Arcade games are MUCH better because of voice acting.

And actually I think Fallout 3 would have greatly benefited from more voice acting, as I really wish the protaginist would voice his lines (like in Mass Effect).

I admittedly don't play a lot of arcade games, as I stick mostly to RPGs and FPS nowaways, and I agree that repetitious dialogue (JRPGs being some of the worst offenders) can really kill a game, but overall I enjoy well done voice acting considerably.

Tyler said...

I don't think voice-acting necessarily makes a game worse, but I've found that I almost always turn subtitles on and skip through voiced sequences if I can, since I can read a lot faster. And to be honest, I don't think even the best voice-acting in the world would stop me from doing that. Inexplicably, I never do this in the codec/radio sequences in the Metal Gear Solid games, despite those always being readable and skippable.

Mitch Krpata said...

Tyler, I remember one gag in particular where Guybrush was talking to Elaine. The player was presented all these poetic, romantic things to say, but when you picked one he would say something like, "Mrflgh!" That's funny. But they go to that well pretty often in Tales, and not, to my mind, as succesfully.

Gary, I'd consider Fallout 3 to be another example of a game with generally good voice acting, but horrible repetition in places. I got so tired of hearing that one woman ask me "How are those hot little potatoes?" And just having to deal with the same greetings and farewells from all the characters over and over. I'd rather they say nothing.

Tyler M., same here. It's especially bad when there are both subtitles and voiceover, because I'm always reading at five times the speed of the spoken dialogue.

Mitch Krpata said...

Should clarify, that gag was in Secret of Monkey Island.

Gary A. Lucero said...

Mitch, I don't know what to tell you. FO3 has some repetition, but it's a game world I've lived in on and off in for close to 200 hours and voice acting is one thing that doesn't tire for me. I don't even skip it most of the time!

I hate combat in JRPGs where they constantly say the same thing over and over again, and some voice acting is bad enough to make me wish it wasn't there, but I guess I really like the cinematic flair of modern games. That's why Mass Effect is probably my all-time favorite Xbox 360 games...I've finished it six times!

Mr Durand Pierre said...

Ico got it right. It had voice-acting, but it was in a made-up language, so hearing the same soundbites ad infinitum didn't grate as you thought less about the words spoken than the raw emotion that came from them. And even then, there wasn't much spoken at all.

Though I'd hesitate to say that voice-acting can only break even. It would indeed be strange to play a big budget game with 3D graphics where everyone was silent. Unless they spoke in a made-up language with subtitles. Or used mumblespeak ala Wind Waker and Okami. But that might still look out of place in a game as otherwise cinematic as say, Metal Gear Solid.

Gary A. Lucero said...

Mr Durand Pierre, I can't imagine everyone talking like that in all games. The Sims and a few other games also do that but I can hardly see Fallout 3 or Mass Effect being as good without voice acting.

Voice acting isn't just a by product of Hollywood's influence it's also a natural progression based on the power of our machines. Games like Wing Commander weren't really possible before CD-ROM, and DVD and BluRay open up so many more possibilities.

We have voice acting because we can, and now that we can, we have to. We demand it. I demand it!

I absolutely loved Amiga games on their little 3.5" disks but I wouldn't want to return to those days. No.

Michael Miller said...

I think I agree overall - unlike films the real enjoyment we get out of games is usually to do with gameplay, not narrative (and hence not acting (can you imagine Planescape Torment being read out completely - it would have to come on 20 DVDs and would take a few years to play)). There are however exceptions that I can think of - Portal and GLaDOS being the most obvious one.

Mitch Krpata said...

Definitely true about Portal. Once again, Valve got it right where so many got it wrong.

Another one on those lines, actually, is PoP: Sands of Time. I really enjoyed the Prince's voiceovers in that game. They went a long way toward giving him some raffish charm. In subsequent games, not so much.

Gary A. Lucero said...

Okay, Mitch, you've crossed a line. Not only was that Prince of Persia an awful, awful game, but the dialogue was stilted.

And Michael, while I agree that VOs were done well in Portal, they would have worked well in Planescape. I'm still waiting for someone to port that to current day tech...

Simon Parkin said...

I think the Broken Sword series absolutely benefitted from its quality voice-acting. The character of George is indistinguishable from his voice-actor to my mind. If you lost the voice actor, then the series would have to end there I think.

Also, Dragon Quest 8's voice acting was superlative. Frequently when playing I'd find myself noting how good it was (i.e. it's quality was conspicuous, not merely a contributing element to the experience).

In fairness, I think this is because JRPG localisation is usually so shoddy employing talent from the American anime dub pool rather than quality voice actors. As such, the novelty of having strong-voiced characters with regional accents (many of whom were British and not American) proved irresistible. To a lesser extend, this went for Final Fantasy XII too.

Iroquois Pliskin said...


I agree with a lot of your points here except when you say that 1) voice acting can never be a plus and 2) your irrational distaste of the RE4 merchant, who was the best character in that game.

I think you're right that a lot of Monkey Island's jokes read better on the screen and come off poorly when voiced, which is fair enough. On the other hand, timing is a big element of comic writing, and that's where good voice delivery can really enhance a game. Same goes for Portal, where a lot of the humor came from the contrast between the absurd script and the deadpan robot delivery.

Mitch Krpata said...

It's also commonly accepted that the addition of voice samples turned System Shock from a great game into a stone-cold classic. So, all right, it's an overstatement to say that voice acting never makes a game better. But be honest: it's much more likely to make a game worse, right?

Gary A. Lucero said...

Mitch, adding voice acting USED to almost always make games worse. Anytime a new technology is put to use the effect is a misuse of it! But today voice acting is usually good and often excellent.

Admit it, you've lost!

Michael Miller said...

Oooh some more exceptions - excellent voice acting which improves the game: HK-47 in KOTOR, Kreia in KOTOR2, the whole cast of Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, the voice of Garret in the Thief games, the pirate song in Monkey Island 3, the entire voice cast of the Psychonauts..

Ryan said...

I'll back up Krpata on this - some of the exceptions you guys are citing fall into the "not a net negative" category, and some are just not exceptions at all, and are, in fact, annoying. I'll also offer to his blogging audience my oft-stated belief that FF10 would be beloved on par with FF7 and FF6 were it not for voice acting.

Mitch Krpata said...

Surely there's not a human being alive who thinks the infamous "Tidus and Yuna laughing" secene was improved by the voice acting.

Gary A. Lucero said...

While I'm not a Final Fantasy fan (I've tried all of them and have never finished a single one) I LOVED, absolutely LOVED, the voice acting in FF X.

The interactions between Tidus and Yuna are the best part of that entire game, far better than the repetitous combat, and puzzles, and the absolutely hideous art design.

If Tidus and Yuna were not voiced that game would be a shadow of what it was. I actually got to the very end of the game before chucking it and I would not have gotten that far if not for the great story and voice acting.

Lost Odyssey is another game that did a great job with voice acting and also gave us some great short stories to read. Best of both worlds!

Gary A. Lucero said...

Mitch, you are so out of line! The Tidus and Yuna laughing scene is one of my favorites!

Maybe I'm just too old and sentimental but I thought that exchange was quite touching and expressive.

And really that's what voice acting does to games: It gives them more personality.

I would not like video games without voice acting.

piratesyar said...

I have to completely disagree with you here. Bad voice acting can hurt a game, but great voice acting can really add a lot. If I think back through a lot of my favorite games, voices played a big role. I loved Broken Sword thanks to the voices, and Monkey Island 3 benefited greatly from the perfect casting for Guybrush. Guybrush is actually one of my favorite roles. Sam and Max, Grim Fandango, so many of those games were only helped by great acting. Metal Gear Solid's voice acting has always been great even if the /writing/ isn't. I still quote RE4's merchant on a regular basis. It was funny! And it's not like it slowed down the game. I do agree that speech should be skippable whenever possible, but as long as its not slowing down the game it's not a negative.

Poorly designed is poorly designed, and if the dialogue sections are poorly written, poorly acted, unskippable, whatever, it's going to impact gameplay. If it's well designed, it's going to make the game better. But to say that it has only negative or NO impact? That sounds like a sentiment from the first days of CD Rom.

Dominic Arsenault said...

Michael Miller beat me to it, but all the while I was thinking of KOTOR. And not just HK-47, but pretty close to the whole cast.

I'm ready to go and meet you halfway, but with a twisted knife in my hand behind my back: yes, voice acting *has historically been* much more likely to make a game worse. I don't think the flaw is with voice acting but with the industry's way of implementing it for a while. It's being taken increasingly seriously. I feel we may also dismiss a lot of "bad voice acting" without distinguishing that the writing under it is just horrid, or that the design of the game is really to blame (commenters here at least have pointed to it with the repetitious nature of many dialogues).

Bottom line: what you say has been true for a while, but it's changed enough in my view that I am now giving the benefit of the doubt by default.