Best of 2011 – Once More, With Feeling

Nominated by Ed and Stu

No, I’m not talking about the musical episode of Buffy, I’m talking about voice acting in games and the lack of effort that seems to go into them sometimes. The worst offenders are, unfortunately, PC point and click titles. Well, unfortunate for me anyway, since this is my favourite genre and makes up the bulk of my game collection. That’s not to say, of course, that other types of game don’t have dodgy or annoying voices; anyone who’s played the RPG Blue Dragon on the Xbox, for example, knows just how much the screeching voice of Marumaro jars the ears of anyone within a ten metre radius, but point and clicks are notorious for this crime.

Terrible or annoying sounding characters can seriously ruin the experience of an otherwise perfectly enjoyable game. Sounding natural or faking accents are hurdles that some people are either too lazy to jump or can’t quite manage. If someone can’t pull off a believable Irish accent, for example, then either get someone who can or actually cast a voice actor from Ireland for the role. And does it even have to be an Irish accent or, indeed, any accent in the first place? Or did Derrick from the local hairdressers go bouncing up to one of the devs in his pink t-shirt and say “Listen to my fake accent, isn’t it great! Can I be in your game? I’ll do it for free…” It isn’t just accents though… I’ve heard some weird pronunciations in my time too. Ashes as “aRshes” and mirror as “mirr” both spring to mind; both of these are from The Black Mirror series which is also guilty of having a main character with a very annoying Bostonian accent. It’s bad enough when the supporting cast are getting on your nerves, but when it’s the character you’re playing as…

Baron Wittard suffers from some robotic vocal work, quite at odds with some of its other stellar performances

The worst thing for me, however, is the flat, lifeless, awkward sound of someone who is just reading verbatim from a script. It’s called voice acting for a reason. You have to act the part, not just reel off whatever is put in front of you – anyone can do that. Ah, but I forgot, you aren’t just ‘anyone’ aren’t you? You are probably some poor member of the programming team who got roped into reading lines to a microphone during her lunch break, or somebody’s mum, who has never played a game in her life and still refers to computers as “those infernal machines.” Still, even so, do you have to sound that mechanical? What’s your excuse? What’s that you say… it’s your accent? Well, I’ll admit some voices do sound naturally dodgy when recorded, no matter what their owners try to do with them; I can’t stand mine, it sounds like I’ve got a cold all the time.

That’s not the main problem, however (although it can be both supremely irritating and quite distracting when an iffy accent is assaulting your ears), the problem is that it sounds like you’re just sitting there reading your lines aloud. Even though that’s what you’re doing, that’s not what we want to hear. We’re playing a game, we’re immersed in a (supposedly) gripping story. Cringing our way back into the real world is not something we want to have happen during gameplay. In fact, nothing disperses atmosphere faster than an emotionless voice simply ‘going through the motions’ *cue Buffy intro*. It just makes it difficult to take the game seriously, especially during dramatic moments or plot twists; it’s like being constantly reminded that it’s not real, that it’s only a game and it somehow cheapens the experience, making it shallower.

Granted, it’s not always the actor’s fault if they are given awful dialogue in the first place, after all there’s only so much you can do with lines like: “This is a pity” and “They were not the only ones, either”, especially if you’re not allowed to make changes or ad-lib. Sometimes, however, the delivery of even these simple words can make me wonder whether the writers, not just the actors, are actually from this planet or whether they’re robots. Normal people use contractions, or informal English when speaking… or maybe it’s just me (see that? ‘It’s’ as opposed to ‘It is’. Just saying).

I know not everyone can afford big names like Patrick Stewart, who delivered a short but wonderful performance in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, or Steven Fry’s hilarious stint as the deviant Reaver in the Fable series, and let’s not forget David Warner’s outstanding role as Jon Irenicus in Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows Of Amn, but you don’t have to be famous, massively experienced, or highly paid to step up to that mic and give it your all. Some of the best characters I’ve encountered are voiced by ordinary people giving extraordinary performances. A few of my favorites being: Sharon Mann as Mina in Return To Mysterious Island, Paul Albertson as the Baron in Baron Wittard: Nemesis Of Ragnarok and Matthew Porretta as Alan Wake. A good voice actor is one who brings their character to life, makes you care what happens to them and helps to immerse you in the game’s world and story, as opposed to wanting something big and bloody to happen to them as soon as possible, just to shut them up.

Mina from the Mysterious Island series checks out one of her rival VO actors. Ah... no, that's a wooden stump.

I’ll still replay a game with such annoyances if it’s good; I’ve never stumbled across voice acting bad enough to ruin an entire game for me, or make me switch to subtitles only (at least, not yet), it’s just incredibly irritating at times. Some of my favourite titles of all time, such as Dark Fall, Barrow Hill, The Lost Crown and Black Mirror may have cringeworthy moments, but I love them nonetheless. It’ll take more than a bit of stiff dialogue or a dire accent to put me off of the genre I love so much. Besides, nothing’s perfect; it’s those little indie touches that make them unique and memorable, after all. I guess it can’t be helped, but I just wish some voice actors would breathe a little more life into their lines, so come on people… once more, with feeling!

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One Comment

  1. SimonJK says:

    I couldn’t agree more about the wooden acting found in most games, but I have, not a mire few hours ago, had my faith renewed by Skyrim. Skyrim has among other the unmistakeable Max Von Syndow and I’m sure what is James Earl Jones or someone trying to be him by using the suggestive phrases as ‘Power’ a few times and ‘Contemplate this…’. But in saying that I’m also playing Saint’s Row 3 once the kids are in bed and the English accent is bloody terrible. I personally think most game designers just haven’t experienced Britain at all, who can forget the Irish protagonist in GTA4 called… Paki! WTF?!?

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