Video Games: Are you up to the torture?


Picture this scene: Our hero is secluded in a padded cell, forced to stand in a fixed position. He may move his arms, but is ordered not to move his head from the metal post. He has only one other person to communicate with -- his “Handler.” Deprived of information, our intrepid Hero has only a vague notion of his situation or what he is doing there. His handler has the full picture, but only issues instructions, one at a time. Nevertheless, Hero has come to rely on this relationship, constantly seeking his Handler’s approval. Is this the Stockholm Syndrome? Hero and Handler spend long sessions together, and the hours become torture. It seems he can barely speak. Does anyone know what he’s been going through? Does anyone even care that he is here?

And then there is the shouting. Always the screams and shouting. Heard by no one.

Until the game is published that is. Because what we’ve just very unfairly described is a common video game recording session. And, yes, once the game is released, the vocalizations of our Hero (or Heroine) may be heard very widely. Video games are played daily in 65 percent of American households.

A hit video game these days can cost as much as a live-action Hollywood blockbuster, $100 million and up, way up. But whereas Hollywood proudly touts their big budgets, game publishers play this part of the gaming game very close to the vest.

Production of a major game can take years, involving some 200 designers, programmers and other people. The 100 characters in a large story project might require 30 or 40 actors. And in most cases, each actor works alone with the Director, delivering one line at a time.

Voice actors typically consider games to be not only fun, but a serious professional challenge. It is long, hard work, requiring a level of stamina, efficiency and acting expertise that pretty much rules out rank novices.

Not that everyone notices such complexity. The Wikipedia article on Video Game Development uses more than 2500 words to describes the modern game development process. To the matter of voice acting (as of this writing), the authors give -- two sentences. (“Voice-overs and voice acting creates character gameplay interactivity. Voice acting adds personality to the game's characters.”) And how about the online version of a PBS documentary on the steps in games production? It doesn’t mention voicing at all!

The overall project can, indeed, make the voice acting component seem relatively small. Storylines and their variable nature have become so complex that even the game players can no longer intuit what they are expected to do in order to play the game.

As games become technically more realistic, their publishers seek ways to make the story experience more realistic, too. Games typically alternate between action and exposition. The exposition phase is likely to be a non-interactive “cinematic,” in high resolution, and produced in a traditional animation process. For these scenes, the actor does get the script well ahead of time, and can bring his or her full emotional capabilities into play.

Game designers are working to get away from that dichotomy, by merging the two functions. Explaining the story and player options in the midst of game action will improve the gamer’s experience, but arguably requires even more acting experience in the talent.

And, our intrepid Hero or Heroine will be happy to note, there’s a trend to lessening the actors’ isolation. Whereas actors typically work alone and late in the development process, they do sometimes work together, and are increasingly invited to contribute during the development of the character’s look and personality.

In addition to enriching the performance, this may help the level of character interaction. It is important that all characters be of the same level of credibility. One very good voice actor will make a bland, wooden actor seem even more unreal. Where name-brand major stars are hired for voicing, sometimes they’re the rich, colorfully voiced character. Sometimes, for whatever reason, they’re the other one.

And, in what may be the last bastion of male dominance in voice over, the word “hero” may become (like “actor”) non gender-specific. Due to subject matter, the greatest number of games have featured men, typically low-pitched, gruff-voiced ones. Women get sidekick status. But, with educational gaming (one form of e-learning) is a growing field, and one of the reasons for more equal-opportunity casting.

For now, though, as a video game actor, you’re still likely to be given a rudimentary summary of the script. If you must synch your performance with the video action, you may be looking at only rough renderings. And in your recording session, you’ll be very reliant on the Director’s instructions, since only the Director will have the full, detailed view of all the characters, the range of storyline options, and your character’s situation.

It’s a genre of extremes. But if you’re fortunate to land a gaming gig, even those long, voice-straining sessions are likely to be extremely fun.

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