The Magical Mess of Voice Acting in Video Games

Video games have become increasingly story-oriented, and that has made voice acting more important than ever. Maybe that’s why we’re seeing big name actors voicing characters in games.

Yvonne Strahovski is the voice actor and model for Miranda Lawson in ME2 and ME3.

In the early years of voiced games, game developers had to take a stab at recording lines themselves. Obviously, their success varied. But all of that has changed in recent years. With his wise and gravelly voice, Christopher Plummer plays Greybeard elder Arngeir in Skyrim. Patrick Stewart is Emperor Septim in Oblivion. Liam Neeson’s your daddy in Fallout 3. Samuel L. Jackson is Officer Tenpenny in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. And the Mass Effect series is filled with well-known actors, from Seth Green as Joker to Martin Sheen as The Illusive Man.

Most recently, I’ve heard a lot of Emma Stone fans are purchasing Sleeping Dogs because she voices a character in the game (and one you can date, I believe). Lucy Liu, Tom Wilkinson and a host of other celebrity actors from Hollywood and Hong Kong round out the Sleeping Dogs cast.

Why Good Voice Acting Matters

I knew there was a reason I kept picturing Officer Bailey with Colonel Tigh’s eye patch… (Actor: Michael Hogan)

The fact that so many well-respected actors are voicing characters in video games proves just how far games have come in being accepted as art. I can’t imagine a big name actor would be interested in voicing a character for a cheap game when they could be doing something more impressive or challenging for the big screen. And a big paycheck doesn’t sound like a draw; Tom Bissell’s New Yorker profile on voice actor Jennifer Hale states that video game actors receive a flat fee, and it’s a pittance compared to how much the games rake in. So why do stars take video game jobs alongside film and TV jobs? It seems to me that challenging roles and stories with emotional depth are plausible possibilities…

Beyond that, having a celebrity like Emma Stone on board draws attention to games. People who aren’t into video games may well buy games for the actors in them, just to give them a try. And if they make gamers out of them, that’s awesome, because it’s my opinion that games should become more mainstream to be accepted as art.

The Real Stars of Video Game Voice Acting

North has acted in too many video games to count. Literally, I could not bring myself to count them on Wikipedia.

Of course, other actors are best known for their video game work, and they deserve as much credit for their voice acting as the so-called superstar actors they work alongside… maybe more.

Two of the biggest names in the world of video game voice acting are Nolan North (most famous for the Uncharted series) and Jennifer Hale (most notable as FemShep in the Mass Effect series). Jennifer Hale has even been called the Meryl Streep of video game voice acting. I could also make a long list of video game actors whose voices I have come to recognize in more than one game, such as Steve Blum in Dragon Age: Origins and God of War and Gideon Emery in Final Fantasy XII and Dragon Age 2… and they have many other roles, too.

For these actors, part of the job is remaining faceless. There’s a magic in hearing a voice in a video game and not knowing what the actor looks like. That unknown gives your imagination space to latch on to that voice belonging to that character. It adds to the immersion, helping you suspend your disbelief without the distraction of a real-world face.

Of course, well-known actors like Liam Neeson and Emma Stone do amazing jobs at voice acting for video games, too. And when I know a big name actor is voicing a cartoon character or a kids’ movie or The Simpsons, I don’t constantly think of his face. I’ll admit that a fleeting image of the actor does flit into my mind from time to time, but it doesn’t ruin the show for me. Similarly, a celebrity voice in a video game doesn’t overwhelmingly interfere with my immersion.

But still, I hope that video games always have ample room for unknown actors taking on leading roles. Their voice acting is often more than amazing: it’s also original and totally immersive, in a way that only a “faceless” performance can achieve.

A Tough Gig

Just as good writing is improving video game stories, it now seems that good voice acting is taking those stories to another level. Reverse that, and you can see that problems with writing can lead to problems with voice acting. As Andy Emery, who works at casting and recording company Side, says in the Guardian Gamesblog post “Voicing Concerns: The Problem with Video Game Acting“:

Although improving all the time, there is still a lack of focus on story and character in games… A professional scriptwriter is an essential part of modern game development but still we get ‘developer written’ scripts with alarming regularity. Even with the best Hollywood actors on board, a poor script can result in poor voice acting.

Fortunately, video games are hiring writers and developing stories that don’t rely on cliches… but there’s still the issue of actors not really having a chance to develop their characters. In many RPGs, in-game choices influence how characters develop. Actors may understand all those versions of their characters… or they may just give several readings of each line to be safe, then let the writers and developers — the ones who know the whole story inside and out — decide which reading makes sense. It’s no wonder BioWare only gives its actors small chunks of the script at a time; loading them with 350,000 words of text going in hundreds of directions would be totally overwhelming. Small bits may not be brimming with context, but at least they’re easier to chew.

There’s also the problem of acting in isolation. Without another actor to bounce dialogue back and forth with, reciting lines must feel very remote. Game developers sitting on the other side of the recording booth glass can give voice actors all the context actors need, but it’s still pretty amazing that intimate scenes in video games can have such realistic, emotional back-and-forth dialogue.

Voice Acting as Art

The process of voice acting in video games is big and convoluted, but it works. For that, I have to applaud video game actors like Jennifer Hale who have mastered the form.

Video games should never just be about writing and acting, but we should still care why we click. Cinematic stories with emotional voice acting make us feel more invested in the games we play. They elevate video games to new artistic heights. And it seems to me that voice actors are making games hit at the heart more than ever before.

— Ashley

11 thoughts on “The Magical Mess of Voice Acting in Video Games”

  1. Awesome post! I love North’s voice / work (btw, if you have a Twitter account, you should follow him; he’s pretty funny).

    I had no clue Plummer was in Skyrim; that makes the game even awesomer than I realized. How the heck does Bethesda get these guys?! They must have a blackmail team.

    1. Thanks! I will find Nolan on Twitter. From a couple interviews I’ve seen, he seems like a funny guy and has a lot to say about his main characters. As for Plummer… I had no idea that was him when I was playing Skyrim either. It’s pretty cool that older, established actors are getting into video games too.

      1. Yeah, it’s good for the credibility of the genre and gives the actors + 10 Nerd Respect and probably some (comparatively) easy work for them. Martin Sheen for Mass Effect was a pretty big score for BioWare.

  2. I enjoyed reading this! When I first got into video games, I was surprised to hear or find out that a well-known or respected actor was tied to voicing a character in a video game. Now, it’s no longer surprising. Like you said, with the amount of good writing coming out of video games these days, actors wouldn’t be as reluctant to consider doing voice work. A good example of this is Ellen Page’s work for the new game Beyond. Gameplay, graphics, and voice acting all look amazing from the video I saw on YouTube. Of course, I still prefer to have the unknowns mixed in with the knowns. Star-power doesn’t always equal a great game, same with films.

    1. That’s so true! It used to be surprising when a celebrity voiced a game character, and now it’s becoming common practice. I hadn’t heard of Beyond before, but I just looked it up and it looks amazing! Thanks for recommending it. =)

      1. No problem! I actually want to play Beyond, but I think it’s exclusive to Playstation for now. I don’t have a Playstation, but if they do decide to release this game for the Xbox, I’m going to get this one. ;)

  3. Loving the blog, and completely agree with this post! I’m glad I’m at an age where video games are maturing with the writing and voice while I’m still young. Means I might still be around when they become as respected as other forms of entertainment.

    1. That’s true. It seems like video games have come a long way in just the past 5 or 10 years… so I can only imagine how amazing and well-respected they will be in another decade! Thanks for your kind comment about my blog, I’m glad you’re enjoying it. =)

  4. I had no idea that Liam Neeson was in Fallout 3! Kickass! :D i am a HUGE fan of the fallout series and it just got better knowing that Sir Liam is also part of the show. It’s also kinda cool that a lot of these voice actors looks like their gaming avatars. I think Male Shepard looks exactly like the voicer , Miranda Lawson looks a bit similar too

    1. I just looked up the male Shep voice actor again and you’re right, they look so much alike! It is funny how many voice actors look like their in-game characters… or vice versa, maybe? But sometimes I like not knowing who the voice actor is — just at first — because it helps me immerse myself in the game.

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