Voice acting is an art; a shapeless sound structuring that must convey countless emotions through the tone and delicate minutia of one’s voice. Many mediums, film and videogames in particular, must remember this. However, whereas film typically has the advantage of specific, nuanced body language to assist them, videogames must rely almost completely on their voice actors to convey emotions along with some rudimentary graphical enhancements (like JRPG character drawings or full 3D cutscenes). This makes voice acting that much more important and that much more difficult for videogames, where the emotion of a scene is carried by the acting.
With that in mind, I’d like to point out some of my personal examples of voice acting in videogames that go above and beyond to create the most impressive examples of the art in this medium.
, 2007, Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Highlighted Roles: Armin Shimerman as Andrew Ryan, Peter Francis James as J.S. Steinman, and T. Ryder Smith as Sander Cohen
Bioshock, character-wise, is all about the villains. Through their villainy, fragile psychology, and spontaneous violence, they represent what has become of Rapture: the very people that helped shape it, the top of the intellectual and financial elite, are now the ones that stalk the halls like cruel animals. Andrew Ryan, J.S. Steinman, and Sander Cohen all are the very best that the verbose linguistics of Bioshock has to offer, each having their own specific nuances that make them not only treacherous, but sometimes eerily sympathetic.
Ryan cultivates his objectivist philosophy to create a gestalt of Rand-ian ideals; a self-made man, a man of amoral sympathies, a man that chooses rather than obeys. He is in the same vein of characters like Charles Foster Kane where even in defeat, he is still a powerful force, a cyclopean statue of personal ideals and discipline. Shimerman nails not only all of this, but the slight Russian tendency in Ryan’s voice, making the rough sensuality of his voice that much more xenophobic.
J.S. Steinman, unlike Ryan, is a psychopath rather than a sociopath; like Lynch or perhaps even Hannibal Lector, his calm nature hides a large amount of menacing violence. While performing a routine surgery, he goes off his rocker, yet hums while vivisecting some innocent person while a nurse screams in horror. When finally encountered, he screams without humanity: “Ugly…Ugly…UGLY!”
Sander Cohen, much like Steinman, is totally insane. However, he doesn’t shout barbarically nor does he espouse his personal morality and motivation; he is simply an artist. Smith nails Cohen’s delicate psyche, almost whispering sweetly to Jack so that his violent outbursts in response to those who “betrayed” him are juxtaposed much more strongly. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4
, 2008, PS2
Highlighted Roles: Yuri Lowenthal as Yosuke Hanamura and Troy Baker as Kanji Tatsumi
Persona 4 has no shortage of good voice acting (as well as some bad), but the roles that stick out to me are Yuri Lowenthal as Yosuke, the main character’s best friend, and Kanji Tatsumi, a teenager that uses a façade of ruthlessness to hide a delicate, feminine side. JPRGs typically work in the same vein as anime, using melodramatic performances to sell the often cheesy script, and Persona 4 is no different. But it’s the skill that Lowenthal and Baker have that really sell their characters.
Yosuke, as a character, is pretty boring. Not to spoil too much, he’s a typical best friend in an anime; clumsy, dim-witted, and a talky foil for the main character. However, Lowenthal, as one of the more experienced anime VAs, brings a delicacy to the often over-wrought script. Yosuke is at his best when he’s at his worst, with moments of denial and anger being very effective.
Baker, rather than bringing a dignity to a stereotype, he forges his own persona with Kanji, who never sounds like himself when he’s trying to sell the punk aesthetic he tries to embody. When he yells or insults someone, it often sounds rather forced. It’s the moments of levity and comedy that sound natural; the camping trip antics are so much funnier because of Baker’s work as Kanji, whose ambiguous gender identity issues shine through thanks to his great talent and broad strokes.
Half-Life 2, 2004
Highlighted Roles: Merle Dandridge as Alyx Vance and Michael Shapiro as the G-Man
Half-Life set the standard for the FPS back in 1998, but it was Half-Life 2 in 2004 that set the standard for characters in videogames. Each character has a personality that is not simply limited to stereotypes, each being vivid, imaginative, and most of all, very well acted. In particular, Alyx Vance, typically referred to as the greatest female character in games, and the G-Man, one of the most mysterious figures in the medium, are examples of terrific voice acting.
Alyx is a character that requires a very broad range, with her emotions and motivations having to transfer to the tabula rasa that is Gordon Freeman; we relate with her. She’s a character that isn’t a character in the traditional sense, but rather a human being. She’s funny, intelligent, and independent without being annoyingly so. The dignity and realism that Dandridge brings to Vance is terrific, with her voice serving as the lone companion to City 17’s urban sprawl that Freeman must crawl through.
The G-Man on the other hand is atypically inhuman. His actions, his tones, and his voice
are all unreal and unnatural, making every sight or sound he makes one of uncomfortable ambiguity. The odd inflections, the emphasis on syllables that shouldn’t be emphasized, and the bland bureaucracy of Shapiro’s voice make the G-Man not only mysterious, but also frightening. Juxtaposed against the very likable Barney, also voiced by Shapiro, and we see the dynamic range that he brings to the table, with the G-Man being the very best he has to offer. After all, we all still recall the line that made Half-Life 2 so immediately effective:
"Wake Mr. Freeman. Wake up...and smell the ashes."
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