Good Idea, Bad Idea : Voice acting

[Gen Eric Gui is another newcomer that has started his C-Blogging off on the right step. Read his take on voice acting as part of the Monthly Musings theme. — CTZ]

Lately, voice acting has become a topic of great contention amongst gamers. If a game doesn’t have voice acting, the gaming population cries out “Why not?” and marks are made against the game for not giving it’s characters vocal chords. And of course, when a game does have voices, there’s always that chance that comparisons to “nails on a chalkboard” will be brought up in many a review. In any case, voices are here to stay in videogame land, so I figure a bit of a discussion on them will do some good.

Voice acting can add a lot to a game. A properly voiced character is able to easily portray emotions and emphasis that are either impossible or at least incredibly difficult to convey through text alone. Take for example, ATLUS’ recent RPG extraordinaire, Persona 3. All across the Internet, this game has been lauded for its incredible voicework, with many high-profile names filling out the cast and making for a delightful aural experience.

Each character is given a voice that perfectly suits his or her character; Junpei’s voice is that of the ultimate slacker, Mitsuru is calm, intellectual, and full of power, and Ken sounds like an elementary school kid should, but with that added extra touch that makes him seem as if he’s seen more of the world than his innocent exterior would let on. And while many of these qualities are evident in the text of the game, the effect is so much more powerful when backed up with the voices of Vic Mignogna, Tara Platt, and Mona Marshall respectively. It’s one thing to simply read Ken’s description of his mother’s death, but another completely to hear his voice crack at just the right moments, and to literally hear the tears forming in his eyes as he describes the horrible event to the other characters. Truly a moving moment if there ever was one.

[I couldn’t find a picture of the above scene, so you get the badass crucifixion scene instead.]

Of course, in the land of videogames (voiced ones in particular), just as in every other art form in the universe, there exist a few duds. While I’m sure we all have our experiences with poor voice acting, one in particular I’d like to point out from my own collection is Castle of Shikigami II. Castle of Shikigami II is a SHMUP released for the PS2 a few years back; and considering the genre and publisher, I wasn’t going in expecting voices of gold. I certainly wasn’t expecting what I got either. The actors speak as though this is the first time they’ve ever seen their script, or in fact, any script. Sentences are incomplete, barely formed in fact, and many make no sense and/or are unintentionally hilarious and completely break whatever mood the developers were trying to create. The actors make no effort to correct the script mistakes, and simply repeat word for word this horrible engrish nonsense with no emotion whatsoever. I imagine them as a group of homeless that were loitering outside the XS building, who were offered sandwiches and use of the bathroom in exchange for their “voice talent”. Take a listen to some of their shenanigans at AudioAtrocities.

My personal favorite is Ko’s “I like girls … but now … it’s about justice” line. Now, some would argue that voices this bad are a good thing, and I would have to agree, at least in principle. I like to laugh too. But in practice, these voices do nothing but break the mood of the game, and often make it hard to play because it’s almost impossible to make twitch reflex movements when you’re laughing so hard that your sides hurt!

[The All-American ninja, Roger Sasuke. No, he’s not talking to anybody, and no, this line has no context. That’s it. Yes, really.]

Now I know that, by default, these Good Idea, Bad Idea articles are generally supposed to cover two points, but because I’m a Calvinball kind of guy I’m going to split this topic three ways by also discussing a game that made the right choice by NOT including voice acting. And that game would be Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn.

Now, in all the reviews I’ve ever read for the game, the fact that it has ”little to no voice acting” is cited and the game then given a lower-than-average sound rating because of this fact. But one must raise the question of why this is. It’s not uncommon in RD to read through literally pages and pages of text between each chapter, in addition to all the various support conversations that can occur between characters, as well as all the story dialogue that is carried out mid-battle. And I don’t know about you, but when a game has voice acting, I tend to let it run, because skipping text and hearing the stopping and starting of character voices is more grating to me than even some of the worst voice acting out there.

Now do that math. Pages and pages of text + having to wait for actors to read all of it = huge, huge time investment. I’m a busy man! I have other games to play, work to do, iron to pump, people to see, and classes to attend! It’s likely, with the kind of extra time it would take to slog through hearing all of that dialogue, I’d never actually get to the next battle at all in one sitting. I can read pretty fast in my head, and so without voices I can clear several maps in the time it would take for actors to fully read out each of those sections. So I, and possibly I alone, say bravo to Intelligent Systems for leaving the game unvoiced. (And also for leaving out Mii functionality).

[Some of these scenes go on for over an hour, and that’s with me just reading in my head!]

Ultimately, voices can and do add a lot to a game, so it’s obvious why it’s so important to some gamers to see them in every game. But honestly, voices have a clearly defined role in a game’s storytelling, and if the voices don’t help the story, it’s better for developers and gamers alike to realize it’s better to leave them out altogether. A silent picture is still worth a thousand words.