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Don't say a word

Sparky Clarkson's picture

Mass Effect 3 Screenshot

In the wake of the success of Obsidian's Project Eternity Kickstarter, supporters are eagerly watching the stretch goals to see what promised goodies will be put into the game. Meanwhile, I am hoping to see one thing left out: voice acting. Recently, Kotaku's Jason Schreier similarly stated that Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs) should abandon voice acting, but like Rowan Kaiser, I think he targeted the wrong subgenre. Done correctly, voice acting can significantly improve a JRPG. However, recording voices for characters diminishes a Western RPG (WRPG), regardless of the reading's quality. For this reason, I feel that WRPGs should avoid having voiced dialogue.

Schreier's argument against voice acting in JRPGs boils down to an attack on the quality those games generally deliver. I agree that low-quality actors reading awkwardly-translated dialogue, directed by—if some commenters are to be believed—non-native speakers will be injurious to the experience. This suggests that the real problem with voice acting in JRPGs is that it unavoidably confronts the player with the lurid idiocy of the average JRPG script. However, as Schreier himself acknowledges, skillful voice acting can dramatically improve a game.

JRPGs are characterized by linear stories and a broad lack of player agency. On both a mechanical and narrative level, the developer defines the principal characters. Because the player has so little expression in the game's world, the goal of the design should be to encourage him to identify with the cast, and especially the protagonist. In other words, a well-designed JRPG should mold the player to fit the character.

Having voice acting serves this goal in two ways. The first is that voice acting works to define the supporting characters as the lead sees them. With good voice acting, even a bland phrase like "As you wish" can be invested with a particular meaning that can shape the player's perception of the game world and its characters. As Kaiser's examples and discussion with Chris Avellone imply, voice acting works best in games where the burden of storytelling and defining the characters lies mostly with the developer. Additionally, voice acting makes the cinematics and machinima characteristic of JRPGs (at least since the 5th generation) more immersive, as Schreier notes. This is consistent with the aim of putting the player into the world as an observer.

WRPGs, on the other hand, are characterized by non-linear or flexible stories and a considerable amount of player agency. The player determines almost every mechanical and moral aspect of the lead character, and often those of assisting NPCs. WRPGs tend to eschew cinematics, and give the player control over the flow and content of nearly every conversation. In contrast to the JRPG, the player is a narrative force in the world, and the protagonist is his avatar. A well-designed WRPG therefore builds a narrative that suits the player's vision for the main character.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 Screenshot

With this in mind the disadvantages of voice acting become clear. The largest problem is cost—as Schreier notes, voice acting is an expensive proposition.  This is true even in a linear JRPG, where the status of the main character at any given point in the story should be known with certainty. In a WRPG the costs escalate, as actors must read lines to accommodate the many possible routes the player may have taken to a given conversation. In the absence of voice acting, the only limit on the construction of unique conversations that recognize the details of the player's behavior is the imagination and endurance of the writing staff. In the context of voiced lines, however, something must be done to limit the costs.

Of course, one could just use as few and as cheap of voice actors as can possibly be obtained, but as the player response to Oblivion made clear, this undermines the very sense of immersion that expensive voice acting is meant to achieve. A similar problem arises if one tries to just make dialogue as utilitarian or general as possible—this replaces characters with automata, Fable-style, making the vocals superfluous. This approaches also do little to mitigate the production obstacle VO presents—as Kaiser's article notes, the need to record and localize voices also freezes the plotline earlier in the process, reducing the developers' flexibility to remove or alter elements that aren't working.

A somewhat more palatable response to this difficulty is to adopt a structure built around atomistic sidequests and enforced linearity—an approach especially evident in Mass Effect 2 and 3, the most cinematic of the WRPGs. These design choices naturally constrain the dialogue requirements, allowing for an enhancement of immersion, albeit at the expense of of player control and world cohesion. Eliminating subtle player choices can also help reduce the conversational burden: it's easier to write for a world when the character has either saved the town or burned down an orphanage than for one where the character might have burned down the building but saved the orphans.

Taking the actor out of the equation also eases the burden on the writers to some extent. A given reading will tend to impose a single meaning to a given line, even if the words alone could serve many different contexts. In the absence of a vocal track, the player will happily supply the line with the emotional nuance that the situation demands. The engaged WRPG player creates much of the game world in his own mind, and asking him to imagine how a line is said might increase engagement, even if it diminishes immersion.

The flip side of this idea is that having voiced lines tends to impose a particular interpretation of NPCs on the player. Inflection does as much to define a character as the words themselves, and it's partly in recognition of this that WRPG protagonists are functionally silent, even if the precise words they're saying are made completely explicit. Voicing the NPCs diminishes the player's role as the story's co-creator, which is especially to be avoided in a WRPG.

The improved immersion that comes with voiced lines does not add as much to WRPGs as to JRPGs, because the player is a presence in a WRPG game world in a way that he is not in JRPGs. Moreover, while it merely emphasizes the poor writing of JRPGs, voice acting actively makes the design and writing of WRPGs worse. JRPGs could be improved by having better voice acting; WRPGs would be improved by having less.

Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360   PS3   3DS   Vita   Wii U   Nintendo DS   PC  
Developer(s): Obsidian Entertainment  
Series: The Elder Scrolls   Mass Effect   Fable  
Genre(s): Role-Playing  
Articles: Editorials  
Topic(s): Game Design & Dev  

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I like turtles

Well written as always, Sparky, but I don’t think we’re on the same page. Some things in this article I agree with, some things I don’t, and some things just don’t make sense to me here. Lemme pull an MC Hammer and break it down for you:
Your first few paragraphs do an excellent job of explaining how voice acting from non-garbage voice actors/actresses can provide a level of humanity that’s extremely beneficial for linear stories. Having an actual person speaking to the player can, in my opinion, give the characters much more freedom to express themselves, because actors can convey emotion better than text. Plus, at the end of the day, good acting is good acting, no matter what the medium is, and is always nice to experience. On that front, we generally seem to agree. Then you started discussing WRPGs, and our opinions seem to separate.

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The player determines almost every mechanical and moral aspect of the lead character, and often those of assisting NPCs.

You’re right about the lead character, but when it comes to NPCs, I can’t think of a game where the player can choose their moral standings, at least not from this generation. In Fallout 3, characters will only follow you if you have a karma level they agree with. The Mass Effect trilogy’s squadmates all follow a very linear line of character development no matter how Shepard treats them, always ending up as galaxy defending heroes in the final act. (Assuming they didn’t die before that) You can sometimes persuade them to do things they otherwise wouldn’t, but I don’t equate that to being able to determine their morality so much as it being a way to change their minds on a few things.
Dragon Age’s characters also don’t let the protagonist change them morally. No matter how nice you are to Morrigan, she’ll still get mad at you if you choose to stay and defend Redcliffe Village from the Darkspawn, and Alistair will still get mad if you don’t. Their relationships with the Grey Warden change, but their stances on moral dilemmas are fixed. In the Elder Scrolls games, the player’s allies don’t really have moral standings, just blindly following you as you assassinate the innocent.
In short, I don’t really get what games you’re referring to that let you determine almost every moral aspect of your allies. Perhaps you’re referring to an older game I’m not familiar with, but if there’s no current gen examples, is it really that important to WRPGs?

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WRPGs tend to eschew cinematics…

They tend to eschew cutscenes, but are still generally very cinematic, and I’d argue that key story moments in WRPG’s can benefit just as much from strong voice acting as the ones in JRPGs. Interacting with characters in Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and the Fallout games all would’ve felt much more flat and much less engaging if it was only presented with text boxes. Modern WRPGs want to invoke drama and really grip the player, and if no one is talking, much of that impact is lost.

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With this in mind the disadvantages of voice acting become clear. The largest problem is cost

This line seems to change your argument quite a bit. It’s no longer you saying that voice acting hurts WRPGs, just that it’s not worth it due to the cost. This also takes the argument away from WRPGs, since the cost of voice acting exists for many genres. Games like Grand Theft Auto IV, Tales of Graces f, and Assassin’s Creed II all have a ton of it, and none are WRPGs.
Second, there isn’t much indication that WPRGs are that expensive overall to make, so the call for cutting costs seems pointless. Check out this list of the top 10 highest videogame budgets from December 2010: http://digitalbattle.com/2010/02/20/top-10-most-expensive-video-game-budgets-ever/. None of the games on the list are WRPGs, so I’m not sure why cutting their costs in particular suddenly becomes so important. Sure WRPGs have to pay a lot for voice acting, but they save money in many other areas. They generally don’t need photo-realistic graphics like racing games, or online servers like online games, or massive detailed cityscapes like GTA IV or L.A. Noire.
Third, this is a slippery slope since there are many areas you could argue can be cut to save money. Graphical quality could be lowered, music could be repeated more, and areas could be shrunk slightly. Which of these features matters most to someone is subjective, so I’m not sure why voice acting gets the chop. I don’t feel the cost argument really fits here.

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Taking the actor out of the equation also eases the burden on the writers to some extent. A given reading will tend to impose a single meaning to a given line, even if the words alone could serve many different contexts. In the absence of a vocal track, the player will happily supply the line with the emotional nuance that the situation demands.

Your argument here seems to be that it makes the writer’s job easier because instead of having to figure out how to convey a line, the writer can just skip that part and let the player figure it out. Here’s my issue: I don’t want to be deciding what emotional nuance a line of another character has. I don’t want every character to be vague enough so that that’s even possible. To me, characters are at their best when I’m viewing them as actual people, and not cyphers for my imagination to impose upon. A character like Morrigan from Dragon Age has a very distinctly dark sociopathic wit, one that I couldn’t have imagined nearly as well as Claudia Black performed it. If that line was instead delivered with a text box, I would’ve then had to think, “Hmm, I bet Morrigan said that line with THIS inflection…”, which isn’t really the type of narrative flow I look for in a game.
To a degree, I also feel the first sentence of this quote was you just making assumptions that you don’t back up. How do you know how much of a burden a voice actor puts on a game writer? I’m not in the business, but my understanding was that the voice actors are given the lines the writer has written, and then must repeat the line until he/she gives the inflection the director wants. Good voice actors can grasp this fairly quickly, so I’m not getting why they would impact the writer’s job. Furthermore, actors can add to a game’s writing as well. Bioshock Infinite, for example, is having many of its lines being made cooperatively with the two main voice actors and Ken Levine. I don’t think he would call that a “burden.”

To sum up, your primary argument about voice acting’s effect on WRPGs is that it doesn’t let the player imagine what inflection the dialogue lines have. To me, this type of storytelling has become irrelevant in the modern WRPG era because the appeal of imagining in your mind how a line was said is massively outweighed by the humanity that exudes from characters that actually talk to me, and share their emotions audibly. It’s more believable, more cinematic, and simply makes a whole lot more sense. I’ve played many great WRPGs this generation, and there’s not a single one that I would say would’ve been better without voice acting. Not even Oblivion. If I’m going to be spending tens of hours on a WRPG, I damn sure don’t want it to be all in silence.

-Eric

turtles make for excellent soup

Hi Eric,

A lot of what you say boils down to a difference in taste. I don't mind hearing a specific voice for Morrigan any more than I mind seeing a specific person for Aragorn. I enjoyed Viggo Mortensen in his role, but I don't like him more than the Aragorn I imagined when I read The Lord of the Rings. I personally find works of fiction more engaging the more of them I am creating in my head, which is why I broadly prefer games (and books) to movies as entertainment. It seems you have a different set of preferences. Very well, de gustibus non est disputandum. Even in your case, would you agree that if you had to remove voice acting from one broad genre of RPG, WRPGs would suffer less from the lack than JRPGs?

In general, I think you overestimate the degree of mental work that goes into providing a voice for lines you read. I seriously doubt this is a considered process, and expect instead that it's an instinctive one. I didn't consciously think about how I expected Aragorn to look and sound - I read his description and my mind just filled in the blanks automatically. Perhaps this is different for you.

With respect to specific points...

1) determining mechanical and moral aspects of NPCs - It surprises me that you object to this, because you reference many games where the player makes mechanical and moral decisions for NPCs. In the first Dragon Age and in all Mass Effect games you make all decisions about the skill progression of NPCs (mechanical control), and in Mass Effect you directly make moral decisions for them (e.g. Mordin's loyalty mission). And, while it's true that some NPCs in these games won't go along with every decision you make as party leader, they are on board for almost all of them, so in this way you produce moral definitions as well. The player doesn't make every decision for every NPC, but that's pretty clearly not what I meant by the line. Also consider hybrid WRPGs like BioShock 2 and Dishonored, where the player's moral decisions have an indirect impact on the characteristics and moral attitude of NPCs.

2) eschewing cinematics - I disagree that any of the RPGs you mention have cinematic staging with the obvious exception of Mass Effect, where the intent is to have film-like conversations. The Elder Scrolls and Fallout games, specifically, have uncinematic conversational dispositions, primarily as a consequence of the first-person perspective. One can make an argument, though, that the naturalistic posing of conversations in Skyrim would make silent interlocutors disruptive, although I would say that the unvoiced protagonist has a similar effect on immersion.

3) cost - You astutely note that no RPGs are in the list of most expensive games ever, but it's curious that while you were hanging out on Digital Battle you didn't also check to see what the highest-grossing games were. Of those games the only RPG is the MMO World of Warcraft, which is outside the scope of this article. Costs must be balanced against revenues. The simple fact is that despite successes like Skyrim, RPGs in general and WRPGs in particular are not usually huge sellers (exception: Pokemon) and their costs must be balanced against low revenue expectations.

So, am I shifting my point here? Not really, because the pressures that make voiced dialogue an anchor on WRPG design and writing relate significantly to cost. Were cost not a factor, it would be far less challenging to create nuanced, multiplicative voice tracks that assess the player's attitudes towards the game world and change to an appropriate reading accordingly, or to record dialogue after the creative process has completed. That still wouldn't be ideal, for other reasons I mention, but it would still be better than the current situation, where realistic budgets produce limited horizons and auditory uncanny valleys full of identically-voiced NPCs spouting the same canned dialogue over and over. This makes voices benefit immersion less.

As for the slippery slope, I could spend hours going on about how higher-definition graphics have done games no favors, but I'm not writing that article right now. My question is not "What could make games cheaper?" but "Are the benefits of voice acting worth the cost?" This should be clear from the fact that I conclude earlier in the article that (quality) voice acting really is worth doing for a JRPG. In part this is because voiced dialogue adds more to linear stories that are light on interactivity, and in part because the simpler setup for that recording means it costs less.

3) how voiced dialogue inconveniences writers - You're probably right. Getting multiple inflections into a situation is really a burden that goes more on the voice director and audio team (and accounting), although the writers may have to do extra work on adding lots of guidance to various bits of dialogue. We can discuss BioShock Infinite when we play it, I guess, but I feel that writing dialogue for what's probably going to be a linear shooter/RPG hybrid with largely defined characters is quite different from writing and recording lines for a non-linear classic WRPG with a player-defined protagonist.

I don't mind....

I don't mind voice acting but if they are going to use it they are going to need 3 or 5 times as much of it.Especially Bioware games your 2 or 3 dailog trees of fail need to end.....

Tho JRPGs do have better voice acting due to having a better used voice acting industry.

Also its high time they brought in audio equipment and changed voices a bit so they all do not sound alike.

I hope Obsidian's Project Eternity is not going to be an oversimplified train wreck like all the Bioware games since Balders gate 2....

Getting voice actors wrong hurts the game...

... Mass effect 1 has some downright cringe worthy or low effort voice acting in places (if you doubt it, replay it).

Not only that once voice actors become identified with characters, changing voice actors screws up the character completely later on in sequels or if something happens to the VA or the VA tends to be a dick.

Many movies/cartoons/etc have been totally screwed up when they changed voice actors. The same applies to games.

I'd rather only have voice acting on games that voice actors are 1) young'ish (won't die in the next 30 years). 2) Aren't total assholes about money and hence start fits about leaving or not coming back for sequels. Think about how Peter cullens voice is identified with Optimus prime in transformers. You get those kinds of problems in games if you can't find a worthy replacement.

Voice acting adds a huge element of risk to any entertainment in that the voice becomes identified with the character and you can't really UNDO it afterwards.

I can only hope and pray someone invents voice synthesizing technology that makes voice actors irrelevant. I hope computer generated voices make voice actors a thing of the past, simply because 1) There's too much bullshit behind the scenes and 2) good voice synthesis will make doing any amount of game dialogue much more feasable for RPG's that have depth/outcomes in conversations/etc.

Very well-written response.

Very well-written response. We don't see eye to eye on this, but I respect your opinion as well as your ability to articulately argue it.

-Eric

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