Acting up: How writers can get you better voice performances

Ever been enjoying a game when suddenly, the cut scene comes up and it just leaves a little something to be desired?  Either the voice recording is off, the acting doesn’t seem up to par, or the characters just kind of sit there in the virtual space without grabbing your attention.  You may find yourself clicking through in an effort to get back to the good stuff — the gameplay.  This post begins our series on the challenges and benefits of creating good writing and storing with actors.  Fortunately, writers and actors can conspire together to make voice recording and acting another fun part of the game.


I was speaking with another screenwriter at a party last night, and we were discussing the short films so many aspiring creatives in Hollywood produce.  These shorts start out well enough, perhaps with a nice montage of the location or pictures of the main characters, then cut to the first scene involving them.  But as soon as the actors open their mouths, we can tell the sound wasn’t recorded or mixed properly and we immediately brand it as amateur.

Unfortunately, quite a few games fall into this category as well — they go through the trouble of hiring voice actors, then they don’t quite put the effort into making the recording well done.

On the other hand, sometimes even with great recording, the actors may not have sufficient information about the script or scene to deliver the lines well.  For example, the simple line “So?”  That line could be delivered defiantly, like a petulant teenager; humorously, like a friend’s flip retort; curiously, like a probing detective; and so on.  Time and time again, actors have to come face to face with game scripts that look like spreadsheets that don’t give any context to the scene.  Fortunately, as you might have guessed, we have a few solutions:

1.  Insist on having your writers or narrative designers present during voice recording.  Writers and designers can help set the scene for the actor, but more importantly, they can make on-the-fly adjustments to the dialog if it’s not quite clicking.  Ideally, your writers will have already written the dialog to be spoken, but even then sometimes words don’t work in an actor’s mouth.

2.  Give the actors a script in screenplay format. Seeing how the scene plays out will help the actor get the point of the scene, and help him see how his or her lines relate to others’.  The entire script will also give the actor context with an idea of what has happened emotionally for the character before and what will happen next.  Often this information is relayed by the voice director during recording, but having it spelled out in screenplay format rather than dialog lists in Excel will help immeasurably.

3.  Write the scene descriptions and the expected vocal intonations of each line. If for whatever reason you don’t have the script in screenplay format, have your writer or designer include scene descriptions and how the actor should deliver the line.

This approach creates two drawbacks.  First of all, it can take a lot of time to include this information for each line, and as they say, time equals money.  Furthermore, telling the actor how to convey a line ties the actor’s creative hands.  If you are working with great actors, often time they add something to the scene or line that brings it to an even higher level.  If they don’t have a firm grasp of the scene, you prevent them from doing what they do best.

4.  Give the script to the actor in advance. It can be an industry practice simply to hand the script to the actor on the day s/he starts recording.  With scripts that could be 400 plus pages, perhaps it’s a bit unrealistic to expect most actors to slog through them.  That said, if the actors have a chance to plan ahead and get a feel for their characters, they can make more informed character choices and give better performances.

Next we’ll explore using actors to create better cinematics, and then move on to filming live actors.  Which games do you think had the best and worst voice recording?  What do you think caused it?

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Published in: on November 11, 2008 at 2:20 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] a live one? Adding live actors to games Voice actors offer a great deal to a game’s story and writing, and developers have successfully used […]

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