Video Games and Voice Acting
I think it’s a fair assessment that here are several genres of game that don’t have any requirement for in-depth voice acting. If there is no substantial narrative to tell or a necessity to deliver a lot of complex instructions, then plain text or simple audio soundbites will suffice. However, games such as an RPG or an MMORPG, which tend to have complex stories and multiple characters, benefit immensely from good quality voice acting. Now some gamers are not interested in intricate plots and find dialogue and cutscenes an impediment but I do not believe them to be a majority. If they want to skip dialogue and such like, then that is their prerogative and I support their right to do so. I actually think that both dialogue and cutscenes should wherever possible be “skippable”. But I am often heavily invested in the narratives of the games I play. I enjoy good dialogue when its available and feel that voice acting reinforces the plot and credibility of the various characters. I sorely miss it when it is not present.
I am currently playing The Elder Scrolls Online again after a year break. What is striking is that the voice acting is very good across the board. There are several high-profile names providing voices and they certainly don’t come across that they’re just phoning in their performances. It helps tremendously that the storylines are well written and so the likes of Alfred Molina, Michael Gambon and Bill Nighy have something to work with. John Cleese adds both humour and some pathos as Sir Cadwell. Sadly, older MMORPGs such as The Lord of the Rings Online struggle with voice acting. Only a few lines of dialogue are voiced when interacting with NPC.s Cutscenes tend to be fully voiced but often the quality is variable. The actor who has consistently voiced Gandalf over the years is solid others just conviction and quality. One of the greatest assets of Star Trek Online is that many of the original cast members from the various shows have voiced their in-game avatars. It’s a far cry from the early days of the game when times were tough and the development team supplied some of the voice acting. Commander Kurland being voiced by Jeremy "Borticus" Randall.
However, simply having known voice actors involved with a video game by default, does not necessarily automatically add real value. The first two instalments of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare benefited greatly from well-cast voice actors. Actors such as Billy Murray (Captain Price), Soap (Kevin McKidd), Sargeant Foley (Keith David) and General Shepherd (Lance Henriksen) greatly enhanced the characters and gave them more depth and personality than you’d usually find in the FPS genre. But in the later iterations of the franchise, I felt that the presence of Stephen Lang, David Tennant and Kit Harrington did not improve the proceedings, mainly due to the lacklustre scripts. However, what CoD did achieve in those early games was in making celebrity voice acting respectable and not some poor relation of TV or movies. But it was Skyrim that actually made me sit up and take notice when I discerned that the voice acting talents of Christopher Plummer and Max Von Sydow. I wasn’t aware that they were involved in the game prior to playing and I was astonished that actors of their pedigree were on board.
Sadly for many games, voice acting is an expensive undertaking, especially for those developers that produce modest, lower budgets titles. Hence, you will often find variable performances or actors who are not native speakers of English which can be problematic. Poor voice performances can undermine the credibility of a game, even if every other aspect of them is sound. It instantly puts me in mind of old VHS copies of martial arts movies from Hong Kong that have been excruciatingly badly dubbed. Some of the earlier Sherlock Holmes games from Frogwares suffered in this respect. But for good or ill I feel that for certain genres of games simply must have full voice acting these days, just as I expect a sumptuous score and cinematic cutscenes. To not have such things seems a little “cheap”. It is curious how games have assimilated so many tropes and audio-visual affectations from cinema. But that is a separate blog post. Returning to the matter of ESO, I don’t know if I would be as interested if I had to digest the game’s complex lore simply via a wall of written text. Vocal performances make imparting such information far more accessible and bring it all alive.