Voice acted RPGs: how role-playing is both enhanced and hindered by voice acting.

I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and I gotta admit that I’ve got a lot of respect for Larian Studios: not only did they make a shining example of a truly deep and engaging RPG when they made Divinity: Original Sin, they proceeded to somehow make an even better version of what was already winning awards. Seriously, they made a really stellar game that fans and critics loved, pretty much everyone agreed was worth kick-starting, and then turned around and said “nah, we can do it better,” and released the Enhanced Edition. It shows a real passion for their craft that they cared enough to put so much work into making sure the game was as tight and satisfying as possible. One of the biggest changes that I didn’t expect was that they added voice acting into the game, and even more surprisingly added it without compromising on the game’s writing.

Voice acting in RPGs is kind of an odd feature, both in terms of its effects and possible consequences. It’s been around forever (Even the Zelda CD-I games had voice acting way back in 1993, though that might be the only kind thing I can say about them), but noticeably started to really pick up steam as the industry grew. Noticeably, pretty much every RPG that came from the bigger and more prominent companies has had extensive voice acting in recent years, and the amount of voice acting only seems to grow as time goes on. This is a marked change from how it used to be, where only critical NPC’s and important cut scenes had voice acting, most likely as a consequence of the games already being expensive to develop without adding what was at the time a more esoteric component. While not a 100% vital component, it sometimes feels like the bigger RPG releases have put a greater emphasis on voicing as much of the game’s dialogue as possible, even going as far to give the player character fully voiced lines.

However, this isn’t without consequence. The reason I was impressed by Divinity’s ability to put in voice acting without also flubbing up the writing was because I had kind of gotten used to RPG’s writing suffering in return for voice acting, because at times it feels like it’s an unavoidable effect. I wouldn’t say it’s a huge factor on the quality of the writing, since the actual script and scenario creators are going to have a far larger hand on a game’s writing than anything else, but it’s a noticeable effect all the same. One of the main factors for this is that rewrites become impossible beyond a certain stage: the art of writing is a really difficult and complex system, but it is made infinity harder if there’s a pressure to get it down in as few iterations as possible. If every line added needs to be fully voiced and you’re working within a deadline and a budget, there will be a pressure to make sure the writing is as good as it can be in only a few rewrites. However, as anyone who has tried to write more or less anything can tell you, creating quality writing is a process that requires a lot of rewrites (I’m not even a professional writer and the stuff I made felt like it took years off my life). Thus you enter a situation where the writers need to make sure they’re getting things as good as can be in the shortest amount of time, in a genre where the story and writing are one of the most important parts. Naturally, there’s going to be some fumbling involved.

There’s also the problem of potentially limiting the kind of characters the player can be when you have to fund voice acting for them: because the player character is going to be saying a lot through an RPG, just adding even just a single alternate race for the player to be can be expensive as heck. This is likely why games like Dragon Age: Origins have the player character be the only character without voice acting.

Just to clarify, I’m not saying it’s impossible to create an RPG wherein the writing is both voiced and great. The Witcher series, Divinity’s Enhanced Edition, and the Yakuza games are all RPGs with great writing and a ton of voice acting. Like I said, the competency of the game’s writing staff is going to be far more of a deciding factor in the matter than anything to do with the voice acting, but the presence of the latter does make it harder for less than fantastic teams. When things work out, the addition of voice acting can be a serious boon, however: giving a character a voice goes a long way to helping to actually characterise them, and thus giving every person you meet a voice helps to make the world itself feel far livelier. Giving every character a voice goes a really long way to immersing a player into a world, and when the setting is one of the selling points, that’s a valuable (if expensive) asset to have. I suppose the tricky part is getting the balance right: because it’s cheaper to use less voice actors on more characters, one could just use the Oblivion/Skyrim method of using a pretty small pool of voice actors to voice every non-important NPC. While this does mean that every character has a voice, it becomes pretty noticeable that many of them have the same voice. Other times it’s simpler to just not voice minor or non-essential characters, such as in the Yakuza and Nier series, which means their dialog can be more easily edited.

Another factor to consider is the quality of the voice acting, or more accurately how much the development team is willing to pay for higher quality. I’ve rattled on about writing and how difficult it is, but let’s take a second to actually appreciate that voice acting isn’t exactly an easy job either. There’s a reason for the recent large scale voice actors strike, and while that’s a mire of a morally grey area in which I’m reluctant to throw my hat into the ring, I will say that I understand why the voice actors felt the need for the strike. Voice acting is a pretty difficult job with a relatively low amount of recognition or payment for how much effort it requires, with only the really big names like Nolan North, Troy Baker or Jennifer Hale gaining much lee-way. To that end, it’s a pretty easy thing to do to just not throw a lot of funding into the voice acting part of development, which in turn leads to a lack-lustre or bland job being done. And let’s not even get started on the added expense of dubbing a foreign game during its translation phase: translations are an expensive thing to do for what inevitably turns out to be a relatively niche audience, so it’s no wonder that a lot of dubs of foreign games suffer somewhat (Nier: Automata is a pretty recent example of an exception to the above). Also, getting celebrities to voice characters is certainly a neat idea, but you have to beware of both budgetary issues and scheduling issues if you’re going to put them in a big role, as Bungie learned after the situation with Peter Dinklage in Destiny 1. So, in addition to the effect on the writing, it’s important to consider what the cost of the actual act of voice acting could be, and how much will be needed to be spent to make sure it’s of a sound quality.

Much like many parts of creating a video game, there’s really no ‘easy’ answer to all of this, and much like many other things we’ve talked about before it’s something that needs to be done on a case by case basis. Some games are going to really benefit from giving a lot of characters voices, even if it comes at the expense of the writing, while others can only stand on the strength of the writing, and thus can’t afford to compromise too much on adding voice acting. Personally, I’m happy to play with games in either style, but I’m also looking forward to all the weird and wonderful ideas that this industry will come up with as we struggle to find a compromise.

As always, thanks for sticking with these rambles of thought. One of my favourite parts about writing these entries is that I often collect my own thoughts on a matter with much more clarity than if I had just let the matter lie. I’m hoping that I can make them entertaining for others to read as I go, so I appreciate everyone who sticks with me as I often run through my own thoughts as much as I run through the various aspects of this industry. So here’s to you, loyal reader.

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