Before the actor finished mouthing the words, we were already laughing. I was in a voice-over session, listening to the lines we had written for the game come to life. In this instance, however, the line wasn’t supposed to be funny. The actor was supposed to say the word “leisurely,” and the director suggested he take a little more time with the word. Taking direction like a pro, the actor delivered the line again, low and deep: “leeeeeeeeeisurely.” If I had an mp3 of it, I would so share it with you. It immediately brought to mind a creepy man lurking in the bushes and we couldn’t stop laughing. I was reminded once again how much an actor can bring, usually on purpose, to the table.
Unlike in other media, game writers often need to write both spoken and text dialog well, sometimes for the same game. Fear not; this isn’t voice dialog 101. You should know by now to read dialog out loud before sending it off to your actor. I’m more interested in exploring how game writers, designers, and producers can bring voice-over dialog to the next level. May I suggest following the age-old rule: know your audience.
Now, I’m not talking about your gaming audience, although they should be ever-present in your mind. I’m referring instead to the actors themselves. Time and time again, the biggest problem with voice acting for games is the actor’s energy level. Unfortunately, the tendency for game dialog to be functional can bore actors. When we first started our Guess that Game Dialog feature, I joked with Sande how our first line should be “Unh!” The trick is to give the actors something they can sink their teeth into — something that stretches their abilities or makes it fun. Here are a few tips for writers, designers, and producers to get more energy in their voice-overs.
1. Warm up your actors before recording. The alternative just may be having to re-record the first few minutes.
2. For functional/instructional dialog, inject a second NPC. Is Bob the only person speaking during the tutorial? Add Sally and have them joke with or snipe at each other. This trick will allow you to set up the world story while also giving the actors a chance to do what they love: act.
3. If you have two NPCs in conversation, try to have actors record it together. Time/financial restraints don’t always make it possible, but when two actors work together, they often feed off each other’s energy. Or at least have someone else read the other NPC’s lines.
4. Give characters distinct personalities and catchphrases. Yes, that is our job, but it bears including in this list. If an actor has no one to work off of, a distinct character can still keep the energy up. Catchphrases: “Now I know what you’re thinking…” (Magnum, PI); Jack’s tendency to swear with actresses’ full names “Jennifer Jason Leigh, that’s hot!” (Will & Grace); “Fatality” (Mortal Kombat); plus one more, below, in Guess that game dialog
No matter how you get there, actor energy translates to a higher quality gaming experience for the player. That’s why you’re doing voice-overs in the first place, isn’t it?
Guess that game dialog! Today’s line: “Go for the eyes, Boo! Go for the eyes!” Check back next week to find out where it’s from.