Most readers of this article are likely rolling their eyes at this ‘obvious’ statement; however, I believe it is necessary to point out.
Video games have come a long way in recent decades. Games are starting to be recognized as the genuine media articles they are, in no small part due to voice actors’ performances. Nathan Drake, Ezio Auditore, Geralt of Rivia, Solid Snake, Commander Shepard; need I go on?
This article throws some love to the voice actors and highlights how they have helped shape the video games we all enjoy today.
The 1980s: Not with a Speech; but with a Grunt
Early voice acting performances in video games regularly came in the shape of ‘grunts,’ i.e. all the sounds that the player characters and enemies make when they aren’t talking.
When a character yells or screams during gameplay – or even emits an occasional “Huygh” when the character jumps. These vocal elements are now staples of gaming speech, but they were also the first.
If you have a lot of time to kill, why not become a ‘grunt’ expert? This video compilation of the FFVII Remake showcases a variety of grunts in all their glory.
Castle Wolfenstein (1981)
The seminal Wolfenstein franchise’s first instalment contains one of the first instances of speech in a video game. Created for the Apple II, Wolfenstein featured William “B.J.” Blazkowicz in his debut, tasked with escaping Castle Wolfenstein.
While the player does not speak, the enemies certainly do.
Nazi guards shout phrases like “Halt!” (Stop!) and “Kommen Sie!” (You come!). These phrases added intensity to each encounter behind enemy lines and helped reinforce the game’s setting – Nazi-occupied Germany.
The primary developer, Silas Warner, was solely responsible for the audio and speech implementation. He utilized “Voice”, an early digital audio recorder, but the best quality the game could muster was 8-bit. As a result, the guards’ voices sound like distorted ‘shrieks’.
The restrictions and costs around the application of voice acting were considerable. Due to the lack of memory available, many game developers used voices sparingly. But sometimes, the low quality added to the vibe. The shrieks in Castle Wolfenstein certainly make for tense gameplay!
Dragon’s Lair (1983)
This arcade game featured Dirk the Daring’s playable character as he attempts to rescue Princess Daphne from the Dragon’s Lair.
This game showcases a uniquely engaging style—a Disney-esque art style and animation, drawn by ex-Disney animator Don Bluth. In contrast, most video games at this time featured 8-bit sprites, so the highly detailed characters and animations were appealing.
The player controls dictated whether Dirk is successful in his actions, from jumping over a hole to slaying the dragon. These on-rail quick time events (QTEs) are the basis for the game.
The voice actors in the game are still just grunts, playing when a character performed specific actions. While this was minimal in its use, these instances of the protagonist’s voice helped add impact to the game’s action sequences.
The 1990s: The Cinematic Duality of Polygonal Graphics
The transition from the 1980’s era of gaming devices to the 1990s was a huge step forward. Graphically, gaming took a plunge into 3D graphics, based on polygons, which is still the basis for today’s video games.
The leading platform at this time was the Playstation (1994). An important console, as it pushed forward with the change from cartridge-based data storage to the CD. CD allowed for the storage of more data. At a higher quality and for less cost.
The CD’s extra storage space allowed 3D games to flourish, and higher quality audio was possible for the first time, making way for creative uses of voice acting.
Resident Evil (1996)
Resident Evil doubtlessly innovated in many ways, helping to define the survival horror genre. The use of fixed camera angles, inventory management and horror set pieces had players on edge, meticulously checking their resources at every opportunity. Every room invited tension, and the game audio had players holding their breath at every step.
Nevertheless, the voice acting in the game is… well, not great…
While the “Jill Sandwich” scene has garnered a much-deserved meme-status, it was not supposed to be that.
The gameplay was king, and the voice acting served only to move players through each level. That there was a fully voiced story set this game apart from its contemporaries.
It is also important to remember that voice acting for video games in the 1990s was not a career. The gaming industry was still a young medium, and it lacked the age, gravitas, and appeal of animations or Hollywood movies. It also lacked the budget needed for big names.
Whilst Disney were putting out Aladdin and The Lion King, voiced by talents like Robin Williams and James Earl Jones’s voices, video game actors generally had no acting experience. Jill Valentine’s voice actor, Inezh, for example, was cast with zero acting history.
At least the game’s dialogue is bad in a good way.
Metal Gear Solid (1998)
Two years after Resident Evil’s release, Metal Gear Solid (MGS) came out on Playstation. Legendary game director Hideo Kojima’s original masterpiece. The game was a continuation of the Metal Gear series from various consoles prior, but this was the first 3D game.
The game excelled across almost every element in game design, practically reinventing stealth as a video game genre. I could go on about MGS all day – I’m a fan – but we are here to discuss the voice actors.
MGS was, in my ardent opinion, when voice acting in video games got serious. The cast of MGS put the pedal to the mettle for this game – with David Hayter as Solid Snake becoming one of gaming’s most iconic characters.
The game features top-notch voice acting, with a beautifully overstated script supposed to mimic a Hollywood blockbuster.
Kojima’s design understood the hardware limitations allowing the game to circumvent awkward faceless 3D models. During extensive conversations, the screen moves into the “codec”, the communication device. The codec consisted of 2D animations of the characters, which provide greater detail to the characters expressions and better matches the cast’s dynamic voice acting performances.
Players immediately connected with the characters and bought into a story based on an engaging plot with believable people, rather than just an excuse to move gameplay along.
The ability to make characters who look like this feel real is a testament to the game’s actors. It’s easy to criticize the game’s over-the-top acting by modern standards, but back before the turn of the century, this was as good as it got.
Many of the cast for MGS intentionally were credited by monikers. Critics poorly respected video games and the actors did not want their names associated with a game. There were even concerns that voice acting in video could may have limited their prospects in Hollywood or caused trouble with the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).
The 2000s: A New Frontier
The 7th generation of gaming consoles (PS3/ Xbox 360) is where high-quality voice acting became commonplace. The 6th generation (PS2/Xbox/Gamecube) had various gems with excellent voice actors attached; MGS2 & MGS3, Ratchet & Clank, Legacy of Kain – to name a few. But the voice acting arms race hit full swing with the 7th Gen.
Uncharted 2 (2009)
Here is the thing about Uncharted 2. The gameplay isn’t awe-inspiring. The combat is so-so, climbing is simplistic, and the puzzles are majorly serviceable.
With all that said, it is still one of my favourite games of all time. The voice acting and story elevates Uncharted 2 from a pretty good adventure game to 2009’s Game of the Year.
The subtleties in the performances are evident. Personal history, emotions and tensions are easy to detect in the on-screen dialogue. More complex character expressions were possible thanks to improvements in graphical fidelity and more highly-detailed character models. But at the centre of this new era of cinematic quality is the voice actors with a clear focus on well-written conversational scripts and exceptional performances.
Video game media moved away from basic A-to-B, Rescue the Princess, storylines. They are instead paving the way for more unique experiences only possible in games. The player is engaging more with the voices and companions they meet.
Nolan North’s interpretation of the protagonist, Nathan Drake, oozes charisma. Voice acting is maturing at this stage, with big names emerging to celebrity status.
Mass Effect 2 (2010)
Bioware’s magnum opus. Mass Effect 2 set the standard for character-driven RPG titles in the 7th generation. The game upgraded many areas of its game design, but the characters and their backgrounds were the main focus of this game.
With so much of Mass Effect 2 based on assisting Commander Shepard’s crew members, Bioware had to make them believable and relatable. The voice actors were instrumental in this objective. The aliens in Shepard’s crew were essentially a viewport for the player to understand that character’s species. Thane, a Drell, is a lizard-like species from a race of religious assassins. How should he sound?
Smooth, mysterious, yet dry and slightly raspy. Reflecting Thane’s life as an assassin, yet also his race’s origins on an arid desert planet.
The Mass Effect trilogy’s voice acting is a significant element that facilitated the fandom’s exponential growth. It is one of gaming’s most compelling stories, and everyone has a favourite character.
Following Mass Effect, fully-voiced protagonists became the norm. Mass Effect set the standard of character interaction and is still influential, even in games outside of the RPG genre.
Now: Modern Masterpieces Need Only Apply
Nowadays, games cost millions of dollars to produce, and it is rare to find AAA games without high-quality voice acting.
Where once actors hid their names in credits out of fear that voice acting in video games would stunt their careers, now actors are looking to video games for work. Kit Harrington in Call of Duty, Keanu Reeves in Cyberpunk 2077, Kiefer Sutherland in MGSV; all of these Hollywood actors now take an interest in gaming.
But it is the jobbing and amateur voice actors that deserve the real credit. They paved the way for celebrities and are the lifeblood of the medium. The actors’ role is now huge, with distinct voices being instantly recognizable and eternally memorable.
Games like The Last of Us, Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and God of War have shown that a story acted by talented voices can outdo Hollywood’s most remarkable tales.
Remembering the voices that made our games truly special is paramount to developing strides in video games culture.
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