Pete's Perspective Episode 10: Silence Is Deafening
Sir Ian McKellen
Samuel L. Jackson
These are all names of people who have done voice acting for video games. Notice the familiar names mixed in with the not-so-familiar ones? Cam Clarke is one of gaming’s most recognizable voice actors—you may know him better as Liquid Snake, but he’s rampant in gaming, cartoons, and anime. Paul Eiding is also a notable voice talent, filling many other roles other than that of Colonel Campbell in the Metal Gear Solid series—you can hear him in Eidos’ Sword of the Berserk: Guts’ Rage for the Dreamcast, for example.
Then, of course, you’ve got the highly recognizable voice talent. Sir Ian McKellen brought Gandalf to life just as convincingly in EA’s Lord of the Rings games as he did on the silver screen. Samuel L. Jackson’s portrayal of Officer Tenpenny in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was excellent. We’ve heard John Cleese a bunch in video games, most recently sporting a cameo role in Jade Empire on the XBOX.
Now… imagine all of this voice talent being gone, replaced by unproven voice actors… some of which are merely extras or friends of the development team. We’re talking no experience. No training. Just… reading from a script and hoping for the best. We’re talking about playing Metal Gear Solid 4 without David Hayter playing the role of Snake. We’re talking Kingdom Hearts II without Disney starpower. We’re potentially talking about a lot more reading and a lot less listening.
Why are we drawing up this scenario? Well, most voice acting talent belongs to one of two unions: the Screen Actors’ Guild (SAG) or the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA)… and both unions are seeking higher compensation for their workers. Yes, much like the doomed NHL and the potentially doomed NBA, these unions are threatening work stoppages if their demands are not met. It’s a standoff at the present time, and a protest was held outside of the Los Angeles Convention Center during E3 to try and gain visibility. A strike is being threatened, and that would mean that developers would have to find voice talent of their own—and get them to cross picket lines—to shoulder the load.
The gaming community is reacting with a decisively negative tone regarding this issue, with many insisting that they could easily do the same job as the talent I listed above, for a fraction of the price. Understandably, they’re wary of even higher development costs, which could predictably lead to even higher retail prices than what we’ll be seeing with the next console generation. I can understand that.
However… there seems to be a lot of ignorance among the members of the gaming community regarding the actual art of voice acting, and this is what seriously angers me. Attitudes like “Any monkey can read a script” bother me to no end. Yes, anybody can read a script I suppose, but can they read it convincingly? Can they pronounce words correctly? Can they enunciate enough to where all listeners can understand them (if they even know what “enunciate” means)? Can they maintain a steady tempo during line delivery? What about their volume? Their inflection? How about actually getting into character and making audiences believe in that character, rather than just listening to a bunch of words?
Folks, voice acting isn’t easy. These people don’t just roll out of bed and roll into a recording studio. There’s preparation involved. They have training in this field… some of which was pretty expensive. They know the routine inside and out. It truly is an art, no different than stage acting, singing, drawing, and so on. These people take their craft very seriously, despite what you may think after hearing some bland performances in some of the games you play.
If you want to point fingers at someone for bad voice acting, you should consider more than just the actor or actress. What about the sound director, or game producer and director? These people hear these lines, and should know right away whether the quality is solid enough to make the final cut. I think the onus should at least equally be on these team members to ensure that the voice acting is done well enough to satisfy the masses. Granted, some actors will mail in a role on occasion, but this should be picked up in the studio while recording.
And what about the higher cost? Well… let’s face it. Gaming is big business now—even bigger than Nintendo had made it with the NES juggernaut during its height in the late 1980s. Everyone wants to get involved, and everyone wants their piece of the pie. Combine this with the current mainstream expectation that well-known musicians and actors supply their talents to add a more recognizable and pseudo-cinematic experience to games, and it adds up to higher fees. If publishers don’t wish to pay these fees, they risk removing gaming from its currently comfortable position atop the mainstream interactive media chain and ultimately reducing popularity and revenue. It can be argued that gaming has “sold its soul to the devil” in order to increase its audience and thusly increase incoming revenue. Unfortunately, what’s done is done, and backing off now could potentially lead the industry into a recession that it might not recover from for some time.
I’ve said this before, but we’ve been due to pay higher prices for games (and consoles) for some time now. Prices have been steady or declining over the last 15 years, despite more advanced technology and skyrocketing costs over that span. A modest $10 increase is not the end of the world, especially if you consider that the Nintendo generation has grown up and are working for a living, so disposable income is easier to come by than asking Mom or Dad for $60. We’ve had it good for a long time in the price department, but nothing lasts forever. You can disagree if you want to, stating that you’ll buy fewer games or rent exclusively or just not even bother with new games… but you don’t speak for everyone, and if the new majority—the casual majority—continues to impulsively buy games based on name, sequel value, controversial content, or any other variables despite the price hike… expect voice acting, licensed music, and the higher costs that they entail to stay.
OK, time for your favorite part of the Perspective column: Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down. You know you need it, so here it is:
Thumbs Up: Three thumbs (because two isn’t enough) way up to our intrepid PSXE crew that attended E3 last week and provided us with tons of articles and pictures from the scene. Great work, all… your job was definitely tougher than mine, and you’ll probably never take electricity forgranted again. Right? (Note: This still has nothing to do with those E3 freebies that I still want. I love you guys.)
Thumbs Down: The worst part of E3 is the drought of news and new games that generally hits just after the show ends. Scraping for news this past week has been too difficult. Bring on June!
Thumbs Up: Wario Ware: Twisted is sheer, simplistic genius. Although you’re not really supposed to, I find myself spinning around in my chair trying to complete some of the challenges that this game throws at you… and they’re all fun. The gyro and the rumble feature are too cool for school. Wow.
Thumbs Down: I’m not sure where the rest of you live, but here in the northeastern United States, the weather here has sucked eggs all week long. Rain, cold, wind, and just yuckiness has dominated. What the hell happened to Spring? Mother Nature is officially on my hit list, and I’ve got my PSG-1 trained on her as we speak.
Thus ends the 10th Perspective column. No time for celebrating milestones, though. We don’t do that here… but your e-mails, comments, suggestions, and complaints are always welcome. I might not answer, but you can always try your luck. You might catch me on a rare good day.
For now, though… So long, and thanks for all the fish.
5/27/2005 Peter J. Skerritt, Jr.