Dialogue for Video Games: 11 Things you Should Know
Updated: Jul 29, 2020
(Photo courtesy of http://elizabethzharoff.com/)
Video games are one of the biggest forms of entertainment world-wide with global revenue eclipsing that of the motion picture box office. And the majority of those games require the work of voice over actors and directors. But working on games, as either a voice over director, engineer or as a voice actor, can be quite different than working in more traditional media such as film or television. Here are some things about dialogue and voice acting for video games that may surprise you.
Video Games can have a LOT of dialogue
Shortly after launch, the game Star Wars: The Old Republic received a Guinness World Record for the "Largest Enterainment Voice Over Project ever." At that time there were over 200,000 lines of English dialogue. As of today, its over 370,000! To put that in context, that's as many lines of dialogue as 125 or more feature-length motion pictures. Fallout 4 has over a Hundred Thousand. That dialogue may be recorded over months or years, and in sections as downloadable content (DLC) is added to the game over time. One challenge for games recorded over long periods of time, or with so much content is character drift. When working on a game where you have recorded characters before, it's always a good idea to listen to your previously recorded lines as a reference!
The same dialogue may require multiple performances
Because a player may be engaged in different types of action while uttering a line, the voice actor behind the scenes may need to record very different takes of the same line of dialogue, so a game can play the right one based on context.
For example, the same line of dialogue may need to be spoken by a character when they are fighting/exherting themselves or if they're just hanging around, so that same line may need to be recorded and delivered twice,
The Non-linear Nature of games presents unique challenges
Unlike traditional linear media, games' storyline's can ebb and flow or even take completely different directions. Writers, talent and directors must take into account the non-linear nature of today's games, which is in stark contrast to the single continuing storyline of traditional motion pictures or TV. To influence the outcome of the game, the player must have behavior and choices that are each unique and diverse, and the writing and performance of those varied storylines and branching narratives need to be taken into account.
Games may be union or non-union
There are indie games that are union and big-budget blockbusters that are non-union. It depends on the project budget, contract, studio and contract. Note: you can read the SAG/AFTRA interactive media agreement here
Actors may be told little about the characters they are voicing
Video game studios can be incredibly tight with information. Video games take a long time--often years-- to produce and studios are concerned about information about their game leaking to the public or press. Talent will likely be required to sign an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) that may prohibit them from even mentioning that they worked on a particular game. An actor may not be told the title of the game, their character's name, or any parts of the plot until they show up to record. Sometimes actors don't even know what the game was until after it is released and a friend sees their name in the credits.
That said, new rules in games that involve union talent have been put into effect, giving actors more visibility into their characters ahead of time.
Vocal stress can be an issue
Voice Over sessions with lots of yelling, creature sounds, combat exertions, and dying are common in many genres of video games. This can be very stressful to the voice. It is important to schedule accordingly so actors can take care of their voices and not endanger their (your) health. Vocal heal the expert Dr. Reena Gupta says even a little bit of overly stressful VO session work can be damaging so be sure to talk with your talent--if you're a producer-- or your producer--if you are voice talent-- to make sure everyone at the session is comfortable. If you are a voice over actor, be careful about scheduling other voice sessions around a game session that requires a vocally stressful performance.
Note that union games have specific limitations on the amount of vocally stressful work that can be done per session, so these need to be kept in mind if you are working on a union game and are excellent guidelines even if you are not!
There is a LOT of need for VO in games
Video games run the gamut from tiny indie projects with barely any dialogue to massive, high-budget games with lengthy scripts, dozens of characters and even full performance capture that involves full face and body movement.
Games with minimal or no character dialogue or game narrative may still need small bits of dialogue recorded for communicating player information, objectives, progress or to otherwise encourage the player. Things like "Start! Ready! Game Over! Great Job!" etc all might be given voice.
Small games can lead to big deals
People who work in the video game industry are extremely fluid. Designers, developers and directors frequently move from company to company, or form their own startup studios. Today's little indie game developer asking for a dozen lines could easily be a voice casting director at for a major AAA blockbuster game 2 years down the road. So don't be afraid to say 'yes' to a tiny VO session for a low-budget indie game-- you never know where that director will end up down the road.
Excel is as important as ProTools
Managing the details is crucially important in dialogue for video games. Mundane issues such as filename conventions, versioning, properly tracking the script and managing/tracking actor improvisation can make or break a project. Fluency in spreadsheets such as Excel and Google Sheets is an essential skill for the game dialogue pipeline. I know of one person (a GameSoundCon speaker) who landed her first job in the industry in part because she was one of the only applicants to successfully complete the "spreadsheet macros" portion of the sound design take-home test she had as part of the interview process.
Game audio dialogue engineering has so many unique challenges that, in addition to spreadsheets, specialized game audio toolsets are often used to manage the whole process.
Virtual Reality is a whole new ballgame
Virtual Reality--and it's close cousins Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality-- present a whole new set of challenges. VR provides the player with such freedom of movement, it may require a whole new way of recording and implementing dialogue. Consider the impact of having to script, direct and deliver lines for a character conveying important information to a player, but must feel real and natural whether the player is in intimate conversation 6 inches from the character delivering the line, 3 feet away or on the other side of a large room.