Baftas and A-listers: the rise of voice acting in video games

Arkane Lyon’s Bennett Smith on how the next big thing in gaming is coming through your speakers

In 'Deathloop', character Colt Vahn is voiced by Jason E Kelley and Julianna Blake is played by Ozioma Akagha. Photo: Bethesda Softworks
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It’s hard to believe it now, but way back when the video game industry was in its infancy, most titles had voice acting that sounded like the teacher from the Charlie Brown cartoon. For those unwilling to search for what this sounds like, it’s unintelligible loops of someone saying “wah wah”. Although these games had the right sounds at the right moments, the tinny, garbled computer voices were restricted to one or two words.

Technological advancements have fixed this now, of course, but back in the 1980s, adding a voice to a game was an expense that developers seemed reluctant to invest in. Which is why it was often down to an untrained staff member to record them during their lunch break.

Fast forward to the current day, and the voice acting side of the video game industry is booming. It has its own category within the UK Baftas and is a hotly contested section of The Game Awards, which is like the Oscars, but for the gaming industry.

A-listers such as Keanu Reeves (Cyberpunk 2077), Kristen Bell (Assassin's Creed), Rami Malek (Until Dawn) and Mads Mikkelsen (Death Stranding) have starred in video games.

It’s big business now. And while they aren’t household names outside of the medium yet, the likes of Nolan North, Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson are held in high regard.

This year, a couple of new names appear in the line-up from the excellent PS5 exclusive Deathloop. Jason E Kelley and Ozioma Akagha play the lead characters in a riotous back and forth in a game that challenges players to break a Groundhog Day-style loop.

“With Deathloop, we wanted to give the dialogue a more natural and 'cinematic' texture”, Bennett Smith, lead performance director and narrative designer at Arkane Lyon tells The National. This meant that our characters talked fast, interrupted each other, and genuinely tried to react to the performance of the other actor in the scene. Because of the way video game audio production typically works, where you record one actor at a time, this became one of our main hurdles to overcome. We were fortunate enough to even have a session where we were able to record both Jason E Kelley and Ozioma Akagha simultaneously to achieve this effect.”

It’s a blend that adds authenticity to the world of Deathloop. As Cole Vahn (Kelley) tries to gain his memory by replaying the same day over and over again, the banter with Julianna Blake (Akagha) has an energy that carries the action perfectly for the player.

You get the sense that both voice actors are genuinely enjoying themselves in the booth. Obviously, none of this immersion is achieved without a script of laser-focused dialogue to base it on, which Smith attests to.

Players want to feel like these non-playable characters and these characters in this world exist so they can travel to a new place and live in it through the span of the game
Bennett Smith, lead performance director and narrative designer at Arkane Lyon

“We’re seeing an era where further specialisation is being pursued and focus on good, well-written dialogue performed by professional actors is no longer considered a nice bonus to a good game,” he says. “It’s fundamental to a game’s experience and success. And not only in the base language, but all localised languages.”

It’s important to remember that the video game industry has had an obsession with making games look more realistic or sharper than ever before. Every inch of effort to squeeze out the last bit of power of each game console or PC has often focused on the crowd-pleasing visuals rather than the sounds. But as the graphical prowess begins to plateau and the gaming worlds are incredibly detailed and rendered, developers are shifting their targets to create fully immersive worlds with smart scripts and dialogue.

Smith says the key to immersion is “speaking in elements of truth”. This means tweaking the way that players interact with missions or quests to provide realistic – to an extent – reasons for doing so.

“The era of the ‘Help me, my sheep is missing’,” quest is mostly over,” Smith says. “Dialogue is not simply a vector for gameplay information anymore.

“Players want to feel like these NPCs (non-playable characters) and these characters in this world exist so they can travel to a new place and live in it through the span of the game.”

For Deathloop in particular, it feels like every effort has been made to create a world where each character has a backstory. It’s not the usual fodder that you find in first-person shooting games that are simply fleshy walking targets waiting to be killed.

The enemy NPCs here have much more about them and will chat to each other about related mission information or some personal history. This encourages you to sneakily listen in to their conversations and find out more… before pulling the trigger. It’s a technique that feels fresh in an industry that has become somewhat predictable. As Deathloop is the benchmark for what can be done, it could mean big things for video games moving forward.

Smith is optimistic, but he's under no illusions that it will come at a price. “Reactivity to player input is an expensive enterprise, but it is something that myself and other narrative-minded people in the industry are very keen on pursuing.

“The challenge is going to be how to come up with creative solutions for this problem without blowing production and implementation budgets. But that’s a problem we’re more than willing to tackle.”

Updated: February 07, 2024, 1:32 PM