Thursday, July 18, 2013

Da Voice!

My general attitude about any cooperative, nominally-artistic project, be it theatre, film, music, computer games, whatever ... ballet, if I'd ever seen one... has long been that it's the mind behind it that matters. The creator is the writer or the director, the composer, the choreographer, set designer, etc.
Performers are just meat, instruments used by better minds in shaping the expression of a concept. How could the tail ever wag the dog?

Unfortunately, I have been so consistently proven wrong about this over the years that it's amazing I've managed to hold on to my conceit against those who use physical or behavioral abilities as a form of expression instead of formulating thought. In every medium, I find upsets.

Look at something like Instinct, an otherwise mediocre, predictable Hollywood political correctness love story, made palatable mainly by the sheer force of Hopkins' stage presence; or see the reverse, Cube, a smartly-orchestrated thriller dragged down by bargain-basement acting. Poor instruments harm a product; though Cube, I should note, is still decidedly better than Instinct.

As far as music goes, my teenage tastes tended almost entirely toward the instrumental. Beethoven, Grieg and Vivaldi made room grudgingly for the likes of Jean-Michel Jarre, then later Nine Inch Nails. Though I stand by Reznor's brilliance in other respects, Mr. NIN couldn't carry a tune in a bucket. In fact, that might've helped.
The first vocal revelation for me was Garbage's singer (and the popular face of the band, inevitably though probably unfairly) Shirley Manson. Now, Garbage is actually a pretty good band. Though they deteriorated gradually over the years, they had good instrumentation, lyrics, and everything else they needed. They sound slick, all around. Still, one of their strengths is making full use of Manson's distinctive voice. Listen to I Think I'm Paranoid all the way through, for example. However, if the old Garbage songs are rather uniformly well conceived and recorded, a comparison with her older band, Angelfish, is more telling. Suffocate Me is far from the worst thing to have ever appeared on MTV but let's face it, two things stand out: the repeating instrumental 'hook' and the weak lyrics carried as far as they could go by a good singer.

But where do games stand in this respect? How important are living instruments in a medium where characters are often minimalist, largely devoid of expression to allow the player to project his persona into the activity? The best points of reference are the game genres featuring the largest proportion of story-based gameplay, Adventure and RPGs, and I should have been a lot less surprised that the best of them have used excellent voice actors from some of my favorite animation, both -
oh shit
I knew it, I knew it, I knew it! I kept thinking as I was playing NWN recently that Sharwyn the bard's voice sounded vaguely unsettling for some reason. It should. I've heard Jeanette ask me "I'm not frightening you, am I, duckling?" at least five times over by now. What an "incestuous nest of treachery and favor-currying" the voice acting biz must be. Looks like I'll get to hear her again (and again) when I get around to playing the Baldur's Gate games.

Where was I before that nagging suspicion was laid to rest? Ah yes. I mentioned a long time ago that games have put less and less effort into sound as they've put more and more effort into graphics. This has been somewhat less of an issue with voice acting in particular (as opposed to music) because the RPGs and Adventures which use voiced dialogues heavily also hold slightly higher artistic aspirations than the rest of the industry. Some are even willing to hire what I suppose might be 'big names' in the field, though thankfully we see few celebrity voices, aside from Spock reading the voice-overs for Civilization 4 (and doing a bang-up job of it, incidentally, he had the whole "village elder" thing going on.)

The saucy and ever-flippant Morte of Planescape: Torment was voiced by an Animaniac. And again, I'll see him in Baldur's Gate. Those are some freakin' packed CVs, by-the-by. Either voice acting really does pay peanuts as I've heard or these folk're filthy rich by now.
Dak'kon was apparently Director Skinner from the X-Files (by the teachings of Zerthimon, I know there are no aliens) and Annah the tiefling was a professional (and apparently relatively famous) singer, while Nordom was none other than Homer Simpson himself - underutilized character, unfortunately. Nordom, that is. As opposed to Homer.

As far as the other 'best' RPG I've ever played, Bloodlines, goes:
In addition to Therese / Jeanette's voice, Bloodlines featured uniformly high-quality voicing. Because the in-Sourced character animations were mostly not varied enough to carry nuance, many scenes hinged on vocal range. Hearing the smooth, seductive Velvet Velour's tones take an icy edge was enough to snap one out of the impression that that vamp was anything but... a vamp, and Ming Xiao or LaCroix's barely-cracking upper-class facades, expressed mainly through voice inflections, made their stereotypes interesting enough that their dialogues did not feel perfunctory.
However, I'm more amused by just now discovering that Bloodlines featured not one but two Futurama cast members. Hermes Conrad had various minor parts, but Bender the Robot played the starring role. Of all of Bloodlines' cast, it's the enigmatic Smiling Jack who bookends the story and serves to sneeringly illustrate much of the World of Darkness. It's actually amusing to think of how much of the two characters' personae echo each other: the irreverent window into our unrecognized social inner workings, as bloody vampire or bloodless robot. What is it about the actor's voice which makes him so suited to that role?

I've already mentioned how important April Ryan's voice was in The Longest Journey. Given the linear story progression, in the absence of moral choices, much of her personality and by extension her adventures was transmitted through her dialogues' tone and emotional weight.

Even a strategy game like Alpha Centauri hinged largely on its atmosphere, which was dependent in great part on the personalities of its seven faction leaders, the seven wills splitting the world between them, and these were conveyed principally through the voice-overs which pop up throughout the game.

A less concise but equally interesting example is The Secret World. It lacks any major recurring characters. It is meant to illustrate a world, not any one story, and no single role is allowed to truly dominate the others. It does however feature endless strings of memorable NPC quest-givers, minor characters half-developed through a few dozen lines each, barely-evolved stereotypes which nonetheless will make the player do a double-take now and then. And they would not have been the same without (for example) the wistful, innocent delivery of the unexpected punchline in the middle of what seemingly had been unraveling into a 'shaggy dog' story in this mission introduction. Though purposely avoiding great personalities, TSW does not skimp on competence in the voice acting necessary to quickly lend local color to each location the globe-trotting hero visits. Right off the bat, even plotless window-dressing NPCs like Callie and Galahad lounging around the park in London provide generous amusement through their repartee, a verbal soundtrack to the protagonist's initiation into the secrets of the world. To have phoned these in would kill much of the TSW's appeal no matter how interesting its interactive writing.

None of these games would have been nearly as good if they'd lacked the particular spin on the writing which the voice actors lent them. However, to truly appreciate the importance of such performances, one must look at both the good and the bad. Now where can we find some mediocrity?
Aha! Hello, Neverwinter Nights 2. Much of the NWN games was decently written and voiced, especially in the Undrentide and Betrayer expansions. Within the original NWN2 campaign itself, I quite enjoyed Sand and Neeshka. Overall though, it was a mixed bag, and some of the low points were abysmal.
Case in point: the constipated bear scene. Tune in at minute 1:00 for the "good" stuff.
Now, given the same script, how much better could that have sounded if they'd paid a talented professional instead of having the office intern strain into the microphone for a couple of minutes?

Mere instruments actors may be but well-tuned ones are still hard to find, and you can't skimp without consequences.

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