Let's visualize scripts written for game voice-overs a certain way, as how a musician views sheet music. Some sheet music is quite clear: notated with accent marks, dynamics, tempo, and scene changes. Others are more loose, and intentionally so. Jazz sheet music often replaces individual notes with hash marks indicating beats and a key signature, and – do what you will in this set of rules.
Recording voice-overs is the art of taking the "music" written by game narrators off the sheet and into a performance. Just as there are many paths to performing musical pieces successfully, there are many paths to successful voice-over performances. However, music is still music; performance is still performance. Game narration designers can follow several practices that consistently lead to good performances.
Balancing voice-overs and gameplay
Balance is a common issue with voice-overs. When and how to implement voice-overs can be tricky, but let's start with a few principles:
1) Games are meant to be played. Given opportunities for players to skip past non-playable moments are usually taken. Voice-overs shouldn't be optional, like icing on a cake – they should help provide a foundation for good gameplay.
2) The longer voice actors speak, the greater the chance that players will begin to tune out. Say what you need without over-explaining.
3) Use voice acting to add to the emotional content of the game. Voice actors rarely need to explain the mundane details of each quest and getting from point A to B.
4) Balance is important. Games should have a mix of different kinds of voices. When possible balance male voices with female voices.
With this in mind, find ways to put lines that aren't emotionally interesting into the in-game text without having them voiced.
Principles in action
When recording a voice-over, my general rule is that it isn't right until it creates a sense of energy/intensity and movement to the line. This is why phrases such as "He was elected mayor 20 years ago, and in that time life has grown peaceful in our small village" are more difficult to record than "Iwill never stop until I get my revenge!"
Voice-overs hinge on emotional investment. My actors and I question every line – "What is the character feeling here? How can we make this sound interesting?"
What is interesting about a mayor governing a peaceful village? Is the village not peaceful now? Why? Is he stating this to develop a sense of foreboding or loss? Is the player just on friendly ground for the first time in a while? Is this character trying to set up the player to take advantage of him later? Are the townspeople actually homicidal cannibals trying to lull passersby into a tranquil repose leading to a great feast of human soup like in those old Bugs Bunny cartoons?!?
Why do we care and what does it mean emotionally? These are the lines that often lead to extra phone calls and e-mail exchanges. The last thing we want is to record a boring voice-over.
As a writer, one method you can use to ensure that the emotional content comes through in the acting is to provide notes throughout a script. Game narration designers have several ways to do this.
Option 1 – Explain the goals of the dialogue before each scene
"Scene 2 – Welcome to Town
The player is welcomed to town by a strangely pleasant townsperson. He should seem a little too friendly, and give a slight sense of creepiness in his forwardness. This scene is setting the player up to take sides in a political struggle between the town's establishment and an outsider trying to reform long-standing corruption."
The advantage to these kinds of notes is that it leaves flexibility to the voice-over director and actors on how to convey this emotionally. Instead of focusing on how each line should contribute to this goal, the whole exchange is open to interpretation. In passages like this, it is often helpful to allow the director and actor some flexibility to alter the script.
Option 2 – Provide notes line by line about the emotional context and plot subtext
|Townsperson||Welcome to Littleville! We don't get much visitors around here!||Very excited, warm, almost too much|
|Townsperson||You sure look like you've seen a lot of the world. Plan on staying long?||As though giving an invitation|
|Townsperson||That guy over there – He was elected mayor 20 years ago and in that time, life has grown peaceful in our small village. ||With a sense of pride and accomplishment, but almost overselling it|
|Townsperson||Why don't you go talk to him? I'm sure he'd be glad to meet such an interesting traveler such as yourself.||Somehow it doesn't feel like an invitation, more like a command|
Following these principles and techniques should help to ensure strong voice-overs throughout your game. However, no writer is guaranteed to always be mistake free and never overlook things. The best advice is to start working with your voice-over producer and actors early enough so that you have time to rewrite lines as needed and have time to alter in-game texts.
Will Bucknum, founder of Voice to Game, is a Voice-Over Producer and Script Writer specialized in video games. As an experienced saxophonist, Will attended the University of Oregon and studied music, creative writing, film and media studies, and social and political theory on his way to earning several degrees. A top European game audio studio recruited Will to direct voice-overs and write and edit scripts for several years before he started his own company in 2013.
Will's scriptwriting and editing is featured in most games with voice-overs that he has directed and produced. Many projects Will has worked on involved localization of texts, and he has recorded voice-overs in over 10 languages for a variety of projects.
Will has produced and directed voice-overs for over 50 games including hits such as Kick the Buddy: Second Kick/No Mercy, Star Conflict, Tanked Aquarium (by Animal Planet), Bug Heroes 2 and many #1 hits on Big Fish Games.