An earlier version of this article originally appeared in the Computer Game Developer's Association Report, April 1995.

Using Voice to Bring Game Characters to Life

by Earl Vickers and Wally Fields

Creative use of video game speech can grab players' attention and engage their emotions, allowing them to identify with characters who might otherwise seem flat and lifeless.

The Simpsons TV show is an acknowledged masterpiece of voice design. Imagine removing the distinctive voices of Bart, Homer, Marge, her chain-smoking sisters, etc., and replacing them with generic voices. It wouldn't quite be the same, would it? Voice design can be just as important in the world of video games.

Here are some guidelines for using voice to enhance your games:

Don't Overuse Speech Phrases
Most people over the age of four don't repeat the same phrase over and over. Most people over the age of four don't repeat the same phrase over and over. A game character who does will be perceived as stupid and annoying.

Use Lots of Speech
A good way to avoid the previous problem is to have a library of dozens or hundreds of phrases from which your character can choose. The more phrases you have, the less often you'll hear any one repeated. Even so, use speech sparingly for greater impact. Less is often more.

Write an Intelligent Voice Driver
In addition to prohibiting the character from repeating himself, you will also want to keep him from interrupting himself in mid-phrase to start a new sentence. It's often desirable to allow sound effects to interrupt themselves, but it's not usually a good idea for speech.

Also, some sound drivers (especially in sports games) let voice phrases queue up, chattering on and on long after the situation being discussed is ancient history. You may want to limit this.

Use Humor (or Not)
Attempted humor is just like humor, only not as funny. Avoid it.

Even if jokes and witticisms are funny the first time around, after a couple dozen listenings they can be irritating as hell. Subtle humor may stand up better to repeated listenings. The best humor is that which arises naturally from the character and the situation.

Different games call for different types of language, and the language used (sports phrases, surf jargon, etc.) can be a natural source of humor. Recording game-testers as they play can be a good way to come up with new phrases to put in the character's mouth.

Use Lip Sync
Homer Simpson would look even stupider than usual if he talked without moving his lips. And imagine how he would look if his lips moved out of sync with his voice. As with bad humor, bad lip sync is worse than none at all. The bigger the character on-screen, the more attention needs to be paid to lip syncing. The ultimate in lip syncing is to create animation that actually resembles the appropriate lip movements: round-mouthed "O" sounds, etc.

Avoid Wordiness
Video games are generally fast-paced. There's usually no time for long-winded monologues. If you're making an epic style role-playing CD-ROM and need lengthy explanatory or emotional scenes, use them at the beginning of the game or during an intermission. This way, at least they won't break the flow of the game. And be sure to let an impatient player press a button to opt out of hearing the same oration for the millionth time.

Characters Should Talk like Real People (unless the character is an alien or something)
More to the point, the character should talk the way this particular character would talk. Let her come to life in your imagination; listen to what she says and how she says it.

If you're tired of games with cardboard characters, believable speech is a great way to breathe life into your creations. Let the sound of the voice not only fit the character, but also help define who the character is.

Find the Right Voice Actor for the Part
Don't settle for recording some guy down the hall, unless he just happens to be an accomplished voice actor.

Work with Your Voice Actor to Find the Character's Real Voice
You need to give your voice actor direction about the character's personality, motivation and style, along with some possibilities for what he might sound like.

At the same time, you want to let your creative people be creative - that's what you're paying them for. Solicit the voice actor's ideas as to how the character might sound. Give your actor a chance to improvise, experiment and display his or her resourcefulness. This will increase the actor's motivation and make the job more fun. Remember - you've got to put fun into a project if the player's going to get any fun out of it.

If the vocal talent finds the voice you're looking for, offer reinforcement. Often actors may capture the voice perfectly and not realize it, continuing to experiment until they lose the character. If they don't capture it completely, tell them what works, then what doesn't. "You've got the pitch right, but I need it a little more gravelly."

Tip for voice actors: method acting does work. Hunch over and grit your teeth when doing a monster voice, for example. Fidget with the hands to help yourself get in the role of a nervous, frightened character such as a chipmunk. Actually crouch down at the mike so you'll feel younger when doing a kid's voice.

Pay Attention to the Details when Recording
Make sure your voice actors can hear you and themselves over the headphones. If your office is not specifically built for sound recording, check to see if any sounds are leaking through the walls. You may unconsciously tune out noises such as air conditioning or a game playing in the next room, but the tape recorder won't.

If the voice you need is particularly straining to the throat, warn your vocal talent ahead of time or stock up on throat lozenges. Provide plenty of water.

Good Voice Editing
Your voice editor should have a good ear for the nuances of speech, along with the ability to listen to a dozen takes and pick out the one with the best mix of phrasing, intonation, characterization and intelligibility.

Good Voice Processing
A sound designer needs to know audio from many different angles, including acoustics, phonetics and signal processing. The sound person should know how to make a voice sound like a robot or a dinosaur, a Martian or a marsupial. And he or she should understand how to maximize signal-to-noise ratios and best adjust the trade-offs between sample-rate, bit-resolution, and memory or bandwidth constraints.

Test the Results for Intelligibility
Try out the resulting samples on someone who doesn't know what the character is supposed to be saying. You may be surprised how often you get the "What did he say?" reaction. It's easy to fool yourself into thinking a phrase is intelligible when you already know what is being said. Often certain phonemes may be too soft, or missing entirely.

Context plays a surprisingly important role in determining whether a phrase can be understood. Most sentences contain a fair amount of redundancy, which increases their intelligibility. A phrase with an odd or unexpected sequence of words may be difficult to understand.

A harsh voice like that of the Dragon King (imagine a cross between Darth Vader and Linda Blair) in SSI's Dark Sun, Wake of the Ravager will easily cut through the background sound, conveying the proper emotion even if the words are not heard clearly. If, however, the voice is soft or contains important information, consider ducking the level of the music and sound effects slightly during speech to let the voice cut through.

Use Non-verbal Vocals
Vocals need not be words. Many games make effective use of grunts, moans, etc. Science fiction games could benefit from imaginary alien language words and sounds. Animal sounds can be useful as well.

Incorporate Singing if appropriate
We're not suggesting you make your next game into a musical. But it would be great to see more games (especially cartoon games) begin with a theme song. Would they be doing big-screen remakes of The Flintstones or The Addams Family if those shows didn't have catchy theme songs?

Make Audio an Integral Part of the Game
All too often, audio is an afterthought; this is especially true of voice. While gameplay and graphics are vitally important, audio should also receive attention early in the project. What emotional tone do you want the music to convey? Should the sound effects be realistic or cartoon-like? And, perhaps most importantly, how should the characters portray themselves through the use of voice?

The importance of vocal characterization will continue to increase as memory constraints lessen and games begin to look and sound more like movies. People might sit through a movie with a boring plot, but it's rare that they'll put up with boring characters. And effective use of voice is crucial to making your characters come alive.


Earl Vickers is a programmer, engineer, sound designer, voice editor, writer, songwriter and composer. He helped pioneer the creative use of speech in Atari's coin-op games such as Star Wars, Paperboy, Gauntlet, 720°, and numerous console titles. He was one of the earliest advocates of the use of the inarticulate grunt in video games. His corporation, The Sound Guy, Inc., publishes the audio effects plug-ins SFX Machine and SFX Machine RT, which are in use at many leading video game companies.

Wally Fields is the owner of Wally's Weird Voices. He performs voice characterization, impressions and straight reads for video games, multimedia, radio and TV. His voice debuted on CD-ROM as the Dragon King and other characters in SSI's Dark Sun, Wake of the Ravenger. He has worked with numerous companies including Tengen, Atari, SSI, Claris and Sega. His web site is at www.wallys.com, and he can be reached at http://www.wallys.com/contact_new.htm.

Earl and Wally have worked together on several games including Awesome Possum, which won acclaim from Electronic Games for "Best Audio."

 

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