There are few aspects of being a game writer which are truly rewarding, but the one shining jewel in the experience of writing for games is the amazing transformation that voice actors perform in bringing a script to life. Good voice actors – and there are many such people – can rescue a lacklustre script, invigorate an average script and immortalise a good one. It is not much of an exaggeration to claim that the appalling general quality of videogames narrative taken as a whole would seem even more dire were it not for the incredible work that voice actors perform in making dry text into living people and tangible emotions.
My first voice recording sessions were for Discworld Noir, which was also my first videogame script. I’d worked on the previous Discworld game, but not in a lead role. I was lucky to get a truly exceptional voice cast to work with. (I mentioned them briefly before, when I noted that three out of four of them worked on Mirrormask). I was also extremely lucky to have the Discworld author himself, Terry Pratchett, edit the script for the game (while on holiday in Australia) – with the minimum of tampering, Terry brought out the comedy in the script, and polished my rough work to a neat sparkle.
Rob Brydon, a Welsh comedian now most famous for the BBC comedy Marion and Geoff, provided the voice of the protagonist, Lewton, and several other minor characters. Since the game features a hard boiled monologue for the delivery of almost all information, including error messages, Rob had to endure a grueling week of recording several thousand lines of speech. One particular aspect of the script caused ever growing frustration: a mistake in the way the shooting script had been compiled meant that every door in the game produced a line of dialogue in the script: “After all, a door is just a door”. After reading this line about twenty times, it became Rob’s own personal hell. I can only hope that he has successfully blocked it from his memory in the years since!
Nigel Planer, probably still best known as the moping hippy Neil in the BBC comedy The Young Ones, was perhaps the most meticulously professional in his approach to the recording sessions. He spent some time getting the studio set up just perfectly to his requirements, then delivered all the lines with comfortable aplomb. There was no doubt he had done this sort of voice acting job many times before.
The voice of all the female characters in Noir, Kate Robbins, was a sheer delight to work with. She completed all of her lines in a one day session, delivering them with a glorious lustre and a seemingly infinite supply of accents. Carlotta, the femme fatale of the story, exudes a smouldering quality heightened by the lustrous accent Kate performed. Most amazingly, the script called for the troll diva Sapphire to sing a song (a pastiche composed and written by Paul Weir) which Kate recorded on the day, from the sheet music, without ever having heard it before. Classy!
Finally, my favourite of the voice actors for this game was Robert Llewellyn, most famous as the android Kryten in the BBC Comedy Red Dwarf (although he is also a writer of popular novels). Throughout the long recording sessions, I was keeping myself sane by tallying a scorecard for whose lines were getting the most lasts – mine, or those added by Terry in the editing phase. (In the end, we broke about even). One line in particular has stuck in memory: it came in Robert’s lines for the Butler, my favourite character in the game. The Butler – a savagely deadpan wit – introduces Lewton (the protagonist) to the Library at the Von Uberwald mansion, saying: “The Libraris Apocrypha is a collection of obscurities and rare volumes from across the continent. If knowledge were an animal, the Libraris would be a great dragon. Sir by the same scale would be kebab on an ant’s barbecue.” It cracked Robert up so much, we had to take a short break to restore order.
I’ve had many other voice sessions since then, but few so memorable. It was, however, a great personal honour to record the narrator script for Heretic Kingdoms: The Inquisition with Tom Baker back in 2004. (Do I need to make it explicit that Tom is most famous as the fourth Doctor in the BBC science fiction serial Doctor Who?) He arrived at the London studio where we were holding the recordings as larger than life as ever, and immediately launched into a discussion about the tone of the script, and the use of the word “inculcate” in the introduction. Later, after recording hundreds of narration lines with effortless aplomb, he launched into a random anecdote about somebody he had been involved in years before, then straight back into reading lines. There was something magical about the whole experience.
In the book I edited on Game Writing, Coray Seifert’s chapter on voice actors is called “Adding Magic”. Undeniably, that’s what the many great voice actors and actresses contribute to every game script they animate: a miraculous, supernatural talent to bring mere words into spectacular life. Our videogame stories would be utterly impoverished without them.