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.