From Time Crisis to L.A. Noire: How Voice Acting Changed Video Games

From Time Crisis to L.A. Noire: How Voice Acting Changed Video Games

Video game voice acting is more often noticed for being terrible than for anything else. When a game features truly excellent performances, it’s seen as unusual. Many gamers have simply grown accustomed to bad dialogue, questionable acting talent, and facial animations that don’t quite match up with the words. L.A. Noire promises to change that with new technology. So, while we wait for the game’s May 17 release, let’s take a look at the history of voice acting.

Early History of Voices in Video Games

Throughout the early history of video games, it was rare to hear a voice while playing; technology simply didn’t permit it. When voices did start cropping up, they were mainly just used as sound effects. (For example, Street Fighter’s and Mortal Kombat’sRound 1. FIGHT!“) It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that actual spoken dialogue in games became the norm.

From Time Crisis to L.A. Noire
Final Fantasy was one of the first games to have spoken dialogue.

In some cases, this took the form of FMV (full motion video) cutscenes—which contained not only voice acting but also true video of actors advancing the plot. (The earliest of these dates back to 1983, with Laserdisc game Bega’s Battle.) However, switching between the game and a normal video felt disjointed, and these scenes were almost always thrown together in slapdash fashion with no attention to performance or scripting. Not surprisingly, this practice soon fell out of favor.

What did persist was the style of voice acting found in other PlayStation and arcade games from the 1990s, such as Resident Evil and Time Crisis. These included spoken dialogue in cutscenes, scripted lines within the game, and blurted-out catchphrases used as sound effects. However, these games became known for their cheesiness rather than their cinematic effect. To this day, games like House of the Dead: Overkill parody them with intentionally over-the-top acting.

Notable Games

Half-Life paved the way for real acting in a video game.

©Logo for Half-Life. – Original

One exception worth mentioning is 1998’s Half-Life. While none of the performances were dramatic masterpieces, the developers eschewed cutscenes in favor of in-game conversations that advanced the plot. Each sequence brought Gordon Freeman deeper into the story, and the acting was good enough that it never killed the player’s sense of immersion.

Perhaps the first game to be known for voice acting coupled with realistic facial movements was 2001’s Final Fantasy X. In designing this epic RPG, the developers took special care to make sure that the facial animations matched the words being spoken, provoking an animation arms race that continues to this day. In the years since voice acting has taken over the entire industry—if the game isn’t “retro” in some sense or developed by Nintendo, chances are there will be voice actors doing something. The developers of the game will most likely have at least tried to come up with decent animations to match those voices.

Sometimes there will be Hollywood acting talent in games. For example, Christopher Lloyd reprised his performance as Back to the Future’s Doc in a recent point-and-click game from Telltale. Other actors have made names for themselves simply by virtue of their game performances. Nolan North, for example, has appeared in the Uncharted, Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, Final Fantasy, Fable, and Halo franchises.

What’s Next in the World of Gaming?

From Time Crisis to L.A. Noire
The process of bringing an actor to a video game is good but still a bit uncanny.

Still, there’s a lot of work to be done. A decade after Final Fantasy X, facial animations remain hit-or-miss. Many cutscenes still give off that “uncanny valley” look—they’re realistic and impressive in some ways, but they’re just “off” enough to seem a bit creepy. And for every Christopher Lloyd or Nolan North performance, there are ten total hack jobs from talentless (or perhaps just poorly directed) actors. Long RPGs with low budgets are perhaps the worst offenders; with pages and pages of dialogue to record in a short timeframe, actors end up rattling off their lines in bulk. This often causes little attention to be paid to the particular emotions of the conversations.

As for the case of L.A. Noire, this game hopes to do animated performances in video games what Avatar did for animated performances in movies. Essentially, Rockstar is taking a page out of James Cameron’s playbook: they’re recording real performances by real actors—not just filming the images, but tracking each movement of each muscle—and translating them into animation. That is, instead of trying to match facial animations to a performance, they’re taking the facial animations directly from the performance. The difference is clear when you watch the game’s trailers. L.A. Noire’s animation is head and shoulders above anything else on the market, and the performances themselves aren’t bad, either. We’re not out of the uncanny valley yet—in a few places it still doesn’t feel exactly ‘human’. But games have come a long way since the first Resident Evil, and even since Final Fantasy X.

From here, the big question is whether this style of voice acting can take over the industry. Thanks to the success of Grand Theft Auto, Rockstar has famously deep pockets; it spent $100 million on GTA IV. Will this technology become cheap enough that your average development studio will be able to afford to use it? Once that happens, will developers take more care in crafting their scripts and directing actors’ performances? It’s still too early to tell, but, nonetheless, it’s an exciting time for actors in the video game field.

*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*

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