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.
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 "Round 1. FIGHT!") It wasn't until the mid-1990s that we started seeing actual spoken dialogue in games.
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.
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 you're playing isn't "retro" in some sense, and if it wasn't developed by Nintendo, chances are you'll hear some voices as you're playing. And the developers of the game will most likely have at least tried to come up with decent animations to match those voices.
Sometimes you'll even hear 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.
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.
And that brings us to L.A. Noire, which hopes to do for 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, I still got a bit of a creepy vibe. But we've 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.
By Robert VerBruggen
CCC Contributing Writer
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*