Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Pros and Cons of Voice acting - A study of Planescape: Torment

As part of the Vintage Game Club over at Brainy Gamer, i have been playing through Planescape: Torment (PS:T), a game I've had many goes at over the years but never completed. An interesting idea was raised that I would like to explore further, and that is whether voice acting enriches or detracts from a gaming experience.

Now the first thought most people would have is that of course voice acting makes games better. Like movies, it allows the lines to be inflected with the right tone and emotion, giving more weight to performances and thus immersing the player within the game's world and connecting them to the characters. I would agree with this. Games like Uncharted 2 and Mass Effect had time and effort devoted to casting actors and directing them in a way that would add to the overall experience. Many games however do not echo this dedication towards voice work. Whether it's due to time or money, a lot of games have cringe worthy voice acting. Now a lot of games have cringe worthy dialogue so not all the blame can be on delivery, but there seem to be a lot of titles that suffer from this problem.

Voice acting was introduced to gaming in the early 90s. Sure there were arcade titles like Sinistar and Bezerk that had characters speak, but the first games to have every line of dialogue in the game spoken were adventure games like the cd-rom version of King's Quest V. It's interesting that with the introduction of talkie versions of games, and then FMV (full motion video), gamers were so quick to dismiss and defend bad acting (vocally and physically). My thoughts are that the technology was still new and novel, so just having characters speak or actors act out a scene in front of you in a game was an amazing experience, regardless of quality. That was when the technology was new however. Nowadays, I would say there is no excuse. The good news is that bad acting is not defended, and is somewhat criticized now. The bad news is it's still so prevalent.

In PS:T there is minimal voice acting. When you first meet important characters, they usually say the first sentence of the first line of dialogue, and when you give orders to your party, they will vocally respond. Also, members of your party will vocally banter amongst each other every now and then. Aside from this, all the game is text, and one could say text heavy. The introductory voice along with the banter is an interesting concept, as it gives you an impression of how the character speaks, but then leaves the rest up to your imagination. People often complain about when they hear a character they love from a book or an old game has been given a voice actor. Even with good delivery, the voice is always going to be different than what each individual has heard in their own heads while reading the dialogue. I think Planescape: Torment meets players in the middle on this. Sure the main characters all have a voice, but once you've heard it, the delivery is all up to you on how the lines are read and inflected.

Another aspect where i feel PS:T excels with text over voice acting is in its descriptions. Not just with examining objects (because most RPGs if voiced will use text for descriptions), but in having things happen to you that due to the design choices of the game, couldn't be animated. One example is in fetching seeds for this old woman. You discover that the only way to acquire these seeds is to use your will to grow this plant. The plant then creates strands of barbed vines that twist around your arm, attaching themselves to your flesh. You then walk back to the old woman, and basically say "Here's your seeds. Get this thing off me". Without a close up or animated cut-scene, such a memorable moment couldn't have been expressed visually, so the designers decided to use the text, and at least in my opinion, it left more of a lasting impression.

Finally, at least in PS:T, the use of text over voice acting allowed them to focus more on the multitude of choices a player has in approaching how they want to play. Dialogue trees with different options based on stats can drastically change outcomes, as will approaching goals in a certain order and with certain people. You can even have drawn out conversations with your party members that unlock not only experience points but new avenues to explore. That's not to say this level of depth cannot be done with voice acting. Look at the level of vocal options that change the game in this year's Alpha Protocol (which funnily enough is created by the same designer as PS:T).

A lot of RPGs from that era used text, mostly due to the incredible level of dialogue, and budget and technology constraints (CDs only held so much data). Still perhaps part of the reason that Planescape: Torment, Baldur's Gate, Final Fantasy VII and others are so fondly remembered is due to the player imprinting their own characterizations into the well crafted experiences these games delivered. Now that voice acting tecnology is no longer new, every game seems to have it, including complex RPGs. It can definitely help a game, but whether or not the voice acting adds or detracts from the experience does seem to be subjective. Just look at the response, both positive and negative when Final Fantasy XIII was released earlier this year.

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