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Hollywood Sound: Part Three
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Hollywood Sound: Part Three

October 12, 2005 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

The spoken word has always been a fundamental part of the communication of story, information and emotion in video games. Over the past twenty or so years the degree to which the word, voice, and more recently the ‘actor', are involved with games has dramatically increased and shifted towards a Hollywood model. Most big production games now include huge voice-over budgets, utilizing Hollywood's talent pool. In this third and final part of our look at Hollywood sound integration into video games, we examine the way games are written, cast and how voice is integrated into gameplay.

Early Text Story Telling

Traditionally games have been designed around a combination of simple gameplay elements, from early platform games such as Donkey Kong and 3rd person combat games like Street Fighter all the way through to driving and flight simulation. These early games, even though they produced sound effects and music, could be thought of as ‘silent film' in that they had no voice, only text-based ‘intertitles'. The stories and characters in these early games are very simple and therefore very quick to pick up and play. You are introduced to a character, more often than not in arcade games by the art work on the side of the arcade machine. The early artwork for the Space Invaders video game, for example, was all that was needed to communicate the story and the action a player could expect. This carried through into the first home computer game systems, the cover art on the cassette tapes and cartridges communicating the majority of the action and story information. Basic story began to be elaborated upon by some introductory text on the inside of cassette covers. In Software Project's 1984 game Jet Set Willy, the story runs as follows:

“Miner Willy, intrepid explorer and nouveau-riche socialite, has been reaping the benefits of his fortunate discovery in surbiton. He has a yacht, a cliff-top mansion, an Italian housekeeper and a French cook, and hundreds of new found friends who REALLY know how to enjoy themselves at a party.

His housekeeper Maria, however, takes a very dim view of all his revelry, and finally after a particularly boisterous thrash she puts her foot down. When the last of the louts disappears down the drive in his Aston Martin, all Willy can think about is crashing out in his four-poster. But Maria won't let him into his room until ALL the discarded glasses and bottles have been cleared away.” (1)

Jet Set Willy only had the most basic of backstories.

Based on a hallucinogenic hangover, the objective of Jet Set Willy, which turns out to be an almost incompletable and long game, is very simple: to collect all the bottles and glasses from the various rooms in the mansion. You are vaguely introduced to back characters through the text, of which only Maria the housekeeper is actually in the game. This kind of information is designed to be read as the game loads up, an activity that would often take up to four minutes. Even these earlier narrative forms communicating game story, though, connect to cinematic traditions. This style of intro story is comparable to the opening text we see in Star Wars for example. In the case of Jet Set Willy, the player is posited in third person, controlling the character of Miner Willy. Second person examples of introductory narrational text also exist, as in Saboteur from Durrell in 1984 which follows a similar quick injection of back story:

“You are a highly skilled mercenary trained in the martial arts. You are employed to infiltrate a central security building which is disguised as a warehouse. You must steal a disk that contains the names of all the rebel leaders before its information is sent to the outlying security stations. You are working against the clock, both in getting the disk, and in making your escape…” (2)

Here, story, then objectives, are revealed. A second person narrative is established where ‘you' are directly addressed in the form of a mission briefing. Both of these second and third person positions are still used in intro movies today.

The notion of establishing story very quickly so that the player can pick up, play and be immersed in the game is something that still very much exists. The evolution of the ‘intro movie' or intro ‘Full Motion Video' (FMV) is born out of this need, and, as hardware and software power has increased, the sinews connecting games to Hollywood film are becoming stronger. An intro FMV (or Non Interactive Sequence (NIS) using the game engine to render the movie), today consists of a 1-2 minute prologue in which the player is immersed into the action through cinematic storytelling techniques; sound, dialogue and music are all used in exactly the same way that they are in any Hollywood film, so that when the player actually gets into gameplay, they understand the motivations of the character and of any back story. This is all done for the purposes of immersion; story and motivation first, then objectives later. Objectives of actual gameplay are left out of the establishing intro movie and are contained in either a more informational tutorial mode, or are often revealed as you play through the game.

Writing the early back story used to be simple, and anyone could do it as it required little more than creating some very basic motivational information that didn't even need to relate too closely to the characters or experiences of gameplay, as seen in Jet Set Willy. However, with the arrival of the spoken word to video games, the professional skills of the writer and the actor have become critical to production.  

The Arrival of the Spoken Word

The technical limitations of the early home PC systems such as the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64, and early consoles such as the NES, resulted in some creative ways to employ voice in order to both market and bring a cinematic edge to early games. Usually these attempts used the B-side of the tape, or a supplemental tape that contained music or a theme song, or even full blown, slickly produced ‘interactive' content.

AutomataUK's ambitious 1984 release Deus Ex Machina, for example, featured a tape that you played along with the game. This tape consisted of a full soundtrack with music, sound effects and voice narration by John Pertwee, Ian Dury, Donna Bailey, Frankie Howerd, E P Thompson and Mel Croucher. This is more along the lines of a progressive rock concept album than a video game of the time, and represented a glimpse into the future; albeit rather more abstract in its nature than a Hollywood action movie. It basically introduced the notion that the story will move forward beyond the introductory plot line and be developed with equal production value as you play through the game, and will conclude in a suitable narrative manner. The interactive nature of this content was by today's standards simplistic and along the lines of ‘press stop now and resume the tape when you are given on screen instructions'. However, this is one of the only examples in early video games of syncing of several different media. This bears a striking technical and aesthetic relationship to the way that early ‘silent' film attempted to create sync sound by either piano accompaniment or sound effects created live to the picture. (3)

It was not until Dragon's Lair that the human voice was featured in a video game.

Stereo sound, and, in fact, the human voice, were not featured in games until the arcade game Dragon's Lair in 1982, voiced by none other than the very Disney animators who made the game. Actual in-game, interactive voice samples were not fully developed until the arrival of the NES and Amiga, and eventually, movies streamed from CD-ROM discs enabled a more cinematic production value. The appearance of Mark Hammil and Malcolm McDowell et al, in 1994's Wing Commander III and the Wing Commander series helped to give birth to the FMV movie and the notion of cinematics sequences in video games. These movies did tend to leave somewhat of an obvious gap between the live action movies and the gameplay experienced by the player; however they pushed the bar further than anything heard previously in terms of immersing the player into a tangible universe populated with believable characters. In 2002, Rockstar Games pushed the use of star talent even further into the AAA range with their title Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, in which Dennis Hopper, Ray Liota, Burt Reynolds, and Deborah Harry among others, appeared as character voices.

Star Acting Talent

The sudden influx of Hollywood talent from all corners of the production environment; dialogue, animation, visual effects, and music composition, implies a large increase in production value. However, there are still some areas where the skill-sets haven't quite ported over as successfully as others. The music composition side is working out well, with new structural languages being defined to accommodate already existing composer's models and work flow. The dialogue side, on the other hand, seems to have been in a transitional phase despite the occasional caliber of GTA voice talent; however, over the last five or so years this has started to change. The changes are very much down to how well the writer understands the needs of gameplay, and how much money is invested in actors who can make the lines come to life while incorporating a degree of improvisation. Currently an audience seeing the cinematic trailers flaunted by next generation titles are expecting nothing less than a motion picture experience from a video game that cost around $60. The notion of getting properly trained and paid actors onto an interactive project is still a relatively new thing for most developers to deal with. Around ten years ago game developers tended to get their friends in to do the voices for game characters, or to employ cheap local student talent, both of which, while cost effective for production, would invariably undermine the believability of the finished product, and more often than not result in the long-term failure of the game. This attitude, to some extent, still exists in some dark corners of game development, with those who don't understand audio and its relationship to immersion and all other aspects of gameplay. In terms of the actors themselves and their representation within the games industry, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) now represents a large portion of the acting talent in the USA and is creating representation ensuring scale deals that, although not equal to the deals they get in motion pictures, are nonetheless big figure deals.

The importance of having star actors is beginning to be widely recognized; as well as adding quality to the finished product, their name association allows a great deal of additional marketing to occur, which in turn enables the creation of a certain amount of excitement around a project. The marketing happens in exactly the same way that a movie uses a star name and the model is being refined and based on movie marketing even more as development moves into next generation consoles.

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