Written by: Will Bucknum
Being a dialogue writer for games can be rough. It is difficult enough to get your dialogue to look appropriate in games, but to also sound right is an even bigger challenge.
As someone who rides the line between being a writer for games and a voice-over producer for games, I’ve seen a whole host of scenarios related to how voice-overs are recorded and how much power each person in the process has in a recording.
Understanding What Is at Stake
Voice actors in games can range from total amateurs, to consummate professionals, to Hollywood stars, and a variety of degrees in between. If a game studio is going to spend appropriate money to record good talents, in a good recording space, with good equipment, and a good audio engineer/VO producer—then you are really spending money by the minute.
As a writer who has access to actors and VO producers during a recording, your best move is preparing the producer and talents as much as possible beforehand. Ideally, your role in a booth is to nod your head and to give context support when an actor doesn’t know how to say a line with the proper intensity and emotion.
Start from the Beginning
The physical script is where you really have the power to communicate the most. Make sure your script is well organized and contains as many context clues as possible for the producer and actors. Believe it or not, but creating a clear script with information about what is going on in the scene is often done somewhat poorly.
Make sure your script has what it needs, and make it look good. Generally, I like working with Excel spreadsheets that have columns for FILENAME, CHARACTER, DIALOGUE, and NOTES. If possible, character description pages should also be included with any relevant pictures, backstory, or even links to gameplay or cutscene videos.
After you have made the script, send it off to the voice-over producer, and try to make sure the producer has engaged the script. I’d suggest asking a few questions to engage the producer’s creativity and clarity on certain scenes. Talk about your vision, and ask them what they think about your vision. You want the producer to feel like you are an ally who is there to help, rather than control or get in the way.
Since most actors and producers think of themselves as talented professionals, there can be an awful lot of sensitivity involved. You don’t want to turn the booth into a tense standoff, which is why you want to communicate as much as possible BEFORE the recording session.
During the Session
The best performances come when the actor feels “in the zone” and is able to embody their character. You want to assist the actor getting into a flow as much as possible. Introduce yourself to the producer and actor in a very open and friendly way when you arrive. Bring a sense of excitement and energy, and try to put fear on the backburner.
Early on in a session, the producer and the actor usually dial in the voice and character that they’re going for. While you may feel somewhat more intimidated in the earliest moments of sitting in on a session, that is the most important time for you to focus on what you’re hearing and to be quick to say something if the character just doesn’t sound right.
This can be the tricky part—try to use phrases that are related to sound and acting. For instance, phrases like “slightly lower pitch,” “more nasally,” and “harsher delivery” are much better than “he needs to sound bigger,” “be more annoying,” or “he doesn’t sound upset enough.” Sure, you can say those things, too, but consider how the performance should sound instead of only what feelings aren’t getting across the way you’d like.
As the session rolls along, the producer and actor will get into a rhythm, and it should get fairly easy. Just stay focused, and listen while you follow along with the script for anything that could corrupt the meaning in the scene. Jump in quickly when you have to, and then let the train keep on moving.
Word to the Wise
For non-licensed material, be very careful about using big name actors, particularly Hollywood actors if you can.* I won’t say to avoid using them; just try to make sure they have fully bought into the project and are committed to doing it right.
Working with some actors may just not be good. Certain Hollywood actors can be arrogant or otherwise bored or disconnected with games, and they don’t give a hoot about this project of yours. They know they have the power, and some little game writer isn’t going to tell them what to do. Working on licensed material makes this an impossible situation sometimes, but just do your best, and if so-and-so is a jerk . . . well, so-and-so is a jerk.
*Why game developers should include narrative designers/game writers in the casting process is the subject of a future article.
Make It Work
You may have gathered from my words that you don’t always have a lot of control during a session, and that your best chance of getting the results you want requires significant communication before entering the booth. And even with ample preparation, you may not always get it exactly as you heard it in your imagination. It may be disappointing, but ultimately the search for perfection can potentially derail an entire session. Micromanaging is just not going to work. Stopping an actor too often can remove all momentum, so sometimes you’ve got to just roll with it. Don’t let perfect get in the way of good, and remember—this is supposed to be fun!
Will Bucknum, founder of Voice to Game, is a Voice-Over Producer and Script Writer specialized in video games. As an experienced saxophonist, Will attended the University of Oregon and studied music, creative writing, film and media studies, and social and political theory on his way to earning several degrees. A top European game audio studio recruited Will to direct voice-overs and write and edit scripts for several years before he started his own company in 2013.
Will’s scriptwriting and editing is featured in most games with voice-overs that he has directed and produced. Many projects Will has worked on involved localization of texts, and he has recorded voice-overs in over 10 languages for a variety of projects.
Will has produced and directed voice-overs for over 50 games including hits such as Kick the Buddy: Second Kick/No Mercy, Star Conflict, Tanked Aquarium (by Animal Planet), Bug Heroes 2 and many #1 hits on Big Fish Games.