Silence is Golden (Voice acting in RPGs)

Silence is Golden (Voice acting in RPGs)

As Many of you probably know, full voice acting has been in games for a while now, and this, for most games, is fantastic. In RPGs we start to have potential problems though. It works well for some and not as well for others. BioWare has recently fallen into this trap, several times, so I’m going to talk about them a bit, but many other games have (or avoid) the same issues.

First thing to cover is cost. Not because it’s the most important, it’s far from it, but because it ties into the other point I’m getting to. Voice acting is expensive. Dragon age Origins has almost 800,000 words of spoken dialogue across 68,000 lines. That is, for reference, 22 times the amount of spoken dialogue in an average movie. Assuming the voice actors were all speaking at a quick, but average, pace of 150 words per minute that’s 5300 minutes, or 88.8 hours recording assuming no mishaps or script changes.  And it was recorded in at least 3 languages and features several famous, and presumably well paid, voice actors in major roles; Steve Blum, Graham Mctavish and Tim Curry to name a few. It’s not’s just recording either, it also has to be edited and synced properly with the sounds in game and with at least some reguard to lip movements, which takes more time and thus costs more money, as does time in a recording studio if the developer doesn’t have one.

Now, the problem isn’t necessarily the cost, the issue is that many western and the occasional Japanese RPGs like to tout player choice as an important thing in their games, allowing greater freedom to roleplay (you know, the R in RPG) and voice acting costs go up as the number of potential situations and responses go up.

Here we get to the real problem. As an RPG with an emphasis on choice, and defining your own role (to an extent at least), voice acting, especially if it’s the main character, has a huge impact on how much you can define your character. It’s simple (and cheap) to have a text only interaction between 2 characters go very differently with 6 or 7 separate speech options, where it would drive costs up very quickly all voice acted.  It’s also simple to bring those trees together into the 2 or 3 outcomes you have predefined gameplay wise, so it’s no extra work on your part. Done well though, it allows the player to feel more in control of their characters personality, actions and surroundings and to be more immersed in their character, basically to roleplay, as opposed to feeling railroaded into choosing options their character would not even consider. Bethesda takes this to extremes in many aspects of their games and the story often falls to the wayside and is ignored (admittedly the point of playing Bethesda games). Even within the framework of coherent storytelling Dragon Age Origins takes a good middle ground, allowing 4 or 5 options with only 2 responses.  While it is quickly apparent on multiple playthroughs that what you say has little effect outside of determining which of the 2 outcomes you get, it still allows you to feel have more control over your character.

Next is the fact that with voiced player characters, even when well written, what you think you’re going to say, and what your character actually says can be wildly out of sync due to simple (and unavoidable) interpretation errors on the part of the player, breaking one from roleplaying and into a half panicked half resentful state as they are forced to live with the consequences or (quickly, or risk an autosave) abort the conversation or reload an old save that can be quite a ways back. This even further destroys attempts to roleplay, as not only are you being railroaded into one of a couple predefined and overly general personality types, but even within them it’s difficult to tell how they will respond to any given situation. The conversation wheel BioWare has adopted is notorious for this.

This isn’t to say voiced main characters in RPGs are bad. Still using BioWare as the example, you are given brief, but evocative backgrounds to choose from in mass effect as the defining aspects of your personality and moments in your past. All you get to do is fill in the details. From such a starting point railroading to an extent is much easier to overlook as you’ve been outright told the basic aspects of your characters personality and the options in game are generally, though not always, accomodating of the combinations of basic personalities they’re designed to work for and that you had to choose from. Dragon Age 2 does this terribly, as apostate/soldier are not character traits and so while in theory your character’s personality is completely up to you, quite often the (overly generalized) speech options force you to say/do things that are completely out of character.

So, if you happen to be a developer making an RPG with an emphasis on choice, consider leaving off on voice acting, at least for the main character. No game has true freedom of choice for the really dedicated D&D style roleplaying, nor will they until affordable software is programming itself to adapt to player input, but I’ll eat my hat if it’s not cheaper to allow the player greater freedom to roleplay (and what other purpose is there in giving the players choices with impact on the story) by leaving them voiceless. For everyone else, next time you’re communicating with the developer of an RPG, or, more likely, on a forum the devs will see or through an email customer service will get, make it a point that roleplaying is important to you (assuming it is anyway) and that you might be willing to, or even be excited to, give up some voice acting to get more freedom to do so.


20 something years old, living in the western United States. I enjoy wrestling, jujitsu, snowboarding, manga, anime, movies, card games, board games, video games D&D, ect. Also food.

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8 comments on “Silence is Golden (Voice acting in RPGs)”

  1. Avatar Drascoll says:

    The best way to handle voice acting in RPG’s in my opinion was how it was handled in Planescape Torment or Baldur’s Gate where NPC would only have a few lines of Flavor Text read out loud by the Voice actor/actress. It set the mood and gave the player an idea of what they sounded like without all the drawbacks. Written dialogue is far less expensive and allows for the developers to have more creative freedom when it comes to providing choices for the player which is integral to a role playing game. I used to be a Dungeon Master, modern RPG’s railroad the player way to hard and the choices become superficial forcing them into awkward “gray” area moral choices that have no real impact on the overall game. Of course as you already covered the number one offender of this is a voiced Player Character, it absolutely ruins the immersion and leads to so many other issues. Developers need to get away from the idea that they are making a Film and start trusting there audience is smart enough to read, otherwise the computer Role playing game genre is essentially dead.

    Then again I did not like The Dragon Age Series, Mass Effect Series, The Witcher Series, or most RPG’s after 2000 so take my opinion with a grain of salt.

  2. MosquitoPower says:

    The cost issue is a very good point. I would gladly trade some of those 88.8 hours for extra levels/items.

    Now that I have played through DragonAge1 I will freely admit that DragonAge2 had quite the downgrade in communication options. But there was an interesting charm to seeing my custom character in DragonAge2 speak in the story segments.

    However, I have a hard time seeing how a fully voiced Fallout 4 main character is going to add anything to the actual game…other than a marketing point to put on the back of the game box.

    In any case, it will be quite the grand experiment from some of the best game making people in the business.

  3. Avatar Forum_Pirate says:

    The Grey Warden, Hawke, Shepard, Revan, these are not characters in the game. Thats kinda why I used them. They’re avatars, suck in those situations to be handled as you see fit. The decision making/voice acting aspect is handled incredibly poorly in DA2 for that reason, if you’re being given the freedom to create a character without guidelines As to what that character is without your imput, and *also* railroad them into 1 of 3 (good, bad, “suave”) responses you’ve set up a situation where the players characters are going to be forced into responses/situations they wouldn’t take.

    Look at the witcher/2. You make lots of decisions, almost all of them plausible for the 1 character. If You aren’t allowing roleplaying but want choice, this is how you do it. If you are, refer to the article. Fallout 3 is good at this, unless you’re creating an utter lunatic, you have a lot of freedom to define your character, within their role as the lone wanderer.

  4. Avatar skarekrow13 says:

    I think voice acting needs to be done carefully but I would nitpick one point. The “role” in “roleplay” only recently has come to mean anything remotely like “choice.” The poster child for RPGs, Final Fantasy, is a great example of what I mean. The characters and their personalities (and even the story) are predetermined and the choice is merely ability and equipment. Even Chrono Trigger, an early game focused on choice, only allowed you real choice in the time you fought the final boss leading to different results.

    This has been a bigger concern since games have been able to let users create the character from the ground up. But overall games still follow the idea that your “role” is part of an existing story with a predetermined character. Skyrim is a great example even though the character is mostly silent. You can nuance the crap out of the role (looks, abilities, fashion) but the role is still to be the dragonborn. Souls games and Armored Core are all about customization but in the end your role is the same as everyone else.

    I’m deviating a little but the main point I have is that the role you play is never truly yours. You only tweak the role.

    That being said, games that provide a deep level of customization do attempt to provide a simulation of making the role your own and i agree that voice acting can get in the way of that goal. Which you knew :P

  5. Avatar Thief says:

    That’s a well fleshed-out article, but on the topic at hand, I can only say I’m on the other team.

    Specifically the Warden never ever managed to make me care about him at all. It was just an empty shell capable of switching inclinations 180° moment by moment. If I get 10 statements whereof 4 lead to the same result, and none expressed what I would want to say; the blandness that it requires my character to express leaves me with no value.

    But really, I see why you would have things this way, I’m just a different type of player :]

    P.S.: It works in SNES JRPGs, where I mostly just make decisions. My favourite of those, by the way, is Terranigma – famous for having a main character with an interesting preset personality.

  6. Avatar Nahztek says:

    /silently nods in agreement with the article

  7. Avatar JohnnyHarpoon says:

    Silent Protagonists are the way to go in RPG’s. Even GTA3 pulled of the silent protagonist, and while I feel most people prefer Vice City and 5, there’s something unique about 3 that was never quite recaptured.

    Even with NPC’s, the ones that stick with me aren’t the ones with detailed/epic stories – it’s the ones that say the same thing(s) over and over again, until you are able to define a character with a certain phrase. Stockpile Thomas, The Maiden in Black, even Laurentius from DkS seem so much more defined as characters not because of their depth, but simply because of HOW I remember them.

    Great article indeed.

  8. Avatar Fexelea says:

    Great article! I’m certainly with you about the voice acting. I often rather it wasn’t there. I don’t mind it in action or adventure games where the character I’m playing is quite defined, but I much rather when in Dragon Age Origins my Grey Warden had no voice. Particularly because the text choice would be specifically what you said. I don’t like the vague option > say something completely different.

    That said, it hasn’t been that difficult on Inquisition, maybe because the game feels slightly different to other rpgs.

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