I put Final Fantasy X into my PS2 for the first time in a while the other day. I have since stopped played it for exciting reasons to be revealed this Sunday, but I got a good five hours in. I truly enjoyed that five hours, however, and a full play-through would likely result in my overall opinion of the game going up from my previous lukewarm bias.
One of the reasons I wanted to play the game again was because of all the discussions I have had recently about voice acting in video games. When I talk to my brother, he finds that I am far too critical of FFX’s voice acting, and even voice acting in general. Then I talked to a long-time gamer friend of mine and he accused me of being far too forgiving when it came to voice acting. He stated that the gaming community is so used to absolutely atrocious voice acting that anything above terrible is met with unwarranted praise. I have come to the conclusion that although I like to be forgiving of voice performances during a playthrough for the sake of getting into the story, there are surprisingly few (even high budget) games made in recent years that actually include impressive voice work.
To start things off, yes, I still think Final Fantasy X has really terrible voice work. Wakka is the only character that doesn’t make me cringe. In fact, although I enjoyed the game more overall during this bout with it, I found I was far less forgiving of the voices. This made me wonder. Does good voice acting actually exist in video games? I started to doubt my confidence in even games like Final Fantasy XII that I normally defend. So I decided to do a little research. After watching a few hours of cutscenes from major, fairly recent, dialogue heavy games, I feel like there is still a long way to go.
Radiata Stories (2005) –
This is a game that I picked up on a whim when it first came out and I grew to love. I thought it was incredibly charming and funny, and I remember liking the voice acting. Upon revisiting a number of cutscenes while trying to stay removed from my nostalgia, I found that aside from a few funny moments with lead character, Jack, the voice acting was largely terrible. Goofy, unbelievable tones with misguided direction.
Rogue Galaxy (2007) –
While the Japanese version came out about two years previous, that still wasn’t enough time to create any believeable moments in any scene. Although I believe that half the blame should be placed on a terrible script.
Final Fantasy XII (2006) –
I was very scared to re-watch scenes from this game as I often tout it as the pinnacle of gaming voice acting. And while the experience was not quite as pristine as I rememer – I was met with some over-the-top performances, and I feel that a lot of the power in the scenes actually comes from excellent animation and scene direction – I still believe Balthier to be backed by the strongest voice performance heard in a video game. There is also way more good than bad especially considering the scope of the project.
Gears of War 2 (2008) –
This is a very high budget, award-winning, in-the-spotlight series. Why does the voice acting continually sound like a B movie at best? But like Rogue Galaxy, maybe this is largely the fault of a bad script that even John DiMaggio can’t save.
Mass Effect (2007) –
I’ll end with another positive example. Because of the major focus on the deep dialogue trees, bad voice acting would have made this title a giant flop instead of a runaway success. But the voices are rarely bad and often good, as long as you choose to play female Shepard.
So those are some fairly recent, fairly big name titles that range from terrible to really quite good. But again, perhaps Mass Effect and Final Fantasy XII only seem so good in comparison to titles like Rogue Galaxy. Why do people like my brother endlessly defend bad voice acting? Do video games have so many ways to draw him into the story that it becomes easier to forgive Rikku’s miserable squeels, Tidus’ malcontent rebellions, and Yuna’s passive-aggressive apologies? A one year old article I read gave me a bit of insight stating that games are usually viewed as technical beasts and the dialogue is looked at almost like another few thousand lines of code to get through. The actors don’t often have a good idea of context, usually don’t have other actors to riff off of, and sometimes don’t even have a voice director.
But what do you think is to blame? Does scene direction and animation have more of an impact than we might think as examplified by Final Fantasy X and XII? Perhaps a really bad script dooms the voice work from the start. Maybe you disagree altogether and believe that there is a lot of good voice acting out there and I am just too critical. I also have played far from every game, so perhaps you can provide some examples. Until next week!