Editorial: Does Good Voice Acting Exist?

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.

Ahh...no words yet...
Ahh...no words yet...

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) –

The character carries the others, the voice actor carries the game
The character carries the others, the voice actor carries the game

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!

0 comments

  1. FFX’s VA isn’t great yet it isn’t as bad as you pretend either, Tidus and Yuna are significantly flawed yet Auron, Wakka and Khimari are wonderful.

    FFX is actually in a funny position, in that while I wouldn’t label it as a VA success story I do however feel that the VA significanly adds to the characters thereof. I.E. at times Tidus and Yuna Make you cringe, yet at other times their VA’s contribute a significant ammount of character to their role.

    I would also remind you that Persona 3 and 4 exist.

  2. You can remain sceptical of FFX’s VA, and I certainly wouldn’t call it wonderful, yet James Arnold Taylor remains one of my favourite VA’s for his work as Tidas simply because he was able to imbue Tidus with plenty of character dispide his acting deficiencies. So is FFX’s VA really that bad?…..I can’t really say because it is…but it isn’t.

  3. @SN – I haven’t played any Persona games, nor did I research them for this post, so I can’t comment, but the voice acting took away from the experience for me. It’s why I didn’t think I liked the story for so long. I couldn’t take any of it seriously. I agree that Wakka is good, and Auron had a few moments, but John DiMaggio seems to be hit and miss because I thought Kimahri was awful.
    I think I agree with my friend when he says that we’re all way too forgiving of voice acting.

    A good judge is to play it in front of a non-gamer friend and see if they laugh.

  4. Yeah. PERSONA!!! It’s amazing how much a JRPG gains from having actual dialogue.

    I really don’t think FFXII’s voice acting saves it from being a shite game, anyways. I’d really like to know what “power” you are referring to in these “scenes” you speak of.

    I think you have to think of these things in context, too. The resident Evil series is rife with terrible VA, but it tends to enhance the B-movie aesthetic. I think that counts as good voice acting. Also, the Metal Gear Solid series tends to be relatively solid.

    I think in some cases it’s important to make the distinction between bad voice acting and bad dialogue – it’s pretty hopeless trying to make terrible writing sound convincing. Best example I can think of is Zone of the Enders 2 – every single line in the game is fully voiced, but the translation sounds like it was done by octopi; It’s hard to pass judgement on the VAs when they had so little to work with.

  5. While FFX’s VA was technically hit and miss, I actually thought it was much better than FFXII since it actually had an emotional arc to work with. The FFX charactors may not have been perfect but the characters that they played were perfectly defined and IMO absolutely unforgetable.

  6. FFX’s VA:

    Tidus & Yuna…I’d link to the Youtube laughing scene, but it might autoplay and I’m cringing just thinking about it.

    Auron…I thought was pretty decent. It’s been a few years though, so maybe I’ll change my mind if I play it again.

    Kimahri is kind of a stereotype/cliche. The VA didn’t seem particularly good to me, but he says so little that it didn’t strike me as terrible either.

    Rikku is in the same boat as Kimahri. The VA wasn’t terrible, but she’s basically just there as fan service anyway.

    Wakka I found to be HUGELY annoying. I seriously hate his voice.

    Lulu’s VA seemed to fit the character. Not particularly bad, but emo-goth sounding.

    Seymour definitely made me think he molests kids in the back of his icecream truck. A little over the top though.

    FF12 had pretty decent voice acting. It also had pacing issues that made you go long periods with nothing happening (besides traversing the huge world). I think there was also less…”emotible” emotions than in FFX (and thus less to screw up). Mostly it was sounding angry or determined which isn’t tough to do.

    @Ethos, Persona 4 is quite good and has decent voice acting, so I’d check it out.

  7. I really liked the voice acting in FFXII personally!

    As for FFX, terrible. Absolutely terrible. The “HA HA!” scene with Yuna is deservedly lambasted as one of the worst in voice-acting history; a field replete with travesties.

    @SN: Kimahri sounds like a really bad American Indian impression. It’s the kind of thing you’d probably understand only by living in North America. To us, it sounds a bit like an American doing a Crocodile-Dundee-“Shrimp-on-da-barbie!”-type Australian accent would sound to you. Wakka’s voice is as annoying as fuck-all, and Tidus is perhaps the whiniest emo-kid on the block. I’m astonished you can stand him!

    The only decent voice acting in FFX is for Auron, who is the sole character of any redeeming merit whatsoever. His involvement in the storyline is all that pulled me through that game–and it took more than three tries to do it. Considering that the rest of the game is unmitigated bilge, Auron’s feat in pulling me through assumes herculean qualities.

    The voice acting in FFXII is largely solid and seldom over-the-top. It comes across as a sort of period piece with a Victorian prose delivered in a very satisfactory way: a bit like watching a Dickens interpretation on Masterpiece Theatre.

    My favourite voice acting is nevertheless reserved for Lost Odyssey, Valkyria Chronicles, and (surprisingly, perhaps) Disgaea. The first two are stellar examples of the sort of diligent and realistic work which most companies aspire to but never reach, and the latter example is the sort of hilarious, deliberately-over-the-top anime-style nonsense which most companies descend to purely by accident; in which case it is a disaster. In Disgaea’s case, it is a deliberate choice of localisation and serves only to make an already hilarious script more so.

  8. @Lusipurr – Lost Odyssey is definitely worth a mention as an example of a better-than-usual job

    @Mark – I know that the plot and story went nowhere, but the scenes were so well directed, and Balthier was such a good character that I cared even when I cared about nothing. Although I do see your point.

  9. Khimari had few enough lines to leave a light footprint on FFX for me, though as you say I don’t have the right kind of cultural capital to interpret him in the same way as you, it never even occured to be that he sounded like a native american. As for Wakka Joe Dimaggio did one of my favourite VA jobs I have ever been privilaged to be privvy to. I cannot stress how much I loved the work he did with Wakka.

  10. @SN: I cannot express in words how wrong you are!

    @Ethos: I thought Balthier’s voice acting very enjoyable; many very witty lines were carried off with aplomb. FFXII was a treat.

    Lost Odyssey is better, though. I still cannot conceive why that game did not do better than it did.

  11. Incidentally, I thought Joe DiMaggio was a baseball star.

    Rather tangentally from this article, but am I the only person on Earth who prefers the old text-only approach over the modern voice-acting method? I appreciate that it is cinematic and realistic and modern and technological and so on, but I honestly prefer simply reading the text in every instance.

    Even in games where I love the voice acting, I would have preferred to have the text alone. Then, the voices of the characters are in my head, and I hear them as I feel they should sound given their dialogue.

    I dunno, perhaps I am just an old fogey.

  12. By and large, I agree with everything EvilPaul said, especially the part about the laughing scene (I was planning on posting the same youtube link).

    And @Lusipurr, I too prefer text-only. My theory is, whatever dialogue characters are saying, it ALWAYS sounds better in your head than said out loud. For example, I love Crisis Core, but when I first started playing it, I hated the voice acting. It took until about 1/2 way through the game to realize the reason I hated it was through no fault of the actors themselves, but rather because it didn’t match the voices I had for the FFVII cast in my head from playing the original game.

    My strategy to counter this is, whenever the option’s available, turn the audio to Japanese. Not because I’m a subtitle snob or anything, but rather because I no longer understand the dialogue. There’s something there that’s not just dead air, but I don’t know nearly enough Japanese to know when something mock-worthy.

    The one game I’ve broken this rule for in recent memory is Lost Odyssey, and that was for Jansen’s voice alone. That’s the one time I can think of when the voiced dialogue actually added something to the character I wouldn’t have gotten just from reading the text on screen.

  13. Like Lusi and DarthGibbet, I have to say I prefer a text-only approach. Let me imagine my own voices for characters and allow me more time to digest their words and bits of the story– thank you very much!

    That said, I do appreciate me some good voice acting. Like Ethos, I really enjoyed Balthier’s voice in FFXII, and overall I thought they did a good job. At times Larsa’s VA-ing really bothered me, but it sort of grew on me after a while…

    One game that I really hated the voice acting in was Valkyrie Profile. This is probably one of my favorite games and actually one of my first encounters with voice acting in a game. I was shocked and terrified that people were capable of producing such garbage in a game that I otherwise enjoyed.

  14. @Darth – Yeah, I’ll turn the game to Japanese VA for almost the exact same reason. I really didn’t like it in Blue Dragon or Eternal Sonata, so I change it to Japanese, and that way I can’t really TELL if it’s bad voice acting or not!

    @Thea – Larsa’s voice was one of my favourites! I’m glad it grew on you.
    And I agree somewhat about the text.
    I love the script in FF9, but I know for a fact that if it were voice acted, it would sound awful. It was written to be read, not spoken.

  15. I think we have to ask ourselves just what we’re expecting when we talk about “bad” voice actors. Is there some absolute barometer of “good” or “bad,” or should we look at it case by case. I’ve always thought it to be the latter. For me, a voice actor’s doing his/her job if the character is presented as intended. Tidus is a great example of this. Many complain about how whiny the voice actor is, but that’s the character! He’s a jock who very likely is barely old enough to vote, suddenly dropped into a world he knows not a damned thing about, and seems to have issues with damned near everything, so of course he’s going to be a bit whiny. That’s the type of CHARACTER Tidus is, and in that regard, the voice actor is successful.

    Another game whose voice acting I thouroughly enjoyed was Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway, which I just completed on the 29th. THe game is about a squad of young men trying to push through the Netherlands in the failed Operation Market Garden, led by a man who’s far too young to have experienced all he has. The characters are immature, some are naive, and all are showing signs of mental and physical fatigue as they struggle in vain to get into Germany. The voice actors again do their job, for the most part, portraying these barely-men as they try fight the Nazis, and sometimes one another.

    We’re so far beyond the old days of atrocious voice acting. Nowadays, I feel pretty good in saying that most actors are good at conveying their characters, and that’s good enough for me.

  16. @Thea: I’m playing VC as I wright this, and the Japanese does wonders for the voice acting :D

  17. See, there’s something else I can’t stand: people who automatically think the Japanese voice acting is better. How the hell do you know? For all any of us know, there’s Japanese people on 2ch complaining between hentai photo downloads about how horrible voice acting is compared to American work.

  18. @MC – I don’t know. I think your description of Tidus is accurate, but I still don’t think the voice actor does a good job making that character believable.
    Also, I don’t think the Japanese voice acting makes it any better. Like I said, I can’t tell if it does, and that – to me – makes it better than bad voice acting.
    And I’m glad you feel that most actors are good at conveying their characters. I truly wish I could share that sentiment.
    I’m just glad I can throw away my skepticism a lot of the time to just try and enjoy the game.

  19. @Ethos, MC: Yeah, that’s my view of it. I honestly don’t know nearly enough Japanese to be able to tell if it’s any good, but like Ethos said, “I can’t tell” is better than “definitely bad”. If they had a “Sim’s gibberish” option, it would be about the same thing in my case. I really do look forward to the day when voice acting at least doesn’t hurt the experience. For right now, though, that seems to be the case more often than not.

  20. I don’t understand why games don’t have a DISABLE feature next to the ENGLISH and JAPANESE options.

    You can disable the subtitles. Why can’t you disable the annoying flibbertigibbeting?

  21. I’m reminded of the original Baten Kaitos, where that was, in fact, an option… and thank the good Lord it was.

    I prefer to hear voice acting when it’s quality, but I think more games should have the OPTION of text-only.

  22. I’m with MasterCheif, I think a VA is doing a good job if they contribute positively to the characters they portray, and IMO James Arnold Taylor breather a lot of life into the character of Tidus. There are also many instances in which he dropped the ball when playing Tidus such as the infamous laughing scene, but I have always thought that this was likely down to time constraints more than anything else. It would been a difficult scene to pull off and I doubt they had enough time to do so. The reason why I liked the VA work by James Arnold Taylor and John Dimaggio so much, is because to the genuing warmth they brought to the role. I thought both were very well suited to the roles that they played and I really apprieciated how they made their characters sound and how well their contribution helped to define their characters.

  23. Lol typo in the third line, that was supposed to be breathed not breather. XD

  24. Also line ten (genuine rather than genuing, damn lack of editing).

  25. @SN – Well that’s my thing, I DON’T feel like actors consistently contribute positively to the characters.
    But I agree that a lot of it has to do with time constraints, lack of voice direction, and a number of other issues discussed in the article I linked to. James Arnold Taylor might very well be very talented, I can’t tell.
    Also the very unfortunate habit of only having one actor record at a time for the NA translations doesn’t help anything.
    But again, I’m truly glad that you guys can feel genuine warmth from those performances. I’ve tried multiple times and can’t pull it off.

  26. I thought he did a good albeit flawed job as Tidus. His main problem IMO was that he sometimes had to rush his lines to fit with the Japanese lip syching. Probably my least favourite VA work in FFX was Yuna as she sometimes sounded increadibly awkward, yet her VA was fine in X-2 so I don’t think it was due to lack of talent.

  27. I think my problem with FFX’s VAs (and probably VAs in general) is that I generally don’t notice good voice acting (which is to be expected. If it’s good dialogue and well-done voice, it should fit seemlessly into the scene), but when there’s bad voice acting, it takes me out of the scene, so I pay more attention to it. All in all, probably 90% of FFX’s voice work was completely fine and not offensive in any way, but when I think of the game, the other 10% is what immediately jumps to mind, since it’s the part I noticed. That said, I don’t get the same feeling when thinking about FFX-2, so maybe the voice work was better (or maybe the gullwings just dwarfed any amount of cheese that the voice acting could have possible produced, I don’t know).

    And I agree, there should always be the option to disable voices in games. Nobody sets out to do bad voiceover work, but for whatever reason (time constraints, budget, having the actors recording in seperate sessions), it happens quite frequently. It seems like every game should assume their voice acting will suck and let the player turn it off if he/she so chooses.

  28. @SN – Yeah, exactly. Although I really didn’t like the voice acting in X, I entirely concede that it could really have very little to do with the actors. I also completely agree with what you said about Yuna.

    @Darth – Yeah, same with me, I’ll only notice if it’s particularly bad or particularly spectacular. Unfortunately my experience reserved that percentage with FFX, so I noticed 90% of the time.

  29. You know, I always thought the “laugh scene” was more of a script issue than anything else. Thing about the scene in context. Tidus is trying to get Yuna to laugh, so he forces a laugh. Yuna decides to join him in forcing a laugh, and other party members look on in the distance like “OK, who spiked the fucking punch?” Sometimes even the best actors are saddled with awkward scripts of awkward moments, which makes for awkward acting.

  30. @MC – Yeah, absolutely my problems with FFX’s VA are varied and one can never pinpoint the problem. There are too many potential sources with video games.
    But I do agree that the scene makes sense, and that the laughs actually SHOULD be awkward at first. I don’t even cite that scene as the most awkward. For that, I go to the scene in Home when Tidus finds out the true consequences of the pilgrimage. The scene should be emotional and powerful, but I cringe and/or laugh the whole time. It’s really a shame.
    But again, that’s the fault of MANY things, not necessarily just the acting by any means.

  31. IMO nine times out of ten plot heavy Japanese games will suffer due to awkwardness when translatetd into English. This is less noticible when the game has a text only narrative, but if you are playing with an English dub a degree of leniency is needed if you are to enjoy the cutscenes. Personally my whole experience with the FFX dubbing makes little sense, on the one hand it is one of my favourite pieces of dubbing within the video game medium, but on the other hand it has more flaws and awkwardness than is typical for most Japanese games. So really I’m in two minds about it.

  32. @Paul – Ouch. Just ouch. Yeah, the first RE was absolutely atrocious. Though in many ways, that was part of its charm. It was supposed to be B-grade horror, after all. That series improved rapidly from game to game, though. Compare 1 to 2, or 2 to 3, etc. In many cases, using some of the same actors even. Capcom probably paid a mint for acting lessons.

  33. Wikipedia tells me RE1 came out in 1996, so I was ~15 at the time and knew it was horrible. Which is pretty bad because kids can enjoy all sorts of cheesey and horrendous acting and not know any better.

  34. I rather have awesomebad dubs like RE1 and Symphony of the Night’s (DIE MONSTER! YOU DON’T BELONG IN THIS WORLD!) than bad dubs that dub lovers call good (FFX IMO, no offense). At least you can laugh out loud with awesomebad dubs.