Yesterday, I had the absolute “pleasure” of playing the demo for Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two. Because it was a sequel to a beloved game, I had high hopes…and they all came crashing down before the opening cutscene ended. Epic Mickey 2 featured not only voice-acting, but full on musical numbers. In the original 2010 Wii game, all characters had garbled sound effects in the same vein as Banjo-Kazooie. In the sequel…we have this:
Warren Spector was gleeful when he mentioned the musicals in pre-release interviews. But the songs aren’t good. It’s not nails-on-a-chalkboard bad, but I considered employing brain bleach.
The introduction of musicals naturally necessitated voice actors for all the characters – notably Mickey, Gus, Oswald, Ortensia, and the Mad Doctor. And here’s the rub – because they have voices, the characters are less appealing.
You know the phrase “seen, but not heard”? That perfectly describes how video game characters were in prior years. We had silent protagonists in Mario and Link. Main characters in franchises like Final Fantasy had dialogue, but it was text that the player read.
Only later, in the 1990s, particularly with the advent of CD-ROMs and their increased storage space, did we begin hearing the voices of specific characters (Conker’s Bad Fur Day, for example).
In many of these cases, the voice-acting was fine. When one is introduced to a character for the first time, there are no pre-conceived notions. If they have a voice, the player cannot feel betrayed or disappointed because nobody claimed otherwise. One can’t criticize Commander Shepard, because he started out the Mass Effect franchise with a voice, and it works for the franchise’s storytelling. We can’t imagine him as a silent protagonist or as only having written dialogue, because this is what Mass Effect has always been.
By contrast, the first Epic Mickey had no voice-acting (other than Yen Sid, the narrator). Players grew used to reading the dialogue and interpreting the tone. We read between the lines to understand these silent characters. So now that the sequel gave them voices, the characters feel fake.
When Oswald, Ortensia, and Gus speak, it’s disingenuous. Oswald is constantly whining, Ortensia is too high-pitched and 100% a damsel-in-distress, and Gus has an unexpected British accent. It’s a virtual 180 from how I and undoubtedly many other players imagined them. They may as well be lip-synching.
Voice-Acting has always seemed (to me, at least) a risky proposition. It’s a crucial component of burgeoning realism in games, but the concept places many constraints on the design process. For one thing, it’s more expensive. Large games with huge casts of characters (major and especially minor) require an ever-increasing horde of people who can voice lines. And those lines need to be convincing and must seem genuine.
Moreover, the script, just like the design doc, is constantly changing. Through the QA team and crunch time (final 2 weeks of development), one can only imagine how many changes the developer realizes would be beneficial. Yet because there are only 2-3 times in development when voice-actors come in to say their lines, implementing these changes is impossible. You know all those disingenuous, corny lines in Assassin’s Creed, Mass Effect, or what have you? The developer probably knew about them too, but couldn’t do anything about it. Those people weren’t scheduled to come in again.
That isn’t to say that voice-acting is always, or even the majority of the time, bad. It just depends on a few factors, which Disney ignored: the franchise’s history, the mode of story-telling, and the size of the game, to name a few.
The Franchise’s History
One primary thing that developers need to do is stay consistent with previous entries in the franchise, while making smart adaptations to keep the game modern. The Mario franchise is exemplary of this: we certainly hear Mario’s voice – he celebrates a star, gives pained cries after touching lava, screams when he falls, and says a few token words. “It’s me, Mario!”
But beyond those, Mario remains a silent protagonist, which is in keeping with his history as a character. Sure, in Mario Kart 64, you’ll hear the opening: “Welcome to Mario Kart!” But that’s tiny. Mario has no lines, no lengthy dialogue. Nintendo kept him a blank slate for players to project onto.
A similar case is with the Banjo-Kazooie series. When Rare released the 2008 game Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, they kept the silly sound effects that punctuated each character’s written dialogue. Why? Well…giving Banjo, Gruntilda, and Kazooie a voice would just be creepy. After knowing these people by their grunts and other sounds for a decade, nothing else would ever be a good substitute. Giving these characters voice-actors would be just as awkward as a bestiality relationship.
Oh, wait…(Sonic the Hedgehog 2006)
And this is partially why Epic Mickey 2 was so awkward. No character in the game has had a voice-actor before (with the exception of Mickey. Disney used the same voice-actor for him in EM2 as in the Kingdom Hearts series). Voices make the characters more realistic, but they went straight into the Uncanny Valley.
The Mode of Story Telling
Video games have a choice in regards to voice-acting in a way that neither literature nor film does. Unless it’s the genre of silent film, all movies are expected to have voices. Actors speak their lines, and animation studios enlist voice-actors. On the opposite end of the spectrum, books cannot have voice actors. It is completely up to individual readers to assess their character and tone. When books are badly adapted to movies (ex. Eragon), discrepancies between the book-characters and the movie-characters hurts fans’ immersion.
The silent protagonist/voice-acting divide in games is similar to the book/film divide. It needs to be a careful transition that maintains the essence, tone, and style of the characters. When Oswald, Ortensia, and Gus speak, it’s akin to watching Eragon again and feeling rebuked, as though my interpretation of these figures was wrong.
An example of how to properly make this shift is Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, and Crisis Core later on. With the single exception of Cait Sith (what mechanical cat has a Scottish accent?), each voice-actor fit the character. Barret was deep and loud, Cid was inappropriate, Aerith exuded kindness and patience, etc. Cloud’s voice sounded as though it were sparingly used – soft and low, exactly how Cloud is portrayed in both the PS1 game and later in Crisis Core. These characters had real depth, and the voice-actors conveyed it perfectly. There’s a reason they were kept to do the voice-acting in Kingdom Hearts 2.
Size of the Game
Naturally, the larger the game, the more characters and voice-actors are needed. And thus, you have more and more opportunities for someone to feel disingenuous, fake, or otherwise wrong. Let’s contrast two games: Portal 2 and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. The former has a grand total of 3 voiced characters: GLaDOS, Wheatley, and Cave Johnson. Just three. With fewer voices, Steam could focus more resources into each person, and as a result each character was astounding.
By contrast, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was a wreck. It was a mixed bag dependent on the voice-actors themselves being good…and without training, most aren’t. There are several hundreds of characters who speak in Amalur, and while they convey the needed information, it’s like every person is officious, jittery, or simply awkward.
Voice-acting is one of the bundle of tech advancements that came with realism in games, and the question of whether to have it is closely tied to decisions regarding art design. It’s part of the audio for a game. If a developer wants to go 100% towards realism (i.e. Call of Duty), voice-acting is an obvious step. But Epic Mickey 2? A game about cartoon characters? An existing series that didn’t have voice-acting before?
Maybe voice-acting is just part of a shift. Triple-A games are wedding themselves to realism, yet at the same time they want a divorce. (Regenerating health systems, for example) Voice-acting isn’t seen as an absolute marker of realism, so it’s a safer prospect – and potentially appealing for a game about a cartoon mouse. Disney just misfired on this one.
At least Epic Mickey 2 seems to be overall lackluster, so I don’t have to struggle with whether the singing kill the rest of the game. Instead, there are other things more deserving of money. Heck, I’d pay for a substantive update on Square Enix titles.