No voice acting is better than awful amateurs -- but sometimes text can be too much.
By Daniel Wilks on July 30, 2013 at 5:17 pm
I’ve been playing a hell of a lot of Shadowrun Returns over the last week or so (read our review) and after only a couple of hours, something struck me about the game – namely how the developers have used the relatively tiny budget to their advantage in the way they tell the story.
Rather than aping the style of most modern games, no matter the budget, and having all the main characters lines delivered by voice actors of dubious talent, developer Harebrained Schemes have instead opted to go old school and have all the story and dialogue shown only as text. Aside from saving the player’s ears from having to listen to another amateur Thespian or unlucky intern stumble their way through street slang (chummer) and put on a half dozen stupid, not to mention highly erratic accents so they can voice multiple characters, it also allows the developers to offer the player much more in terms of options.
It’s rare that a low budget or indie game will allow for much in the way of options when dialogue is voiced, simply because of the prohibitive costs of employing actors and recording equipment. Bastion, one of the very few low budget games to feature excellent voice acting got around the problem of balancing the cost of recording dialogue with offering players a a wide range of dialogue choices by not having any.
The reactive narrator gives the illusion of choice influencing the dialogue (or in the case of Bastion, monologue), but the narrator’s utterances are more akin to incidental combat dialogue than they are to any real player choice. It’s far more common that low budget or indie voice acting will be on the level of something like The Amazing Adventures of Van Helsing – endearingly amateurish at best, gratingly terrible at worst and limiting player choice to some simple binary decisions.
There is also the far more personal problem with voiced characters – they rarely sound like what you want them to sound like. For every beautifully-voiced FemShep there is a horribly generic grizzled badass or warrior woman waiting in the wings, waiting to blurt out your created character’s thoughts in a manner that in no way fits with the way you imagined your character.
By opting for text over voice acting, Harebrained Schemes neatly sidestepped an expensive extravagance and all the problems that come with it. Your character sounds however you want them to sound — in my head, my Dwarven shaman Sad Panda sounds like Ron Perlman and thanks to his massive charisma has dialogue choices for days, allowing me to personalise my experience both in how I think my character should sound and think.
Of course, opting for an old-school text based approach doesn’t always work. Inquisitor, a long in-gestation RPG features an excellent story — but so much text and dialogue choice that not only did it take years for the game to be translated for an English speaking audience (making it look even more dated than when it was first released in Eastern Europe) but playing the game also becomes rather daunting, as there are so many conversations and reams of text that you have to keep copious notes just to keep up. Even then the pace of the game is slowed to a crawl as you spend as much, if not more time reading walls of text than you do adventuring.