D20: Voice Acting – Talk Isn’t Cheap

Shadowrun Returns

By 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.

13 comments (Leave your own)

If HBS did one thing right with SR it was prove you can still bring a strong story to the table with well-written dialog and still portraits alone. The writing for many of the characters was spot-on and was a damn sight better then many AAA titles you see these days.

Not to say the game is perfect, especially in some of the game play features but hopefully HBR can learn from that for future campaigns while keeping the same quality of writing.


I remember having to choose the least worse option for my characters voice for baldurs gate. They had quite a range and none of them where that great.

You will always have whiners complaining about some “critical” feature, but plenty of games work well without them.

PS you have convinced me to go give shadowrun a shot, sounds like just what I am looking for.


Nothing from stopping people from modding voices into the game anyway like we saw with the Final Fantasy 7 re-release.


That said.. quality is going to suck.. but hey if you have to have it!


Growing up with the likes of Baldur’s Gate, Fallout, Planescape etc. I prefer text in my Rpg’s for two reasons.

The first is something I have mentioned the other day in one of the other Shadowrun Returns articles. Character’s are actually talking to me with text. I like seeing my name written there in the dialogue. Constantly being referred to as “The Grey Warden”, “The DragonBorn” “That Blitzball player” etc. in modern day voiced games that have a customizable name just breaks immersion for me. No-one talks like this in real life, especially jarring when it’s your own party members/friends/romance interests that are regarding you via title. Even Mass Effect’s “Shepard” seems odd when being spoken by your love interest, I do have a first name Liara…;)

Secondly…how many people sit through and listen to the entirety of the spoken statements? I’m no speed-reader, but I’m generally done with the on screen subtitles of any given paragraph by the time the VA is about 1/3 to 1/2 of the way through. The amount of times I click ahead to skip to the next sentence/line/statement in modern day games because I’m already done reading is staggering. It comes to a point where I’ve listened to maybe a quarter or so of what Jennifer Hale actually recorded in Mass Effect, kind of undermines the point of hiring these people in the first place at times I feel.

Baldur’s Gate did it perfectly, Apart from a few major plot and character relevant instances; the first line or so of any given paragraph from most npc’s was often times the only thing voiced.
Of-course in this day and age everything absolutely must have 100% voice acting because that’s what modern day casual audiences demand and expect =(

I Agree with the article’s argument of bad voice acting being just as a distraction also over what you would expect them to sound like in your head.


The only time I recall voice acting being truly awful in a video game was Diana Allers voiced by Jessica Chobot in Mass Effect 3. A text book example of novelty gimmick overiding professional standards.

I like my games featuring voice acting. Growing up in a time when it wasn’t standard in games, I appreciate the effort developers make in bringing their characters to life.


The are getting alot of heat for not having voice. The voice acting can cost equal to the actual development of the game so I can see why they chose not to do it.


“No voice acting is better than awful amateurs — but sometimes text can be too much.”

pretty much this if you can avoid having walls of text not having voice acting is fine.

as for the awful amateurs thing, just make sure your amateurs aren’t awful ? :P


ralphwiggum: The only time I recall voice acting being truly awful in a video game was Diana Allers voiced by Jessica Chobot in Mass Effect 3

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes


I must admit, I’ve gotten slack in the last few years, and prefer to read at little as possible inside games. Unfortunately it isn’t a rare case that I’ll read a few sentences, than start skipping through text when it seems daunting (Okami HD). That said, I’m reading journal articles and text book chapters (and GON forums!) every other day, so I think I get enough reading in. :P

One thing text based games allow you to do is give voices you believe would be fitting to that character. It’s similar to books how you create the voice/image of characters, then they release a movie and the actors look/sound NOTHING like you imagined the characters to.

I’m waiting for the day they finally cave and give Link a voice, after 20+ years of being a silent protagonist; many people are going to be crushed when this happens.


I’m glad that you mentioned Okami, which did a really good job of not having too much text most of the time, or allowing you to skip over it because 80% of the longer conversations are irrelevant. In a few sequences there were some really gratingly long conversations that just killed the pace of whatever was happening.

I’m fine with text in games, but if you’re going to make me read a wall of text, do it to me in town or before I enter the dungeon.


Still loved fallout 2′s dialogue options & key characters had voice acting, most being text based.

& I will always remember the first time I saw swearing in a game, fallout 2 combat text “**** you bastard”


interesting article


Voice acting is not that simple, in fact this requires meticulous and dedication towards better output. It must not only sync the lips movements but also the character they are portraying should also change how they speaks. If they’re acting weird old man character, then they voice talents must be flexible and can do the same narrations with the character required. Voice talent is a good career, yet one must need to be professional and undergo some training and workshops that are now being offered by various voice talent agencies like one at http://www.debbieirwin.com/, dubbing games and portraying their character voices can be a challenging career and your voice might worth more than your actions.

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