Voice Acting in RPGs: Is it really necessary?

The year 1990 saw the release of the very first videogame CD-ROM peripheral in North America, the TurboGrafx-CD, having seen its release two years prior in Japan. Given the larger memory capacity of compact discs, the add-on to the TurboGrafx-16 could account for better aurals and visuals, with voice acting even potentially available in the former category. Despite the high price for the system at the time, $399.99, the English voice acting that players would hear in North American releases was of considerably low quality, at least compared to that in other media such as cartoons and animated films. That music and sound effects can be sufficient enough for a game’s aurals, even in contemporary titles, begs the question of whether voice acting is actually necessary in various videogame genres such as RPGs.

Widely considered one of the grandfathers of weak videogame voicework is Last Alert for the TurboGrafx-CD, which includes such howlers as poorly-translated dialogue and mispronounced words like “stingy,” which the voice actor for the title’s protagonist pronounces “sting-ee” instead of the correct “stin-jee.” Poor writing in videogames, which occurs even in contemporary titles, despite occasional advancements in the area such as well-translated dialogue, can definitely account for weak voice acting, although it’s possible for poor voice actors to butcher perfectly-competent dialogue.

In console role-playing games, one area in which players will undoubtedly spend a good fraction of their time is battle, and while the first voice-acted RPGs such as a few titles for the TurboGrafx-CD like Dragon Slayer: The Legend of Heroes featured voice acting (and not very good, at that) in cutscenes, later titles would see voice acting in battles, which is even today hard to do well, largely because characters tend to shout the names of their skills, something no Anglophone would ever do except when on drugs. Granted, games can do voice acting in battle right, with things such as grunting and shouting taunts or obscenities at foes, although the latter, especially in Japanese role-playing games, generally don’t occur often.

Voice acting in cutscenes is equally difficult to accomplish convincingly, and sometimes characters that are supposedly right next to and speaking with one another can sound like they’re galaxies apart. As mentioned, bad translations or dialogue that originated in English can account for abysmal voicework, and sometimes the voice directors outright miscast voice actors, with characters sometimes not sounding the way they look. For instance, it would be odd for a muscular character to have a squeaky voice, or have an adult voice a young child, unless the actor doing so is a professional trained to voice different age ranges.

When localizing Japanese games to have English voicework, sometimes there exists the problem of matching dialogue with the characters’ lips, something that occurs even in major releases such as Final Fantasy X. Failure to match dialogue and perhaps reanimate the character models’ lips can result in Godzilla-esque lip flapping during most cutscenes. During localization, as well, there are some things that translation teams would probably be better off leaving out of the English versions, for instance the aforementioned game’s infamous “laughing scene,” which wouldn’t have sounded any better even if the voice director hired famous voice acting-seasoned celebrities such as James Earl Jones or Patrick Stewart.

As voice acting continues to become more prominent in major role-playing game releases, there have arisen some conventions that this reviewer has felt to be negative, such as having someone narrate everything that’s going on in battle like in the third and fourth Persona titles, which are otherwise enjoyable games. Again, in that particular aspect, shoddy writing is accountable for equally-shoddy voicework, and there are alternatives such as leaving the voicework in Japanese (which would actually make sense in titles that take place in Japan such as the aforementioned Persona games), or just cutting it out entirely, which in some cases wouldn’t really affect a game too drastically, especially if there are no musicless points where voice acting is intended.

Many titles, too, allow players to scroll through voiced dialogue if they would rather read than listen to the dialogue, or turn it off entirely, some games doing this right by silencing all dialogue and others like the third and fourth Personas going the half-assed route and still leaving some audible voices in battle. Other games such as the tenth and twelfth Final Fantasy titles and second Valkyrie Profile have cinematic feels during voiced cutscenes that the player can’t speed up by cutting the voices short, with skippable text always being welcome and in many instances a boon even to games whose storylines aim for a movie-like feel.

In the end, is voice acting really necessary in videogames and genres such as RPGs? The answer, at least in this writer’s opinion, is a resounding no, especially if the music and sound effects provide decent “voices” to the game, given the professionalism of some videogame composers. Granted, games such as the Digital Devil Saga duology can do voice acting right, although it’s hardly necessary in modern titles, especially given the costs of recording voicework in various languages for international releases of games, and the general cost-prohibition of localizing text-heavy genres like role-playing games.

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