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Enjoy the silence: On voice acting in games

Enjoy the silence: On voice acting in games Exclusive

February 29, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander




Like many old-school adventure game aficionados, I have fond memories of LucasArts' 1990 title LOOM. Though the entire slate of LucasArts adventures is deservedly well-loved, LOOM seems to enjoy an especially passionate fanbase, probably in part because it's much less-known, and in part because of how unconventional the game is relative to others of its time.

The fantasy game is set in a world of guilds -- shepherds, blacksmiths, glassmakers, weavers -- each with a unique magical gift related to their discipline. The player is cast as the young weaver Bobbin Threadbare, who must unravel the mystery of his vanished guild of Weavers and of his own origin, and his journey gets him wrapped up in a larger threat to the "fabric" of reality itself.

Music and sound play a powerful role in the game. Players use magic by playing on Bobbin's distaff like an instrument, learning four-note tunes that act as simple spells (e.g. "opening") that have unique, context-appropriate applications. And playing the tunes backward often reverses the effect, and the fun in the game's puzzles comes from thinking both forward and backward about spells you discover in creative ways.

The game takes its soundtrack from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake ballet, the story of a princess cursed to transform into a swan -- which is thematically appropriate, given that all of Bobbin's fellow Weavers disappeared after being mysteriously transformed into swans. The elegant arrangement of the music well suits LOOM's world of starlit islands, pastoral fields, kingdoms of glass and palaces of stone. For many a young computer gamer, myself included, the game was among the earliest introductions we had to classic symphony.

LOOM also makes fine use of color, beyond the palette of the game world. The notes on Bobbin's distaff are color coded and sparkle prettily when played or when an environment object glimmers clues to a spell. Different shades of text are used to differentiate multiple speakers in a scene. In the game's most advanced mode, the letters that identify the notes disappear, and color and sound are all players are given when learning spells, as if the purest form of LOOM's gameplay is about putting ears to music alone.

The overall result is a sonorous, cerebral experience, elegant and aesthetically pleasant. It was this kind of quiet mystery I was hoping to rediscover when I bought LOOM on Steam over the weekend for a replay. Little did I know that there'd been some kind of remastered version made, and that my newly-purchased download included voice acting. My first thought: Why in the world would you muck up such a beautiful, thoughtful game with voice acting?

And then, I wondered: How many games are, or would be, better without voice acting?

I remember having a Turbo Grafx 16 with a CD drive as a young girl, and getting excited about the pause in gameplay, the fade-out in music that preceded a disc-read squee that let me know that characters were about to speak. Sometimes their animated mouths even moved, and the cartoonish voice acting in games I loved, like Ys I & II, seemed to lend a new note of reality to the two dimensional world.

As a kid, certain shortcomings in realism -- whether it was funny-looking textures, limited animation, text-only characters -- all seemed like something I had to accept as a technical limitation, rather than something the developers elected as an aesthetic choice. Of course it made sense that characters became more lifelike, that music became richer, that text became voice, as technology began to permit. "More lifelike" was really the only goal those young computer games had, as there wasn't yet this vision that games were made to do things other media couldn't.

I think since then, we've learned that "more realism" isn't always an enhancement to video games. Sometimes that lesson manifests itself in obvious ways -- remember that weird phase PC games had with all the live actors? We laugh about that today, because adding live actors so starkly highlighted how different games are from film and television, and how some elements just shouldn't cross over.

There are other examples: We used to get quite excited about long CG cutscenes, thanks to the novelty of seeing games do things we'd never known them to be able to do before. Full motion video was even a selling point for RPGs, a genre that up til then could only offer its players tiny sprites. These days, though, most RPG aficionados prefer the old school, times when lovingly-handcrafted pixels and silent protagonists left so much quiet space in which our young imaginations could bloom.

But while game designers eventually realized that extended periods of non-interactivity, as in cutscenes, betray the form and function of interactive entertainment, fully-voiced characters have become the norm. Increasingly, though, I find myself gravitating toward readable games, quiet games and voiceless heroes.

It's not so unusual for longtime gamers like me to wax nostalgic for games of old, and that tendency can make it easy to dismiss a lot of that longing as the stubborn thinking of a cranky old-timer, who resists the onward march of technology. But I often feel as if there is much to value in what we left behind. While doubtless many modern games are enriched by (good) voice acting, there is, I believe, still much to discover in the silences. When you hold your tongue, you're forced to get creative with your communication. I wonder what games could rediscover -- or reinvent -- if more of them were unvoiced?


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