Voice in Bioware’s Dragon Age: Origins


I’m obsessed with the use of voice in games. I find it one of the most fascinating aspects of the medium. Most related discussions you might encounter, certainly as an audio practitioner, focus on processes relating to getting a good acting performance and how to best capture it – casting, auditions, directing, ensemble performances, mo-cap, union versus non-union talent (in the USA at least), which microphone is the best for a particular kind of sound and  other tricks of the trade. Then there are the production and in-game implementation issues of managing tens or even hundreds of thousands of assets, localisation fun, batch processing of files, the pros and cons of temp dialogue, real-time versus off-line manipulation and the joys of synthetic speech. All of which are important, none of which address the fundamental issue of why most game dialogue is excruciatingly painful to behold.

There’s been an obvious improvement in the general standard of writing and acting in games over the past decade. And as time goes on this can only get better – actors, directors and home-grown writers who understand the medium and the unique challenges it presents will naturally continue to hone their craft. But there are a couple of stumbling blocks:

  • There’s a general trend for more dialogue.
  • Integration between story/writing and game design is minimal or non-existent in most games and their development processes.
This first issue is just so face-palmingly stupid. If we want the quality of the experience to go up we need less dialogue. Fact. If you don’t believe me just watch this:


I get the marketing polemic here. Fine, whatever. But which comic genius thought it would be a good idea to start this video with a performance by one of the 20th century’s finest actors? This only serves to highlight how bad all the dialogue is in this bizarrely awesome train wreck of a video.

The second stumbling block is even more of a challenge. There’s only so far we can take this with “better acting” and “better writing” – the biggest issue is integrating these aspects with the game design itself which needs to use voice more appropriately instead of relying on it to communicate anything and everything. Whilst dialogue and its performance should of course be as awesome as possible, it is the role it plays and the information that it is burdened to convey which seals its fate.

Despite my criticism of Bioware/Lucas Arts’ approach in the voice abhorrence that will be Star Wars: The Old Republic, there are glimmers of hope to be found in Bioware’s other products. Dragon Age: Origins mesmerised me for a week over the past Christmas holiday period. Mrs. Kenny was working so I was able to indulge in some epic RPG action, which isn’t something I normally have the time for – I refuse to play this kind of game in small chunks and much prefer being totally engrossed. It was totally sweet, sitting there in my pants, refusing to wash unless absolutely necessary. Eating and sleeping became thoroughly irritating necessities. The only way I can justify this to myself is that I know the experience will eventually come to an end, and I can pick up my real life from my last save game. It’s for this reason that I’ve never played World of Warcraft – the idea of a never ending RPG gives me the fear. Looking past the fact that the Dwarves have American accents (WTF?!), some of my favourite experiences in Dragon Age were driven by its use (or lack of use) of voice.

In contrast, I found Mass Effect, Bioware’s previous IP, to be a bit of a chore – all RPGs are intrinsically a bit grindy for sure, but Mass Effect didn’t give me a story or universe I wanted to see more of and the user interface didn’t make life any easier during combat. As soon as I started playing Dragon Age another thing became dazzlingly clear – the dialogue tree system in Mass Effect (which they’ve retained for Mass Effect 2 and SW:ToR) is not to my tastes. The way it works is it presents you with a list of general directions/responses your character can take and, once you have made your selection, you listen to what your character has to say along those lines. I have a few problems with this:

  • Frequently, my character will say something which I categorically had no intention whatsoever for them to say, in a way which just doesn’t suit the character I’m trying to be. I’ve been forced to choose from a small selection of directions which are compromised abstractions, the result being frustration with my character and the game.
  • I’ve got to listen to the mouthy bugger, and if I skip this I have no idea what they’ve just said because of the limitations of the aforementioned abstractions which are only vaguely representative of my character’s actual response and not the entirety of the rambling speech he then goes on to make.
  • I am my character (this is an RPG, no?), so why do they do things and say things which I have little control over, and know a whole bunch of stuff which I don’t? I mean, I’m meant to be them, but I’m having it rammed down my throat that I’m quite clearly not them. They are themselves more than I am them. If that’s what I was looking for I’d watch a film, a really good film that has a century-long legacy of perfecting this kind of storytelling.
  • In summary – why give me a choice, the illusion of control, only to immediately remind me who’s really in charge? I don’t get this kind of frustration, certainly not to the same degree, playing a game with purely linear cutscenes.
Dragon Age, however, uses a different system whereby you are presented with several verbatim options for what your character could say and, then, as soon as you click on one of these phrases it is as if your character has already said it and you immediately hear and see the other party’s response. This works beautifully for several reasons:

  • Having read all the options, considered whether it fits with the character you have established and any potential outcomes, there is no need for you to hear your character speak this information out loud again (a trap fallen in to by earlier games, such as Ion Storm’s Deus Ex) because you’ve already just “heard” it in your head when reading it. And so, the act of clicking replaces the act of speaking.
  • To highlight how awesome this is, compare it to what happens when you select an action for your character to perform rather than a phrase to speak – you generally have to watch your character perform the action. Why? Because if you didn’t see your character perform the action and yet you instantly saw the results of said action, this discontinuity would require a mechanism which explains the passage of time. But we know our character has said something aloud when the other characters present respond appropriately to our chosen selection, so there is therefore no need to hear it – it has clearly already been said. It’s as if the time spent reading your options replaces the time spent talking and communicating your thoughts to the other parties.
  • If your character were to speak out loud, ignoring the redundancy of hearing it all again, who’s voice is this we are hearing? It certainly isn’t mine or my character’s – it’s some poor bugger who’s been in a recording studio for weeks, where everyone in the recording session has zoned out because it’s the end of another long day of the same monotonous pap, and the director has long since given up trying to get every line perfect. There isn’t even the time for that, never mind the will. And it’s not that the character is mute – this is not the same as Gordon Freeman, the silent protagonist of the Half-Life series, where the player is never given the option to “speak” – it’s that this interface paradigm bypasses the need to hear the character speak. But similar to Gordon Freeman, by not hearing a prescribed character voice the player isn’t bumped out of the experience and is empowered to fully inhabit their character.
  • The experience becomes less about communicating information via voice, and more about communicating via the written word. This opens the door to a whole new world of immersive experiences that voice and dialogue can never get even remotely close to. You can certainly get quite close using sound and the moving image, with judicious use of voice, but you will never have the time or a big enough team to realise this in a game the size and scope of Dragon Age.
  • Less time and money needs to be spent on voice records and localisation. And the experience is better! Low hanging fruit or what?
So, in playing, or trying to play, Mass Effect and then coming to Dragon Age, the differences in these two systems was made so abundantly clear that Dragon Age felt like it had invented a brand new, revolutionary interface paradigm. In reality, this is the same old tried and tested dialogue tree system of Neverwinter Nights and Knights of the Old Republic. So why did Bioware change this for the Mass Effect series of games?

Well, there are things that you can do in Mass Effect that you could never do in Dragon Age – talking to a group of people for example. Check out this scene (taking note of the interactive music which manages to score the scene rather nicely despite the dialogue trees doing their best to mess up the timing):


Pulling off this interactive cinematic in Dragon Age would be impossible given that your character spends no time speaking – this scene is all about your crew focussing on what you have to say, being inspired and motivated (it’s also about motivating the player, which is interesting given that it’s the player’s character doing all the motivating). So, perhaps the story the writers of Mass Effect wanted to tell couldn’t be done using the standard Bioware model. It’s just a shame that the method they’ve settled upon has knock-ons which make the experience less personal, and more frustrating for me as a player. I’m really interested to see what model their next new IP ends up using.

Whilst Dragon Age is more to my tastes it’s not perfection incarnate. For example, there’s some contradictory behaviour. At the beginning of the game you create your character by choosing their sex, race, specialisation, class (or caste), appearance and voice. This voice is heard when your character is engaged in combat, which is useful because these vocalisations can be a really important aural tool which supports the animations for fighting, exertion and death (however, there are generally enough sounds going on during a fight that these events could arguably be described as surplice to requirements). But what I find particularly inappropriate is that when you move your character or send them to pick up an item they will sometimes respond with an “as you say” or “your wish is my command” type phrase. This is odd – I am the character, not a 3rd party, so why are they addressing me as if this is a commander-led situation as in a Real-Time Strategy or God game? This identity crisis is made especially apparent precisely because you never hear your character speak at any other time. Interestingly, all the Non-Player Characters in your party will respond in a similar way when you give them such an instruction – this makes sense, because it’s as if they are responding to an “unspoken” command issued to them by your character (i.e. you).

One aspect of Dragon Age which I really enjoyed was those rare occasions (I only recall a couple of them) where voice was dropped altogether in favour of communicating what was going on via text. Check this out:


I don’t know how that views/feels for you as a non-interactive experience (my impatient clicking certainly makes it quite hard to read all the text – sorry!) but for me this was a most magical encounter. I mean, just compare the special feelings generated when reading a line like:

“The Presence in the gem is at first alarmed when it senses your touch. It recoils in fear, and the images that rush through your mind are ones of imprisonment and loneliness”

…with the awkward spoken dialogue and exposition near the beginning of the clip:

“Is that blood in there? Who’s I wonder? You’d think it would be all dried up after so long. There must be magic involved!”

Was this dialogue meant to be Scooby-Doo bad as part of some in-joke at Bioware that they’d all rather be making intelligent text adventures than spoon-fed talkies with hastily written and recorded dialogue that treats the audience for their adult rated games like children? Who knows? But I found this “text adventure” sequence magical – the voices, sounds and images I experienced whilst reading about and interacting with that spirit were better than anything else I found in the entire game. Point is, this wasn’t just a simple text adventure – interacting with the visuals, music, sound (that ambiguous yet suggestive whispering voice!) and text all added up to something which cannot be experienced in any other medium (including most games).

And whilst text is rarely used for story or exposition, as in the example above, Dragon Age isn’t shy in using text descriptors to heighten the experience in a rather subtle way. For example, the game is awash with “Ominous Doors”, none of which look remotely ominous in the slightest, but their text descriptors do a fantastic job of hinting at what might lie beyond, allowing your brain to fill in the blanks and make the experience more sophisticated than what mere pixels can convey. That is a powerful tool. And Bioware seem to know it – Dragon Age is packed full of information which is locked away in the form of text inside ancient books and scrolls.

So if Bioware aren’t shy in using text all over their experiences, thus making the “oh, people don’t read things”, “people don’t want to read”, “lots of people can’t read” argument somewhat weak, when are they going to do the right thing and cut back on their crummy spoken dialogue so that whatever voice acting they do have stands a chance of being totally awesome and contributes more to the experience of playing one of their games than it does take away? I’d just luuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuurve to see the telemetry for how much of their dialogue gets skipped. Go on. I mean, prove me wrong kids, prove me wrong…

I’d hate to give the impression that Dragon Age is devoid of interesting, or more sophisticated uses of voice. In the ‘Anvil of the Void’ quest the character of Hespith, encountered in the Halls of Bownammar in the Dead Trenches, offers up one of the most intriguing examples in the game. As you explore the Halls you hear her chanting a dark and disturbing verse:

First day, they come and catch everyone.
Second day, they beat us and eat some for meat.
Third day, the men are all gnawed on again.
Fourth day, we wait and fear for our fate.
Fifth day, they return and it’s another girl’s turn.
Sixth day, her screams we hear in our dreams.
Seventh day, she grew as in her mouth they spew.
Eighth day, we hated as she is violated.
Ninth day, she grins and devours her kin.
Now she does feast, as she’s become the beast.

All of which sets the grisly, eerie mood rather nicely. The deeper you delve, the more of the verse you hear which gives you a palpable sense of approaching doom (i.e. a kick-ass boss fight). Now, throughout Dragon Age you encounter many demons, the voices of which have been processed with the prerequisite reversed-reverb effect to make them sound suitably otherworldly. And yet here we have a spirit who you can hear speaking through solid rock and locked doors from several hundred yards away and her voice is totally unaffected or processed. The cool thing is it doesn’t need an effect – a disembodied voice chanting such disturbing material gives it an otherworldliness that all the fancy-pants processing in the world cannot impart on any source material.

I say this all the time, but I think it’s worth emphasising and reiterating – the use of a sound/voice is just as important (perhaps more so) than the sound/voice itself.

16 thoughts on “Voice in Bioware’s Dragon Age: Origins

  1. Very interesting. Coming from film I believe that the best way to tell the story is to show it through the medium and not to say it with dialogue. Personally I do think reading within some games can slow down the pace a little, especially run and gun games, but then surely peaks and valleys can only be a good thing.

    I've never been as immersed in a world more than Bioshock, which follows the gordon freeman approach by stripping you of vocal chords and uses superb art direction to tell the story. Most interestingly, they keep the traditional 'find a book with story detail or key code in' aspect but use voice recorders to find instead. It seems like they've realised that many gamers these days can be impatient and have managed to keep them engaged whilst painting a richer picture through superb voice acting and the thrill of finding a goodie. This also allows them to keep moving around, which is all this generation really want to do, and once more frees up the eyes and makes use of your ears.

    In terms of non-dynamic action games, I remember Uncharted 2 being the first game in a long while to boldly give their character a voice and personality. I guess it works to encourage you to act like the indiana jones type and the narrative situations don't give you much room to project unique personalities onto anyway.

    I guess that if an avatar does have a voice then whether it works can come down to aspects of their written character. For example I liked how Nico in GTAIV was new to Liberty City as were the player so they were both in the same boat. Though the metal gears have always been story heavy, the character snake has always lacked a real life and identify leaving him as a blank canvas so that somewhat helps dispite the writing, and his voice has age and experience in it without charisma, giving you war-torn boots with just enough room to put your own feet in.

    I'd like to see more games with a lack of dialogue from avatar or NPCs, to encourage the medium's storytelling capabilities through animation, level design, sound design and controller response. Shadow of the Colossus seemed somewhat in favour of this.

    Sorry for the ramble!

  2. If I might interject, I wanted to take a little issue with this statement:

    "I am my character (right?), so why do they do things and say things which I have little control over, and know a whole bunch of stuff which I don’t? I mean, I’m meant to be them, but I’m having it rammed down my throat that I’m quite clearly not them. They are themselves more than I am them. If that’s what I was looking for I’d watch a film, a really good film that has a century-long legacy of perfecting this kind of storytelling."

    In terms of storytelling design objectives, Mass Effect and Dragon Age are actually different styles of games. There's a really insightful (if short) interview with Ray Muzyka about how they view the two franchises, and it specifically touches on this point of whether you're the character, or merely influencing the character's choices.

    http://www.gametrailers.com/video/past-present-bioware/55745

    Dragon Age is very much meant to be an example of the former, Mass Effect the latter. The objectives are actually different, which is why they're implemented differently.

    I can understand you get frustrated by such things, but that might be because you're expecting to play the game "as" the character, instead of having what Ray Muzyka called a 3rd person narrative.

    Personally I can appreciated both of them for what they do, but you really do need to treat them as separate. It was a design decision based around what style of game they wanted to make, and what style of storytelling they wanted the user to see.

    I suppose you could argue there's a dichotomy there in that you can choose the face of your avatar in Mass Effect, but in real terms that has a fairly minor effect. There's a canonical Shepard face to begin with (to go alongside the voices), and nobody would ever comment on your facial appearance in the game, no matter what manner of troglodyte you created. There's Gender to choose as well, but again, relatively minor differences to the overall narrative.

    Mass Effect with Dragon Age's dialogue system and sensibilities wouldn't have the same narrative effect. The goal was effectively meant to be playing through an epic sci-fi action movie. For that, you need a greater focus on a strong central character and their interactions. You even need them to have gusty dialogue and even sometimes cheesy put downs. I guess those are just the tropes of that line of storytelling.

  3. Hey subedii,

    You're right – the developers intentionally dictate Shepard's character to the player in Mass Effect.

    I think I'm fine with that aspect or, at least, tolerant. It's how most AAA games choose to tell stories – in GTA 4 Nico Bellic's character is also dictated to you. There are some high level story choices you get to make (which, significantly, happen through gameplay rather than during cutscenes), but ultimately Nico Bellic is Nico Bellic is Nico Bellic. So, as a player, I am given very little wiggle-room and just need to accept the kind of character the game is portraying. Which kinda works – as long as the story is compelling and the gameplay engaging I'll continue to ignore the fact that I'm also being asked to control the character during gameplay.

    So, as a design/storytelling device, I think this is proven to work, if not in terms of seamless story-gameplay integration then certainly in terms of commercial success.

    But what doesn't sit well with me in Mass Effect is that my character is being dictated to me AND I'm being asked to dictate my character's choices at the same time. Ray Muzyka describes this as “cool”, I find it frustrating and weak when compared to GTA-style totalitarian character dictation and Dragon Age-style character anonymity. Give me a character to inhabit, or give me a character to watch, but don't ask me to half-control a character.

    I'm not saying it doesn't work for you. I'm saying it doesn't work for me. With regards to one of the other RPS Sunday Paper articles (http://www.computerandvideogames.com/article.php?id=247492) I guess I'm of a personality type that is too much of a control freak to accept being granted the ability to make choices that result in words or actions which, by my standards, are sometime contrary or conflicting with the choice I thought I was being asked to make. That isn't character dictation, it's character confusion. I'm happy to be surprised by Shepard as a character, but not if that surprise follows a choice that -=I=- made that was meant to dictate his/her actions.

    Maybe Bioware just need to get better at writing their choice abstractions?

    I probably shouldn't have brought up Mass Effect in this article, it kinda muddies the waters and focus, but the contrast in the experiences between the two games was so great for me, and so inextricably linked to the use of voice, that I couldn't help myself. In Dragon Age my character has no voice and this makes my own voice all the stronger within its world. In Mass Effect my character has a voice and, despite being allowed to exert some control over that voice, my own voice feels all the weaker.

    Cheers,

    Kenny

  4. A very interesting post; conveniently enough I started playing Dragon Age a couple of nights ago, and the biggest hurdle to my suspension of disbelief so far has been the disconnect between my character not talking while ALL other dialogue I've encountered so far is spoken. I've accepted it as a necessary compromise for such a massive game purporting to offer multiple voice types for each gender of main character, but it still irks me on occasion.

    I think in my case, this has also been affected by my recently playing through Mass Effect. I found the same issues, where occasionally Shepherd would say something which I didn't intend due to the ambiguity of the written word. As a writer myself, I can appreciate that it can be exceptionally challenging (if not impossible) to write interesting dialogue which is entirely unambiguous given the variety of contexts with which a reader will approach any specific text, especially in such a text-heavy genre; however, the compromise I made in Mass Effect was playing the role of Shepherd, even as in Dragon Age I've compromised on the relative silence of my protagonist.

    That said, I've never been much for the silent protagonist, either. Crono, Link and Freeman all irritate me equally with their irrational refusal to speak, moreso as technology has advanced and their more vocal colleagues have been stuck between affirmative questioning and pithy attempts at humour to attempt to explain their silences.

    In fact, with regard to the balance between spoken and textual dialogue, I suspect that Final Fantasy X might have been approaching down the right lines for me; important plot-relevant moments were performed with full speech by all parties – a technique which both highlighted the critical moments in an extensive plotline and allowed a wider emotional performance (in theory, at least) during these scenes – while moment to moment character interaction with NPCs was brief and text only. That's not to say that the performances or scripting themselves were anything to write home about (and of course, being a JRPG, optional dialogue trees are entirely absent), but in practical terms it seemed to make sense to emphasise more important sections of dialogue while simultaneously decreasing the requirement of full text for all possible interactions.

    I'll have to see whether I adjust to my protagonist's silence in Dragon Age (particularly after going so far as to select a voice; Skies of Arcadia's cringeworthy battle declarations immediately spring to mind), but it'll be interesting to see where this facet of game development proceeds next!

  5. As you said, AAA titles are often choosing the path of voice acting. From my window, it looks like a sales choice: the more you make the player feel like he's the hero of a movie, the more you sell.

    Maybe this will change as the mainstream audience gets educated about games better, but maybe at the moment that's what you need to score really big (GTA or MW2 big) in the games industry.

  6. This post made me think of Fallout 3, where the NPC dialog is fully voiced and the player dialog is unvoiced. There was no other way it could have been done in that case, as the player starts the game by constructing their character; providing a suitable voice would have been impossible. I favor the unvoiced PC approach in most cases for several reasons: as mentioned above, the act of reading, and internally voicing, the response is sufficient; hearing (another person's) voice breaks immersion (especially when the game has a first-person view) and destroys identification with the character (sometimes this *is* desirable, however); and I, like many players read the text and skip past most of the audio when possible (because, let's face it, most of what NPCs will be saying will be incredibly banal, and the voice acting adds nothing).
    There are also serious problems with increasing the amount of voice acting in games that have nothing to do with the quality of the writing or acting. An issue that Fallout 3 made obvious, since it could be compared with its predecessors (which had limited voice, used sparingly for important characters), was that the use of fully voiced NPC dialog greatly reduced the amount of interactions the player has with NPCs, both in terms of how many characters the player could interact with, and how deep the inactions were with particular characters. Game elements that would have been trivial to implement in text were absent: most importantly, there are no real variations in how NPCs respond to the character, regardless of player character reputation; there are very limited references to the player's previous actions or even gender (many attempts at gender-neutral dialog didn't quite work) and of course no references to the character's name (why did they even include naming the character as part of the game?) Although it was an unarguably more immersive game, Fallout 3 was a much less rich experience in important ways.
    As a game designer, my first response upon hearing that Star Wars:ToR would be fully voiced was, "well, I guess the expansions will be few and far between." What is normally the fastest and least expensive part of crafting expansion content suddenly isn't. Since quick release of expansion content is the lifeblood of MMOs, I wish them luck – they're seriously going to need it. Voicing player characters adds additional problems as well. Since player character differentiation is crucial for MMOs, having all player characters of a particular class voiced by a single person really destroys that. They're also locked into the same voice actors for all future expansions, as it would be pretty obvious if a player character suddenly changed voices depending on what bit of the story they were engaged in.

  7. I was really impressed the first time I tried to open a locked chest with Leylana in my party and she said out loud "I can do that for you". I thought it was a great contextual way to put what would otherwise be a tutorial message into the gameplay.

  8. I think that to enjoy Mass Effect, you have to think of it as sort of like an interactive movie where you can shout at the screen: "Don't go in there!" "Ask him about the spaceship!" "Tell her you love her!"

    You can tell the character what to do, how to approach a conversation, but he's still his own character who says and does things the way he would do them, not the way you would do them. He's not supposed to be an incarnation of the player. And you're watching and influencing a story rather than creating one with your choices.

  9. Not hearing my hero's voice in Dragon age only started to bug me in occasional points- the bits where they actually show your character doing something, and you're slightly shocked: "Who the hell is this guy?"

    The dialogue sequences usually only show the person you're talking to, so your actual character seems like the odd one out a lot of the time. The awkward romance sequences are probably the most obvious example. And then, hearing the characters voice in combat for the first time really honestly shocked me – I looked around, wondering who said that.

  10. I'd like to throw out a couple of other interesting instances of silent protagonists, if I may.

    One that I've always been very fond of is Mario in Super Mario RPG for the SNES. He never had a single line, but when he needed to speak, he'd act out whatever he was trying to say. It was funny and cute; and it allowed for the player to fill Mario's shoes while still allowing Mario to participate in conversations normally. I think that would be a horrible game design choice for most games today, but it was a creative approach to the silent protagonist.

    Then there's Jak in Jak & Daxter. While he spoke frequently in Jak 2 and Jak 3, he didn't make a peep in the first game. They made it apparent that he COULD speak, though, if he'd wanted to. I remember being delighted when during one cut scene Jak opened his mouth to speak only to be cut off by Daxter. Jak glanced at him, then grinned and nodded his head in agreement. Of course, in Jak's case, it made his roared line during the intro movie for Jak 2 (and the associated character changes it illustrated) have that much more impact.

  11. Thanks for the write-up! I really enjoyed reading it. My concerns and eyerolly/facepalm moments are the same as yours over the ME vs. DAO approach to characterization and character roleplay.

    In the end, it is obvious Shepard is not meant to be our character or a blank slate, whereas our Origins PC is. I prefer the latter and its freedom in roleplay and story-building than anything unpredictable and cinematic where I have no control over my own PC.

  12. Hey Deviija – and thanks!

    I need to check out ME2 when I get some free time (I wish) and see what's been fine-tuned. Clearly this kind of experience works for a lot of people – I'm not sure whether I don't get it or can't get it, but I'm willing to keep trying. Worst case I'll just moan about it some more on my blog ;)

    Also, thanks to everyone else for their comments – good stuff! :)

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