Spot On: The secret life of voice actors

Their contributions are never seen, but their work can make or break the spell a game casts upon the gamer.


Every gamer has heard their voices, but few know their names.

They’re voice actors, the invisible workers who bring the heroes, clowns, and heavies that populate the virtual worlds of computer and video games to life.

Brilliant performances, like those in Mafia and Freedom Force, help totally immerse players in another reality, while on the opposite end of the spectrum, Magic the Gathering: Batttlegrounds and some Resident Evil games have voice work so bad they offer up unintentional B-grade-movie-style chuckles. The best are honored by the industry, while the worst end up in online museums of horrors like

But for the small group of voice actors who sit in a small room and make funny voices all day, it’s a full-time career--and they get paid well to do it. "I was always mimicking stuff and doing voices and school plays," voice actor Scott Menville said.

Menville, who got his start at age 11 voicing Spanky in an animated Little Rascals show, now has a steady career in games. In addition to working with Namco localization producer Nao Higo on Tales of Symphonia, Menville has recently finished work on a Call of Duty update, Shadow of Rome, and Metal Gear Solid 3. He’s also the voice of Robin on television’s Teen Titans.

Menville, who works in the Los Angeles area, typically will receive a script and anywhere from a few sentences to a full page detailing the character he’s portraying. Sometimes he records without knowing how the game will look; other times he lip-synchs to existing cutscenes. Either way, he loves his work. "I just know I enjoy making goofy sounds," Menville said.

A good voice actor can earn between $850 and $1,000 for a four-hour recording session. Well-known celebrities command tens of thousands of dollars for a single session. For game developers, that means considering whether the celebrity talent is worth the added expense. Higo said he prefers talented professional voice actors to Hollywood stars.

Because voice acting requires different skills than stage and screen acting, getting big-name stars doesn’t guarantee a high-quality result. "I’ve actually worked with actors who have been on lots of camera roles and they just can’t do it," Higo said.

While an action star may be accustomed to reciting lines on a multimillion-dollar film stage, a voice actor has to set the scene in his or her imagination. Often, there may not even be another actor in the room, and the talent will have to hold up one end of a conversation alone.

"It is sometimes really frustrating to be in a voice-over booth because you’re cut off from everybody else," Higo said.

Even when there are no technical problems, other snafus can arise. Blaine Christine, a producer at Activision, recalled a near disaster during the second recording session for X-Men Legends with actor Patrick Stewart. The Activision crew was in Los Angeles and planned to patch into a studio in London to record Stewart, but no one took daylight-saving time into account.

"We all arrived at the studio in North Hollywood half an hour early to be prepared for the session and were ready to go with 10 minutes to spare," Christine said. "We called into the London studio five minutes early--we thought--and quickly found out that Mr. Stewart had been waiting an hour for us. Fortunately, he was kind enough to record the dialogue on his own instead of leaving and never speaking to us again. Thanks, sir!"

With titles like X-Men Legends, voice work can begin as much as a year before the game’s release, simply because of the sheer volume of material to be recorded. Where a typical half-hour animated show might contain 200 lines of dialogue, a game like Tales of Symphonia contains 10,000 lines; Peter Molyneux’s upcoming Xbox role-playing game Fable will have 22,000.

"I have the easy part," said actor Jennifer Hale, who may be best known to gamers as the Jedi Bastila Shan from Knights of the Old Republic. "This is the best job in the world." Though she's one of the top voice-acting talents around, Hale remains humble, saying others have the tougher responsibilities of writing scripts and producing and creating the games.

Hale has a knack for getting involved in quality games, and her resume includes Gabriel Knight, Planescape: Torment, Jedi Academy, and various Metal Gear Solid and Baldur’s Gate games, to name a few. She also did work on the anime cult classic Cowboy Bebop.

She prefers projects that feature interesting characters and steers away from voice work that includes a lot of sexual innuendo or cursing. "If there’s a character I can sink my teeth into and a good director, I’m in heaven," Hale said.

Hale particularly enjoys working on darker games and relishes the role of the villain. Hale, who played both the insane demigod Xel’lotath and heroine Alexandra Roivas in Eternal Darkness, said she tries to find something she can connect with in each character. "Honestly, villains aren’t evil; they’re just misinterpreted," she said.

Not that it matters to gamers, retailers, or the press, but for someone whose livelihood depends on video and computer games, Hale isn’t much of a gamer--nor is Menville. "I mostly watch because I suck at it," Hale said of playing games. Ditto for Menville. "I’m pretty much a Donkey Kong-Frogger-Dig Dug kind of guy."

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