DevDiary 11 - Voice-Overs
Ave! Our music event that launched two weeks ago is still ongoing, and since we’re all in an auditory mood already, we thought it would be good to stay in that general area by delving into the topic of actors and directors of voice-over.
It’s no secret that roleplaying games tend to be on the verbose side. Though we here at Logic Artists have always prided ourselves on writing more concise and less waffling dialogue than our competitors, our games have always been long and heavily story-based, so inevitably our dialogue word count always ends up in the hundreds of thousands. As an independent game studio, the cost of recording that much dialogue is prohibitive, and so the best we could do on Viking was to record combat one-liners and a few very select lines of dialogue to set the tone for each major character.
Thus you may be able to imagine how overjoyed we were when THQ Nordic rolled in and told us to go ahead and record every single word of dialogue for Expeditions: Rome. Now, on Rome we have made a concerted effort to keep the dialogue even more concise and punchy than before – we’ve almost eliminated use of narrator text during dialogue, and worked hard to put as much of the actual actions of what’s happening in the scene into the actual game world, so you can see characters move and animate instead of having it described to you. Even so, Rome is the largest game we’ve ever made by a pretty large margin, and so we still ended up with over 300,000 words of dialogue.
Early in the project, we needed to record some voice-over for a vertical slice – a sort of prototype that would serve as “proof of concept” to demonstrate how the game would end up looking and feeling when it was finished. We sent out some test lines and character descriptions and solicited auditions from a few different studios, but none of them really struck a chord with us. Then we found Pitstop in the UK – the quality of the acting they sent back to us was phenomenally better than the other studios we’d tried. We knew at once we had our partner.
Recording all that dialogue is not done overnight. We decided to split the task into three “batches” – the first batch would include all main story dialogue up to but not including the finale. The second batch would be the finale and all side quests. The third and final batch would come after our content lockdown and would be for corrections, late additions, and anything we’d had to add or change as part of polish or bug-fixing.
The first step in the whole process was to send Pitstop all material we had on the game, and sit down with their directors to work through what the story was about and what kind of aesthetic we were going for. We sent a list of every character in the game, with demographic details, descriptions, and notes about where, when, and how they would appear. The game has 270 unique characters, so this was no small thing for them to deal with. After looking over this list, Pitstop sent us a questionnaire for each of the roles we had identified as our major characters, asking about their backstory, personality, relationships with and attitudes towards each other, and above all where their personal character arc would take them.
Now we were ready for the casting. Pitstop’s casting director Josh divided our enormous character list into 40 distinct roles. For the minor characters, he assigned actors that Pitstop already knew and had worked with before. For the major characters, sample lines from our script were sent out to agents, and we got back recorded auditions from a large group of actors trying for each part. We had a blast listening to all these different interpretations of our characters.
For some parts, the choice was self-evident – for example, for the role of the player’s patron, Lucius Licinius Lucullus, the voice of James Gillies immediately stood out as having the precise perfect mix of stern authority and fatherly warmth that we had in mind when we wrote our take on the famous imperator. Other characters were much harder to nail down and required several different casting calls to find someone who hit the mark. Julia Calida in particular was a very difficult part to cast, and it took us three attempts to find Rosie Jones, who brought an appropriately brooding tom-boyish edge to the part.
Some characters we chose to deliberately cast against type – perhaps a manifestation of our natural tendency towards shying away from the expected. We have an antagonist played by an actor who always plays heroes, and a loyal old mentor played by an actor who is always cast as a villain. Their performances add a layer of nuance to their characters that we might never have got if we had gone for the obvious casting choice.
The next challenge was how to format the script. In the engine, our dialogue is a sprawling mess of interconnected branching nodes intermingled with gameplay scripting. Dialogue scripts handle not just what lines are displayed on the screen and when, but also control how characters move, animate, or rotate, what the camera is looking at, praetorian approval, resource gains or losses, UI pop-ups, doors opening or closing, objects appearing or disappearing, quests updating, characters joining the party, leaving the party, or splitting temporarily from the party, and so on and so forth. It’s a mess, and it would all get in the way of recording.
To solve this, our lead programmer Petr wrote an exporter to trawl the game for dialogue, parse all scripts with dialogue in them, and export it all in an order that would try to approximate the order in which the dialogue appears in the game. Then, our creative director Jonas went over every single dialogue in the game and wrote context descriptions for them to explain what the scene was and who was present there. This information was exported along with the dialogue and lots of other metadata, and then formatted by Pitstop into their preferred structure for recording.
Before Pitstop could begin the recordings, one last thing had to be sorted on our end: the script is littered with Latin words, phrases, and names, and we had decided to go for an approximation of classical Latin pronunciation. To ensure consistency, Pitstop would need a pronunciation guide. We approached a professor of Latin in Italy who graciously agreed to record all our Latin words with his son. In fact he gave us two entire sets of pronunciations just for good measure: a classical and an ecclesiastical one. We never did use the latter, but we were very impressed by the professor’s diligence.
The process of recording itself took months. At the peak of the process, Pitstop were recording in 2 different studios in parallel for 8 hours per day. Jonas and lead narrative designer Fasih remotely sat in on all the sessions for the major characters, helping to clear up any questions about the characters, the scenes, or the pronunciations, but in all honestly Pitstop’s directors had done an extraordinary job of sorting through the script and understanding every scene in depth as well as the overarching plot developments. It was a hugely enjoyable process to sit in on these sessions and talk to the actors about the game and the characters.
When you’re just two writers having to type up the script for such a large project, you do your best to ensure that every character comes alive on the page and leaves a distinct impression in the player’s mind, but there is only so much you can do alone when you have a whole game to write. Inevitably you end up focusing on the major characters, sometimes to the detriment of the minor supporting cast. However, each actor has a much smaller set of characters to deal with, and they are able to spend more of their time and effort on each one. It’s wonderful to see how much life and personality even the most hastily written character can gain on the lips of a talented and professional voice actor.
In the end, there’s no doubt that Expeditions: Rome was enormously improved by the addition of full voice-over. It’s been a dream come true for us to finally hear all our words spoken by professional actors – a thing we could never have done without the support of THQ Nordic and the hard work of Pitstop. We can’t wait to share the fruits of all this with you, and we know you’ll fall in love with our companion characters and grow to well and truly despise our villains.
As always, we will be streaming on the THQ Nordic Twitch Channel this Wednesday December 1st at 1:00 PM Eastern / 6:00 PM GMT on http://twitch.tv/thqnordic. Our steadfast host, Senior Producer Brad Logston, will be joined by the Creative Director Jonas Wæver and special guest Lead Voice Director Josh Weeden to discuss the process of writing and recording the massive script of Expeditions: Rome.
Until then, Valete!