On the surface the dialogue in games can tell a story. The voiceover or dialogue on a cut scene, in-game conversation or the internal monologue of a character is all enforcing the narrative of the game. But the role of dialogue goes much further than telling stories and this is what stands game dialogue apart from other mediums. It gives feedback to the player, influences decision making, builds immersion, and develops character whilst importantly giving games a human touch in a digital world.
The Role of Dialogue
Storytelling is of course a primary function of dialogue. Games are another form of entertainment and storytelling is key to engaging the player, and we now have scope to use voices to add to the realism of games and immerse players into new worlds.
In Creative Assembly’s Total War series, the situational awareness and immersion of the player is key to success in the game, and dialogue plays a large part in that. The feedback the player gets from characters on the battlefield can change depending on the conditions of the battle and may have a direct impact on the decisions the player makes. This could be direct feedback on the player’s actions or other parts of an army communicating with each other, commenting on events happening on the battlefield or reacting to the opponent’s strength or weakness. Non-character based dialogue, such as crowds, vocalisations or group voice over (VO) is also used to give a sense of scale, distance and feeling of a space as well as reacting to the gameplay.
This all contributes to the feedback the player receives, in the same way music can change to let the player know what is happening around them. Immersion is also built with the mix and how the dialogue is placed within the 3D space. With a potentially huge amount of characters and action on screen, at the same time, the wrong balance and placement of voices can make the space feel unnatural and undo all the work gone into achieving immersion.
Process of Production
Our process starts at the pre-production stage working with the initial character development. We work with the development team to try to make each character as individual as possible, discussing how their traits will decide how they will sound, then fitting this into the voice characteristic of their specific race or faction. The writing further develops individuality, reinforcing the characters personality and this sense of individuality and group-specific characteristics are essential for helping the player navigate the battlefield. For example, Total War: Warhammer 2 (pictured, right) has close to 100 voiced characters over four factions so the variety that is created at this stage is essential for balance and clarity. Varied voices and scripts improve the overall dialogue experience.
Next comes casting. It is at this stage we get to realise the ideas we have had during pre-production, working with voice actors to create the unique character voices then choosing a cast that also works as a whole, keeping the faction style consistent and matching each character. We record everything in-house at our own studios and the same team working on pre-production and casting also direct the sessions. Having this consistency through the project from pre-production to the final implementation and balance means we never have to compromise. In a non-linear environment, where there is no one single use of almost any asset, this approach is essential to us.
Once we have the cast and the recording is done we will go through post production. With Total War: Warhammer we have a massive range of Monsters, Undead, Goblins, Dwarfs as well as human characters so the post processing can be a big part of shaping the characters sound, tailoring the process to each character’s style, retaining intelligibility whilst often taking the human elements out of the voice. The importance of intelligibility, while creating an authentic experience, is also a challenge when creating our historical games. For example, if you are working with a non-English faction, you need to create authenticity to their culture, accent and language, while ensuring intelligibility when speaking in English.
The final part of the process is implementation. Implementing the dialogue into the game, testing and refining. Here we get the assets in the game and balance them to get the volume, filters and effects balanced at different distances, creating an environment as realistic as possible. Being in-house, the dialogue team can adapt the mix and assets, or add new features as the game requires, with the ability to react and iterate quickly to development changes and constantly improve the quality of the project.
The scale of the voice production on a game can be enormous. A 12-minute TV animation will have 120-150 lines of dialogue; a film will vary wildly but a two hour feature could have 800-1,200 lines. On Total War: Warhammer 2 we have around 16,000 lines by almost 100 characters and a project currently in development has almost double that line count. As there is no pre-determined order, all of these lines need to stand alone as individual files triggered by events in the game and work under every circumstance the line could possibly be used in.
Creating dialogue for games poses challenges from every direction. We have to be highly technical but also emotive, we need to get performances from our hugely talented voice actors that make our otherwise digital characters human (or non-human!). Creating dialogue in a non-linear environment is an art and a science and we juggle these opposing subjects as best we can to create the balance needed for dialogue to bring a game to life.
Will Tidman is a senior dialogue engineer at British video game developer Creative Assembly, having previously worked in dialogue and voice over for TV and radio.