The Great PerformancesVideo

On Perfectionism In The Face Of One’s Own Humanity

A performer in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion insists on getting it right.

By John Teti • April 23, 2012

Until there is a Video Game Voice Acting Hall Of Fame, we will have to make do with The Great Performances, an ongoing celebration of those thespian moments that could not be found in any other art form. Mostly because those other art forms have bigger talent budgets.

We paid a visit to Arthur M. Gameological’s Tribeca loft recently. Well, he insists on calling it a “Tribeca loft,” at least. In reality, it’s more of a converted utility closet in the garment district. It would be close quarters under any circumstances, but the place was made even more cramped by the boxes that Arthur had piled all over—every one of which was filled with copies of the PlayStation classic Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night. Unaware that game discs are reusable, Arthur said that he’d “stocked up” so that he could view the game’s opening scene whenever he wants to, which is often.

We took the discs to the local game shop for store credit. It was enough to buy Arthur a new Xbox 360 and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. As you can tell by this edition of The Great Performances, he was delighted with Oblivion. He’s already asking us for another copy.

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  • AuroraBoreanaz

    WHAT THE HECK?  That Dralora line actually made it into the release?  Wow.

    The beggar’s line can at least be “explained”.  He’s a spy posing as a beggar, and switches to his real voice when nobody else is close enough to hear him!

    …oh, all the beggars do that?  Uh, yeah…they’re ALL spies!

    • HobbesMkii

       What about the woman who tell everyone she’s seen a mudcrab? Is she a spy? She’s everywhere.

    • The_Misanthrope

      Oh, you mean like Simplicia the Schizophrenic:
       http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tf573MBFq0I&feature=related

      I would honestly be fine if all RPGs did away with voice acting altogether.  There is just no way to record enough dialogue without having to repeat/reuse lines over a 50+ hour game and it just gets maddening to hear some of those lines delivered over and over again, especially since Oblivion’s characters recycle those same inane lines in conversation with each other.  It would not break my immersion at all if I had to read it all; In fact, expository dialogue seems easier to accept when read.

      • AuroraBoreanaz

        Most of the repeats I can just tune out.  But that one sonofabitch in Whiterun in Skyrim?

        “Have you been to the Cloud District lately?  Oh, what am I saying!  Of course you haven’t.”

        FUCK. YOU.  I’m a thane of the town, and took out a dragon directly outside the gates, and you still say this shit to me every time I walk by?

        And of course, if I hide in a shadow with 100% stealth at night and take him out with an arrow from 100 yards away, the guards still immediately know who and where I am.

        *goes and murders field full of cows outside instead*

        • http://twitter.com/alex_bennett Alex Bennett

          HAHAHAH SO TRUE

        • green_gin_rickey

           That’s the thing which always got me in Oblivion (haven’t played Skyrim yet because it doesn’t cost $40 with all expansions yet,) that no matter how much I do–become an actual god, kill a god, become Arena champion and head of the Mages’ Guild and all that–people still act like I’m some random nobody, no matter where I go.

      • 3FistedHumdinger

         But in text-only format, that dude only sighs and says that times are tough.  It never changes.  With voice acting, he has at least a second line of dialogue.

      • http://twitter.com/djbeema Reuben

        I’m kind of down with this as well. One of the things that breaks immersion for me most in Skyrim is hearing the same voices OVER AND OVER. This goes hand in hand with repetitive NPC dialogue. Until someone comes up with some kind of limitless voice synthesizer that can churn out infinite different voices, it’s just impossible to have a unique voice fore every NPC in a game like this. But even with a cast of say, 50 people, you are going to hear the same voices over and over. Skyrim seems to have about 10 different male NPC voices with a handful of distinct actors for the important NPC’s. There’s spirited away guy (I work for Belethor at the general goods store!), Swedish accent guy, arnold schwarzeneger guy, khajiit racist asian guy, dutch accent guy, gruff flat voice guy, and sneering douche voice guy. You get used to it over time, but I remember how incredulous I was when every other NPC had the same voice early on. For a while I thought maybe it was the same bard following me around to every Inn.

    • evanwaters

       Oblivion has a weird unfinished feel to a lot of it- like they got to a certain point where it would take millions more to actually do everything they’d set out to, and they had to release it, so you get patchy voice acting and voice samples recycled among different characters and bugs and the scaling system and so on.

  • Aaron Riccio

    Oof. Maybe he should’ve stuck with all of those copies of Castlevania. Given voice acting like that, I can understand why so many Nintendo games have characters who speak in only occasionally offensive gibberish.

    • ToddG

      What is a man?  A miserable little pile of video game cartridges.

  • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

    Wow. That’s for real? That’s…just…wow…

    The hilariously bad voice acting was one of the reasons I gave up on Oblivion about six hours in. (The second was that I literally had three of the four sidequests I attempted break on me due to bugs in the game.)

    It’s amazing how far video game voice acting has come since then – not just in terms of quality, but also in terms of star power. Nowadays, it’s rare to see a AAA release that doesn’t have at least a couple of famous Hollywood actors in the cast.

    • AuroraBoreanaz

      Since then?  The first person who talks to you in Oblivion is Patrick Stewart, isn’t it?

      Yes, the overall quality is improving for sure.  The voice acting in Mass Effect 3 is fantastic, and The old Republic has a lot of great ones too.  (Darth Baras is my personal favorite so far.  “TELL…ME….WHAT…I…WISH…TO…KNOW!!!!”  *chills*)

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

        Yeah, I remembered that Patrick Stewart had a part in Oblivion. It was a huge deal back then, apparently; I mean, wasn’t Oblivion one of the first games to attract such a high-profile actor? Regardless, more and more big-name actors are signing on to do voiceover roles now.

        • KidvanDanzig

          David Bowie and Dennis Hopper starred in games in the 90′s. Mark Hamill played live action in Wing Commander and VA’d for all sorts of things, and was quite good at it.

        • Spacemonkey_Mafia

          Stewart played a king in the pc game, “Lands of Lore”, which predates Oblivion by over a decade:

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lands_of_Lore:_The_Throne_of_Chaos

             But it was certainly more uncommon to have even a b-lister doing voice work then, and remained so until fairly recently. 

        • AuroraBoreanaz

          Patrick Stewart also voiced the king in Lands of Lore in 1994.  Interestingly, he also died at the beginning to start out your quest…I think I remember liking that game a lot, but getting stuck and never finishing it.

        • 3FistedHumdinger

           The King in Lands of Lore didn’t die.  He was encased in a magical field and you searched for a reagent to cure him.  It was the main quest of the game.

        • itisdancing

          Fallout had some names in its voice cast: Ron Perlman, Tony Shalhoub, Richard Dean Anderson. And it had serious VA performers like Jim Cummings, Tress MacNeille, and Frank Welker.

          Fallout 2 had Perlman and MacNeille again. And Dwight Schultz. And Michael Dorn.

          And, of course, Torment had Homer Simpson.

          So what I think what we can get out of this is that Black Isle (RIP) did a good job with voice casting.
          Obsidian does a good job too, but they’re not as far ahead of the competition anymore.

        • MattmanBegins

           Not just Homer Simpson in Planescape: Torment, but Q, Female Shepard, Special Agent Skinner, and…Keith Muthafuckin’ David (do I really need to name a specific role on his resumé?  He’s Keith Muthafuckin’ David.)  With a few distantly possible exceptions (that first Gabriel Knight game, Fallout), I’d say that Torment was the gold standard of early CRPG voice-over work until we got to the Mass Effects.  It may not be gold anymore, but Torment still looks pretty shiny to me, for lots of reasons.

        • dreadguacamole

           Pfft, Voiceovers are for pussies. Christopher Walken was inside a game, with no proxies!
          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9xiZoIiTJHw

           Ah, the FMV craze… As an aside, looking for this video led me to find something called Christopher Walkenthroughs. The concept is funnier than the execution, unfortunately

           Dennis Hopper and David Bowie also spring to mind as big names in early gaming voiceovers. Check out the introduction to Hell in all its glory:
          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z8-dipscKg4

    • The_Misanthrope

       Patrick Stewart and Sean Bean do have small parts in Oblivion. 

      • KidvanDanzig

        The talents of Terrence Stamp were likewise wasted

      • 3FistedHumdinger

         Something else Bean died in.

      • Raging Bear

        Sean Bean didn’t quite finish that sentence and is already on his way to stab you.

    • KidvanDanzig

      There was good voice acting before Oblivion, Bethsoft just blows its budget on a Name and then fills its gigantic world with 5-6 wooden line reciters.

      They threw more actors into Skyrim but it really just delays the effect, not remedies it. After a number of hours you notice which guy they leaned on for Generic Burly Nord Dude.

      (It’s the “Seen any elves?” guy, in case you’re wondering)

      • Spacemonkey_Mafia

        @KidvanDanzig:disqus I don’t mind the vaguely Swedish Chef-sounding stock Nord character too much, until I hear him playing opposite himself in overheard conversations.

        “Ya.  The Jarl is really upset aboot something today”.

        “Ya.  He’s right.  You better watch oot, because I’m on the warpath.”

        • http://twitter.com/djbeema Reuben

          hehehe I call him Swedish Chef guy too

        • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

          Speaking of the Swedish Chef, in Magicka all of the NPC voice overs sound like swedish chef gibberish and it is great. Kinda reminds me of the way Nintendo usually handles it in the form of squeaks or whatever.

      • AuroraBoreanaz

        What about the goddamn “arrow to the knee” guy?

        • STOP_RIGHT_THERE_CRIMINAL_SCUM

          I used to be an adventurer like you, then a I took an arrow in the knee 

        • General_Specific

          The one that always drives me crazy is when you’re running around Whiterun – “watizit?” “watizit?” “watizit?”

  • angrypeter

    I’m always really excited when new Elder Scrolls games come out but they can never hold my interest for very long. (Does anyone else have this problem or am I the only one?) Maybe this has something to do with it… 

    • AuroraBoreanaz

      I generally play Elder Scrolls games more for the pleasure of running around and exploring, so some half-assed voice acting here and there doesn’t bug me as much.  And holy hell, Skyrim’s world is beautiful, so much so that I can forgive fighting the same monsters through 90% of it (I’m looking at you, Draugr).

      • The_Asinus

        I liked how VA was used in Morrowind– i.e. sparsely. I don’t know why, but Morrowind was the most captivating world of the modern ESes. I never even got too far in the main story because I just liked the world so much and explored.

    • HobbesMkii

       I’m always into Bethesda’s games for about a week or so, and then I hit a point where I’ve done a serious number of quests (but not finished the main quest line) and I kind of peter out for no particular reason. And, suddenly, they’re not as addictive to me.

      • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

        This is what happens to me too! Except I was really really into New Vegas, but then the PS3 decided to stop reading blu-rays. But I think that one was handled by different people, right? 

        I’m not really into fantasy settings, but i’m all about post-apocalyptic shit, though Fallout 3 didn’t really do much for me either. New Vegas was totally different for me, I felt like the characters were much better written, and the whole thing seemed much more adult or someting. 

        Still haven’t tried Skyrim at all, and I can’t say I really want to either.

        • HobbesMkii

          New Vegas is the one that I can say really overwhelmed me with options. I got to the middle of the main quest where you have to decide to back a faction and stopped because I had no idea how I was gonna make that call.

        • itisdancing

          That’s because New Vegas was made by Obsidian, and writing games well is what they do. (Making games which aren’t buggy is another matter entirely. Sigh.)

        • Citric

          The Boomers exploded me so bad in New Vegas that the game broke. I was strangely proud of that crash.

    • The_Asinus

      They keep my interest for a long time (exception: Oblivion), my problem is that I rarely finish them. Skyrim was the exception, though. I really got into the main story, for some reason– I’m not sure if it was guiding me more strongly, but I really wanted to save the world. I actually thought I was at the end when I was about midway through. I started doing side quests and grinding because I thought I was underleveled. I ended up… hmm… around level 60 with daedric armor and sword, and killed the last boss really, really quickly. It was a great game.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Anthony-John-Agnello/1362601810 Anthony John Agnello

    I’m both disturbed and elated by the fact that all the Elder Scrolls games sound like types of prison hooch. That said, Morrowind is probably the toilet gin the serve in low security facilities for white collar criminals.

    • Drew Toal

      Nice bouquet. 

  • jarviscockblocker

    If only I could show you my Hungarian version of Shogo: Mobile Armor Division. They had to stick with the length of the English voiceover but didn’t bother to shorten the translation, so you are stuck with clipped and unfinished sentences said by bored office workers who are supposed to act like badass mechatroopers,

  • Spacemonkey_Mafia

    I’ll never cease to be amazed by the horribleness of Oblivion character faces.  Being stared down by a town full of people draped in mildewed rubber masks with glassy taxidermists eyes is more horrible than anything conceived in the last generation of survival horror games.

    • AuroraBoreanaz

      Those clips above are pretty dire, yes.  But they looked a lot better on my PC…still pretty ugly most of the time, but not like half-melted wax at least.

      Skyrim improved them big time (as well as Fallout New Vegas for that matter).

      • General_Specific

        I was impressed by how improved the character faces were in Skyrim, especially the Khajiit and Argonians. They looked fucking awesome.

    • Fyodor Douchetoevsky

      That engine is weird as fuck. The way the npcs moved around freaked me out so much. Also, when my friend was dicking around when Oblivion was still all the rage he was jumping through a town and his character randomly collapsed upon landing and didn’t get back up. It was like he broke his legs. Of course this was hilarious, but it doesn’t do much for that whole “immersion” thing that people seem to love about this series.

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

        Oblivion is buggy as fuck. In just six hours of gameplay, all of the following happened to me:

        - A sidequest pointed me to a location that literally did not exist.

        - I walked through a tree.

        - Another sidequest broke when the spell that had been given to me in order to complete it literally had no effect on its intended target.

        - My horse vanished. It just stopped existing.

        - In one sidequest, the people that I was supposed to be following just vanished and never reached their intended location, thus breaking the quest.

        And that’s not to mention the numerous texture and graphical glitches. Plus, this all happened in the year 2011, five years after the game’s release. That shit should have been patched by now.

        • http://sarapen.ca/ Sarapen

          How is it that everyone else seems to get so many bugs in Oblivion? The only one I remember that was gamebreaking was the so-called Animation Bomb, where if you play too long the graphics get weird as shit and processes take too long – I swear I was almost at the end of Shivering Isles and left the game on to go buy groceries and the lightning bolt announcing Sheogorath’s arrival still hadn’t finished by the time I got back. That was admittedly annoying but I’d sunk over 400 hours into the game so it’s not like it happened immediately and I was obsessive about saving anyway, I think I had like over 100 savegame files (it’s my adventure gaming roots, I know how easily you can screw yourself because you don’t think like the programmers do). So I just loaded up my penultimate save and rushed through the end to finish before the A-bomb glitch activated.

          Now that I think about it, though, I also remember Umbra got stuck on a piece of rock charging at me but seeing how I shamelessly took advantage of it to pepper her full of arrows I didn’t really mind. I guess other people just have less tolerance of bugs than me.

      • AuroraBoreanaz

        My favorite goofy moment of this engine was in Fallout 3 at Tenpenny Tower.

        I decided I didn’t like Allistair Tenpenny, so I punched him off his balcony.  Then went down to ground level and found his body, picked it up, and carried it over to where a guard was practicing at a firing range.

        I spent several minutes trying to get Allistair’s body to stick to one of the target dummies, all the while the guard just keeps asking me to knock it off and move out of the way.

        Obviously Mr. Tenpenny didn’t have much loyalty from his employees.

        • itisdancing

          Punching Tenpenny off his tower is one of my favorite things to do.

        • Aaron Riccio

          I wish I’d spent more time trying to break Fallout 3. The only exploit I ever used was the one that allowed you to “fly” a tank in Grand Theft Auto 3. Now that was some straight gangster shit.

      • The_Misanthrope

         I found the NPC movement in Oblivion annoying.  Perhaps having them stand around in place isn’t realistic, but neither is having them run the same couple of predetermined action routines.  I remember there was a certain quest where I had to follow around a suspicious individual to see if he did anything…well, suspicious.  When I accepted the quest I was excited because it seemed like it would be something besides the usual “Go to Point A, talk to NPC, Go to Point B, retrieve/steal item, return to Point A” style of town-based missions.  However, that was not the case.  I followed the asshole all damn day watching him do a lot of nothing–working in a vegetable garden, stopping to eat lunch, then walking back to home, raking his back-yard for awhile.  Then I found out I didn’t need to follow that person and that the quest-giver is a paranoid loon.

        • ChipDipson

          Yeah, but that was an awesome touch. I laughed out loud when it happened to me. Not something that happens much in an ES game.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=512352074 Brian J. Wright

      All the elves looked like Balok from The Corbomite Maneuver.

  • 3FistedHumdinger

    Needs more powdered deer penis.

  • STOP_RIGHT_THERE_CRIMINAL_SCUM

    THEN PAY WITH YOUR BLOOD!

  • RidleyFGJ

    No topic on the awfulness of Oblivion’s voice-acting can be complete without linking to a video featuring Runs-In-Circles, care of the Shivering Isles expansion:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S9zeQMbGEPc

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

      The only appropriate reaction to this is: “omgwtfbbq?”

    • Aaron Riccio

      No-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no!

  • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp David Dalrymple

    That first scene reminds me of the original Discworld video game. There were a few Rincewind lines that were added later on, but they couldn’t get Eric Idle to record them. 

  • http://twitter.com/djbeema Reuben

    This needs to posted here: 
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R_bx_9QYt7k&feature=player_embedded

    I was recently at a game convention and there were several panels with voice actors (a couple from Bethesda’s games included, such as Wes Johnson). I was consistently impressed with their talent and just what interesting and funny people they were. Also got insight in to how hard they all work at their craft. I have the utmost respect for them. It kind of sucks that all of them have anecdotes about famous film actors coming along in recent years and putting voice actors out of work. Although I suspect with budget being very much a concern, we will still be seeing dedicated voice actors in video games for a while to come. 

  • supercrotchinator

    Yes, the VA (and character animation) for Oblivion is shockingly bad. A shame, ’cause I just bought it recently, and find it to be pretty much unplayable for those reasons.

    Off-topic now, can just hijack this article to bitch about this new Gameological Society thing? At first, I was cautiously optimistic about a dedicated site for all things gaming. But the results so far have been (for me) less than rewarding. I hate having to constantly revisit the site to read little snippets of what used to be an entire article. What gives, GS? Incapable of writing something more than 100 words? You’ve got a whole site to yourself now, you know. Stretch out a bit! And please for the love of Bog, if you’re going to make an incredibly short video, spare me your alleged “jokes”. Impress me with your encyclopedic knowledge of games first, at least. I *assume* you have something to say about games, but until you manage to write an actual article about them, I will remain unconvinced.

    P.S. Yeah I read the introduction where Teti said this site was going to provide small daily-size nibbles instead of weekly gulps. My point is that this format sucks and you should consider changing it. It’s OK if you don’t update every day. I don’t mind waiting.

    • itisdancing

      I just turned the voices off. There’s subtitles, after all.

      Also, your opinions are bad and you should feel bad. I like the  format and Teti should stick with it.

      • colliewest

         +1 for the site being great in its current format.

  • Aaron Riccio

    By the way, there was a great article on *good* voice acting in The New Yorker last August. It’s not for free online, but you can see the abstract here (or the whole thing if you’re a subscriber): 
    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/08/15/110815fa_fact_bissell

    • Captain_Internet

      You can read it if you click on the scan of the page at the bottom. Best magazine in the world.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ron-Sweeney/100002176133675 Ron Sweeney

    To be fair, if you go outside, people are exactly this repetitive. Nice summer we’re having. Did you see that thing that happened with Area Team? God, politicians are just the worst. 

  • zhangfeng12