Opinion: Tales from the recording booth

Opinion: Tales from the recording booth

The printer stops churning and there it is. Ninety pages of small spreadsheet cells, each with a sentence or two inside. This is the script of the game you've just written. The plot, the characters, the dialogue, the illadvised references to other games and TV shows, the typos you really should have spotted. It's all here. And now it's time to go to the recording studio and get it in the can.

Dev teams love it when proper dialogue is put into their game. It adds a whole new dimension. It comes alive. The public never get this revelation because they never play bug-ridden, half-finished games with poor dialogue or no dialogue at all. Not only does it instantly improve the game, but it makes the final submission seem closer. Possibly even attainable. And of course, if you work for Peter Moly… er, any company with a reputation for 'adjusting' games up to and beyond deadline, recording the text casts it in stone. Or in a stonelooking but still fairly unstable fluid, at least.

Anyway, the voice recording bit should be fun. It and mo-cap are the most showbizzy elements of creating a game. The writer must surely love hearing his words brought to life by, say, Steven Segal or an actor. Well, it doesn't always happen that way. Here's how it usually goes.

Firstly, as the writer, you've got a very good idea of how the characters sound. After viewing the concept art, playing the game and being hugely au fait with the story, you should do. So your ideas of voice actors carry a great deal of weight, obviously. Or not. Someone senior on the team loves Eddie Izzard.

So your barrel-chested, gruff, monosyllabic hero is now going to be voiced by a verbally rambling cross-dresser. Oh, and note that it's 'someone senior loves Eddie Izzard' not 'someone senior believes Eddie Izzard is perfect for the role'. There is a difference. So that's the main actor sorted. What about the other 50 talking characters? Where are you going to find 50 unemployed actors? Oh, yes. London. But the producer points out that if you got five actors, and they do ten voices each, it'd be less of a logistical nightmare and far cheaper.

The first day of recording. It's an early start but that's OK because you haven't slept. No, you've been adding lines, rewriting stuff and trying to shoehorn in things the team have seen fit to wait until the very last minute to ask for. Oh, and apparently now there's a small boy in the game. One of them will be able to cover that voice, surely? Sean Pertwee or someone?

At the recording studio, the first actor arrives. After the obligatory 'hilarious' acting anecdote, you tell him about his character, The Mage. "The what? The image? I don't understand," the actor says. So you tell him he has to be a wizard just like Gandalf. "Oh, no no no. I couldn't possibly sound like Gandalf. The thing is, I played Gandalf in those films. I'm not supposed to replicate the voice anywhere else." So you settle for Sir Ian doing The Mage as a timid, stuttering Brummie. Still, at least his name will be in the credits.

In trots one of the two obligatory females. She's gorgeous but, like all actresses, irredeemably insane. Her performance is moving, harrowing, joyous, perfect. She physically acts the parts, moving and gesticulating. She inhabits the characters fully and makes them live. It is literally amazing. "Sorry, love," says the sound engineer (who'll always be called Chris or, if he's over 50, Jeff). "We'll have to do the lot again. And this time don't wobble around. The mic's picking it up."

Next up is that bloke who's always on the telly. Does loads of radio as well. Adverts and everything. Oh, what's his name? He was in Doctor Who and Holby City. You'd know him if you saw or heard him. This ubiquitous man with no name turns out to be amazing. Not only does he play games, but he's even, dammit, done some research on the Internet about your title. This man nails every voice, every nuance, and improves every sentence. He's polite, funny, takes direction well and finishes early because he's made no mistakes. What's his name? Erm, can't remember.

More people come and go. You resort to differentiating between the goblin attack squads via regional accents. So the archers end up being Yorkshiremen, the swordsmen are from Glasgow and the catapulters all sound like Justin Lee Collins.

And you're done. Apart from the emails that the studio received from the dev team containing extra lines to record. You happily delete these, knowing that Stephen Fry is not going to alter his entire month's schedule to pop back in.

A few days later the work is chopped up and edited and in the game. The best lines, jokes and memorable bits are new to everyone's ears and flash around the dev studio like catchphrases. The game seems that much closer to completion. The audio bods tweak and add effects. Perhaps everything's a little too loud at the moment. Up comes a tester: "Why are they all shouting? I thought you'd hired professionals. These people are like preschoolers bellowing out a nativity play." Soon after the volume level has been reduced the same tester says: "It's better since you re-recorded everyone. Second time around, the performances always improve." Sigh.