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Do you hear the voices?

Voice is often considered the most important audio in a video game. In some cases it absolutely must be heard, but in other cases, not so much. How do we draw the line?

Voice is often considered the most important audio in video games. But when is it really important? When must a voice line be heard at the expense of anything else?

I posit that the only truly important voice lines are those that inform the player of the only solution to a presented problem. If a missed line means that the player will feel like their game is broken, or that they're stupid, or suck at the game, then it really is important. If there is no other alternative for the player to figure something out, like some kind of visual cue or other audio cue, then it must be heard, although I would probably argue that it seems silly or dangerous for VO to be the only way to present crucial information. From my experience, most audio designers, many of whom tend to value sound effects and music above voice, don't want the player to be tortured by a missed voice line that explains crucial information.

Other than that, I'd suggest that voice lines can take a back seat to other sounds or music. Even lines that progress the story forward.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that story voice lines are not important, or that the player should need to strain their ears to hear them. I believe that they should be audible, but that they don't need to aggressively duck the other sounds in the game while they're playing. Also, if a story line is missed but there is a visual cue to indicate the information that was given verbally, then I might suggest that it's not as critical, even though many players do not read information presented as text on the screen.

This isn't a very popular opinion, by the way. There are many people in other disciplines that would argue against it, particularly writers, designers, and producers. Sometimes I get the impression that they want voice lines to be the loudest sounds in the game, heard above explosions, gun shots, cars being crumpled under tank treads, and whatever else. To accomplish this voice loudness, many games out there, including ones that I've worked on, compress every single one of their voice lines like they're being limited for radio.

The reason that I care about this is because the focus on voice volume can ultimately cause quality issues with audio overall. If a game's voice lines are maxed out in perceived loudness, then the voice acting performance that you so lovingly captured is significantly altered. If your story voice lines always duck everything else, then what happens when the line is triggered right on top of an impactful sound effect or musical cue that was crafted specifically for that moment? What happens is that the emotion can be sucked out of the moment.

Also, most games provide a volume slider for voice. If the player wants voice to be loud, they can either crank up the voice volume option, or they can lower the SFX and music volume options to compensate. Most of us give the players the control to hear their voice lines as clear as day if they desire it. So, why is it that we feel the need to compress the living daylights out of our voice lines and into crafting complicated and elaborate ducking systems?

We don't. We don't have to do it.

Well, actually, it's not that simple, because we frequently have writers grieving about missed content, designers worrying that the player won't understand the story, and producers or management saying "it's hard to hear the voice" almost as if by reflex. Additionally, if there is massive inconsistency between lines, then the audio team may want to level things out and might overcompensate to be on the safe side.

The reality is, sometimes voice can be hard to hear. This happens in real life, this happens in movies and television, this happens pretty much everywhere, except maybe commercials, which is how the voice in many games is mixed. It feels like some games are mixing game voice over like commercials. I'd like this practice to stop, or at least for the pendulum to start swinging in the other direction.

This blog has been really ranty, so I'm going to change gears to talk about a few things that I've learned about voice.

If your voice lines aggressively duck other sounds, then consider making friends with your designers and mission scripters, or whoever it is that determines when your lines are triggered. Make sure to communicate early on that your voice lines will be ducking things like explosions, ambience, and whatever else, so that they can preemptively time the lines is such a way that they don't conflict with other major audio cues like SFX and music. If you notice that a voice line is making a major audio moment fall flat, then take the time to explain to your colleagues why this is happening and help them find another place to trigger the line, perhaps right before or right after that other major moment.

If you're compressing the life out of your voice lines, then consider making friends with your compressor, if you aren't already best friends to begin with. Take the time to understand what your compressor is doing, exactly what all of the knobs and meters mean, and experiment with nudging those values. If you have the bandwidth, then don't batch process all of your lines with the same preset. Consider compressing each line by hand if you have the time. If that's too much, you could try compressing lines in groups based on different factors, like the voice actor, or the intensity of the line.

If your production team or management team is saying that they can't hear the voice well enough, then be patient with them. Sit with them and listen while the play. Have them point out the lines that are hard for them to hear. Take the time to explain the reasoning behind your decisions, and walk them through the audio options. Set their volume options to a place where they are happy and save their profile or write those number down for them. Explain that the volume options are provided because not every player is going to find the game's default mix state to their liking, and that's natural and acceptable. Everyone's ears are different.

I do believe that voice is important in general, but that all lines are not equal in importance. They vary depending on the consequences of not hearing the line. The audio team can help educate themselves and their colleagues on the subject because it's very important to the quality of the audio in the game.

This is just how I'm feeling right now. I'd like to discuss it more, so if you're reading this and have an opinion, please comment or send me a message.

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