Voice-Overs for Ambient Game Character Events

A few tips and tricks for writing dialogue and recording voice-overs for characters in games for tasks unrelated to advancing the plot-lines.

As a voice-over producer specialized in games, my job often is to create voice-overs for game characters to add flavor and personality to a game and to make a fuller game experience. A certain category of voice-over needs are what I consider "ambient voice-overs" - or voice-overs that come from characters to indicate that game events are occurring (such as throwing items, jumping, cutting down trees, engaging light/medium/heavy attacks, etc.), or creating an ambient game environment to make the game feel more real (voices from a chaotic battlefield, voices from passing people in a city, etc.). These sounds are most commonly found in fighting games, strategy games and MMO/RPG games.

The Warcraft II Example

The first game I ever played that had strong ambient voice-overs for its characters was Warcraft II. Every character, from peon/peasant on up, responds to being selected and charged with different tasks extremely well. There are several factors that make these voice-over successful which serves as a good fundamental backdrop when incorporating voice-overs into your games:

1) Each character has a distinct personality.

Not only do the orcs and humans have different vocal characteristics that make them easy to discern from each other, each character has a unique personality. Peasants don't sound brilliant, and have a bit of a tired affect. Knights have a bold voice. Orc voices are kind of sloppy and rough. These differences make a huge difference in our gameplay experience.

2) The script matches the personality.

Upon finding the right voice for the character, the next most important thing is to match the script to the voice. Characters need to say what suits them, and anything out of character is a major distraction to gameplay. For this reason, I find it advisable to develop the voice to some degree for each character before composing the entire script. Using ad-libs from actors in character is also a good way to hone in on creating just the right sound for each voice and game event.

3) Processing effects accentuate character differences and create variety.

From the flange effect on trolls to the reverb/delay effects on the wizard, each character has a different aura. This is very helpful in preventing the game from feeling monotonous. But note, in these examples, the effect is not extreme - it is fairly subtle. If every character's voice is heavily processed, a certain kind of fatigue can set in (a phenomenon which I call the 'Transformers Effect').

4) Each game event has a variety of sounds that are different.

As each game event in Warcraft II has a variety of voice-overs that could come from a trigger, we do not burn out as easily as we would with a more limited number of phrases. As a general rule:

Triggered events that happen once: 1 version

Triggered events on occasion: 2-3 variations

Triggered events that happen often: 5+ variations

Constant game events may even need 10+ variations.

Note that Warcraft II has a different phrase for every game event, even when similar things are happening. This is vitally important, or players will catch on to the lack of diversity.


As a counter-example, I'd like to focus on one of the biggest games to struggle mightily on achieving good ambient voice-overs.

The Skyrim Example

For all of Skyrim's great features, it unfortunately is a good example of a top game that could do better. 



Rather than harp on how bad these voice-overs are, I'd like to point to this as a good learning moment and help set the stage for future projects to be more successful with their ambient voice-overs.

My advice to Bethesda on the next go around is to:

- Hire more voice actors.

- Diversify the script.

- Make sure each character has something unique and interesting they're adding to the game when they are speaking, rather than filling time or otherwise barely fulfilling a cursory need to impart information.

- Identify the most repeated game moments and make sure to have a good diversity and quality of ambient voice-overs in these moments.

Otherwise, the only thing that can save us will be the robust modding community, trying to help us get through the game without killing our most needed NPCs.


I hope some among you find this information helpful. If you have questions or thoughts about your game going forward, I am always glad to offer my advice.

-Will Bucknum

 Voice-Over Producer/Consultant, Voice to Game

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