Voice Over Origins : Video Games
I expected that my research into the history of voice acting in video games would prove relatively easy. However, it has not, despite the fact it happened in living memory (for most of us! I’ve reached that stage where it boggles my mind that an adult today could possibly have been BORN in 2002…) In fact, there is a lot of vague information about who the first company to use real recorded voice actors in their games was and who those first actors were. So here is a compilation of the first use of voice acting in video games that I discovered.
The first use of voice (albeit synthesised voice) in the gaming industry was the pinball machine, ‘Gorgar’ by Williams in 1979. The machine was programmed to say seven different words, which were Gorgar, Speaks, Beat, You, Me, Hurt, Got and were combined to create different broken phrases like “Gorgar speaks” and “Me beat you”. ‘Gorgar’ was closely followed by the arcade game ‘Berzerk’ by Stern Electronics in 1980 which had 30 words. Once again, the voices were synthesised. During this time, it was an incredibly expensive process to create speech for games. To give you an idea, for the game ‘Berzerk’, it is estimated that it cost $1000 per word to produce.
The next development in voice over in video games came in 1981 with the video game ‘Castle Wolfenstein’ by Muse Software. Instead of using speech synthesis, it actually featured digitized voices. The creator and designer behind Castle Wolfenstein was the late Silas Warner, who also provided the voice over. With regard to work on Castle Wolfenstein, he recalled,
“We were working with a professional recording studio. We went down there one fine day and I spent several hours on the microphone saying, ‘Achtung!’”
In addition to being the first video game to feature digitized voice, it is also remembered for being an early example of a World War II shooter game and a stealth, action adventure game. Given where technology was at and what was possible, and considering what genres were popular for video games at the time, Silas Warner was way ahead of his time.
A couple of years later in 1983, the arcade game ‘Dragon’s Lair’ by Don Bluth Productions was released. That is, Don Bluth the famous Disney animator. This became an iconic laserdisk arcade game featuring some of the earliest human voice over artistry. However, due to a limited budget and possibly given the fact that there was not much of a precedent set at that point, the voice overs were once again provided by the developers and animators already working on the project as opposed to professional actors.
As with all industries covered so far, the development of voice over in video games has been dependent on the advancements in technology. Before CD-ROMs, there was not enough storage space to contain much speech. In 1988, the Sega Genesis was the first console to use CD technology, which continued to grow in popularity across gaming through the 1990s.
Familiar classic games such as King’s Quest V by Sierra in 1990 were released on CD and featured much more dialogue since the technology had the capacity to hold a greater amount of information. However, continuing in the footsteps of the few forerunners before, Sierra continued the tradition of using employees to lend their voice to characters rather than hire actors. Many companies at the time followed suit and it seems, rather madly by today’s standards, that the quality of voice acting was not really considered a priority.
One of the few companies that strayed from the industry norm of “Starring the Employees” was LucasArts. Instead, they sought professional voice talent to provide real voice acting. Which means that games such as LOOM in 1990 and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis in 1992 (the first video game I ever played, where my love for gaming began!) were among the first to have professional voice acting and a named cast.
It is interesting to see how the technological advances in video gaming production allowed for the development in styles and genres. Voice acting in video games is almost essential these days, in order to create story lines and add atmosphere. The number of genres that exist within video games has boomed as have the amount of people who enjoy playing them. No longer does the pastime of playing video games belong exclusively to ‘geeks’ or ‘little boys’. And it is an industry that is continuing to accelerate - an industry that I am proud to be a small part of.