Why A Voice Actor Should Never Put Their Vocal Health on The Line for Low Pay
The voice over business is a complicated beast. Like all aspects of the arts (and most other businesses for that matter), contacts so often trump competence. We all know wonderful talents who just can’t catch a break. Sadly, we can probably also think of artists who we feel don’t justify their lofty successes. But voice acting is such an exciting gig, isn’t it? Passion for what we could do can often cloud our judgement of what we should do.
This leads us to an intertwined problem that plagues the world of 21st Century Voice Over. I am talking about rates of pay and vocal health. Producers stiffing unknown talent on their fee is as old as the industry itself. It was wrong then and it’s wrong now. Pay an artist what they’re worth or you don’t get to produce your project should be enshrined in law. Sadly, it isn’t and that leads us to actors’ vocal health and a uniquely 21st century arts dilemma. Game Voice Over.
The Challenge of Game Voice Over
Providing voice acting for video games is incredibly new. The games industry itself is only about 50 years old. And it’s only since the early 1990s that the idea of a cast of voice actors playing game characters became a thing. Compare that to traditional theatre acting which has been around for literally thousands of years. Also bear in mind that early game VO was incredibly simplistic. Day of The Tentacle is wonderful to listen to and still holds up today. But you only have to compare that title’s cast of 7 with say, Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga and its cast of 97 to see how things have moved on it just 30 years.
I want to draw an important distinction at this point. Voice acting in a game is not the same as acting for animation. Animation acting requires pace, timing, and energy to create the heightened reality of the animated world. Voice acting in a game (for the most part) demands…acting. Proper, straight, intense, dramatic, focused, believable acting. The great Dave Fennoy likes to refer to games as Interactive Experiences. And he’s quite right to do so. The days of games being about high scores in Pac Man or Space Invaders are long, long past.
Today’s games are all about experiential entertainment. A movie in which the player is the star. This is how the majority of games are written now. Even sports games tend to incorporate a narrative to make the player feel as though they are living the game. It’s easy to see why game devs and directors want a filmic quality to the voice acting. It has drawn pro actors into the industry both unknown and famous. The game industry has also created its own stars, such as the aforementioned Dave Fennoy, Troy Baker and Cissy Jones.
But is the experience of actually recording a game voice the same as acting in front of camera? Surely game voicing is just film acting for microphone. Wrong. There are a lot of similarities for sure. The process of truthfully exploring and expressing your character is absolutely related to film acting. Subtlety and authenticity are as vital to film acting as they are to game acting. But 99.9% of films require an actor to render a single narrative/story arc. 99.9% of games will require a voice actor to render more than one arc, usually a lot more.
Why Game Voice Over is Different from Film Acting
The key appeal of games over films is the audience’s ability to shape the narrative themselves. The sheer thrill of playing Arkham Asylum, for example, is that you get to be the Batman himself. The player, not the director, decides exactly how the Dark Knight’s narrative will unfold. It is this direct involvement of the audience that has propelled Gaming to yearly profits in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
So, the game voice actor must render not a single performance but multiple versions of the same story. In a AAA title this requires even a relatively minor character to record a staggering number of interconnected lines. They must also manage all the “emotes”. These are the non-verbal vocalisations that accompany exploration sequences and fight scenes and are essential to selling the immersive experience to the player.
Emotes are an increasingly problematic aspect of game voice acting. Why? Well, try to imagine being asked to scream in pain as your character is hurt or killed. A scream that might occur once in a stage play is a significant strain on the vocal instrument and must be approached with consistent and well-practiced technique. Otherwise, the spontaneity of the emotion could damage the voice and thus the actor’s health and career. In a game, characters rarely get to die only one way. Standard procedure is for voice actors to create emotes for multiple forms of death and violence. Often for hours at a time.
A voice actor’s human intuition and creativity is the spark of life that makes the game world the player inhabits credible.
To say this is hard on the actor’s voice and body is a gigantic understatement. Top voice actors are no different to any other elite athlete. Their instruments must be protected and respected by their employers. After all a voice actor’s human intuition and creativity is the spark of life that makes the game world the player inhabits credible. The onrushing forces of cheap, exploitative artificial intelligence in voice over may be gathering pace. But as of 2022 there is still no computer that can outperform a top-quality dramatic actor.
All this being said, it is absolutely staggering how many game producers will happily pay their voice talent awful wages before working said talents vocal instrument to the point of destruction. It is abhorrent, exploitative and such shoddy treatment wouldn’t be tolerated in a host of other industries.
At this point I do want to speak out in defence of a great number of ethical and caring game devs who genuinely do want to do right by their voice actors. This is such a new art form that clumsy choices are inevitable as we all learn how to do the business of game audio with better refinement. There are good guys out there working hard to do things the right way. They are deserving of our appreciation and support.
There are still those who seek to exploit and undercompensate voice actors with nary a thought to anything other than their own companies profit margin. No actor should have to accept damaging their own vocal health for little or no money as the price of entry into a game voicing career.
How Can Game Voice Actors Protect Themselves?
So, what can be done? As a voice coach for Flying Pickle Performing Arts, I care deeply about my client’s vocal health. Nothing matters to me more when I am coaching. When one of my clients has a sore voice my best advice to them is to stop talking wherever possible. I believe this advice also translates to low paid voice jobs, especially high stress gigs in gaming. If you are not being properly valued and are being asked to do things that might hurt your voice, then say no and stop talking. It’s your career and you deserve to have a long and successful run with a healthy voice and a healthy bank balance.
As voice actors we all want to work, of course we do. And this business can seem very, very hard to break into when you’re starting out. But no job is worth damaging your health for. In fact, when you stop to think about it, risking your vocal health and hurting your long term career for a terribly paid gaming job is pretty daft. So, trust yourself and be brave enough to say no. If you don’t know how much you should be getting paid contact Equity. They’re a lovely bunch and they’ll tell you what you need to know about rates and any agreements they already have in place.
Look after yourself. Believe in your talent. Ask for help if you need it. And never, ever put your vocal health on the line for low pay.