The transition from dialogue boxes to voice acting in games

Posted by Brodehouse (9652 posts) -

 I've been playing Final Fantasy XIII.  I made it to Chapter 9 just now, and without spoilers, there is a brief moment where you can walk around and speak to people like a traditional JRPG.  I'm playing without subtitles on, so you're frozen in place as they tell you something or other, and there is a icon at the bottom of the screen that says "X - Advance".  It was in this moment when I first truly realized the effects of moving from text boxes to full voice.  For a while, people have been trying to pinpoint why Final Fantasy hasn't "felt" right in a few installments.  The major transition wasn't visual, advancements in graphical technology were made, but even Final Fantasy XIII doesn't feel so far off from Final Fantasy VII in relating a story through images.  Music hasn't changed much, gone from MIDI to synthesized digital media to fully orchestrated symphonic works, but still relates emotion and mood the same way it always has.  What has changed is how dialogue is expressed.  In moving from text used to express a situation and a character, we have full voice acting.  It is a move from the evocative to the visceral.  
 
In early Final Fantasy games, there was a big text box, and all dialogue and incidental information was conveyed through that.  When the Playstation era came about, suddenly the screen was being used as a framing device for expressing information.  The result  is something similar to comics, the emotion and delivery of a character's dialogue now becomes something of craft, by changing the medium from natural voice to text, you begin a creative process of evoking the pitch, the inflections, the demeanor.  People created a voice inside their head in order to configure this experience properly, involving the audience indirectly.  Sure, all you've done is press X through dialogue, but you have a different voice for Squall and Selphie, you understand a pause for effect within a text box.
 
In comics there is something called closure, where you see one panel, then the second panel, and mentally connect the events of the first to flow seamlessly into the next.  It is what I feel the secret weapon of comics.  It instigates involvement, of unconscious interaction with a world.  It is an active media, one where the participant is directly interacting.  The story will not go on until you read the next panel.  Film, on the other hand, is very passive, and far more non-interactive, and attempts to create involvement through a visceral series of events.  If you look away from the film, however, it will continue.  You are not responsible for the unfolding events, nor even to pay attention or even mash a button.
 
 Is replacing all of our once text based entertainment with voice acted entertainment truly wise?  Is there a place for reading in games?

#1 Posted by Brodehouse (9652 posts) -

 I've been playing Final Fantasy XIII.  I made it to Chapter 9 just now, and without spoilers, there is a brief moment where you can walk around and speak to people like a traditional JRPG.  I'm playing without subtitles on, so you're frozen in place as they tell you something or other, and there is a icon at the bottom of the screen that says "X - Advance".  It was in this moment when I first truly realized the effects of moving from text boxes to full voice.  For a while, people have been trying to pinpoint why Final Fantasy hasn't "felt" right in a few installments.  The major transition wasn't visual, advancements in graphical technology were made, but even Final Fantasy XIII doesn't feel so far off from Final Fantasy VII in relating a story through images.  Music hasn't changed much, gone from MIDI to synthesized digital media to fully orchestrated symphonic works, but still relates emotion and mood the same way it always has.  What has changed is how dialogue is expressed.  In moving from text used to express a situation and a character, we have full voice acting.  It is a move from the evocative to the visceral.  
 
In early Final Fantasy games, there was a big text box, and all dialogue and incidental information was conveyed through that.  When the Playstation era came about, suddenly the screen was being used as a framing device for expressing information.  The result  is something similar to comics, the emotion and delivery of a character's dialogue now becomes something of craft, by changing the medium from natural voice to text, you begin a creative process of evoking the pitch, the inflections, the demeanor.  People created a voice inside their head in order to configure this experience properly, involving the audience indirectly.  Sure, all you've done is press X through dialogue, but you have a different voice for Squall and Selphie, you understand a pause for effect within a text box.
 
In comics there is something called closure, where you see one panel, then the second panel, and mentally connect the events of the first to flow seamlessly into the next.  It is what I feel the secret weapon of comics.  It instigates involvement, of unconscious interaction with a world.  It is an active media, one where the participant is directly interacting.  The story will not go on until you read the next panel.  Film, on the other hand, is very passive, and far more non-interactive, and attempts to create involvement through a visceral series of events.  If you look away from the film, however, it will continue.  You are not responsible for the unfolding events, nor even to pay attention or even mash a button.
 
 Is replacing all of our once text based entertainment with voice acted entertainment truly wise?  Is there a place for reading in games?

#2 Posted by ViciousAnchovy (727 posts) -

Most of the skits in Tales of Symphonia didn't have voice acting and they continued on at their own pace. Most of them were better than the skits in Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World, but the latter had voice acting, which I found to be a big plus, so I enjoyed them about the same.
 
In DA:O, I haven't tried just subtitles, but having voice acting with subtitles (at least at the top of the screen) is really jarring to me. But in the case of Alistair, I think it would be hard to imagine an equally amusing voice.

Online
#3 Posted by Addfwyn (1917 posts) -

I play all my games with subtitles if it's an option, old habit from when I used to watch tons of foreign movies.  I watch all my movies (even US released english movies) with subtitles now, it just feels weird otherwise.  Even I am watching an english movie, I keep looking for english subs to read. 
 
That said, I'm totally okay with voice acting as long as it is done well.  If you can't get the voice acting right, I'd rather not have it at all, but good voice acting certainly trumps dialogue boxes.  It's just a matter of getting that dialogue down.  I find it actually more immersive to have good voice acting rather than dialogue, but that is personal preference.

#4 Posted by JauntyHat (323 posts) -

Nice way of putting it Brodehouse. Recently, my roommate purchased final fantasy XIII for the 360 and has been running through it. From what I've seen he's enjoyed it; however, I have Final Fantasy IX at the apartment and he decided to drop it into our PS2 when he found a place to (finally) stop in XIII. What I witnessed was a complete 180 in the way he approached the game. IX having absolutely no voice acting in it beyond the general grunts, gasps, and screams in the cutscenes relies entirely on dialog boxes. As you have stated it's a different style of interaction than XIII. What was also present in IX that we didn't get out of (or as much of) in XIII was a sense of character. Only having dialog boxes forced the game to create elaborate and interesting character animations to go along with their text, something that has practically disappeared with modern games.

#5 Posted by Signpost (47 posts) -

Can you get subtitles on the ambient dialogue (people talking when you are near them) and when you actively talk to people (like in Chapter 9)?  I thought I had all subs turned on and yet I don't have subs for those 2 instances on the PS3 version.

#6 Posted by ZenaxPure (2569 posts) -
@Signpost: yes to both, there is like 50 different options for subtitles, just turn them all on and you are set.
#7 Posted by Signpost (47 posts) -
@Zenaxzd: hmm, I thought I had.  I will have to check my settings again when I get home.  Thanks for the confirmation though.
#8 Posted by Cristofyr (16 posts) -

I don't think that the voice acting is necessarily a negative, but I don't think FF has really figured out how to incorporate it properly. In many ways it feels like it's about 5-7 years behind where the voiced stuff is in more western games in that they treat it as a novelty rather than as an important part of the gameplay. Back then, it didn't matter what the characters sounded like or who you cast because the novelty of actually having voiced dialogue was still fresh to players. Today we expect games to not only be voiced, but voiced well. I had absolutely no problem with the voice acting in a games like Mass Effect or Gears of War because those game got quality voice talent that "felt" right for each character. They also did a much, much better job of intergrating the characters with their environment during the cutscene. The camera moved like a movie in those games complete with a small shake at the end of a pan and lens flare, compared to FF, where it a lot of times feels like a bad fashion show with it zooming in for closeups all the time. Maybe this has to do with the fact that the dialogue felt so much more natural in the other games?  FF has a tendency toward melodrama, so a lot of time it feels like the characters are reading from a carefully prepared script rather than reacting how they actually would as a character and sound stiled as a result.
 
Also, I would argue the music has changed. Ever since X, there has been this shift (a bad one in my opinion), away from true orchestral scores toward bad pop-style music. I remember playing through an early part of the game with Sazh and Vanille and the music sounded like something I'd hear in a coffee shop rather than a game. It was really pretty bad. The main theme is also piano heavy to an extreme. Compare this to the orchestral version of the music from VII or VIII and there is a big difference.
#9 Edited by Addfwyn (1917 posts) -
@Cristofyr: Different composer (Hamauzu) did XIII and most of X.  Uematsu did VII and VIII (and is doing XIV as well) as well as a couple standout tracks in X (Like Zanarkand) and basically every other older FF.  That's probably why the music sounds different to you, because an entirely different composer is doing it.  If you've played the SaGa games, Hamauzu does those as well (and the game sounds very familiar to those).   
So yeah, the music has most certainly changed, and I just don't think there is a modern composer as talented as Uematsu. 
 
That said, listen to some of the pieces Uematsu has done for FFXIV.  Brilliant, and it's the soundtrack for an MMO.
#10 Posted by Superkenon (1399 posts) -

 I'm a big fan of the text box, and all of the power it holds.  My favorite video game dialogue comes from titles that are text-only, and utilize well the text box (and character animations) to their potential... games like Ace Attorney and Paper Mario.  I feel like if Ace Attorney were - somehow - voiced, all of those funny lines would've lost all their charm and delivery.  I think there is something to be said for hearing the voices of characters with your mind rather than your ears - perhaps it really does make the experience more personal and enjoyable.  I agree wholeheartedly with you there.
 
Not that these new-fangled approaches are bad or anything.  I'm actually a fan of a lot of voicework done on games, especially recently.  I can tell you the names of voice actors better than I could tell you the names of movie stars (for what that's worth), and sometimes hearing of a certain actor's involvement will even turn me on to a game.  But that being said, I might always prefer the "blip blip blip" of the ol' text scroll, and the consciousness and involvement that comes with it.
 
You're definitely on to something there.  There is a place for reading in games, as its power exceeds what voice acting is capable of, methinks.

#11 Edited by Cornman89 (1579 posts) -

If I don't deactivate subtitles, I just end up looking at them instead of the characters.
 
As for the text box thing, the only difference I see is what kind of dialogue the writers can get away with. Stuff that reads good as text might, and often does, sound ridiculous when it comes out of a guy's mouth. FFX had a bit of a problem with this, but I think Square is getting the hang of it.

#12 Edited by Brodehouse (9652 posts) -
@Cristofyr:  I think a large part of that has to do with translation, and the difficulties in localizing a game set in a future fantasy setting.  Medieval games can be given Ye Olde Englishe treatment (like the reworked Final Fantasy Tactics), and modern games can be moved over quite nicely... however, there are moments in Final Fantasy XIII where the dialogue clearly was not written in English first.  You see this a lot in Metal Gear, voice actors trying to wrap their mouths around constructions that don't appear natural in English.  This generally ends with the graphical avatar displaying an emotion that doesn't match the voice, or the feeling of wooden acting as the actor struggles to deliver natural emotions to an unnatural phrase.
 
As for the music, you're thinking too literally.  The music hasn't changed in that it is still used to deliver emotion the same way, much as the visuals have.  From MIDI to synthesizers to real instruments, it is still designed to amplify the emotional effect of a scene. To Zanarkand is no different in scope and delivery than the Battle Theme from the original on the NES.
#13 Posted by Signpost (47 posts) -
@Cristofyr said:
"Also, I would argue the music has changed. Ever since X, there has been this shift (a bad one in my opinion), away from true orchestral scores toward bad pop-style music. I remember playing through an early part of the game with Sazh and Vanille and the music sounded like something I'd hear in a coffee shop rather than a game. It was really pretty bad. The main theme is also piano heavy to an extreme. Compare this to the orchestral version of the music from VII or VIII and there is a big difference. "
This is one of my main complaints, I forget the exact chapter now but there was a scene with Sazh and Vanille running around and the music was an upbeat pop-track.  It completely pulled me out of the moment.  My first thought was how inappropriate the music choices really seem to be, they never seem to fit the tension/emotion of the chapter.
#14 Posted by Meowayne (6084 posts) -

This is what I've been preaching for years now, and you can find many, many of my posts on giantbomb saying exactly that:
 
Voice acting single-handedly killed the JRPG genre.
 
It is futile to elaborate on that point because nearly everyone disagrees and cannot even remotely understand. But its good to see that I'm not the only one who is dearly missing video games as interactive stage plays instead of semi-playable bad movies.

#15 Posted by Meowayne (6084 posts) -

Text boxes, variable in position, animation, text speed, transparency (for conveying thoughts / simultanous dialogue), filled out by people who know how to write, put into the mind of the player via game characters with a large set or premade animations.
 
Story telling heaven.

#16 Posted by Brodehouse (9652 posts) -

Well listen, I'm not completely opposed to voice acting in games.  When done with the proper localization and characterization, it can do a lot for the characters. 
 
 I have a great appreciation for the 'stage play' idea as well as voice acting.  I'm not promoting one over the other, I just think that perhaps we've left a stylistic choice by the wayside, thinking it a limitation of technology, rather than an aspect of design.
 
A lot in the same way that 2-D games disappeared for a few years and then made their return, I'd like to see the 'stage play' design come back.  Perhaps I'm most interested in the visual style, the boxes artfully placed around a screen to frame a visual and to evoke meaning.  I'd like to see this return in games even where there is voice acting.  Seeing the subtitle at the bottom of the screen takes away from the art direction of a game, as you spend your time looking at the bottom reading instead of having your vision drawn around. For instance, there are scenes in Final Fantasy 8 where two characters will be speaking to each other on opposite sides of the screen.  If all the dialogue took place in a standard box at the bottom of the screen, we would probably just focus there.  However, when the dialogue boxes move to be in relation to the speaking character, you move your attention from character to character, like you would watching two other people speak in real life.
 
I'm glad other people have thought about this.

#17 Posted by valleyshrew (34 posts) -

Really don't think it makes much difference text or voice. My favourite part of ffxiii was on the beach with snow wandering around and chatting with people and feeling like there was an actual society in the game for once. There was even a nice doggy. And when you're in palumpolum the other best bit was when you meet a boy and a dad seperately who are looking for each other, and after you do a fight you see them and he says "i found my son", that was a nice touch. There's just so few bits in the game where you get to see people or society, playing for 60-70 hours just for those 2 moments is really dull to me. That is why FFXII was so good, a lot of the game was about going around rabanastre, or archades, etc. and interacting with the poor and rich and different races and it was so interesting. So many interesting interactions like with bagamaan or whatver he was called and even just guards in the city, they existed and really guarded the gates of an immersive city, they weren't just faceless enemies running around.

#18 Posted by Meowayne (6084 posts) -
@valleyshrew said:
" Really don't think it makes much difference text or voice. "
It's the difference between Selphie and Vanille.
#19 Posted by Cristofyr (16 posts) -
@Brodehouse said:
"@Cristofyr:  I think a large part of that has to do with translation, and the difficulties in localizing a game set in a future fantasy setting.  Medieval games can be given Ye Olde Englishe treatment (like the reworked Final Fantasy Tactics), and modern games can be moved over quite nicely... however, there are moments in Final Fantasy XIII where the dialogue clearly was not written in English first.  You see this a lot in Metal Gear, voice actors trying to wrap their mouths around constructions that don't appear natural in English.  This generally ends with the graphical avatar displaying an emotion that doesn't match the voice, or the feeling of wooden acting as the actor struggles to deliver natural emotions to an unnatural phrase.  As for the music, you're thinking too literally.  The music hasn't changed in that it is still used to deliver emotion the same way, much as the visuals have.  From MIDI to synthesizers to real instruments, it is still designed to amplify the emotional effect of a scene. To Zanarkand is no different in scope and delivery than the Battle Theme from the original on the NES. "

So a jazz track is supposed to convey "We've been hopelessly cursed and we're on the run from a facist government that wants to kill us all"? 
 
As for text vs. voice, I am starting think that it all goes back to story telling. In the original FF games, there was no graphical capacity to have FMV or even in-engine cutscenes, so everything had to be big blocks of text. Then we hit the PS1 era and the graphical capacity improved. Now the desginers had the option of delivering parts of the story graphically, but because they was still no voice, character movement was used to telegraph specific emotions within big blocks of text. Like how Steiner from FFIX used to jump around when he was angry. It was cartoony and overdone, but it got the point across without actual speech.  
 
Then we hit the PS2 era and things started to go down hill. Characters were now voiced, but the body gestures were not toned down at the same time. The problem with this is that very few people are actually as demonstrative as FF characters when they speak. We all make hand gestures, sure, but usually not the sweeping movements like you find in FF games. This makes them look silly and the cutscenes feel overdone. It also means that there is speech when maybe there shouldn't be. Just as real people don't make gigantic gestures most of the time, they are still capable of conveying emotions clearly with subtle gestures. This is something Mass Effect caught onto. There, a character doesn't start shouting "I'm angry and I want to hit something!" The game would just show them narrowing their eyes and maybe slightly balling up a fist and it would get the point across without dialogue. That's the lesson the FF franchise needs to learn - just because you can have the characters talk doesn't mean you should.
#20 Posted by Brodehouse (9652 posts) -
@Cristofyr:  You're confusing the medium with the message.  The medium of music is to express or evoke a mood through melody and texture.  The exact song may have been a poor choice, but that doesn't somehow alter the medium.
 
Also, the music during that segment in the Vile Peaks is pretty canny.  You may not have got it, but I sure did.  As soon as I heard it, I knew they were attempting to give a sonic profile of Sazh's "jolly" character, and focus on the difference between Lightning's style of leadership with Hope, and Sazh's leadership with Vanille.  In a purely musical sense, the other thing I noticed was that while it did have a jazz nature to it, it was not very organic sounding jazz.  They made it sound somewhat off-kilter and askew, with the  fragmented percussion and electric guitar lines.  I assume this was to evoke the 'junkyard' mentality of all the area, a sea of Pulse refuse crudely assembled together.
#21 Posted by Cristofyr (16 posts) -
@Brodehouse said:
" @Cristofyr:  You're confusing the medium with the message.  The medium of music is to express or evoke a mood through melody and texture.  The exact song may have been a poor choice, but that doesn't somehow alter the medium.  Also, the music during that segment in the Vile Peaks is pretty canny.  You may not have got it, but I sure did.  As soon as I heard it, I knew they were attempting to give a sonic profile of Sazh's "jolly" character, and focus on the difference between Lightning's style of leadership with Hope, and Sazh's leadership with Vanille.  In a purely musical sense, the other thing I noticed was that while it did have a jazz nature to it, it was not very organic sounding jazz.  They made it sound somewhat off-kilter and askew, with the  fragmented percussion and electric guitar lines.  I assume this was to evoke the 'junkyard' mentality of all the area, a sea of Pulse refuse crudely assembled together. "
 I never asserted the opinion that music is an ineffective medium for evoking a mood or emotion, I was saying that in this particular instance the game failed to do so and that since around FFX, the series has been much less effective at it. The older FF games had larger overarching themes and motifs that have largely been absent in recent entries (or at least have not been good enough to be memorable). Every time I hear Aerith's theme I still remember how I felt when she got offed.  Other than the theme of Zanarkand in X, I would be hard pressed to remember more than a couple of tracks from the last several games, much less what was happening when they were playing. I have literaly sunk tens of hours into XIII in the last week, but the only music that sticks out in my head are the instances when it was so jarring it took me out of the gameplay experience.
#22 Edited by Spacetrucking (942 posts) -
@Brodehouse said:

"Is replacing all of our once text based entertainment with voice acted entertainment truly wise?  Is there a place for reading in games? "

There will always be a place for reading in games but I personally prefer good voice acting (or just good acting) to text based exposition in games. There are certain scenes in Mass Effect 2 where the character don't even have to say anything because BioWare has now incorporated complex emotions or gestures into gameplay. A mean stare, a stink eye or an impetuous punch to the face says more about a character than a thousand words of text. That's how movies work and as technology advances, video games are getting there too. It's fun when you get to pick an option and the characters on screen act it out for you (as opposed to just filling the screen with text).
 
It also forces developers to come up with dialogue that doesn't come across as trite or cliched when spoken aloud. Mass Effect 1 had that problem where Shepard would start every conversation with "Tell me about ..." and the NPC would go on FOREVER with often boring & stilted delivery. ME2 fixed that to some extent and the result is a more entertaining experience. I feel like Square is still stuck in the 90's with their dialogue writing. They could get away with this stuff in FF6 but now games like ME2 or Uncharted 2 have raised the stakes. They need to come up with better lines that take advantage of the actors and the technology at hand. Some of the stuff in FFXIII makes it look like a hundred million dollar movie with a two dollar script.
#23 Posted by Superkenon (1399 posts) -

 @Cristofyr:  (I think you're still missing Brodehouse's point, but...) FFXIII takes a more ambient approach, to be sure.  I'd argue that if most the time you're too engaged in the experience to notice the music, then it's doing its job.  Oddly enough, you were complaining about the one track that (as far as I've seen) sticks out like the music in the older games did - where every time the music changed it was abundantly obvious and stuck out in your head.  Just like you think of Aerith's death whenever you hear her theme, I know I'll always think of Sazh and Vanille's off-kilter adventure through the junkyard whenever I hear that jazzy arrangement.
 
Anyway, I wouldn't say this game is doing bad at setting the mood.  In fact I've been pretty impressed by the music so far.  Again, the method is just different now... kinda similar to the change from text-box to dialogue, you feel it on a more subconscious level, as it's doing its work in the background rather than being this huge centerpiece on the table that keeps catching your eye.  Or ear.  Staying true to my hopelessly old-school self, I think I probably prefer the classic way here too...  but, that's not to say I can't enjoy this as well.  Different doesn't mean bad.  But, y'know, it's not even that ambient.  Just in the short time I've been writing this post a whole bunch of FFXIII themes have popped up into my head... oh Whitewood theme, cease haunting me!
 
And you can't tell me the battle theme isn't a memorable piece of song.

Do I have a point?  Nope.  Just rambling.

#24 Posted by Meowayne (6084 posts) -

 It also forces developers to come up with dialogue that doesn't come across as trite or cliched when spoken aloud.

Sadly, it doesn't.
#25 Edited by Brodehouse (9652 posts) -
@Superkenon:  Yeah, if I was going to bring the songs that stuck with me from FFXIII, it would be the battle theme, the rearrangement of the battle theme during redemptive cutscenes, and the poppy Whitewood track.  The Whitewood track sounds like something out of Persona, which if you are going to use a pop arrangement in an RPG, is a good target to aim for.
 
 Getting back to the text box discussion, I was attempting to think of a modern game that could take advantage of such an arrangement.  The best references I came up with where survival horror games.  The original Resident Evil, for instance, probably would've seemed a degree less silly if they had gone with written dialogue rather than "Stop!  Don't open.  That door!" or pretty much anything out of Barry's mouth.  They still hint at this kind of thing in Resident Evil 5... when Chris and Sheva investigate things, it shows their thoughts, but they don't say anything out loud.  In a way, using dialogue boxes in this manner evokes the feeling of a silent protagonist (a la Isaac from Dead Space),  while still giving the player a character with a personality.  It also could amplify tension, in that if all spoken communication is through dialogue boxes, everything that you hear is either some horrible fate coming to get you, or the mind-shredding music (Silent Hill style).  That's not even bringing up the use of it in a visual sense, how they place the dialogue around the screen to direct your mind's eye.
 
(edit: Now that I think about it, there was a menu in Dead Space where Isaac sums up his mission objective and his feelings about the situation in text... that might actually be a better reference than I first thought.)

 It would not work in games that rely on visceral experiences, obviously... Uncharted and Gears of War got brought up here, those are games where you need information conveyed to you expediently to deal with the wholesale madness occurring on screen.  Those are games where the action is your very direct involvement, and not an RPG that has to be more evocative by the very nature of the design.  An RPG is a game where statistics represent ability, a character with higher strength is not going to graphically hit a mob harder, but the numbers that pop up will be.  I think there is still room to rediscover old technology, and old storytelling techniques in a new light.  It happens constantly in visual design.

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