Saturday, 15 May 2010

Lost Horizon Voice Recording

While these days we see plenty of interviews with writers, and narrative themed postmortems, I still sometimes feel like the actual process of writing a game is kept under wraps. One of the things that I want to do with this blog, therefore, is to expose some of the work that I do on a daily basis (to the degree NDAs allow, natch).

Not long ago I finished up a week of studio work, recording dialogue for Deep Silver & Animation Arts' upcoming point n' click, Lost Horizon; it also marked the end of the project (for me, for now) and the completion of almost 100,000 words of in-game text, taking around three weeks to record in total.

On Lost Horizon I was hired as as the English script writer. The game is developed in Germany, in German, with the text then translated into English and proof read. I then do a treatment, adding back the flourish that's been lost in translation and ensuring the characters remain consistent. My text is then proof read again and delivered to the recording studio, and it's also used as the basis for translation into all other languages. This process is actually split into three batches over 12 months, allowing the cost of writing / recording to be spread out, and for three alpha / vertical slice builds to be created. The unappealing alternative is having to wait until the last minute to actually see and play a complete product.

While I've directed and cast previous games, both roles were handled by Side UK this time around, the studio having been arranged before I got involved. Incidentally (and in the interest of full disclosure) my agency, Sidelines, is actually an offshoot of Side. This meant that at the very least I didn't have too many problems finding my way to the central London location.

My role behind the glass was to make on-the-fly edits, provide additional direction, and to brief the actors - and therefore to know the game and characters inside out. Whenever I'm writing, the more information and documentation I can gather about a game the better; but it is, ultimately, a poor replacement for actually being able to play the thing. Fortunately that's precisely what I was able to do on Lost Horizon, and it really does make a difference. For each batch I would play through the section in question, tackle the script, and then play through again once the English voice had been recorded and implemented in order to recommend pickups. It's impossible to get everything right first time in the studio, no matter how well prepared you are, so the fact that Deep Silver had budgeted for re-records for the odd line that ends up sounding out of place was a real advantage.

In total we used around ten union actors to voice approximately thirty characters, most of whom were bit parts. The central character, Fenton, is a lovable British rogue, and he had the vast majority of the lines. As the actor settles into the role things begin to go more smoothly and after a few days the target pace of 60 lines per hour (pretty swift) was well within reach. I'd be lying if I said at least some of the direction didn't boil down to "Adam, could you give it a bit more Roger Moore raised eyebrow, please?" and later simply "Brow!" but, well, it's just that sort of game.

Side UK is one of London's best located studios, and probably the studio that most specialises in video game scripts. Phil Evans, the director, doesn't just work on a lot of games, he understands them. Without that understanding there's a huge margin for error. Knowing whether Fenton needs to sound pleased with himself or not based on whether the object he's talking about is in his inventory or on the ground makes the difference between a well-voiced game and a fail. That's why it's important to use a studio that understands the medium, and to most definitely have your writer in the room.

Lost Horizon is a lovingly produced homage to the Indiana Jones adventures of yesterday. It is not a $20 million project. The fact that, despite this, no expense was spared on the writing and the voice recording is a real credit to Deep Silver and Animation Arts. On a larger project these areas will make up only a fraction of the overall development cost - there's no longer any excuse not to get it right.


  1. Alastair Ingason17 May 2010 at 11:14

    Hi Tom,

    Like the new blog (thanks for the link), I remember working with you in the Videogameslife days :)

    I just wanted to ask, how do you get into the voice acting area of games. I have voice acted for mods in the past (which was fun) but never professionally.

  2. Hey fella, good to hear from you.

    Problem you're gonna face is that unlike every other discipline in games, voice actors tend not to specialise - they'll usually take on corporate, TV, stage etc as well. You'd ideally need an agent, and a union, and some training.

    What you can do without those things is set up on your own. You'd need a halfway decent home studio, or access to one, and probably the know how to engineer your own sessions.

    This is actually a perfectly viable route - if you're any good. Sites like will let you submit online auditions, and you can focus on games if you so wish. The pay isn't as high, the work less regular, and the projects smaller in scale, but it'll get you out there.

    I've worked with both union and non-union actors, and quality varies throughout both. We did have some strong results from on the Penumbra series, so might be it's worth a shot :-)

    Drop me a line if you like: