Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Analyzing Narratives: Voice Acting L.A. Noire

            Often times, myself included, people don’t think about voice acting as a major component in a narrative. We think about the emotions that the voice actors put into scenes or perhaps we think about how they make up the audio component of a game. However, rarely do we think, “Wow. That voice acting really added depth to the narrative.” Sure, we might make this point if the voice acting is really good, but it’s not a common train of thought.
            In many ways, we don’t think about how voice acting really impacts the story beyond the quality of it. By quality it either means: it’s good or it’s bad. So how does it impact the story? Through emotion, representation, and dialogue. Emotion is obviously the portrayal of human emotions and how it affects the story. Representation is how voice acting is presented in terms of the setting. Dialogue is how the conversation goes beyond the written script to capture players. Dialogue and emotion are closely linked but it can be differentiated and I’ll explain that later. In this segment of Analyzing Narratives, I’ll explain voice acting using L.A. Noire.

            Now, I remember a time when voice acting didn’t even exist. We did have sound effects or short “voice” clips in certain SNES titles like Super Mario World, but never full-blown voice acting. The following generation it became more prominent; I remember playing Halo and it was a cinematic experience due to its voice acting. Of course, the quality of the voice acting wasn’t so great and as a result it directly affected the portrayal of emotions.

Cole Phelps, a man of initiative. And voice.
            L.A. Noire is a bit of a marvel in terms of voice acting and this might have to do with the narrative genre that the game belongs to. Regardless, the portrayal of emotion in L.A. Noire is unparalleled. This is obviously attributed to the skills of the actors but what does this mean for the narrative? Emotions carry a lot of value especially due to its ability to heighten a situation.

            Take for example an interrogation scene. Cole Phelps, a local detective, interrogates Edgar Kalou, a suspect, using his wits. Kalou at first remains quite calm and composed but as soon as Phelps gets closer to solving the case his emotions take over. He starts to use a louder tone to exemplify anger and begins to talk faster as he reveals his sense of insecurity. These types of portrayls might exist in other games but only a handful does it better than L.A. Noire.

            The emotions go beyond just heightening a situation; emotions build a subtle bond with the character. You may not realize it but perhaps you enjoy certain characters in video games because of certain traits. Have you ever considered that their voice might be one of them? There are dozens of characters I like and I wouldn’t like half of them as much as I would if their voice acting wasn’t amazing. This essentially goes into the territory of likability. Games add a layer of depth to narratives and in this case likability of characters. In L.A. Noire, I found myself disliking Roy Earle, your partner as you work in Vice. Even if voice acting didn’t exist in the game, I would still hate Roy’s guts. However, voice acting made me hate him that much more. The way he portrays his arrogant and pompous attitude. The emotion, or lack thereof, when talking about people’s sufferings. It all comes together well and creates a sense of “this guy is an ass; I don’t like him.” It’s a testament to voice acting when I can hate a character just because of the emotions that are portrayed.

            I mentioned earlier that representation was based on setting. L.A. Noire is an excellent example due to the time period not being the present. The game is set in 1947. People have different dialects, the diction of the general populace isn’t strong, plus their lingo is different from ours today. In order for the setting to be believable and realistic, the voice acting in L.A. Noire really has to knock it out of the park. Thankfully it does.

That emotion!

            From the get go Phelps talks like an ordinary citizen for the time period, at least to me. Now I know I have never lived in the 1940s but the game’s voice acting comes across in a believable fashion. You see, by attempting and successfully recreating the accent, diction, lingo, and more, L.A. Noire captures the 1940s perfectly. Another instance is James Donnelly who is Phelps’ superior. His analogies of divine punishment are a fine example of illustrating the 1940s. It’s a period right after World War II and Donnelly mentions Phelps’ work at “sending the heathens back to the hell they came from.” Coincidentally enough, this is actually how some Americans referred to the enemies fought in World War II. It just goes to show how voice acting can really immerse the player into the world and make the narrative that much more enticing.

            Now here comes the idea of dialogue. This can get very confusing as it dabbles in both the territory of emotion and representation. To put it simply, dialogue is the conversations that people have to create an enticing connection. In its most basic form it is the script that the voice actor uses but acted out. L.A. Noire is very great with its writing and enhances the narrative since the lines make each character distinct.

            Because Donnelly is such a great example let’s take another look at him. One of his first lines in the game is “God’s mill may grind slowly but it grinds finely son!” It’s a brilliant line that quickly characterizes Donnelly. He loves religious analogies and is a devout believer of justice. Not only this but he calls Phelps “boyo” with an accent. If you connect the dots you realize that Donnelly is foreign, most likely Irish. The actor’s impressive depiction of a foreigner in combination with his choice of analogies creates a distinct characterization of Donnelly.

Songs were fantastic back then. At least that's what I heard...

            My final example would be Roy Earle. Earle is a smartass, a cynic, and also arrogant jerk. His high status as a detective in the local police station doesn’t help either. Despite knowing all of this, it’s the voice acting that best portrays him in this fashion. Some of his lines show that he hardly has any respect. One instance he describes a crime scene to Phelps as “a real shithole for a first date.” Another time he calls a dead person a “German junkie whore.” The portrayal of these conversations between Earle and the citizens of L.A. are what helps to bring the characters to life.  Once again, it all impacts the narrative of the game and makes it stronger.

            Voice acting isn’t critical to narratives in video games. In fact, I would say it’s more of an enhancer. Still, because we are offered such quality work, as exemplified in L.A. Noire, players get to enjoy a cohesive and immersive narrative experience. It would be sad to not acknowledge the role that voice acting has in narratives. Hopefully, it’s a more recognized attribute rather than something that just exists in games.

Due to restrictions I cannot post audio clips to further enhance this post. Sorry! I have images though!

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