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Who Knows What Evil Lurks…

This lesson is going to be an almost complete departure from my previous ones in that I will hardly speak about Star Wars at all, though this discussion does concern The Old Republic. I will be discussing and examining a subject not only common to BioWare games but also to gaming in general. As a personal interest of mine, I would like to discuss the fascinating and evolving role of voice acting through history.

Voice acting is the art of providing a variety of different voices. These voices have been used in cartoons, feature films, radio dramas, voice overs, dubbing for foreign films; for anything that needs a voice, a trained voice actor (or actress) can produce one. In many of its forms, voice actors need to convey emotion in their voices. If they are acting as a character that is sad, then that sadness needs to come across in their voice. At present, voice actors are preferred over synthesized voices because they sound more natural to the human ear. When I was a kid my parents bought me a “Touch and Say” where I could touch different letters and numbers, and the device would indicate which I had pressed by speaking them to me. Every time I think of voice synthesizers, I think of that old toy I had, and how “fake” that voice sounded to me. I personally am glad voice actors still provide voices; any time the human element is still included I am always for it.

I would like to think that everyone as a child got to go camping at least once. As a little boy, I did every summer. One of my favorite pastimes while camping was sitting around the campfire at night, roasting hot dogs and marshmallows, and telling stories. If the storyteller was trying to scare us, which was usually the point of this activity, then he might disguise his voice when speaking in character. The “old man with a hook” that was coming up behind us out of the bushes would have a gravelly, raspy voice. The hauntingly beautiful phantom lady that lived in the lake would be an appropriately beautiful siren’s call. The storyteller would change their voice accordingly to suit the character in question. This is the point where I feel confident that voice acting entered into the human experience as an art form. Many cultures had strong oral traditions long before anything was written down; some of them never wrote anything down, like the Celts.

This brings me to the first evolution in voice acting. The ancient Greek Homeric tradition could be considered a forerunner of modern voice actors. I do not want to get into the controversy over whether Homer was a real person, a series of poets, a society of people, or even if he existed at all. I want to focus on the epic poets, the men who travelled Greece and performed these epic poems such as the Iliad and the Odyssey. These travelling poets went from city to city and recited these epic poems that told stories about wars and fantastic adventures. There weren’t actors on a stage performing these stories, like a play, nor were props employed to illustrate what was happening. These poets were telling the stories through verse. I realize that it may be a stretch to call this voice acting, since we have no real idea how these epic poems were performed. They may even have been sung. I feel as though these poets had to convey all the emotion from the tales with their voices, otherwise at least some of the meaning may have been lost on the audience. Since there were no recordings in those ancient days, the only way to experience an epic poem was to hear it performed, or learn it yourself. The Greeks rejoiced when these travelling poets came to town because they loved to hear the epic poems recited to them.

In the theater, I think as much acting is done with the voice as there is with body language. Many of you probably already know that until relatively recently, women were not allowed to perform in plays. According to Wikipedia, women did not appear on stage until the 17th century. So in William Shakespeare’s time all of the players were men, even in the female parts. Yes, that means that Romeo and Juliet were performed by two men in the title roles. The men in female roles not only had to dress like women, but I am sure they had to change their voices to sound more like the fairer sex.

When motion pictures were first invented, there was no sound that could be recorded along with the film. Early film actors had to use exaggerated movements in their acting style to convey the passions of their characters. In an interesting reversal, it is ironic to me that silent film stars had to learn in many cases how to be good voice actors with the advent of “talkies.” There is an old 1952 musical called “Singing in the Rain” that is all about this conversion into talking motion pictures and how the actors and actresses of the time made this transition.

The Golden Age of Radio was when voice acting really hit its stride. Starting in the early 1920s, radio shows became the entertainment staple for many people. Just like television now, voice actors would get on microphones in a studio and act out these plays using only the sound of their voices. Many times a single voice actor would play several parts in a script. The title of this article is a reference to one of my favorite radio shows, The Shadow. Alec Baldwin starred in a movie back in 1994 based on this old radio show. The Shadow was a man that used hypnotism “to cloud people’s minds so they cannot see him.” Each show the Shadow would solve a crime using his power and good old-fashioned detective work. Many other types of shows were on the radio as well: comedies, horror, science fiction, and love stories, just to name a few. Orson Welles, famous for acting in almost all forms, made money being an unbilled character actor in radio to produce plays for his own company, The Mercury Theatre. An amusing story I heard was that he found out that there was no law that said you had to be sick or injured to ride in an ambulance in New York City. So he hired an ambulance to take him as quickly as possible all around the city, so that he could make as much money as he could doing small parts in these radio shows. If any of you are interested in listening to these old shows there are many podcasts out there that post them. Just search for old time radio and many will come up. I personally like “The Horror” podcast produced by RelicRadio.com because the sound quality is about as clean as it can be considering how old the recordings are.

With the invention of television in the 1950s, radio began to decline in popularity. It would resurface from time to time, but it never had the popularity it had back in the early years of the 20th century. Voice acting, on the other hand, was far from a dead art. Animation, be it short cartoons or full length animated films, have always employed voice actors. Mel Blanc springs to mind when I think of voice acting in animation. Mr. Blanc did many of the voices for the Looney Tunes characters, including Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam, Sylvester, Tweety Bird, Porky Pig, and Daffy Duck. Voice acting also pops up in other non-animated films; remember James Earl Jones!

Today, voice acting is alive and well. It seems as though every few months another digitally animated film comes out. Also, all computer generated characters in movies also need voices to be recorded for them. Most importantly for those of us in the gaming world, voice acting is becoming more and more prevalent in computer games. Instead of having us read blocks and blocks of text, many games “read” themselves to us now. The impact of good voice acting cannot be stressed enough. One of the features of the Mass Effect series that made it so enjoyable was the high quality of the voice actors that brought those games to life. I knew that Shepard was angry, not only because he punched that reporter in the face, but also because of the voice acting.

At the end of the day, voice acting is a tool that can not only be used to tell a good story, but also to enrich that story. Regardless of the medium in which a story is told, the sound of the characters’ voices is important to the telling of the story, and can give us an insight into their motivations and emotions.

So everyone get your hot dogs and marshmallows ready, while we curl up around the campfire and listen to the great stories we will get to experience in Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Let’s discuss this article here!

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