Dane. Designer.

Old Blog

On the Military Voice in Games

I didn’t figure Black Hawk Down as a particularly influential or important movie when it came out. Competent, dashingly handsome and slightly odd in places; but influential? Yet watching the trailer for Call of Duty 4, which I’m sure will be a genuine hoot to play, I see how wrong I was.

Except… judging from the trailer, they made the classic computer game misstep of underestimating the importance of voice acting. Fair enough, I’ve never been in combat, especially with the US Airborne Cavalry (which I’m guessing is what the trailer is portraying), but I nonetheless call a fumbled ball on that gruff macho ‘Do this! Do that! I-eat-gravel-soup hut hut hut!’ order-barking voice of the squad leader (not to mention the ‘look at us, we can shine a red light in the face of a man sucking on a cigar; isn’t it wuuuunderbarrr?”).

The net effect is turning what could have been reasonable human-facsimile’s into cliché-ridden charicatures (at least judging from the trailer…)

In those kinds of situations, post-inserting, pre-incursion as we… well, I… say; the voice would most likely be calm, collected, a tad tense perhaps, but in control. There is no need to add further tension to an already pretty fucking tense situation, better to stay as professional and in-charge as possible.

Developers of any military game should really do themselves a favor and listen to the radio chatter between attack helicopters and the like, to get a feel for just how detached the conversations are under these circumstances (again, this is my experience, based on the material I’ve seen, both while in the army as well as outside).

Off the top of my head there are two other movies in particular that illustrate this example very very well, and the first comes with a great little nugget of a story:

While post-processing and editing Apocalypse Now, one of my all time favorites, Walter Murch (who was one of the, I think it was, four editors on the movie, while also doing the sound) had brought in veteran helicopter pilots from Vietnam to help with building up a library of ‘chopper chatter’, that could be used in the famous Ride of the Valkyries attack run on the village. But what the team on Apocalypse Now did to encourage authenticity, was to blow up the footage from the sequence on a big screen, turn the sound way up, put the veterans in real pilot helmets with a proximity mikes and then take them through the sequence while recording their chatter. According to Murch, the veterans afterwards had expressed surprise at just how life-like the experience had been. And the results, I think, speak for themselves.

Had this been today, and Apocalypse Now was a computer game, the recording of these voices would probably have been the most lackluster experience to walk into, and I don’t blame actors for being unable to deliver convincing performances.

That’s the one film—a sequence, which by the way, still to this day is one of the greatest action set pieces of all time. I recently caught a showing of redux in a local cinema in Copenhagen, and I was awestruck. It remains unparalleled.

Please, do yourself a favor and watch it on the big screen, with a great PA system. The Complete Dossier is fantastic, and well worth importing if you live outside region 1 territory (and do get Hearts of Darkness now that you’re at it).

The other film is… A New Hope. The battle of Yavin is one of the defining differences between the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy (something I’ve spoken of before):

(Now compare and contrast, in particular the way they speak, with The Battle of Naboo from Episode I. No ‘eh’s or ‘ah’s, no chatter filtered through the radio and so on and so forth. Everything they did right in ANH they had forgotten some 20 years later on TPM. All respect to Ben Burt, but someone somewhere goofed up).

And there you have it… a letter opener.

Seriously though, this is a major problem, not just for Call of Duty, but for games in general.

Vast amounts of time is spent making games live up to the promise of ‘next-gen’, and at the end of the day, the sound is probably more important than the visuals, even if it’s harder to slap ‘good sound!’ on the back of the box or on the front cover of EDGE.

So while Black Hawk Down has turned out to be perhaps the modern war movie to immitate, there is still some ways to go before games get to set the bar for realistic protrayal of war.