Voice actors are unsung heroes a lot of the time. Sure, you have your big names who star in every single AAA release and play D&D for an audience of thousands, but a lot of the time, a voice actor's contribution is more subtle.
I got to speak to Dave Gilbert of Wadjet Eye Games about the upcoming folk horror adventure The Excavation of Hob's Barrow, and having played the first bit of the game, I was rather intrigued about the surrounding mystery. Wadjet Eye is publishing the title, with British indie devs Cloak & Dagger Games developing it.
Set in Victorian England, it surprised me to learn that Gilbert, who hails from the US, had taken on the responsibility of casting and directing the voice acting he desperately wanted to see in the game. It isn't just Victorian London either. No getting away with those Dickensian voices we all know. No, Hob's Barrow takes place in a fictional Northern town, meaning Dave had to really get thinking.
It's easy to skip voice acting as an important aspect of your game. If you've written a brilliant story with all manner of twists and cliffhangers, leaving players craving more and a solution to the mystery, why bother? It's expensive for one thing, and surely your story can stand up on its own.
Of course, I'd have enjoyed the growing mystery of Hob's Barrow even without the voices, but there's something about a fully-voiced adventure that brings you further in. According to Dave, The Excavation of Hob's Barrow was "screaming for it."
"The mood and tone of it were so perfect. You know, like everything just captured that time and place so well. Because everything else was handled so well, and I thought, if we can get good voice acting on top of that, that would just elevate it even farther."
It's one of those things you notice when you play and make games like this. Lots of people, myself included, finally got stuck right into Disco Elysium when the game became fully voiced - it helps so much with immersing yourself into an odd, unusual world.
For Dave, the most important thing about perfecting the voiceover is the actors. It seems obvious, but finding the perfect voice for each role can make or break the game's immersion. The game is set in the UK, so working with a UK studio and UK voice actors required a great deal of trust. Without the right team and expertise around the voice direction, things can go wrong very easily.
"I like this person's voice, but I can't tell if this is an authentic northern accent or not. So I put it in front of the developers and they're like, no, that's not really that authentic. So we go with someone else."
It isn't just the accents either - Victorian England (and England in general) is chock-full of slang and colloquialisms - having to understand what "nowt" and "owt" mean isn't a part of most Americans' day jobs. Thankfully, Dave has one simple strategy to avoid these issues altogether.
"My trick when it comes to voice directing is to choose the auditions that I can foresee will enable me to do the least amount of work. Does this person make interesting choices? Good. That way I can trust them more to make their own interesting choices."
It's hard to imagine The Excavation of Hob's Barrow without the voice acting now. It's a perfect combination - the surrealist animations coupled with a spooky voiceover and beautiful pixel art are inspired by classic adventure games that came before. Along with a voice cast brought together by a director who allowed each individual character to shine, it works excellently.
As a fan of adventure games, supernatural mysteries, and scary cats, Hob's Barrow is looking like a delicious tidbit for the future.