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Immersion: It’s All in the Details

Trash can at Disneyland

One of the advantages of working from a home office is that my schedule is very flexible. My wife and I had been trying to talk the kids into going to Disneyland for the past couple of months, but they are at an age where it just isn’t that exciting to them anymore. Since we couldn’t use our annual Disneyland passes again for another two months (most of the summer is blacked out for pass holders), the two of us decided to take the afternoon off and drive out to The Happiest Place On Earth, leaving the kids perfectly content to remain at home and play Minecraft.

I love Disneyland. My family used to make annual pilgrimages to Disneyland several times a year, and as an adult, I try to visit at least twice a year. (When I worked at Disney Computer Software, I had a Silver Pass that allowed me unlimited free visits to Disneyland, and I would go to the park about once a month).

What has always made Disneyland special to me is what a meticulous job it does transporting visitors somewhere else — a river cruise through exotic rainforests, a crazy ride through Roger Rabbit’s Toontown, a spaceflight to the forest moon of Endor. The illusion is complete enough that we are able to suspend disbelief and get into the spirit of pretending that we are really there. How is the illusion created? Through total immersion, right down to the smallest detail. The staff (or “cast members” as they are called) are all wearing costumes styled for the attraction in which they work, the building fixtures are themed appropriately, and even the trashcans are decorated so that they fit into Frontierland, Tomorrowland or whichever land they are placed.

I try to do something similar with the games I develop. When I produced Rendezvous: A Space Shuttle Flight Simulation, I directed that the message “Program Loading” be changed to “Rolling Vehicle Onto Launchpad.” For DuckTales: The Quest for Gold, I wrote the player manual so that it took the form of a “Junior Woodchuck Guide.” When planning the quests for Heroes of Might and Magic III, I instructed the writers to make references to the storylines of both the Heroes and Might and Magic franchises, and stay away from corny references to geek-culture found in previous games in the franchises.

Immersion is one of the reasons why players play games. Immersion, when properly done, appeals to our desire for novelty through new and imaginative experience. Although not every player has this desire to a great degree, many types of players do. Game designer Richard Bartle classified MUD (Multi-user dungeon) players into four types: Killers, Achievers, Socializers, and Explorers. Explorers like to explore the world, right down to its finer details. Such details also appeal to to the gamification player type that Victor Manrique classifies as an Enjoyer: players who are motivated by positive emotions such as joy, curiosity, inspiration, mystery and awe.

However, even a tiny detail that is out of place can jar the player out of the immersive experience. Have you ever seen a movie scene in which a spy agency is trying to trick a captive into thinking he was safe somewhere else, only to be made aware that he is being tricked due to a radio playing a sports broadcast from the wrong year or a clock chiming for the wrong time zone? The same thing can happen in games, where an incorrect detail can cause the player to no longer be captivated by your game.



How Video Game Voice-Overs Are Produced

David Mullich at voice-over recording session.Periodically I receive unsolicited resumes from people who are looking for work in video games. Curiously, very few of the resumes I receive are from game designers, programmers, or artists. Most are from people working in the audio side of the business — music composers and voice-over actors.

Now, I have contracted a number of voice actors to work on my projects. However, what I typically do is provide the sound engineer I’ve hired with a list of characters, along with short descriptions and sample lines. My engineer usually has a pool of actors they’ve worked with before. Or, if the sound engineer I’m using doesn’t have a regular pool of talent, I’ll contact an agent who specializes in voice-over actors.

My contact will then send me audio files of several voice actors reading for each role, and I’ll decide which actor I prefer for that role. Some of the more famous voice-over actors I’ve been lucky enough to work with are John DiMaggio (who also voices Bender from Futurama) and Phil LaMarr (who voices the John Stewart Green Lantern). Well-known voice-over actors can be a bit expensive and usually only play big roles. However, there are quite a few not-so-well-known but still excellent voice-over actors in Hollywood, who do work for scale and can voice up to three characters in a single project by using different vocal inflections.

When I worked as a game producer at Walt Disney Computer Games, I worked with Disney’s internal voice-over department, and they, of course, have a large pool of voice-over actors they typically use, including a number of “official voices” for Disney’s most well-known characters. When I produced an Arachnophobia game, they recommended I use Wayne Allwine (who was then the official voice for Mickey Mouse) as the voice for the John Goodman character, and he was just great to work with. For DuckTales: The Quest For Gold, I worked with Wayne’s wife Russi Taylor, who provided the voices for Huey, Dewey and Louie. I also worked with Terence McGovern, who voiced Launchpad McQuack. However, my favorite recording session was for Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines, where my son Ben and I provided voices for some of the commercials that played on the radio in the game.

To prepare for the voice-over session, I would prepare scripts that only contained the lines of the actors who were being recorded, with each line being numbered for easy reference. I would also include notes about the emotional tone of various lines, as well as a description of the personality of character for the actor to reference.

We would record each actor individually, even if they were playing characters who engaged in dialogs with other characters. The not only made the logistics of setting up recording sessions much easier, but it also minimized the time we spent renting the recording studio. Unless actors were playing very big roles, each one might voice as many as three separate characters, using different vocal inflections, of course.

I would always join in the recording sessions for any of my games — the only exception was recording Terence McGovern for DuckTales because he was located in San Francisco whereas I and my Disney voice-over producer were located in Burbank. So we listened in to the recording session in San Francisco via conference call. Usually only my voice-over director would speak directly with the actor during the recording session; I would be on-hand to answer questions and provide context for each line. For some small projects, I would have the actor record three versions of each line so that I could choose which version I liked best later; but for big projects with thousands of lines or roles with hundreds of lines of dialog, I would just have the sound engineer save as line reading that I was happy with, and then move on to the next.

After the recording session, my sound engineer would edit the session by cutting out the poor readings or other recording mistakes, as well as adding reverb or other needed audio effects. When he was done, he would provide me the recordings as separate WAV files for each line, all named to match the number scheme from my scripts.

Now, if you are interested in finding gigs as a voice-over actor, you need to make yourself known to voice-over agents and engineers who maintain a pool of talent to draw from. I would send them a recording of the various voices that you can do. And when a gig comes up that they think you’re right for, they will ask you to do an audition for it.