Today, pretty much all computer and video games have voice acting. From little indie games to AAA blockbusters, it’s generally considered a standard feature.
That wasn’t always the case. It wasn’t too long ago that real, human voices coming out of a computer or console was considered something truly special.
Today, video games are a multi-billion dollar industry, with its own award ceremonies and celebrities. Voiceover artists like Jennifer Hale and Troy Baker make their living performing characters in games ranging from the fantastical to the mundane.
We think that kind of progress is worth celebrating, so we decided to take a quick trip down memory lane. Where did video game voice acting start? What were the first games with voice acting?
Space Spartans and Sinistar
The first video game with a voice came out way back in 1982. Space Spartans, released for the Intellivision by Mattel, could deliver a number of lines. It was something of a robotic monotone, and the gameplay wasn’t much better, but the effect was truly magical for a generation of gamers who had literally never heard a voice come out of a game.
It’s almost unbelievable to think that the first game “spoke” more than 30 years ago. Of course, it wasn’t a real human voice. Space Spartans synthesized the voice using the sound hardware on the Intellivision console.
The first game to use a real human voice was Sinistar, released in 1982 for arcades and the Atari 2600. This game was much more popular than Space Spartans, thanks in no small part to its incredibly effective use of voice clips provided by radio personality John Doremus.
Anyone who was around in the 80s certainly remembers Sinistar’s shouts of “Run, coward!” and “I live!”. It probably makes them break out in a cold sweat. That big silver space skull only had a few lines, but boy were they good.
CD-ROM Transformed Video Games
A few spoken lines per game was pretty much the norm for almost ten years following Sinistar. It wasn’t until a dramatically improved storage technology came along that fully voiced games became feasible.
CD-ROM technology hit the mass market in the early 90s, and it was a revelation for the home computers, and particularly the gaming industry.
Until CDs, games and other software were distributed on 3 ½” floppy discs, which could hold 1.44 megabytes. It wasn’t unusual for games to be released on well over 10 floppies, requiring the user to frequently swap discs as they played the game.
A single CD-ROM, by contrast, could hold over 600 megabytes. The difference was staggering. Not only did it all but eliminate disc changing, at least for a few years, it also gave developers an immense amount of storage to fill with improved audio, more detailed art, and of course full voice acting for entire games.
The three biggest game publishers of the time were Sierra, Origin, and LucasFilm (which would become LucasArts). Each made a big splash with their first fully voice-acted release.
Sierra – Willie Beamish
Sierra and LucasFilm were the dueling titans of gaming, and they both released almost nothing but point and click adventure games.
These games were practically nothing but story, and so they were a fantastic fit for the characterization and immersion that only professional voice actors could bring.
Unfortunately, Sierra didn’t do such a great job at keeping the “professional” bit in there. Their first voice acted game was 1991 CD re-release of The Adventures of Willy Beamish.
The original edition of the game was a charming story of a kid getting into trouble. It was sort of Tom Sawyer meets Leave It to Beaver.
With the voices, largely performed by stage actors who never again dipped their toes into voice acting, it became oddly offensive. Characters were stereotyped and, at times, borderline racist or sexist. In a Computer Gaming World review, games journalist Charles Ardai wrote that the acting was “insulting to children and inconsiderate of adults, whose skin it will make crawl.”
Still, it was a start.
LucasFilm – Loom
At the other end of the spectrum was Loom, the surreal musical fantasy adventure by LucasFilm. The game tells the story of Bobbin Threadbare, his magical powers based around music, and his journey to restore the humanity of his fellow wizards who have been turned into birds by a catastrophic magical attack.
Loom’s gameplay was minimal, largely built on correctly selecting the right spell for the right situation. The writing evoked a legend or fairy tale, with stylized characters who seemed to be lifted from the mythology of a land that never was. It was downright Tolkeinesque, but with a history and aesthetic all its own.
Like all LucasFilm games, the game could not be “lost” or failed. Bobbin would never find himself in any danger that he could not overcome, and the game was meant to be enjoyed and experienced without frustration or defeat.
The voiceover, although provided by actors without an IMDB credit to their name, was spot-on. The dreamlike voices and poetic delivery helped raise Loom to something approaching art.
Origin – Wing Commander II
Finally, there was Origin Systems. Origin was always at the bleeding edge of technology, and was one of the first companies to embrace not only CD-ROM, but also sound cards, VGA graphics, and a multitude of other (expensive) innovations.
Origin went so far as to ask gamers to install a custom memory manager, essentially hacking their OS in order to free up enough resources to run their games. Gamers did this happily, because the games were incredible.
Origin’s first fully voice-acted game was Wing Commander II – Vengeance of the Kilrathi. The sequel to the original space combat game brought even wilder furballs and scrapes to high-end PCs across the globe. That’s literal furballs. The bad guys are giant space cats inspired by Larry Niven’s Kzinti.
Voice acting was added to the game through the use of a “Speech Pack”, which was sold separately. The acting was competent enough, provided largely by actors who would go on to work on future Origin games and little else.
Origin soon pioneered another side of acting in video games: Celebrity casting. Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger featured full-motion cut scenes and in-game voice acting from Mark Hamill, Malcolm McDowell, and other well-known actors.
Just the Beginning
That’s how voice acting got its start in games, and the industry never looked back. How about you? What was the first time a game’s acting made you stand up and take notice?
For me, it was Planescape: Torment. The 1999 RPG didn’t have full voice acting. There was way too much text for that. But when the characters did talk, it was used to emphasize the most dramatic moments, and it was incredible. From Morte’s first wry greeting to Ravel’s amazing monolog at the climax, the voices kept my attention fixed and my imagination on fire.