What’s my Motivation?

Ugh, pretentious actors!

“What’s my motivation” is a cliché for a reason- actors are always asking WHY their character might say something, when they should just get on with it and say the line!

I may have been using a bit of sarcasm there- which you’d definitely know if I was speaking aloud.

“Why is she saying that?” “Who is he talking to?” “What am I feeling now?”

If your voice actor is asking you some version of this question during a recording session, they’re not being precious, they’re trying to do their best work for you- here’s how to help them.

Words on a page don’t always carry everything a writer wants to communicate, and a lot of what we hear in our heads when we read a novel, for example, is gleaned from context. But in a game script there’s sometimes no context whatsoever for the performer and before taking a guess at what they should do, they end up asking that dreadful question- “what’s my motivation?”

And if you’re not an actor, or you’re new to working with them, you probably haven’t got a clue what they need from you. They’re asking for a lot of different kinds of information with this question- but mainly they want to know about emotion and context.

Emotion

Voice actors know that there are infinite ways to say any particular line, or even a word, and leaving them to guess which one you want… doesn’t usually end well. We’ve all played games where a character will break the mood by putting the emphasis in the wrong place or replying in a strange, disconnected way. There’s a really good reason why this happens and it often isn’t the performer’s fault. We frequently never even hear the people we’re talking to, and rely on voice directors and audio engineers to guide us.

As an example, let’s take the phrase “I’m sorry”

Pretty simple right? Try it out loud now: just… say sorry.

OK, now try it again, this time with deep sincerity.  Or how about casually? Or sarcastically? Or seductively? Or resentfully?  Or perhaps you’re saying sorry because you didn’t hear me- or even because you can’t believe what I just said?

You can see that there’s so many possible interpretations here that if you had to guess, you might pick one that’s really, really wrong. And if a VA chooses the wrong one in a game recording, that can drastically change the scene, the character and possibly even the whole story!

So, you could give your voices some pointers on how to interpret the line within the script:

NELLY: [Through gritted teeth] I’m…sorry.

Now, that’s a lot clearer! The voice actor playing her can infer anger, defiance, she knows this isn’t an apology that comes easily to the character. This is going to give a more nuanced read of the line than a generic “I’m sorry”.

But right now we don’t know anything about this person, and why she’s gritting her teeth, and that might give an even better performance…

Stay tuned…in the next post I’ll be tackling context!

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