Inside a video game voiceover studio

In the studio with the writers and actors of Defense Grid 2.

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Jennifer Hale asks a few questions about the character. That's less than 30 seconds after she walks in the room.

Her arrival prompts the usual bit of Hollywood hug and kiss, and some hello-how-are-yous, but then it's down to business.

Who is this character? What is she doing? Why is she here?

And then, just a minute later, she's in the booth and she's nailing it.

If you've played a video game in the past several years, you'll probably recognize her voice. Her list of credits is enormous. Baldur's Gate, Planescape: Torment, Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, Metroid Prime, Knights of the Old Republic, Mercenaries, the Metal Gear Solid series, Mass Effect 2 and 3, Gears of War 3, Diablo 3, Halo 4 and 5, Call of Duty: Black Ops, BioShock Infinite, The Last of Us and Broken Age are not even half of the games she's contributed to.

And now, added to that list, is Defense Grid 2.

Executive Producer Jeff Pobst and Script Co-Writer Sam Ernst are directing, sitting in chairs with wood frames and slung canvas, like you'd expect. Each is holding a script the size of a small phone book. The engineer signals he's ready to begin. And Hale begins.

Standing in the recording booth, she runs over a couple of lines, trying out different voices. She's playing a new character, a former scientist who is now part of a computer, and who will help the player.

Hale asks if it's all right if the character is well-traveled. "She's moved around a lot, but spent a lot of time in Australia?" she suggests.

Pobst says, "Sure."

And then Hale drops it, and it's perfect. A fully realized character, pulled out of the bag like it's nothing. The result of (and perhaps the cause for) over two decades of successful work in the video game industry.

For every game you play, this scene will repeat multiple times. Each character, each voice, each barely noticeable grunt or scream is created by a person in a booth. Not always by someone as innately talented as Hale, but someone. Somewhere.

After 10 minutes of working with Hale, Ernst and Pobst noticeably relax. It's working. The new character, voiced by the veteran Hale, sounds better than they'd hoped. Stitched together after the fact with the voices recorded by the other actors, it will somehow feel perfectly in place. Even though Hale had never heard those voices, and hadn't read the script until today.

Ernst and Pobst celebrate with pastries and warm smiles, while Hale continues to rocket through the script, laying down lines, adding life to the game that's still being made hundreds of miles away, in a completely different state.

This is game development.

The writer

Ernst and writing partner Jim Dunn wrote the script for the original Defense Grid. That was back before they'd really made it in Hollywood. Since then, they've written and produced two television series, Haven and Crisis, as well as some episodes of Stephen King's Dead Zone.

They're the type of Hollywood writers whose names aren't yet well-known, but they're doing it — making money, making shows. "Journeymen" wouldn't be an unfair characterization. Neither would "pros."

When the time came to write the script for Defense Grid 2, Pobst went back to the well, to the now more experienced team. Ernst and Dunn flew to Seattle in spring of 2013 to begin discussing with Hidden Path's executives what to do with the script for the game.

Their first suggestion: Kill off main character Fletcher. The Hidden Path execs lost their minds.

"I wasn't saying we should kill Fletcher permanently," Ernst tells me in LA, over sushi. "It's not that I wanted to get rid of him. ... It was really just the shock value of getting to say that to a bunch of people."

The original Defense Grid script had been a fixer-upper project for Ernst and Dunn. A version had already been written, but those writers were not going to see the project through. When Ernst saw what had been created, his first instinct was to jettison it and start over.

Ernst and Dunn are one of the rare professional writing teams brought in to help make games. But the practice is becoming more common as game developers try to break out of the traditional enthusiast fan base and into more mainstream markets.

Ernst and Dunn's first game project was for one of the Shrek games. Ernst says the process initially was painful. A script had been written, but it was overly complex — and terrible.

DgJeff Pobst (middle) and Sam Ernst (right)

"The idea of bringing in writers was slow," Ernst says. "These ... designers, they thought they could write, and they sucked. They sucked like — I don't know if you read any fan fiction. On Haven, we would have all this fan fiction, and I couldn't read much of it, because a lot of it was sexy. And I was like, 'What are you doing with my characters, man?' And of course I named one of the characters after my daughter, so it was really awkward. But [Shrek] was really on that level.

"The reason we got hired on Shrek was to go in because they were in a bad spot. Where the game was, where the story was — the problem was they would focus all on story. That's what they think is important, is story, and there are very few good TV shows or movies where the story is insanely complicated. If anything, you spend all your time trying to simplify a cool story and make it emotionally complex, the characters. When you run into a building and kill zombies, it's hard to focus on character. That's changed, as you know. But that was the big challenge for video games."

For Defense Grid that process of focusing on character would be tricky. The Defense Grid series is tower defense. The player doesn't portray a character so much as they manipulate the objects on the screen. They are spoken to by characters in the game, but the characters are never shown. They're just voices. So any dialogue or dramatic interaction is between characters that aren't directly driving the action on the screen, and are also invisible. It's a unique challenge for the creative team.

"So the big question is, how much dialogue can you get away with when you can't see the characters?" says Ernst. "With DG1, I don't think anybody knew. We were trying to tell a real story, and there was a lot of back-and-forth on how much dialogue we can do."

Ernst and Dunn's first attempt was, in effect, a two-character story, involving dialogue between the main character Fletcher, and the player playing the game. Only the player's lines were not spoken, but typed on the screen while the game played.

"We thought it would be awesome, and we put it in and it was horrible," says Pobst. "Because you were playing the game and reading it, and it didn't work."

Pobst called the writers and told them the game would have to change. The dialogue would have to all become monologue.

"Silence on the other end of the line, for way too long," says Pobst. "I was like, 'They don't want to work with this anymore.'"

"The only emotion they want is like a Steven Seagal movie. Someone kills Steven Seagal's family, now he's got emotion."

The writers recovered, and gave it a shot. The result turned out better than they hoped, and shipped with Defense Grid.

Now, almost eight years later, the cast of characters in the Defense Grid universe has expanded. The Containment expansion introduced Simon, voiced by Alan Tudyk, and Cai, voiced by Ming-Na Wen. Defense Grid 2 will add even more characters including, for the first time in the series, a villain.

Ernst sees his work as tapping more fully into emotion in whatever medium he's working in. He's critical of video games and movies that attempt to portray heroes as badass, but skimp on their feelings.

"You have to be willing to talk about emotions," he says, while describing how he approached the rewrites on the Shrek game. "I felt like [action game] designers, they [are] afraid of emotion, because it was sappy and stupid and nobody cares about that. The only emotion they want is like a Steven Seagal movie. Someone kills Steven Seagal's family, now he's got emotion. ... He's sad for a scene, he puts a flower on the grave, and then he stands up and his eyes have changed and now he's gonna go be a man. That's Steven Seagal. Or George W. Bush. These are very one-dimensional ideas."

For Defense Grid 2, the characters introduced in the first game and subsequent expansions are evolving, and there's drama to unfold with new characters in an entirely new world. How well that all works is only partly up to Ernst and Dunn.

The game itself will have to carry some of that weight, but most of the emotion of the characters will either come through or not in the performances of the actors. And those performances are happening in Burbank, Calif.

The recording

The process of turning words on the page into performances you can hear starts in unexpected places. An entire industry exists to service the effort, mostly in Los Angeles.

For Defense Grid 2, Hidden Path works with The Voicecaster in Burbank. It's billed as the longest-serving VO agency in Hollywood, and it provides a "full-service solution," including casting and studio rentals.

We arrive at Voicecaster on a Thursday morning . It's not a glamorous place, but it is home to four separate recording studios and has produced VO for hundreds of productions — television, film, commercials and video games.

Walking inside the place, it's like the 1970s never ended. Deep pile carpets, dark wood paneling. The recording equipment and computer look out of place amidst the retro decor. The Keurig machine, sitting on a table, looks like an alien artifact.

Working with Voicecaster, Pobst scheduled returning actors Jim Ward and Alan Tudyk, and found an actress to take over the Cai role from Ming-Na Wen, as well as actors to handle most of the new characters. Most of the actors are booked in hour-long blocks throughout the day.

Juan Carlos Bagnell arrives to engineer the sessions. He's a veteran, and a longtime Voicecaster employee. But like most people working in show business in LA who haven't become huge stars (and some who have), Bagnell works a variety of jobs. He's known as "Some Gadget Guy" on YouTube, where he reviews technology and gadgets. That's his passion, but the VO work pays the bills. Sometimes Bagnell directs. Today he's only engineering.

The computer and sound decks are turned on and waiting for Bagnell when he arrives. He checks to make sure everything is how he wants it, walks into the sound booth to adjust the mic, and then waits. All told, he's good to go in under five minutes.

The first session of the day is for the character Cai. Ellen Dubin replaces Ming-Na Wen, who's now appearing in Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..

"Ming-Na got new agents, and the new agents basically said, 'Oh, well, you know, now that she's a big TV star there's no way we would do what we did 12-13 months ago, for that price,'" Pobst says. "As much as I liked her ... it seemed like that was the place to make a change."

Dubin is new to the production, and takes a few line reads to find her footing.

Bagnell plays Ming-Na's performance so Dubin can understand the character, but also so that she won't accidentally imitate the well-known actress' performance. There's a fine line between remaining true to the character and delivering a straight-up imitation. One would be good; the other might turn players off. Like the "uncanny valley" effect of seeing a robot of a game character that's almost lifelike, but not quite.

Pobst wants Cai to sound similar to the original performance, but different enough that it sounds like an obviously different actress. After several tries it's still not quite there.

Ernst gives the note "more balls." Dubin acknowledges "more balls." And then she delivers it.

The performance unmistakably has "more balls." And it's perfect. The character has been found.

And then, less than an hour later, it's Jen Hale's turn.

After she finds her slightly Australian-tinted character, the next 35 minutes go by in a blur. Hale, whose session started late because the previous session also started late, performs hundreds of pages of dialogue at a rate of approximately one line every five seconds. Occasionally she does one twice, but mostly she nails it on the first take.

At one point, while being directed, she cuts off Pobst. She likes to read the line as soon as she hears it in her head, she says. It saves time. Pobst agrees.

When she's finished, a quick exchange of thank yous, a pose for a picture, and then she's done. Jennifer Hale, the consummate professional, whisks herself out the door in a swirl of bewildered appreciation and smiles, presumably on her way to do it again someplace else, for some other video game or television show.

And then, for the DG2 crew, it’s on to the next character, which just happens to be the most important character in the game.

"Ming-Na got new agents, and the new agents basically said, 'Oh, well, you know, now that she's a big TV star there's no way we would do what we did 12-13 months ago, for that price.'" Jennifer HaleJennifer Hale

Magic on demand

After Hale takes her leave, it's Jim Ward's turn. Ward plays the iconic character Fletcher, the original AI with whom the player interacted in the first Defense Grid.

Fletcher is a martial character, regal and dignified. He is an ancient leader from the world where the first Defense Grid game took place, who has now become a voice inside of a computer. When Ward arrives, he looks anything but regal and dignified. Wearing a leather jacket, jeans and a T-shirt, Ward looks like he's either just woken up or come home from a wild night. He walks timidly. He admits he's not feeling well, and his voice reflects that. It's rough, soft and hoarse.

Ward takes some time to compose himself. He gets a drink of water. A stool is located for him to sit on in the booth because his back is failing him. Worried looks are exchanged.

Ward is responsible for almost half of the lines in the script. His character, by far, carries the game. If he can't deliver, half of an entire day will have been wasted. He's booked for another four-hour block the next day, but with so many lines to cover, both days were planned to be full. Pobst and Bagnell play it cool, saying kind things and trying not to let their worry show, but the tension rises. There is concern.

Ward settles in the booth, on his stool. Bagnell signals he's ready, and plays some old Fletcher lines to refresh Ward's memory. And then it's time.

Ward clears his throat, takes a deep breath and speaks ... and he's Fletcher.

In an instant, Jim Ward is gone, and the person sitting on that stool, in that booth is inhabiting an almost extra-dimensional plane, channeling the character of Fletcher. Ward perfectly re-creates the character in line after line, one after the other, barely pausing for breath. He's reading one line every few seconds, tearing through the script at an astonishing pace.

At one point, as Ward is ripping through one-line "barks" that will play after certain actions are performed in the game, Pobst leans over and whispers, "It's exactly the same as he performed it eight years ago." And sure enough, after I return home from Burbank I compare the barks recorded in 2014 with the same barks recorded in 2007 for the original game, holding my voice recorder up to the computer. They sound absolutely identical.

At the end of the day, Ward has finished reading the final Fletcher line in the script, plus some extra "available now!" advertising blurbs. He's banged out a total of over 900 lines in just under four hours. The second half-day session won't be required. Ward has landed it.

By the end of the next day, almost every single line of dialogue for Defense Grid 2 will have been recorded, except for those of Firefly and Serenity star Alan Tudyk, who was in Australia. He'll have to record another day. Pobst will fly home from LA having completed just another recording session for just another game. Magic, on demand.

Meanwhile, back in Bellevue, Wash. at Hidden Path, the game isn't finished. The voice-overs are just one more piece of the puzzle. Months of writing, weeks of planning and casting, hours of recording, hours yet to be performed of editing and mixing and in the end it will be just one part of what you see and hear when you play the game.

That's voice-over recording, and this is game development. Babykayak

Ward is responsible for almost half of the lines in the script. His character, by far, carries the game. Dg6Jim Ward

Continue to part 10 of this series here.

This story is part of a series covering the development of Defense Grid 2. To read previous installments, please visit the Making of Defense Grid 2 page. This series will continue into mid-2014, the projected launch date for Defense Grid 2.

Images: Hidden Path Entertainment, Polygon