I’d like to believe that my written voice and my spoken voice were one in the same. Unfortunately, my spoken voice has a tendency to quickly dissolve into a bubbly, ditzy mess complete with a solid peppering of, “I know, right?”
That isn’t to say that I always talk like I’m late for a party in the valley in the 90s. That’s just the bit of my voice I’m most aware of. It kind of irritates and even startles me when it makes its demanding appearances and always leaves me wondering why I watched Clueless on TV so often as a kid.
In addition to my natural vocal trends, I also adopted a baby voice in middle school and never really gave it up. I used that voice so often that a classmate once asked what my real voice sounded like. Even now, I occasionally regress to the comfortable gibberish and raised-octave baby talk that only I fully understand. My darling husband things it’s adorable. We’re sickeningly sweet. It’s unbearable.
But why does the voice we choose make a difference? It’s important because there are parts of speech that we recognize in addition to body language that offer subtle clues about what a speaker is actually saying. A disembodied voice, like that of GLaDOS from Portal, offers us much different cueing than a Sim who waves his hand at you to draw attention to the toilet in his thought bubble. Both characters are getting their message across; The Sim, though, is doing so more directly even while speaking unintelligible Simlish, while GLaDOS, in clear English, is being sinister and conniving. Body language is working for the Sim just fine, but GLaDOS has things to hide within the spoken words.
A simple choice of voice can change your heroine from sweet and helpful genetic lifeform to evil manipulator just through pitch and inflection. Even a single line of dialogue read with different emphases can change the way we interpret the line simply because of the things we infer from the chosen voice.
Adopting that baby voice is a choice I made to present myself a certain way. The high pitch and soft syllables imply vulnerability and youth. Similarly, slow, honeyed, drawn-out speech rings with kindness and sincerity. These are generalizations that we learn to make about people based on their chosen voice. Our culture dictates a chosen voice for a character based heavily on these generalizations.
If a game’s character designer envisions a male character as strong and tough, a voice actor might choose a deep, gruff voice with a slow rate of speech to give that character vocal life. But, society gave both the actor and the character designer those descriptors as masculine and tough.
These are cues that we learn as early as infancy. We see mommy and daddy talk differently to us than they talk to each other or other family members. Baby talk is a natural teacher of context. It would be inappropriate to talk to employers with baby talk just like it would be inappropriate to delegate IT tasks to a newborn. We learn that speech can differ based on audience.
As we get older, we discover more clues about people from their voice. We notice things like males generally having deeper voices than females. A game developer doesn’t need to tell a voice actor, “We’re looking for a typical man’s man voice, make sure it’s at least one octave lower than your own voice.” It just doesn’t need to be said because society has shown us the typically-lower voices, and it’s what we’re naturally comfortable with. A male character might even be a laughing point — a comic relief, if you will — with a voice that’s too high-pitched.
Beyond that, the voice actor may even be doing voiceover work for a completed, imported game. That actor can see the character and watch their animations to discern context furthering their choices. After noticing a character’s crush, romantic feelings can then be inserted into an otherwise innocuous line of text, through pacing and emphasis, to add help depth and storytelling.
But, still, why does voice matter?
I think it all comes back to my baby voice. If I want to come across as being in need of preferential treatment, I’m going to present you with my meek and small baby voice. If I want you to take me seriously as a professional, I’m going to put my best side forward with my perky and overly-helpful-receptionist-sounding voice. But, since I want you to see me as the nefarious supervillain that I am, I’m just going to cackle wildly before returning to my lair without freeing you from those bindings I’ve had you trapped in for the last three hours. Good luck saving Gotham City now, big boy.
You see? It’s all about context.