Voice acting has come a long way in the last 30-odd years – compare Sinistar‘s eight short phrases to Skyrim being able to attract Christopher Plummer and a host of professional voice actors – but one significant problem still seems to lurk: the ability to pronounce character names in-game. It’s certainly not unreasonable for developers to have left this one aside, because character name pronunciation is astonishingly varied and complex – even humans have trouble with pronunciation of names they don’t recognize. (One friend’s guildmates just call her “Oatmeal” because they can’t consistently pronounce her actual character name and “Oatmeal” is a similar common word.) And of course we can’t expect voice actors to pre-pronounce every possible name – they’d be in the studio for the rest of their lives.
It occurred to me that it might be possible to circumvent this by having voice actors record each of the sounds in the International Phonetic Alphabet, and then allow the software to string them together. This isn’t a new idea; Intellivision was combining phoneme samples to create digitized speech in the early 80s. But I wonder if it could be re-examined as a way to allow games – like Skyrim, which, despite its extensive voice acting, conspicuously almost never addresses the character by name – to further immerse the player in the experience. (It has its flaws, of course – there are certain transitions between letters that the IPA appears not to cover (as Lara pointed out to me), and naturally it’s not suited for non-human languages – but those can be overcome with software and custom phoneme sets.)
My ideal setup works like this:
- The player selects and enters a name in the accepted character set. (On that note, I’m pleased to see more and more games using UTF-8 instead of 7-bit ASCII.)
- The player selects IPA phonemes (and indicates accented syllables) to generate a pronunciation for the name – perhaps guided by the printed name – which are pronounced on their own in either a neutral accent or an accent that represents the standard in the game world. This allows the player to have a name with unpronounced characters (or characters that look unpronounced that aren’t, like the last letter of my character “Theande”‘s name) and to correct transitional pronunciation.
- The game asks, “Is this how you want your name to be pronounced?” and reads out the generated name.
- The player can then correct phonemes or adjust transitions until the name is correct (or at least approximately so).
- Within the game, the NPCs then use the indicated phoneme string and their voice actors’ recorded phonemes to use the character’s name within voice-acted dialogue.
(Another interesting side effect of this is that each voice actor can lend his or her own accent to the phonemes. Christopher Plummer’s approach to your character’s name would be different from Jennifer Hale’s, lending even more verisimilitude to the world.)
Naturally, this would require quite a bit of additional work – from both the actors and the programmers – but I think it would probably be worthwhile. (And the first game to do it well, at this point in the industry, would soon make it nearly mandatory for other games, so that the extra work would quickly become part of the standard workload.)