Splash Damage Audition Script Notes
I (Ed Stern) am not a full-time voice director! Talk to people who are, and hire them whenever possible!
This is just the way we do VO auditions at Splash Damage; other studios have a lot more experience with this kind of thing and you should find out how they do it and why they do it that way.
Splash Damage usually makes multiplayer shooter games rather than story-lead cinematic narrative games; we tend to focus on combat barks more than cinematic dialogue.
Why does Splash Damage have a standard VO audition script? Well, put yourself in our shoes. We have a game project, which might be in its very early stages, or not yet signed, or we might need to keep someone else’s IP secret, or we might not have settled on genre, setting or tone. Or we might not even have a particular game project in mind; we just want to hear some actors and hear how well they take direction. We wrote this script to test a few different things.
- Vocal Tone: what does this actor’s instrument sound like?
- Range: can they do different sizes and styles of performance?
- Flexibility: do they take direction? What sort of direction works best for them?
- Talent: the ability to come up with compelling reads. Partly innate, partly technical.
We want to find out what an actor can do and what we can use them for. What game, genre or character could they do better than anyone else? We wrote this script to give actors opportunities to amaze us with compelling reads and showcase their talent, skills and experience. It should never just sound like a sequence of words read aloud, every line should have punch, specificity and credibility.
Let’s go through the script, see what it does, and how we can get some different reads out of it.
Look, we even titled the sections so you know what kind of speech it is.
So, narration: it’s not character dialogue, it’s not combat barks, it’s a speech that will sit over visuals, potentially with a music bed and ambient audio (space, sirens, combat, Morse code, dragon’s wings etc.).
Some very good voice directors absolutely hate this, but I recommend at least experimenting with having music or ambient audio coming through your headphones while you do your reads. Not only does it give you something to react to, but it also means you’re not trying to fill the whole imagined narrative space with just your voice.
These lines must sound authoritative and credible. Whether they’re part of this world or looking down on it, we need to believe this voice. It doesn’t have to be a senior voice, full of gravitas or authority; it just has to have credibility. The narrator has to sound like they know what they’re talking about.
Obviously the writer/director should already know what the tone of a game is, but this is a test script to generate different reads. So try it several different ways. Sad. Gloating. Excited. Sorrowful. Convince me.
The speech changes focus, going from planetary, to infrastructure, to a single person. You might go from cold to warm, and put more of a smile on it as you go.
It could be comic, ironic, Terry Pratchett-ish: “First, last and…(delicate little pause)…only off-world colony.”
It could be sorrowfully scared: you’re genuinely sorry things are going to turn out the way they are… but you’re powerless to stop them.
In terms of rhetorical structure, there are some nested lists here. “First, last and only” is one, and “Contact with Earth has been lost… / The air recyclers… / “And someone’s days…” is another. It’s a Rule-Of-Three, with the third item being different to the other two, not just longer, but from impersonal to personal.
“First, last and only” doesn’t sound like good news, and it only gets worse from there, so don’t go too hard and doomy; leave yourself some tonal room.
You could stress the second “much” (“…to much, much worse”) or even run them together (“…to muchmuch worse”). Whatever you do, the priority is for me to believe you.
CHARACTER NARRATION; COMBAT MISSION BRIEFING
This is a commander briefing troops before battle, which calls for a different kind of authority. This briefing could be whispered over a tactical radio mic, but I think it’s more likely to be in a briefing room, or barracks, or out in the field in a vehicle en route to action, in which case it’s got to be called out and projected. So, take a step back from the mic, fill your lungs and push it from your diaphragm.
You know the opening speech of Richard III? And how you can divide it into sections to establish points where you change tone. A rough example…
- Here’s how it is: “Now is the winter of our discontent…“
- I don’t fit in: “But I, that am not shaped for festive tricks…“
- I’m going to do bad things: “And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover…“
This VO script is not, to put it mildly, Shakespeare. But you can, I hope, approach it in the same way, looking for structure, patterns and rhythms within the text so you’re not just reading a sequence of words. You could organise the argument like this:
- We have a problem: “OK listen up” to “they know we’re coming.”
- It’s really bad: “They’ll be well dug-in” to “and ambush us.”
- But here’s the solution: “We do not let them” to “and our eyes open”
- GO TEAM!: “Understand?” Etc.
Splitting the speech into sections immediately suggests when you might speed up, slow down, change tone etc. Read it, convince me, and that’s a good audition.
OK, now an admission. This speech isn’t very good. Or rather, it’s not very well-written. It’s got some professional-sounding jargon in it – “warheads on foreheads” – but the lists go on too long, it meanders, it’s repetitive, like this sentence, oh god it’s still going on, it badly needs tightening up. But I’m going to claim I left it deliberately loose, not because I want to trip you up, but to see if you can come up with a particularly vivid reading that makes sense of it. Basically, I’m going to give you extra points for spotting the bits that could be tighter, and coming up with a performance that explains why that character is speaking that way in that moment.
Here are some ways to read this speech better than how it’s written.
See how even before they’ve got started, they interrupt themselves?
“OK, listen up, we – LISTEN UP!“
Are they still cool and calm, large and in charge, an unruffled, patient parent to their troops? Or are they rattled, lacking authority and trying to impose it? Have they had hours to prepare this speech, or is it off the top of their head? Maybe this character’s coming up with plan on the hoof, improvising it, working out the problem in their head as they’re saying it.
I don’t mind what your vision of this character is, just make me believe this is what they’d say in this situation, and that this is how they’d say it.
I’ve written some blogs about syncopating performances, about how it changes the meaning of a performance when the actor is behind the action, reacting to things in real time, or ahead of what’s going on, even with lines as short as combat barks. Or to put it another way, is the character ignorant of what’s going on, in the moment of realising what’s going on, or revealing what’s going on?
Let’s try it each way. For instance, the character could start off behind the beat, with No Damn Clue how they’re going to survive this battle. When they say, “Here’s the plan,” they don’t have a plan. Yet. But they work it out in front of us (which makes them seem ingenious).
The subtext could be this:
“I need us to survive this. Here’s the problem, it’s a trap. A tough one. How can we possibly avoid falling into this trap…I’ve got it! We out-observe them. That’s how we survive this. We’re patient and smart and don’t go rushing in, we take this slow and steady and we all see another day. Who’s with me? HURRRAH!”
Or they could be ahead of the beat, with the whole plan and speech in their head and they seduce/persuade the troops into following them (which makes them seem cunning):
“Are we all ready? I’m going to talk like a schoolteacher, because we’re all such good pals, and you’ll know I’m joking with you. Now the enemy have been naughty. They’re trying to trick us into a trap. But we’re smarter than them. And I’m letting you feel like you worked out the solution to this problem yourselves, like you all thought of this plan, because we’re all in this together, right, guys? RIGHT?”
Or (and this would be hard to perform) they could be ahead of the beat, but they’re an idiot, puffed up on their own brilliance while actually being clueless. They think they know what they’re doing, but you can tell they don’t realise they don’t.
Or, even though it’s a scene you hardly ever see in games, we could even let the character be weak and mess the briefing up:
“Please? Please shush, I’m trying to brief you. So, ah, um, we’re probably all going to die, because their defences are so strong. But we, um, we’re going to…just…be better? Yes, better. We’ll spot all these…really well-camouflaged defences and things will…probably work out OK? Um, OK?! (oh, God, we’re all going to die).”
This is advertising/marketing copy. It’s extremely difficult to read well and lots of very good dramatic actors just can’t do it.
Put a big smile on it. Either imagine or actually play a bouncy positive music bed underneath you.
It could be an in-joke on advertising: either deliberately over-the-top, sunny redtop chirpy, or deliberately sultry, close-to-the-mic proximity effect: “This is no ordinary X, this is a Marks and Spencer X…”
End on an upwards inflection, or put a button on it, end it with authority.
Again, the lines are (deliberately, I’m claiming) not particularly tightly written: “Loot crates” isn’t a great line of copy, it just falters to a stop. Good luck with it.
Can you make these lines sound credible, even when they’re pure advertising fluff?
TALKING A SOLDIER THROUGH COMBAT
This speech is going to be shouted over gunfire, so you’ll need to back off the mic and pitch it up. This is definitely one where it helps to actually have gunfire sounds playing in your headphones, or you’re able to imagine them. Mainly I need to believe that not only do you know what all this means, but that you’re passing on your justified confidence to an inexperienced soldier.
This speech is pretty much a straight steal from a scene in episode 3 of Band Of Brothers, written by E. Max Frye, where in the middle of the Battle of Bloody Gulch, Lieutenant Winters inspires the panicking, shell-shocked Private Blithe into picking up his rifle and firing back at the enemy.
It’s another set of lists, but it’s mid-combat, not a considered speech. These are all standard bits of marksmanship advice, being recalled in the midst of action. You’re coaxing and coaching them, persuading them they can do this. It’s a test of the ability to make jargon sound like second nature. Talk fast, sound expert, sound like you’ve said these phrases hundreds of times before.
“A near miss is no good” is the problem and “aim small miss small” is the answer. They should trip off the tongue. They’re marksman’s mottos, phrases repeated constantly in training. But even if you didn’t know that, you should recognise the phrase as some sort of idiomatic phrase, something the character is quoting.
These sorts of lines demand an odd, specific size and shape of performance. They’re sort of the opposite of dialogue, in that we have no clue when the game is going play them (or rather, when the players are going to do the thing that triggers the line), or what comes before or after that moment. They’re certainly another test of combat vocal credibility.
If you’ve read the blogposts about syncopation, you’ll recognise the different situations.
BRAVO SIX, HOLD FIRE, HOLD FIRE! Dammit Jonesy, you are too close and too loud. If we were bad guys I’d be impressed but we’re not so…I’m not.”
That first bit in all caps has to be urgent. You’re being shot at by friendlies!
“If we were bad guys...” trails off. So come up with a compelling reason why the character trails off. Are they calming down now the initial danger is over? Do they just run out of oomph and fail to come up with a snappy, cool phrase to end the line? Is it grumbling and muttery and sotto voce?