Gamemoir continues its look at bad game writing with an examination of Peter Dinklage’s performance in the Destiny alpha.
Last week’s post about game writing went up seemingly moments before Peter Dinklage went viral and gave us this year’s “I took an arrow to the knee”:
It’s a hollow, dead reading of a ridiculous line of dialogue, and the internet exploded almost as quickly as it did with Luigi’s Death Stare. Polygon’s Ben Kuchera went to town on Dinklage’s performance, saying in part:
…I hate to say that it sounds like someone was there just to cash a paycheck, but whatever tools Dinklage needed to provide a first-class performance, whether that be source material or motivation, were lacking. His voice-overs are now one of the weakest parts of the game…
I should say right up front that I didn’t actually play the Destiny alpha, so I’m only going by the reactions of pretty much everybody on my twitter feed, almost all of whom howled in derision and posted YouTube clips and changed their names to some variation on “Moon Wizard”. That being said, while I can certainly hear for myself how flat his line readings are, I can’t help but feel that it isn’t completely Mr. Dinklage’s fault. Indeed, I’m not entirely sure that any of it is his fault.
Firstly, this was an alpha.
Despite the increasing numbers of Early Access games on Steam in recent months, the vast majority of alphas are hidden far from public view – especially for games on this kind of scale and budget – primarily because they’re many months away from being anything near a finished product. I suspect that Bungie and Sony made this public primarily to capitalize on post-E3 momentum and to give fans something to see and experience for themselves. This was not a beta server stress test; this was a highly polished demo of something that’s very much still a work in progress. As such, it seems absolutely insane to think that any voiceover work could be considered final. To be fair to Ben Kuchera, he does say as much:
It couldn’t have been an easy performance to give. Dinklage is playing an artificial intelligence with no body, so there is no way for him to physically act the role, and we have no idea if he was able to even see the scenes he was discussing when he recorded the lines. Doing voice-over work cold, without great source material or being able to act out the scene or use other actors for reference, is brutally difficult to do well, even for talented individuals.
I will absolutely guarantee that, even without having heard the very loud feedback, Bungie and Mr. Dinklage will do their best to right all the perceived wrongs when they go back and re-record the final script. (And the fact that they’ve already gone ahead and turned this quote into a T-shirt makes me hopeful that they’re on the case.)
Secondly, let’s also note (as Kuchera did in that second quote) that Mr. Dinklage is not portraying a person; he’s portraying a floating spherical robot (which looked a lot like 343 Guilty Spark to my untrained eye).
So even if we put aside the very real possibility that the VO in the alpha is simply a quickly recorded temporary track that was never going to be included in the final product, it would be helpful to remember that even the most famous fictional AIs (HAL in “2001”; C-3P0 and R2-D2; Ian Holm as Ash in the first “Alien“) aren’t known for their emotional depth and range.
Thirdly, and most importantly: that is a terrible line of dialogue, and there isn’t an actor alive who could make it any less terrible. I used to be an actor, actually, and so I speak from experience here: there’s only so much you can do with a bad script. Sure, Dinklage read that line flat – but what the hell else was he going to do? How can you emote with a line that dumb? I submit that if he’d actually tried, that line would sound even more ridiculous than it already does. Kuchera closes his piece with the following:
It’s terrible to begin a journey that’s clearly meant to evoke a sense of adventure and grandeur in the player with a disembodied voice that clearly has given up on conveying any kind of emotion. This is the alpha, so there’s plenty of time[ ] for the lines to be re-recorded, or replaced or improved through some kind of post-processing effect, but for now they actively weaken a game the Polygon staff has been enjoying. Something went wrong when Peter Dinklage is the worst part of your game, but there it is. Working around a well-known actor’s schedule can’t be easy, but the game does so many things well to give you a sense of place; it would be a waste if that was lost due to the poor performance of a single person.
I submit that the larger worry here isn’t Dinklage’s performance; it’s the state of the script. VO dialogue can be recorded a lot quicker than it can be written – especially in the hands of a capable actor – and if Destiny is as big as it’s claimed to be, that’s a lot of dialogue. It should also be noted that as great as Bungie’s Halo games are, we don’t really remember them for their dialogue. The script is serviceable, but not poetic; and in any event, the original trilogy’s story was a bit convoluted for me, and always took a back seat to the action. (And no, I didn’t read the books. But even if I did, I’m not talking about the books here.) Additionally, even if we acknowledge that there’s a rich fiction in the Halo games – which I’d only do in comparison to other big-budge first-person shooters – the games convey that fiction in many ways beyond dialogue.
Sure, Keith David was pretty good – but he’s pretty good in everything he does, and maybe it’s because I’m not a Halo superfan, but I don’t really recall his performance all that well – or, really, anyone’s performance in any of the Halo games besides David Cross as a random soldier in Halo 2, specifically because it was so weird to hear his voice in that context. This is a roundabout way of saying that Bungie – great as their games have been – does not have a particularly strong track record when it comes to good scripts. And so the pressure to right Destiny’s wrongs in this alpha is not necessarily solely on Peter Dinklage’s shoulders – it’s on the people who are giving him his lines. If you’re going to hire an actor as great as Dinklage, you had damned well better give him something worthwhile to say.