Finding Your Voice

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I am a writer by trade. However, at various points in my life, I have moonlighted as an actor. I’m proud to say that I am now technically a BAFTA nominee, thanks to my voicework in the video game Super Hexagon. (I also lent my voice to the original Hexagon, and I have one other game in the pipeline.)

Like Terry Cavanagh’s other games, Super Hexagon is a punishing experience. Its premise is dead simple: Survive for 60 seconds. Easy, right?

It isn’t enough that the game is blazingly hair-trigger difficult; adding insult to injury, there is this disembodied voice announcing the player’s progress. “Line,” she says. “Triangle?” “Square.”

“Excellent,” she intones anytime a player scores a new personal best.

Her presence is always galling. She’s actually interfering, isn’t she? And that’s me. That’s the part I play in the game.

I’m so, so pleased to have participated in Super Hexagon’s making. In this post-mortem, I will attempt to list off some of the lessons I’ve learned from that game about voice-acting, while also describing my own creative role.

1) Make the part your own.

Shockingly (!), I was not the first choice for the voice of Super Hexagon. (I think it’s okay if I tell you this.)

I didn’t take this personally, no, but I did take it hard. In college I was not the director’s first choice to play Hamlet either, and now, as then, my insecurity over this fact really drove me to excel. (Insecurity is a wonderful motivator!)

The designer, Terry Cavanagh, wanted Super Hexagon to be really polished and professional — a departure from the original Hexagon, which was developed for Pirate Kart and was therefore a necessarily rough-hewn exercise.

Here I should stress that I absolutely muscled my way in to the original Hexagon. Cavanagh, hard at work on a very short project, tweeted that he needed someone to record just a few short words, and SOON. As a fan of his games and a follower of his Twitter account, there I was, immediately and with bells on, sending him a somewhat-unsolicited MP3. (One crucial component of success is being anyplace at the right moment, with bells on.) Anyway, that’s the amazing true story of how the first Hexagon game featured me, rasping my lines not-very-well into GarageBand.

When Cavanagh decided to entirely rebuild and redesign the game as Super Hexagon, he sought proven talent for the all-important role of “the Voice.” And this time, he hired a pro. But for whatever reason, the voice-actor just wasn’t nailing it. It didn’t sound “right” to Cavanagh’s ear.

I’d inadvertently invented the role, Cavanagh decided, and so he invited me to reprise the role I’d played in the first Hexagon game. For that opportunity alone, I am endlessly grateful.

But now I was also determined to outdo myself. A fire had been lit! I decided I would try to tap into whatever X-factor had made me inimitable the first time, but this time I’d try to be indispensable, too.

On that: I also did not tell anyone about my participation in Super Hexagon until after it launched, except on a need-to-know or close-friend basis. (Just because you got cast, doesn’t mean you can’t be un-cast!)

2) Pay your actors. Or, if you’re the actor, work for pay.

This ought to be unremarkable, but it’s really a rare business practice among indies, so I’ll just say it: Cavanagh paid me for my work. In fact, he offered the exact same amount he’d paid the first, professional voice actor! I really value the way Mr. Cavanagh treated me as a pro and a peer, not just once, but all throughout the Super Hexagon process. He treated Chipzel, the creator of Super Hexagon’s iconic music, in just the same way.

When you pay somebody for her work, you legitimize her work, but you also give yourself credibility as an honest and fair employer. So, although it’s beyond the realm of many shoestring budgets, ideally you will strive to pay your actors for their contributions.

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3) Don’t record from inside a tin can.

Now, I couldn’t very well just talk into my MacBook and call the job “finished” this time around. Fortunately for me, I just happen to be pals with a Grammy Award-winning sound engineer named Ed Gielow. I scheduled a time and a date with him, and he assembled a little sound booth for me in his apartment.

Booths are helpful, not only because they improve the quality and consistency of the recording, but because they mean the actor does not have to stare directly into the eyes of the engineer. You will elicit much better performances from the “talent” if you let them delude themselves into thinking no one can see or hear them.

4) “There are no small parts”: Every line needs to have a REASON.

My friend Mr. Gielow tackled the Sisyphean task of recording take after take, helping me choose the better ones, and assembling the takes into useable sound files for Mr. Cavanagh.

For me, it was critically interesting to see which line delivery Mr. Cavanagh selected for each phase of Super Hexagon. I remember trying each line a few different ways: a hint of anger here, a hint of melancholy there, rarely encouraging. The final version of “triangle” is a deliberately melancholy reading, as if the disembodied voice were heartbroken because you are besting her.

This is such a minor detail — one that does not fundamentally affect the game’s design in any way — but it was absolutely a conscious choice I’d made. Let no decisions ever be unconsciously made!

Super Hexagon isn’t a “narrative-driven” game by any stretch but, because my voice announces the milestones, my voice became a way to tell a type of story. So I chose to imbue each milestone with some sort of intent, since the voice is just one more way to deliver a motivation to the player.

Put another way, my voice isn’t only a hurdle for the player to overcome; it’s the achievement itself. (It sounds kind of vain but, by design, it’s true.)

For my own part, the hardest single line to deliver was “Square.” It is an awkward, unpretty word, like squawk; harder, still, is to imbue that word with any sort of meaning. Mr. Cavanagh ultimately settled on my very favorite reading of that line: “Square” is a statement, acknowledging that the player has reached a crucial moment in the game’s arc of action. (“Hexagon!” is delivered triumphantly; the exclamation mark is implied.)

5) But don’t overdo it.

Then there’s the matter of accidentally imbuing any single word with too much meaning. Early on I realized I needed to micromanage my inner ham.

From the beginning I knew I wanted the voice of Super Hexagon to sound very deliberately artificial — which is to say, flat and dispassionate, as a computer might sound, but still sentient. I decided to model my line readings after Julianne Moore’s uncredited performance in the movie Eagle Eye. (If you’ve ever watched even just the trailer for that movie, she shouts “Jump, Jerry!” at Shia LaBeouf in this truly malevolent way. For women cultivating their own sinister robot voices, Julianne Moore is an inspiration.

I also had to consciously make myself say things fast; to this day I’m not sure I got it entirely right. In a 60-second game, every word has to SNAP.

If you go back and listen to the original Hexagon, oh, man, I am moseying along, chewing scenery on the way! When I say “line,” I sound like I’m passing out. I was <em>trying</em> to be sultry! (This is the problem with “sultry”: You can make “bedroom eyes,” but there’s no such thing as “bedroom voice.” There’s only “I just woke up” voice. Beware!)

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6) You may not get to be your own director.

Mr. Cavanagh did me the ultimate solid: He added an early recording of my voice to his work-in-progress prototype, then sent it to me. As I played the prototype, I could “hear” what I’d gotten right the first time around, but also what I needed to change. So I went into the booth with a very clear idea of what I wanted.

This, I realize, is highly unorthodox. Many indie games won’t have a voice director listed in the credits, no, but that doesn’t mean you won’t receive direction. In the case of another game I voiced, the game designer had incredibly specific instructions for me. He asked me to imitate the voice from OutRun, and on more than one occasion he performed the line readings himself, then had me mimic them.

Here I would stress that one way is not better than the other way. It just means that you will have — not “more” or “less” creative input, even — but different kinds of creative input.

7) Let insecurity be your motivator.

I mentioned this once before, but I like this point so much, I decided to give it its own number.

This is all an awful lot of explanation for what was, in the case of Super Hexagon, a performance of maybe ten whole words. But I gave 110 percent to each of those words, I did something like 50 takes of each one, and I overthought every single line delivery. I am able to explain and defend every choice I made — and that’s the insecurity talkin’.

Here’s a secret: I’ve never been comfortable with my own voice. It’s a raw spot, a major source of insecurity for me. My voice has always inhabited that ineffable space between “sultry” and “obnoxious,” and through the years an awful lot of people have gone out of their way to tell me so.

Super Hexagon wasn’t only cathartic for me. It was also a deliberate, almost malicious performance: the ultimate troll, if you will. “I’m going to make you put up with the sound of my voice,” Super Hexagon is saying to you, and part of me really meant it! On the bright side, this means that the more irritated the player becomes with the disembodied voice, the more I consider my performance a success. (A lot of people have suggested that the game could be improved with a toggle to “turn off the voice” — a request that fills me with indescribable glee.)

I earnestly believe most “weaknesses” are all latent strengths; it’s all just a matter of how you deploy them. If you, too, are possessed of a “distinctive” voice, you should absolutely embrace your secret weapon.

8) Be happy with your work.

There are things I would love to go back and change. I think most people hate the sound of their own recorded voice, but I profoundly do. On the first screen of the game my voice goes, “Super! Hexagon,” and although I like the way I weighted the inflection on “Super,” I have a noticeable Chicago accent on the word “Hexagon.” Hexa-gaaahhn. I can’t hear it without wincing.

And yet, you know, it is what it is, and at this point that’s just how the game’s title screen goes. I can hear myself slightly swallow the words “Game Over” — there’s a tiny hang in my throat — but presumably nobody else can. (Or, if they can hear it, it’s never bothered someone enough to complain directly to me.)

My point is, you can dissect your own work until your face turns blue, but it won’t change the final version — the “real” version. And that’s actually great! There’s a lot to be said with making peace with the best existing version of your work. You have to live with it. So be proud!

I’m proud of my own work in Super Hexagon, and I’m beyond privileged to have played a part in its making.