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Once just off-shoots and continuations of popular anime or franchises, dating simulation games and visual novels have seen a popularity boom in recent years. These Choose Your Own Adventure-esque games are growing in popularity on Steam and other platforms for their engaging characters and storylines and loved for their ability to transport readers and make them truly feel like part of the story. A lot of this has to do with the talent of the voice actors that bring these characters to life.
A visual novel is like an interactive comic book; some are just clicked through like a story, while many have interactive elements. The choices a reader makes will change the way the story progresses. These could be dialogue choices or more of the "turn left" or "turn right" type.
"I've always loved audio, video games, and anime growing up. When I was around 15 years old, I sat down and Googled, 'How to become a voice actor,'" Amber Lee Connors, a professional voice actress for anime and video games, told SYFY WIRE. Her credits are too numerous to list, but highlights include Nozomi Kaminashi in Keijo!!!!!!!!, M. Joke in My Hero Academia, Dercori in Dragon Ball Super, and Belie in HoniePop.
Aimee Smith, who lives in Sydney, Australia, has similar experience as a full-time voice actress: "You may know me as the voices from the Nintendo Switch games, Milla from Freedom Planet, and Ktara from Siegecraft Commander, as well as popular Steam titles Battlerite (as Alysia) and Don't Notice Me (as Mika). I love what I do!" Smith acted growing up, from stage work to playing extras on television. Using her iMac mic, she began auditioning for the now-defunct Voice Acting Alliance, and as of this year, voice acting is her career.
Another veteran of the Voice Acting Alliance is Elissa Park. They started voice acting eight years ago and now has credits that include Kikka in Lake of Voices, Fumi and Eva in Crush Crush, Mariah in Highway Blossoms, and Sword Instructor in Faulty Apprentice.
"I got into voice acting because I was a fan of the webcomic Homestuck, and I wanted to put voice work to my favorite comic," they say.
André Luc Martinez decided on a whim to pursue voice acting. "I literally whipped out my phone and Googled voice acting forums, and started auditioning with my phone mic right then and there," he says. Eventually, he upgraded mics, built a home studio, and now works in professional voice over as well as film directing. Credits include voice work as Dunstan in Ancestors Legacy and Petrus in Vicboys, as well as director of DESOLATE (2018).
THE DOS AND DON'TS OF AUDITIONING
Before one can even dream of voicing a character, there's the audition. There are different types of auditions: Cattle calls on sites such as Voice Acting Club and Casting Call Club, private auditions from the likes of Sound Cadence Studios and Shining Star Casting, and, of course, being booked directly.
"Auditioning needs to be one of the greatest priorities of any voice actor, and in the online market of having to self-direct, you have to be good at it," Smith says. A lot of the time, auditions will only have a handful of lines for actors to read, meaning they need to really focus on making the most of those.
"The first component I usually immediately look at is age, as that usually determines how much strain I need to put on my voice, as well as pitch," Martinez says, explaining that things like the attitude, disposition, and personality always play a key factor in how he'll change his voice for the character.
Creating a character from a few lines and no context isn't easy. That's when a person's skills as an actor really come into play. Connors says the first role a VA has is as an actor; their voice is just the tool.
"Sometimes you have a lot to work with, such as pictures, backstory, and in-depth character profiles — and sometimes you don't have anything but the audition lines with no context," Connors explains. "Overall, I always try to make strong choices following my gut instinct and own interpretation, rather than trying to guess what the casting director is looking for."
As more indie projects have come about, there have been evermore people wanting to get into voice acting, making it an even more competitive field. Lingering on an audition or checking back constantly won't do much good, according to Park. They tend to try and move on as soon as they send their takes off. "Once you audition, forget you auditioned or assume you didn't get cast so you can just keep moving forward," they say.
"Industry standard is around four or five auditions a day," Martinez explains. It's that constant hustle that makes voice acting a challenge, but rewarding in the amount of experience gained in a short time.
THE ART OF VOICING VISUAL NOVELS
"Many dating sims incorporate a visual novel format, but all visual novels are not necessarily dating sims. I think it makes it difficult, but also interestingly fabulous that we can't break games down into neat little boxes anymore," Smith says.
"Visual novels with more of a standard story-branching format, or kinetic novels try to go with a more anime/cinematic feel so those projects tend to [be] fully voiced," Park says. "As a result, you often get to play a lot of really interesting characters in VNs, and get to really see their character journey."
It's that breadth that Connors enjoys as well. "Visual novels are usually focusing on a much broader scope of story with more lore for the world," she says. "The characters may also have relationships amongst themselves and may not always include a self-insert protagonist for the player."
THE WORLD OF DATING SIMS
The world of dating sims is vast and varied and has grown significantly since the early days of bootleg downloads from Japan with sketchy English patches.
Smith, like many people in the industry, was shocked to see how prolific dating sims have become. "This medium has gotten huge!" she says. "I see dating sims popping up all over the place now, and they're all very different." She mentions Hatoful Boyfriend, a story in which the reader's love interests are pigeons.
Martinez is an avid lover of the genre and will be voicing love interests in the upcoming Star Trek Dating Sim as well as in Vicboys. "I love them for their structure — narratives with multiple endings always seem to have better depth for me as an audience member and actor," he says. "I definitely get to explore so much of the character, as all their possible circumstances are explored."
Many dating sims are relatively happy and sweet, but others contain darker themes.
"One particular recording session, I remember having to record a character asking the player out, and recording their reactions to getting taken up and rejected back-to-back," Martinez explains. "It's an interesting experience. You hit so many different emotional beats in the same session."
For Smith's part, she voices Rosalind in the card-battling game Princess Battles on Steam. She believes making characters that would interest players relies on the authenticity in her performance.
"Sometimes dating sims lend themselves to some interesting writing you mightn't find in other forms of game media, and you have to play it straight," she says. "If you don't genuinely portray a character and express their frustrations, their joy, and their embarrassment with respect, I don't think your audience is going to respect or want to date you all that much either."
Connors agrees that providing an authentic experience is important. While not all dating sims may be particularly grounded in reality, players are still looking for something relatable. It's that ability for players to connect with a character that is key for dating sims. After all, these games are mimicking a relationship.
"Much like dating in the real world, I think it's important to be yourself," she says. "I also think it's important to be open and vulnerable. As human beings, we react to vulnerability. It can be impossible to like someone who is too 'perfect' or 'flawless,' so when characters have more sympathetic moments and interactions, I think it's key to be genuine so that players can relate."
EROTIC DATING SIMS
A large pool of dating sim games have an erotic element. Sometimes it may only be implied, and other times it is fully acted with voice talent and accompanying pictures or animation. When it comes to voicing these sort of roles, a deft hand (or rather, voice) is needed. As well as being as natural as possible.
"Life contains adult relationships and it's an important aspect of character relationships, especially in those types of games," Connors says. "I think it's important to approach it as naturally as possible."
When it comes to erotic dating sims or even visual novels that may contain mature elements, Connors insists that keeping within your personal boundaries is key.
"If something makes you uncomfortable, you do not need to push yourself to do it," she explains. "Clients and directors are very understanding, and you can turn down work if it crosses your boundaries. Nothing is worth compromising your comfort and integrity in that aspect."
Martinez has had the same experience; the natural elements of sex and relationships are important to focus on when it comes to erotic content. "I did a gig where I had to moan and laugh at the same time. Turns out cracking puns while having sex is a thing?" he says. He also appreciates how much it helps him grow in his craft. "It tests me as an actor, as should most things."
However, erotic voice work isn't for everyone. Smith tends to err on the side of caution when it comes to projects she isn't sure she wants to associate her public name with. She's still figuring out her personal boundaries.
TIPS FROM THE PROS
The key to being a good voice actor is being a good actor.
"Take classes and build up your skills, it may take time and that's okay! Everyone's journey is different," Connors says. "I also personally recommend practicing your cold reading."
It's a sentiment that Martinez shares, saying, "Your performances should always enhance the text, not simply stand as a representation of it." From his own experience as a director, he says directors and casters are "not really looking for how many voices you can do, [they're] looking for your acting ability."
There's also the issue of underpayment in the voice acting world. There's a lot of indie projects around, and while many are totally upfront about not being able to pay and that everyone is volunteering their work, there are some projects who try to lowball talent.
"Know your value," Park says, insisting it's also important to know what you want to get out of the project, be it money, experience, klout, or what have you. They insist that you don't have to take every role you're offered; the ability to edit and refine your voice acting career is important, especially in the early stages.
Voice acting can be a difficult world to break into, and knowing how to approach your VA career is crucial. If you want to pursue it full time, Smith says you need to commit yourself to that. If you're looking to just do it as a hobby, then make sure you balance it with your full-time job. Also, do your homework.
"Play the games with the voice acting switched on and be aware of the speech patterns and archetypes presented to you," Smith suggests. "Voice matching isn't the goal here, but it can certainly create the foundation in which you can understand what matches your vocal strengths."
She also recommends looking at the #vndev and #visualnovel hashtags on Twitter and connecting with developers, writers, and producers. "Genuinely care and follow their work," Smith adds. "When they're ready for voice talent, you may be the first ones to see that post come up!"