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Dead Head Fred

Writing the VO Script for Dead Head Fred

Posted Jul 17 2007 8:03AM by Dave Ellis

If I had to pick my one favorite job as a game designer it would have to be writing voice-over (VO) scripts. I’ve always enjoyed writing dialog, and working in the video game industry for 15 years has given me the opportunity to write for quite a few games.

Here at Vicious Cycle, I’ve been able to write a lot of dialog over the last couple of years. I wrote the VO scripts for Curious George and Flushed Away. The scripts for those games were, of course, based on existing characters. In both cases, I got to read the movie scripts before writing the dialog. The challenge here was to match the dialog of the characters in the game with their big screen counterparts—personality, phrasing, and all other aspects of the speech in the game had to match up with what people saw in the films. Of course, I also had to come up with brand new witty dialog that wasn’t in the scripts and, occasionally, expand upon scenes that were in the movie but were played out differently in the game.

Dead Head Fred is the first game where I got to play a major role in bringing brand new, original characters to life. When Adam wrote the design document, he came up with detailed descriptions for all of the major characters. He also came up with the feel and mood of the world that they live in.

When I was preparing to write the VO scripts, Adam suggested a number of movies to me that might help to establish the atmosphere and the way that Fred and the denizens of Hope Falls talked and acted. The films that I found most helpful in this regard were Miller’s Crossing and (believe it or not) Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Miller’s Crossing was great for getting a handle on the hardboiled, clipped speech patterns that were typically used in the film noir flicks of the 40s—even though the movie was actually shot in the 90s. It was a serious take on the genre. Roger Rabbit, on the other hand, was a farcical take on noir, which is pretty much what we were going for in Fred.

So, I started writing. Adam and I divided up the dialog tasks—he wrote most of the in-game dialog while I wrote all of the cut scenes. There are a lot of cut scenes in Fred, but we felt that since the characters were all our own and were new to everyone, we owed it to the player to showcase their personalities properly.

Aside from showcasing the characters, the cut scenes in a video game need to advance the game’s story. When Adam wrote the level designs for the game, he included brief descriptions of the cut scenes he needed and the purpose that each of these scenes needed serve. I approached the scriptwriting on a level-by-level basis—although this wasn’t always easy. Fred is not a purely linear game, so not all scenes in a level take place in order. For example, the player might spend a while in Downtown, go to Zombie Town for a while, and then return to Downtown. When writing the dialog, it was important to keep track of what the player had and hadn’t done, which characters had and hadn’t met Fred, and so on so that the dialog didn’t reference anything that hadn’t happened yet!

When I write dialog, I tend to “hear” the characters in my head after a while as I write for them. That might sound crazy, but it is really very useful. The more dialog I write for a character, the more the character comes to life. After a while, it actually gets to the point where the characters really are talking to each other—when Jeanne says something to Fred, you know exactly how Fred would respond. Like I said—not as crazy as it sounds. Really.

Some of the characters evolved a little differently than Adam’s descriptions. For example, the Hobo character wasn’t Irish in Adam’s description. From the moment I wrote the first line, the Hobo was Irish in my head. The Horseman also changed drastically from the description. I figured that every headless horseman that has ever been written has a deep, ominous voice. From the get-go, I thought the Horseman in Fred should be different—and funnier. So, he has a deep, ominous laugh and a Joe Pesci-like voice when he talks.

After all of the first draft scripts were written, our president Eric Peterson worked with his contacts at Technicolor in Los Angeles to line up voice actors. Eric also worked directly with the actors’ agents in some cases to get the right people for our key roles. There were a couple of roles (Fred and Pitt) that we wanted to cast with well-known actors. The other roles were all going to be cast from the huge pool of talented voice actors in Hollywood. The actors that we chose have worked for years in animated television and features as well as in countless video games. We ended up with a great cast.

One of the easiest to write for was Ulysses S. Pitt, our villain. Adam’s instructions were very clear on Pitt: Adam said that he should have an attitude and mannerisms a lot like Johnny Caspar, the mob boss played by Jon Polito in Miller’s Crossing. As I wrote for Pitt, I “heard” his dialog in my head in Jon Polito’s voice. That turned out to be perfect, because we actually got Jon Polito to perform the voice of Pitt in the game! Because I had, essentially, written the dialog for him, it’s no surprise that the final result was exactly what we wanted.

Then there was our title character. We had a long wish-list of actors who we thought would be good for the role, but I had no specific actor in mind as I was writing Fred’s lines. Our headless detective turned out to be a caricature of a 1940s gumshoe, with a lot of attitude and a snide, biting sense of humor. Given that description, one of the names on our list stood out from the rest: John C. McGinley, who currently plays Perry Cox (a doctor with a lot of attitude and a snide, biting sense of humor) on the hit comedy Scrubs. Fred and John were a perfect fit.

One of the minor drawbacks of being a developer on the East Coast is that the recording sessions generally take place long-distance—the actors were in a studio at Technicolor in LA, and we were patched in by phone in our conference room in North Carolina. Because there were so many parts in Fred, VO recording stretched out over a six-week period, with two or three sessions a day, three to five days a week. We typically recorded one actor in the late morning, one at around lunchtime, and one in the evening.

Recording Fred’s lines was the biggest challenge. Fred had nearly 1000 lines in the game—a huge amount of dialog—and John McGinley had to fit the recording sessions into his Scrubs shooting schedule. As a result, Adam, Eric, and I spent a lot of late nights on recording session conference calls. John’s sessions typically started at around 6 or 7 PM California time—9 or 10 PM our time—and lasted two or three hours. It took four sessions to complete Fred’s dialog.

Every one of our actors was a pleasure to work with and, in spite of the long hours, Adam and I loved every minute of the recording sessions.

We were especially excited to work with John and Jon. Jon Polito was a tremendously nice guy, and it was obvious from the time he read the first line that he had spent a lot of time rehearsing the script and getting into character.

John McGinley is just as funny off screen as he is onscreen. He gets the credit for turning the words in the script into a living (well…semi-living) character. As he became more and more comfortable with the character, he began to put a lot of his own touches on the character. Most of his ad-libs made it into the final cut of the game. John was also willing to jump through hoops to fit us into his professional and personal schedule—and during the time surrounding Christmas and New Years, no less! In retrospect, we’re all sure that no other actor could have possibly done justice to the role. We really lucked out that John was available and agreed to do the role!

Speaking of ad-libs—no discussion of the Dead Head Fred VO scripts would be complete without a few words about the “f-bomb.” Originally, we had decided to keep the language in check somewhat. The first draft of the scripts had only one instance of the word in question. (Pitt says it in a particularly dramatic moment near the end of the game.) Then, it came John McGinley’s turn to record. Many of his ad-libs got pretty “blue.” And damned funny! By the third recording session, Adam and I were adding lines just to cater to John’s ad-libbed style—and we were giving some of our other actors free reign to get creative in that department as well. (In for an f’ing penny, in for an f’ing pound, right?) So, the final game has the f-word in it quite a bit. But in a funny, wholesome sort of way.

Looking back at the game now that it is mastered, I have to admit that I’m surprised how many of the cut scenes survived. One of the scenes, although it was shortened, actually turned out a lot better than originally planned. In the first cut, the opening cinematic was almost seven minutes long. There was a lot of background information we wanted to give the player at the start, and we had a hard time nipping and tucking the scene. Even after edits, it was still very long for a video game cinematic (at least for a video game cinematic in a post-Wing Commander IV world). Our art director, Ben Lichius, and I were talking about how to deal with this, and Ben came up with the idea of putting in a set of opening credits, to make the opening seem more like that of a movie than a game. The end result was great! The addition of the credits not only made the long cut scene seem to fit better, but it also showcased the names of many of the key voice actors right up front.

Even with creative solutions like the impromptu opening credits, we ended up having to do a lot of last-minute editing so that the animators could make their deadlines. There were a few scenes and lines that we were sad to see go, but most of the best stuff survived intact. Who knows? Maybe someday we’ll release a director’s cut version.

--Dave Ellis

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