It seems like it would be a strange thing to cover but voice in video games has evolved so much and has changed the way we play games. There is so much to cover on the topic I am only going to skim the surface talking about early representations of voice in games, and how it is used today (both the bad and the good). Voice is one of the things that can bring games to a more personal level, because once a game starts talking to you it makes the player sit up and pay attention.
Origins of Voice in Games
Early games (the 70s all the way to the mid 90s) didn't have room for much voice acting. It was a technical limitation more than the designers choice. Early consoles just couldn't handle realistic voices that well. However, this is not to say that many early games did not try. There were two pioneers of voice acting in games: fighting games and sports games. Both of these genres had the upper hand in voice because they only needed a limited amount. It was still impossible to consider voice acting for an entire action or adventure game, but it was possible to give each fighter a little phrase and the announcer to say "FIGHT". In sports games all they needed was a few phrases to encompass the sport (for example, a football game only needed the words; touchdown, incomplete, safety, fumble and some other known football phrases). Because the dialogue was so short and there wasn't that much variety it was much easier to pull off simple voice-overs to give the games an extra layer of realism.
Sometimes early games would also use voice on the title screen, having the game announce itself. An early example of this is the Ghostbusters game for the Commodore 64, NES, and Sega Master System. You can hear how distorted the voice sounds, which was the main reason voice could not be an intergrated part of gaming in those days. This particular clip comes from the commodore 64 version.
Joe Montanna II: Sports Talk Football was one of the earliest sports games with commentary. You can hear how the Genesis could pull off clearer sound than the Ghostbusters clip, but the voice quality still is not good enough to encompass an entire game.
A clip from Mortal Kombat. However, many fighting games at the time used this same technique. Using an annoucer for the fight and giving the characters short catchphrases during special moves gives the game a little more realism.
Street Fighter II also had some classic early voice acting when the fighters yelled out their special moves. These phrases are still used in Street Fighter games today because they became so entranced in the franchise.
What brought voice in games mainstream without a doubt was the CD format. CDs could hold much more information than any cartridge or disk could and also could produce high quality sound. With CD based media, developers no longer had to worry about low quality voices and could now persue making games that had full voice tracks. This is when action, adventure and RPGs started to get full voice casts making them cinematic experiences. Sports games also benefited even more from this, now being able to have full colour commentary during the games.
Metal Gear Solid was one of the most cinematic games of its time. It was all done on 2 CDs on a 2x speed CD drive. However, this was enough to fully voice the entire game, with hours of speech.
Resident Evil was an earlier Playstation game that featured full voice acting. The voice acting is known for being comically cheesy but it added to the B-Movie feel of the game. These are some of the funnier quotes in the series. You can see how the bad translation and voice acting stand out even more with voice.
Nintendo the black sheep
The Nintendo 64 was not a CD based console so it lacked a lot of voice in its games. It was a powerful console so it could pull it off but the cartridge had a fairly limited capacity and one of the easiest things to cut in order to save space was voice. However, even today (with the Wii having a DVD drive) they do not regularly make games with voice acting. Sometimes this is done with a good reason. For example, Mario games have very limited voice acting but the characters voices are so cartoony that it would be annoying to hear them speak at great lengths. However there are many games that could use voice acting that do not have any at all. The Zelda games have a very colourful cast of characters and each one could have a great voice. For some reason the characters remain mute and you have to read the text on the screen. The games still stand as being fun and classics, but I believe some voice acting could really make the games epic.
Here is the voice of Mario. It is fun enough for a platformer game where you only heard Mario at select times. As you can see he also does the voice Wario (and other characters not shown in this clip).
Paper Mario is a Mario RPG, therefore it has a lot of story and text. Many people complain about the amount of dialogue to read, but I would rather read it than to hear the character in Mario's world speak. Many of which have very high pitched voices, or in Mario and Luigi's case Italian stereotyped voices that cannot be taken seriously.
When Voices go Bad
There are many times when voice acting goes completely wrong. With the ability to put voice in the games also comes the responsiblity to ensure that actors will take the role seriously, and game designers will write great dialogue. Voice acting in games is a double edged sword.If you have a great cast the game becomes much more immersive and memorable. If the voice acting is awful it can ruin the experience making the game seem much shallower than it might be.
A classic example or voice acting gone wrong. In the SNES Starfox the characters had little sound effects for their voice. But, when the N64 version came out they decided to upgrade to a full voice cast. The characters went from charming and fun to cheesy and borderline annoying. Thankfully the game was good enough to withstand this. However, later Starfox games suffered more as the voice acting became more and more prevalent.
Castlevania Symphony of the Night is one of the greatest games of all time, but it isn't perfect. The one thing that holds it down is the voice acting which makes the games plot seem much less meaningful and shallow (it is already a fairly simple plot). Luckily the game does not have that many areas that focus on story.
The Good Voice Acting
Not all games are plagued with horrible voice acting, some even really pull out all the stops when it comes to the voices in the game. When game designers take great care and pride in their dialogue and voices it really elevates the game. Great voice acting can enhance the storyline, make the game more realistic, give the player greater reason to have an emotional attachment, and all around make the game more polished. I am going to end off this post on a good note showing you what voice acting can lead to and how it can enhance the video game art form.
Psychonauts is a great game, and not only because of its gameplay. Tim Schafer (the lead designer) has a real knack for comedy and it really comes through in his writing. Even with great dialogue you still need great actors to delever it or it will fall flat.Thankfully, Psychonauts develops on a truely humourous experience thanks to the voice acting.
The Halo series is basically a sci-fi epic action game. Unlike some developers of first person shooters, the developers at Bungie actually cared about their story and wanted to make it something to remember. Now the plot in Halo isn't the greatest thing ever written but it does have more depth to it than a typical action game. The voice actors in the Halo series really know how to pull off a fun sci-fi feel.
Kingdom Hearts is a strange game. It is Disney meets Final Fantasy with the lead character Sora going from world to world meeting all kinds of characters. The people at Square-Enix made sure to capture the voices from the original Disney material. Even though they didn't have the original voice cast they tracked down people who played the parts other times (cartoons, or direct to DVD movies).
Uncharted Drakes Fortune is the closest thing I have ever played to an action movie. It borrows a lot of its themes from the Indiana Jones films and it shows. Part of what made Indiana Jones so great was the top notch acting, and Uncharted captured this with having some really fun characters, all of which had great voices.
Voice in video games is a relatively new aspect of the art form. It is something that can either help elevate a game to a real level of polish or make the game seem amateur. Since video games are only now obtaining mainstream recognition (and even then it is very fleeting) as a real medium it has become easier to find real dedicated actors to fill the voices. Video games voices is something that has gotten better over time and hopefully will only continue to do so.