Meet the Swords: David Schlein-Andersen

Let’s get vocal about voice-overs

For studios that talk big when it comes to narrative and immersion (that includes us) the expectation to live up to hype and deliver is real. While every team from art to animation contributes to the narrative experience, the nature of voice-over in games places even more pressure on this discipline. But as narrative expectations grow, we should remember that video games are not the same as TV or film, “That’s an unfair comparison,” says David Schlein-Andersen, Liquid Swords voice-over designer. But wait, let’s take a few steps back and dive a little more into David and the lesser-known world of voice-over.

“So you’re a triple threat?” we ask David excitedly when he describes himself as “an actor, musician, and gamer.” In truth, David is far too down to earth to use this moniker, but he describes how he’s always been “drawn to entertainment.” He put his love and talent for music into practical application and studied audio engineering and audio production. A choice that still allowed him to pursue his musical aspirations yet ensure the bills were paid.

David spent time freelancing in the dubbing industry, mostly in linear media. This work was a crucial step for what was to follow. “I got to appreciate working with actors and learned how to direct when the emphasis was on what they’re saying rather than what they’re doing.” Following a chance meeting in 2016, David started a freelance working relationship with Paradox Interactive, Stockholm’s grand-strategy powerhouse, where he worked on sound design and contributed to a number of their flagship titles including Stellaris, Europa Universalis 4, and Hearts of Iron 4. His eventual search for more stability led him to Liquid Swords as the voice-over lead.

The weight placed on voice-over in video game development is evident from the high-caliber equipment used in its production, but David’s own words describe it best, “Good voice-over is the key to becoming truly immersed in interactive media. When you read a book, you imagine the characters and voices in your head but when you add voice-over you often get something you didn’t anticipate. This can sometimes surprise you but it’s the most exciting part of seeing a character come to life.” A great actor adds to the immersive experience. They’ll help the player understand a character’s mental state, their motivations, and their story development. Working in voice-over “the challenge is how to effectively direct and communicate with an actor.” But David relishes this, “I love to be in the moment, helping shape and direct the performance.”

Like other disciplines in the industry, voice-over is also feeling the impact of emerging and disruptive technologies, “We’re seeing the rise of AI tools in voice-over.” There are two main AI applications, speech to text, essentially no actor, and speech to speech where AI is used to manipulate a voice. “I’m really not against AI in principle, but the tech is a long way from replacing actual actors,” David says as he explains how he takes a different approach and highlights the value of AI to iterate and showcase with speed, improving outcomes when you’re eventually in the studio working with an actor. David’s strategy of using AI to improve his work and productivity, rather than simply worrying about how it will replace him, is arguably the key to positively engaging with this emerging tech.

Getting the most out of voice actors is a crucial part of crafting an immersive player experience and something that The Last of Us, Part 1 did with such skill all the way back in 2013 with Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson’s stand-out performances as Joel and Ellie. Jumping to 2023, HBO’s live-action adaptation throws a whole new light on voice-over acting as commentators seek to draw and make comparisons between the linear TV series and the non-linear game. “That’s an unfair comparison,” going back to David's earlier comments, “The two are not like for like.” Most live-action productions are filmed on sets in a real-world setting, with actual things to react to. Whereas voice-over actors are in an empty soundbooth with only words on the page or rigged up to performance-capture hardware.

When it comes to The Last of Us, both versions might use the same source material but “they’re still adaptations in their own right.” The live-action series is not meant to be a scene-for-scene recreation of the game – though there are some wonderful Easter Eggs and game references that should surely keep the most discerning fan happy. David advises against rudimentary views that one version is better than the other, rather he highlights that they each offer different experiences. He explains his focus is always on quality, whether he’s watching, playing, or creating. “Quality is what drives me and audiences are certainly getting better at understanding and appreciating what quality looks like.”

It’s here we land on our big takeaway from the journey David has taken us through the world of voice-over: it’s the pursuit of quality that helps drive creativity. Whether that be in art, design, or voice-over, the desire to push the envelope, raise the bar, or whatever metaphor you like to use, should spur us on to be leaders in our fields. That’s the Liquid Swords way.