Advertisement

AI voice acting is changing modding, and it's killing one of the best parts of the scene: The amateur voice actor with a cheap headset mic

 Dagoth Ur, the final boss of Morrowind, stands with hands on hips.
Dagoth Ur, the final boss of Morrowind, stands with hands on hips.

Wherever you go, there it is: AI voice tools for New Vegas, AI Voices for Better Dungeons in Oblivion, Tucker Carlson Interviews Dagoth Ur. More and more, AI voice acting is seeping into modding for all my favourite games, lending voice to the voiceless using digital trickery. There's even a project to voice the entirety of my favourite game of all time—The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind—using machine learning.

How should I feel about that? Ordinarily, my stance on AI voice acting is easy to explain: It sucks. While I don't think AI in general is inherently a bad thing—it just needs to be a well-regulated tool in the hands of well-organised devs rather than a substitute for them—I've never heard an artificial voice that was more than a pale imitation of the genuine article: Sucralose voice acting. Just a cheap substitute used by greedy companies to avoid spending money, and universally to the detriment of the resulting game. It's bad for games and bad for voice actors. Case closed.

The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion
The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion

(Image credit: Bethesda)

But you can't say the same for mods, which are fan efforts made (usually) for no money by people motivated purely by a love of the game they're working on. For games like Morrowind, New Vegas and Oblivion, that's a love I share and empathise with. I just can't get as angry about it when it crops up on Nexus Mods as I do when it crops up in The Finals.

But does that mean it's okay? No. It just makes it a different kind of bad. More than anything, of course, it's a strange form of identity theft: twisting a real person's voice to say things they never said and might not be comfortable saying. It's not for no reason that Wes Johnson—the actual, for-real "Stop! You violated the law!" guy—called AI "evil," and wrote that "anyone trying to create a mod using an actor’s voice via AI *without consent* knows they are wrong."

But as someone who grew up playing, following, and loving all kinds of mods, I have an additional, particularly selfish fear. AI voice acting risks killing one of the absolute best, most wholesome, most storied traditions of the entire modding scene: The amateur voice actor recording their own lines into a headset microphone.

PDX agents assembled around a table in The Nameless Mod.
PDX agents assembled around a table in The Nameless Mod.

(Image credit: Off Topic Productions)

You wanna know one of my favourite games ever? The Nameless Mod. A sweeping overhaul of the original Deus Ex that tells an in-joke-riddled story of users on the dearly departed Planet Deus Ex forums. It's a genuinely excellent immersive sim that takes all the lessons of the first Deus Ex and uses them to make a game that is—if I'm being honest—a better sequel than Invisible War.

Also, it enlisted nearly its entire voice cast from the PDX forums user base. Most of them sound like they recorded their lines by putting microphones at one end of a warehouse and screaming into them from the other. That's not a criticism and it's not ironic appreciation, I truly love that aspect of the mod. It is a sign of love and dedication: A collaborative effort by sheer amateurs motivated by passion for their project and the game it's based on.

Most of them sound like they recorded their lines by putting microphones at one end of a warehouse and screaming into them from the other

Imagine replacing them all with the clipped tones of a synthesised AI voice pack. No echo, no hiss, no soul. I wouldn't remember a single one of those characters the way I do the thoroughly British Phasmatis. I wouldn't remember a single line the way I remember Ryan asking me if I had lost my fucking (the curse is important) mind. It'd all be the same awkward morass. A testament to efficiency rather than affection.

I have similar memories of a pre-TSLRCM mod for KOTOR 2, one that restored the lost Jedi padawan Kaevee to the ruins of the Dantooine academy. Kaevee was voiced by, well, I have no idea. Either the modder themself or someone they shanghaied into recording some lines. Her voice was aggressively high-pitched, a screech sufficient to blow your speakers out, and it's lived rent-free in my head ever since I was 14 years old or so. Is any modern teenager using a Morrowind AI voice pack (hey, there's gotta be one zoomer out there with the same baffling tastes I have) going to carry similar memories into their 30s? I doubt it.

KOTOR 2 outside of ship
KOTOR 2 outside of ship

(Image credit: LucasFilm Games)

That's not to be alarmist. I don't think AI voices are going to kill the amateur voice actor stone-dead. Projects like Skywind, for instance, are making ample use of volunteer actors to voice reams upon reams of written content. But its presence as a cheap and easy alternative will, I think, tempt more than a few modders into the dark side as the years wear on. That's no future I want part of.