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Interview: 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim Voice Acting Recording During a Pandemic

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When it comes to 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim’s English voice acting, Atlus had to take a bit of a different approach. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, things like conferences calls were necessary to record. It will be available in the day-one patch and we’ve already heard how it will sound. To get an even better idea of how everything came together, Siliconera got in touch with 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim Lead Editor Allie Doyon and Voice Director Christian Le Monte.

Jenni Lada: First, how did both of you get into the game industry?

Allie Doyon: The same way, actually! We both started as QA testers at this very company, back when it was still known as Atlus USA. I have a lot of fond memories with him and the other testers. After a number of years, Christian moved on to pursue voice recording work, while I stayed at the company and became a localization editor.

Christian La Monte: Yes, indeed! I owe a lot to Allie-senpai for showing me the ropes when I began at Atlus ages ago. I remember in particular that I was applying around to all kinds of different places after a year spent doing Shakespeare Repertory Theatre. I applied to Medieval Times (my horsemanship skill was too low at the time) and local theatres when I noticed that Atlus USA, creators of some of my most beloved games, were in the same area, I figured it was worth a shot to help bring those games to life. Walking through those doors for the first time set me on the path to where I am today.

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With 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, how did English voice acting begin? Was there ever a point where people were in the studios?

Doyon: We started recording earlier this year, so there was about a month of work in the regular studio before the pandemic escalated to a point where we decided to shut down. Leading up to that, there was an awkward period where concerns were building and nobody knew what to do—after all, this situation was unprecedented and halting recording was not an easy choice for anyone to make. During that time, we would still see actors in the studio, but we stopped shaking hands. The virus was a topic of discussion every day as we continued to push through.

La Monte: We were in the studio for quite a bit, and honestly, at the beginning it seemed like any other project (I mean… except for the sheer awesomeness of the game). We were working hard to get through what we could as the news broke and small measures began being implemented.

Everyone shied away from me for a week when I came back from PAX East in Boston just as the first cases came to light. At first it was cutting down on handshakes and hugs, then storing shoes at the front of the studio, having the actors go directly from the door into the booth.

There were lots of conversations about what the best path to take was when a shutdown seemed imminent, and then many more once everything was indeed shut down, little did we know that we would be here for this long.

How many time zones did you have to accommodate once the change happened? How did it affect peoples’ performances?

Doyon: Time zones actually weren’t a problem. All of our actors and staff were local, since we came together in-house to begin with.

La Monte: Everyone was local in this one, so there wasn’t a terrible concern with time zones, though I have had a few projects since that have required… shall we call it creative scheduling?[Laughs]

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What sorts of precautions and efforts did you see actors have to make as a result of recording outside of the studios?

Doyon: Since they were recording from home, each of them had to figure out their own home studio setup with a nice microphone and enough soundproofing to capture optimal quality. Even with that, acoustics can differ across different setups, so it put a lot of extra work on our sound engineers who needed to clean up the audio and make it all sound consistent.

La Monte: I cannot give enough love and respect to our engineers and editors for making the final product sound as though it was all recorded in a dedicated studio. And to all of our actors that turned their closets into a tangle of wires, monitors, and winter coats to ensure the perfect sound. The most painful sacrifice many had to make was closing their pets outside the impromptu booth because the sound of purring carries surprisingly far.

What kinds of side effects, both positive and negative, did you see as a result of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim voice acting being recorded outside of studios?

Doyon: I think that extra burden placed on the sound engineers/editors is probably the biggest downside. They did such a great job that you’d never know some of these lines were recorded out of somebody’s closet, but that kind of detail work takes time. To allow for that, things had to be slowed down, which has far-reaching implications on schedule and budget, as you might imagine. There were also a lot of technical difficulties we faced that wouldn’t have happened if we were still in the studio.

La Monte: There is a certain flow that can be reached between a actor/director/engineer/producer when a project is going exceptionally well. When everything falls into place, it is a beautiful thing, you see a story unfold organically before you as each actor learns things in harmony with their character.

However, the nature of home recordings is that you never know what’s going to happen between takes. What if the internet decides to go out? The neighbor decides it’s time to mow the lawn? One single plane circles endlessly above just to torment you like the beating heart in an Edgar Allen Poe story? Keeping all that in focus and still encouraging the kind of recording environment that earns the best reads and captures the best moments is a challenge. But one that I think we overcame with flying colors.

The positive is that during breaks they can go out of the booth and pet their cats.

Doyon: [Laugs] Cats are always a plus! One of mine always jumped in front of the camera when he decided it was about time to start begging for dinner, so most actors who had afternoon sessions got to see that.

I have to say, Christian did an incredible job directing every actor through the unique challenges of not only the pandemic, but the subtle and complex threads the 13 Sentinels story weaves. I’m really happy with how it all came out!

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How did this new recording option make your jobs easier or more difficult?

Doyon: One thing that made my life easier was the lack of commute! The VO studio is a couple hours away from the Sega office, so just dealing with that is one of my biggest difficulties during a regular project. Of course, I also missed seeing these lovely people in person, and technical difficulties are never fun for anybody.

La Monte: There is something to be said for quite literally rolling out of bed five minutes before a session begins, but overall I think recording like this deprives us as actors from the key part of performance; connection. In any scene, dialogue, speech, you are playing a character that is trying in some way to connect with someone else and when you’re trapped alone in your closet for hours at a time, that can be a tough thing to find that link.

Doyon: That’s a good point. Actors tend to be a pretty sociable bunch, and a number of them talked about the toll the isolation was taking on them. We were still able to chat over webcam, but as everyone knows, it’s not quite the same.

Did you learn anything new from the altered recording situation and schedule that you think could end up being helpful when recording English dubs going forward?

Doyon: The fact that it’s possible at all and can still produce high-quality work is something I won’t forget. You never know when that flexibility may come in handy again someday. It may also allow for hybrid situations where the actor and engineer are in-studio while helpers like me just call in.

La Monte: Agreed. The fact that this is possible is nothing short of extraordinary. And what’s most impressive it that through tech hang-ups and scheduling challenges and the complex nature of this game, we all still came together to make it work. My biggest fear with going remote on this was that we would lose a fragment of what makes this game so special and… not only did we keep hold of that special spark, I think we achieved something phenomenal and unique to tell a story that needs to be told right now.

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In general, how did 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim voice acting sessions compare to ones for past games?

Doyon: Aside from the obvious online factor, the biggest difference is that we had shorter sessions. To allow for all the extra processing work, we had to build more buffer time into the schedule, leading to fewer recording hours per day and more days needed to complete it all.

La Monte: The shorter sessions were the biggest change for sure, as well as the occasional downtime when a mic wasn’t properly attached to a cable which was attached to another cable which was run through a Ouija board which was then Bluetooth-ed to the nearest computer. Sometimes (depending on the person’s set up or connection that day) we were fighting through a delay as well and there were a fair amount of “I’m so sorry, I interrupted you. Go ahead” and “Wait, I didn’t catch that bit.”

I remember in particular that one actor hopped onto the call and began their session with, “Hey! Normally we joke around and have a lot of fun in sessions, but I want you to know that I don’t work with bad comedic timing.”

Doyon: [Laughs] It’s true. We also had to be conscious of turning our mic off during the actor’s reads and on again during feedback/direction, which led to a lot of funny moments where Christian was gesturing wildly to the camera until somebody told him he was still muted.

What is the funniest or most unexpected memory you have from these recording sessions?

Doyon: The way certain lines in the game suddenly hit too close to home during the pandemic… you’ll see it when you get there. [Laughs]

La Monte: Seeing, and then hearing, everyone’s reactions after being given a Reader’s Digest Version summary of the game. They generally fell into three categories: “Ah…,” stunned silence, and “Of course, that totally makes sense!”

Is there any scene or moment, spoilers aside, that you found was drastically easier or more difficult to capture as a result of current conditions?

La Monte: There are certainly a few moments where a character is trapped alone with their thoughts for a period of time, and… well, it gives new meaning to the term “Method Acting.”

Doyon: Haha, Christian nailed it with that one. Speaking of method acting, I’m glad that our actor for Hijiyama [Kaiji Tang], the yakisoba pan lover, was recorded in-studio. We barely finished his sessions before needing to go remote, but just in time, our lead translator Jyun acquired a real-life yakisoba pan and handed it to him in person! I’ve never felt so much passion from a single man and his sandwich before, so please look forward to it.

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim will come to the PlayStation 4 worldwide on September 22, 2020. It is immediately available in Japan.

Jenni Lada
Jenni is Editor-in-Chief at Siliconera and has been playing games since getting access to her parents' Intellivision as a toddler. She continues to play on every possible platform and loves all of the systems she owns. (These include a PS4, Switch, Xbox One, WonderSwan Color and even a Vectrex!) You may have also seen her work at GamerTell, Cheat Code Central, Michibiku and PlayStation LifeStyle.