PAX West 2023: Interview with Voices From Valisthea
The following article contains spoilers for Final Fantasy XVI.
During this year’s PAX West convention, Square Enix hosted the panel “Voices From Valisthea,” featuring a discussion with the Localization Director and multiple voice actors from the recently released Final Fantasy XVI.
Following the panel, we had the opportunity to sit and chat with a number of the panel members, including:
- Michael-Christopher Koji Fox, Localization Director
- Ben Starr, voice of Clive Rosfield
- Jonathan Case, voice of Joshua Rosfield
- Nina Yndis, voice of Benedikta Harman
Gamer Escape: It was mentioned during the panel yesterday that some of the voice acting for Final Fantasy XVI was done in ensemble sessions, particularly when you discussed the sessions between Ben and Stephen Critchlow. Can you discuss any other notable scenes that were recorded as an ensemble?
Koji: Most Square Enix games are Japan-first. Once the Japanese is done then we dub to the Japanese voice, and so you really can’t do ensemble sessions. But when I was told that Final Fantasy XVI would be English-first, the first thing I wanted to do was ensemble sessions. Because I kind of knew how… when someone’s in the booth by themselves, you know, recording by themselves, it’s very hard for them to pick up the vibes of the people around them in the dialogue, in the scene, because they’re just there in the booth by themselves doing isolated lines, and I would get the sense that things weren’t fitting together. But we can do ensemble this time, and the Japanese will have to record to us!
So, that was one thing I really wanted to do. The team was OK with it and the studio was OK with it. So the first thing we did was we found any scene that had two people that had lengthy dialogues and we were like, “OK, these are the scenes we want to do.” And that was a lot of Clive and Jill, a lot of Clive and Joshua, a lot of Clive and Gav. Clive and Byron, because he has those scenes when they first meet, or the scene when he leaves on the boat with Clive and Joshua.
It was a basically a lot of those scenes where we brought them together in there. What we would do is read the scene fully first, just have the two just go at it. And a lot of times we’d be sitting there going, “Oh my God, this is so good,” because they were just bouncing off each other. They were ad-libbing a little bit. It just became, from a very strict ADR “you have to follow this length” and everything to just this free-flowing thing.
Ben: It was an amazing thing to be a part of because it is a single character that you play as so you want to create these relationships to actually mean something. And so I think what it allowed us to do in those sessions is to build up realistic relationships that felt honest and real. So I would be in the booth, and people would just come in every couple of hours. I would just have like a revolving door of all these amazing actors coming in to work with, and it was such a treat for me.
The scene that I remember doing the most is a scene in the barn with Clive and Jill, and Clive is reflecting on thirteen years of killing. It was Suzie [note: Susannah Fielding, voice of Jill] and I in the booth, and it’s such an important scene for both of those characters because they’re connecting over their trauma. They’re talking about, both of them have these moments of going, “I’ve done this. I’ve destroyed people’s lives, all to kind of protect my own,” and that kind of communal guilt. Suzie and I really connected over that. It was kind of watching her be so brilliant that enabled us to do the scene, I think, in a way that we wouldn’t have normally have done it.
I remember really vividly doing that scene. The reason I think it works is because we were there, it wasn’t just isolated in the middle of nowhere.
Koji: The only downfall to that was that he would start flirting with Suzie in the booth and I would get nothing done…
Ben: Koji, I would flirt with everyone!
Koji: In the middle they’d just start talking. Just like in between a line when we were checking something they’d just start talking. Then we’d come back in they’d still be like, “So where you gonna go this weekend?” And we were just like, “C’mon guys…”
Gamer Escape: That’s a good thing, that means you have chemistry between the performers!
Ben: I feel that’s more with Ralph [note: Ralph Ineson, voice of Cid], though, but that’s a different thing. Yeah we just started kissing it was great…
Gamer Escape: Oh, we’re learning something new here today.
Ben: Scrap that, I did not kiss Ralph Ineson!
Gamer Escape: Jonathan, you mentioned during the panel that your read for Joshua was your first time auditioning for a video game role. Could I ask you to speak to that experience, and how your past work may have informed how you read for the role?
Jonathan: So, I came in really excited. But also with no expectations as to what the format would be. I spoke a little yesterday on the panel about it being text that was fresh that I had never read before. So you’re trying to interpret it in the moment, and try and work out what the emotion might be underneath it. You can’t ask for context because it’s so early on in the process that the spoilers aren’t even spoilers that are solidified yet so they have to be so careful.
I think, kind of going to what Koji’s saying, it felt like the whole process was very respectful to the actors and the actors’ process. So I think I’ve jumped in on a game where the actors were given so much respect to work with. I think, in general, our creative performance seemed to come first. I don’t know, but I have friends that have worked in other video games where they’d be, lets say, it was very tightly structured already and their performance sort of has to fit in, or they don’t sometimes spend too much time on the performance. So you’re guessing, pulling at straws. Whereas it felt from my audition that that wasn’t going to be the case, it was going to be very much a collaborative process.
I think having two people in the room together, and my experience doing theater, that’s very much about being in the present moment. You’re not pre-deciding on what you’re responses are going to be; it would be quite false if you did. I felt like the process was going be like that from day one.
Ben: You were doing eight shows a week at the same time.
Jonathan: And yeah, I was in the middle of doing eight shows a week at the time of auditioning. I was quite tired! I saw the audition back yesterday and I was like, “OK, that was alright.”
Ben: Also because the characters develop. Like we’ve been these characters for such a long time and it was so interesting to see these recordings back. ‘Cause in my head I did something completely different back in 2019. I’m thinking, “Oh, no, there’s the character. The character’s there, the kernel of that character exists.”
I think the fear was that we were kind of given these characters on the fly when we first saw it and thinking, “oh no!” We saw these lines, we read them, we interpreted in that way, and that’s what we built the characters from.
Ben: I also found with you that, doing sessions with Jonathan, the textures of Clive and Joshua are so different. And it was amazing when we were doing stuff together, and often we would have to say lines together, like where we would say those lines in unison. And it’s amazing how you have to kind of create that sense of brotherly bond but having your own individual identities at the same time. I think a lot of Clive came about from reacting to what you were bringing to Joshua, and thinking, how can I make them feel connected.
Jonathan: Likewise. And the decisions could so easily have been made, oh we have this bit where the brothers are speaking in unison, so we’ll get Ben in. Jonathan can come in next week and copy what Ben was doing and overlay it. Which would work fine, but you wouldn’t have that texture. You wouldn’t have that response to each other. I don’t think it would be as good.
So yeah, I’ve answered about four different questions! But I got the sense from my audition, from the way the direction was given to me, that it was going to be a collaborative process. One that you can feel that you can be creative with it.
Koji: I think it was Ben that mentioned that he saw the auditions and you can see the kernel of the character there. I think the important thing when we were doing auditions is we had an idea of the character, but we didn’t want to solidify it ourselves. Instead of looking for a voice a lot of times in those auditions, we were looking for a character.
When we heard Ben’s audition, when we heard Jonathan’s audition, when we heard Nina’s audition, it was like, “that sounds like what Benedikta is supposed to sound like!” It wasn’t like, “this is a really cool voice,” then we can find the character after that. It was hearing their interpretations of that, and they had gotten it right, us not knowing 100% what right was, but then having them do their performances and then realizing that’s the right voice. Then we could take that from there and mold it into something together that would 100% fit the Clive, fit the Joshua, fit the Benedikta.
Gamer Escape: During recording, were there any ideas you brought to the table in the moment that affected or changed the original script for the game?
Nina: Sometimes we were talking about Benedikta’s personality. And also, because she’s quite like the dominatrix sort of vibe woman, we wanted to make sure that there’s depth in her performance always. So that she doesn’t just fit into that one type of character. We wanted to draw upon her previous experience and think about what she’s been through, which has then created her to become the way that she is.
So it was a lot of more exploring and doing the reads and lines in different ways to see what would fit and kind of bring her persona to life. Whether I came with specific suggestions, I can’t actually remember if I did. I don’t think I did!
Koji: This isn’t a line, but the one thing she did that totally blew us away that we didn’t ask for was when Torgal jumps up and bites her necks and then kind of goes around. She did this amazing sound. It was just like this juicy, guttural type of…it was like literally one take. We heard it and everybody in the studio was like, “Holy shit…that was great Nina!” After the session was over, we just listened to it like twenty times, just the three of us.
Nina: Did you actually?
Koji: That was great! Again!
Nina: I think that was what was so amazing with the recording process. I didn’t have the privilege to record with anyone else. However, I still felt it was very much a collaborative process with the directors and Koji on the line. Where I felt like I was able to try these crazy weird things, sounds. As you saw on the audition tape yesterday, I was like jumping and doing lots of weird stuff. But I felt like it was OK for me to do that, which then brought out interesting interpretations of the line reads.
But yeah, the Torgal thing, the Torgal choke. That was basically just, “I’m just gonna have a sip of water and gurgle whilst I scream.” That was basically what I did, and it worked!
Ben: I think it’s amazing how sympathetic you made Benedikta. In someone else’s hand it could have not been. And I think there is a testament to like how much your voice breaks and how even when you’re shouting at Cid about stuff. “You know nothing, Cidolfus, you know nothing at all,” and you can see the pain and the hurt and the betrayal, she isn’t just an one-dimensional villain.
Nina: That’s what was so amazing with voicing her. She has such a colorful backstory that makes her become the way that she is. Again, I didn’t have much information prior to recording, so it was very much we had long discussions when I came in. You guys would explain everything to me, talk about her backstory, and then I tried to just feel that.
Ben: Have a scream and a cry?
Nina: Yeah, a scream, a cry, it was very therapeutic!
Ben: Go into the booth, have a scream and cry, and then leave!
Koji: With Benedikta’s character, the game is not about Benedikta, and so we didn’t have a lot of time narrative-wise to spend on Benedikta. And so we had to get a lot of that backstory in through performance. And so, yes, you have this moment that we’re showing you of Benedikta and she’s angry. But there’s stuff that led up to that anger that we couldn’t show, so it was all on Nina to kind of convey those feelings in these lines. It puts a lot of responsibility on the actor to make sure that happens.
And it puts a lot of responsibility on the listener to make sure they can hear those things and understand. “OK, there’s a little bit of cracking in the voice while she’s angry, there must have been something here that added to that sadness.” But she was able to put that in so well. And I think that a lot of players, even though they know nothing about that backstory, can kind of imagine a lot of the things that happened to Benedikta earlier. And I think that’s all because of Nina’s wonderful, deep performance with all those layers.
Nina: Aww, thank you! My favorite characters that I like to play are usually the ones who are sort of…what do you call it, they’re not understood? Like, misunderstood characters are interesting because you kind of have to…I believe that if you dive deeper into a person who might come across as a killer, a cold-hearted brute. If you understand where that came from, you actually find so much empathy for them.
Ben: In a way, Clive is also a villain, you know. And I think everything is relative to what you’re playing against. In the game, Clive constantly questions like, “What is it that I’m doing? Am I doing the right thing? Is this indeed the right thing?” One shade to the left or right, just a person’s interpretation of what is villainous activity. It’s really great, we have to understand all of these characters and their motivations.
I think Final Fantasy XVI is an exploration of different types of trauma and how that manifests itself in different people. Eikons in particular, Dominants are making huge sacrifices in order to have this power. It’s a power that shouldn’t…that man shouldn’t have, these god-like beings that are actually killing them and taking away their humanity. And it’s a really interesting way of exploring that in this context.
Gamer Escape: Were there any aspects of your respective characters that you found difficult to embody or perform for?
Ben: I found the whole process to be completely terrifying at times. Because I was so aware that this character was going to start when he was 15 years old and then he was going to end up in his 30s, and how do I create a consistent narrative that feels human? How do you create a person who is human and doesn’t feel like I’m just doing different silly voices? “I’m doing a young voice and now I’m doing an old voice!”
A scene I’m so proud of, because I was so scared at the time that I thought was going to be really difficult, is the ‘Accept The Truth’ scene. Clive is literally facing himself and he’s facing his younger self. And his younger self and his older self are in the same plane of existence. I thought that was going to be so, so difficult. We took our time, everyone was amazing with it. It wasn’t an easy thing to do, because I didn’t want it to just be like, “Oh, Ben’s just doing a high-pitched version of his voice.” And Clive is the only person in that scene, so it’s literally like a one-man scene where he’s facing himself. And that was a real challenge, a real challenge to do. But I’m so proud of watching it, because what I see is the work that went into finding that consistency through the fact that he’s 15 and then he’s 28 in the same scene.
Jonathan: You finally understand Tom Hanks’ experience in The Polar Express?
Ben: Yeah, yeah, yeah, sorry. I think what we really wanted to do, through the whole experience, I was trying to really understand what makes Tom Hanks tick. And I think we finally all learned that through the process!
Jonathan: We did, yeah.
Ben: You knew what it was like to be Tom Hanks in Castaway...Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump…Tom Hanks in Big…
Jonathan: My answer to that question, I find that Joshua is often quite subdued. He’s maybe one of the more…well, I suppose all the characters have their own introversion, but he feels like a more introverted character. I think my…not concern, the thing I was most curious about was how do I let you into his inner life without him being cold and intelligent and kind of shy.
But also I think there’s something to be said for genuinely just how good the performance direction on this game was. I think it goes unsaid or isn’t said enough. You’re an actor and you’re a director and you work in collaboration to create something together in not-isolated jobs. You need each other, really. I wonder if, moving forward in the making of a video game, if more respect is put on that, I think probably better performances will keep happening. And maybe better games, get games that people will feel even more connected to.
Ben: I think an actor needs permission. Like, actors are not naturally good at what they do. They are, but it’s like, we’re gonna release some kind of crazy chaotic energy into a room. And it needs to be harnessed, it needs to be channeled. Performance direction allows, it creates a safe space for that alchemy to take place. It requires its guidance, and oftentimes we’re just pouring some emotion into something and trying to channel it. But it requires that, it requires a spearhead, and I’m so amazed with the people that worked on this game with us.
Hannah Price [note: performance director for FF16], who kind of started it all off, she’s worked on amazing, amazing video games. And the fact that we had the honor of working with her…
Jonathan: She really looked after me. Obviously, I was cast, it was my first video game I’d ever done. And the first audition to getting the job, and kind of realizing it was this ‘AAA’ thing and not knowing what it was until later. She really understood that I needed to learn what this was, but she gave me such intricate, intelligent direction. As did Morgan [note: Morgan Rushton, voice director for FF16] later on as well.
You’re meeting in the middle. You’re not giving a line reading, you’re not saying, “OK, so this is…” you’ve obviously forgotten the context of this scene, and so say it like this. It was an in-depth style. Remember, you’ve just walked this far, you’ve said this to this person, and you’re holding that with you, and you’re like, “Yes, now I can say it with meaning!”
Ben: It’s amazing how whenever we say these lines, I think, yeah, we’re the person saying these lines, but we had Hannah, we had Morgan, we had Koji. You have like four people, five people behind you, guiding you. There were layers of all these people working together. You know everything about the story, so you’re kind of going, OK, so this is where Clive’s at at this point, this is where Joshua’s at. And you’re giving us the context, and being like this is kind of the tone of what we’re going for. And then that’d be filtered down through loads of people and then it would require us to do that.
It was this immense machine. Yeah, we’re getting lots of people saying how wonderful it is, but, yeah, we did like a little bit.
Nina: Yeah, I feel the same. I feel like I wouldn’t have performed in the way that I did without that directions. Hands down, it wouldn’t have happened.
My answer to your question about what the challenges were, what was the most difficult. With Benedikta, because she’s so volatile. Suddenly she’s like calm and calculating and then she’s screaming at someone and then she’s crying and then she’s again calm or seducing someone. There’s so much up and down, she’s so unpredictable all the time. If you don’t have that guidance from the performance directors, it could sound a bit parodic. It could sound quite funny and not…good. So that was probably my biggest challenge, was to not make her sound like a parody of herself. Which then, being able to have that very in depth guidance and also having the safe space to explore and be vulnerable was what made it work.
Ben: Over the length of time that we made it, also, to keep that level of consistency. Often we said to Koji, “Where…where…where am I?” And you just need that to show you, “Oh, how old am I today?” “What’s just happened?”
What was great is that the process meant that by a couple of months in I knew exactly where Clive would be. We’d already kind of laid out this road map of where he’s going. But still, you have the lore book, you have the moment. I just have to check in and go, “Koji, I have no idea where I am. It’d help so much if you could tell us…”
Koji: As someone from the Square Enix side, I have to say, yes, they had all this time. That’s very expensive to do. I understand why a lot of companies and also a lot of projects don’t have the time, don’t have the budget to spend ten minutes on one line. They’re doing like 80 lines in an hour so they can get the next person in ’cause they need to get this done quickly because studios are expensive! Directors are expensive! Actors are expensive!
The fact that the project that Yoshida-san as producer and Takai-san as director were like, “No, we want to do this right.” They understood that this was the first time we were doing English first and they wanted it to be impactful in that way. So they kind of gave me the reign to say, “OK, you don’t have to do 60 loops in an hour. You can do like eight or nine. You can spend five, ten minutes on the line to get the right line.” There were times we’d just go in, we’d read through a scene, and we’d just do a couple that were good on the first take. Then there’d be those ones that took like 20 takes to get. We got the right line.
When you’re doing it, you’re thinking, “Oh my God.” And I’m the one on the Square Enix side that’s like, “OK, we gotta get through these lines!” But then also I’m like, “Yeaaah, but maybe we can just call them in tomorrow again to finish it if we don’t finish it.” Having the freedom to do that is all Takai-san, all Yoshi-P, putting that trust in me and in them to be able to create something. Even though they knew it was going to be expensive, and the whole time Yoshi-P is going like, “Budget, budget, c’mon!”
But, he knew that was going to be important, so a little shout-out to Yoshi-P to say thanks for making that happen. Because, again, lots of projects don’t have that luxury. They need to get it done, and they don’t give the actors time to explore the characters, it’s just do the lines. It’s not that they’re trying to be lazy or anything, it’s just that that’s kind of the environment, that’s budget they are given, that’s why that kind of happens sometimes.
The fans are all like, “Oh yeah, I’d love to have wonderful performances, why doesn’t this game have as good a performance as this one?” There’s a lot of weird restrictions that are happening depending on the project, depending on the company, depending on the time of release. So many factors. We just happened on Final Fantasy XVI to have the budget to do it. The understanding from the upper development team that this was very important to do. So I’m very grateful for that.
Ben: It was amazing how much faith they had in us.
Nina: Oh, amazing.
Gamer Escape: To close out, do you have any overall thoughts on this project that you’ve spent the past half-decade working on?
Ben: I think I’m at a very strange and wonderful place with this experience. Because, you said, we’ve been working on it for nearly half a decade. But this now exists forever. And I’m excited to see what life this game takes on for people. We’ve already started meeting fans who it’s already really, really resonated with, and hopefully lots more people will discover it in the future. It’s amazing how something that is just so personal to us is going to become incredibly personal to everyone else, and I’m so excited to meet people for the rest of my life. This thing that we worked on, just to continue to change people’s lives, or at least make their day a little bit better, or at least allow them to reflect on their own world through what we did. And that’s a real honor.
Jonathan: Yeah, it’s incredibly surreal. I kind of second everything that you said, really. I kind of can’t believe how many people love this so much. Not because I don’t understand that, of course I do, I love it too. But to be a part of that is incredibly surreal and a quite moving thing, really. It’s an incredibly positive, impactful franchise I think, honestly. And yeah, I’m really proud.
Nina: Yeah, second both Ben and Jonathan. I think I’m just so incredibly grateful for the fact that I was chosen, that you guys picked me for Benedikta. Because it’s been so beautiful and overwhelming and just so heartwarming to hear people’s thoughts and fans coming up to you. Yesterday we were taking photos with fans and some people were so emotional. It’s so surreal because you never think about that going into the booth. You never think that you’re going to affect someone in that way.
We were talking a little bit about imposter syndrome yesterday. “Why do people want to listen to us? That doesn’t make any sense! Why are people so excited about it?” And yeah, it’s quite surreal, but also so beautiful, and I think we’re all just trying to sink into the gratitude of things and just take it and accept it.
Koji: I think there was a lot of, for me, a lot of fear going into it. I’ve worked on Final Fantasy XI. I’ve worked on Final Fantasy XIV. And while they’re all mainline Final Fantasy titles, there’s really that sense that, “Oh, those are the online ones.” So working on an offline Final Fantasy, there’s this kind of weird pressure on myself. Like, am I going to be able to do it?
Now that I’ve finished it and stepped back, it was no different. Final Fantasy is a Final Fantasy, I think, and they all kind of entail the same type of work. But for me, before, just going into it, there’s just kind of like, but am I going to be able to do an offline Final Fantasy?
But, after finishing it, and those first few trailers came out, and then the game came out, and hearing certain fans say, “This is going to be the first Final Fantasy I play in English.” That kind of hit me hard. Because knowing, again, it’s a Japanese game. It’s always recorded in Japanese first, and I understand that. You want to listen to it in the source language, because that’s the language where they have the freedom to really act. All the other languages are just kind of matching into that. So of course that source language is going to feel the most natural.
As a localizer, always being on that other end, trying to make something as natural as possible, but also understanding people are probably going to gravitate to the original because that’s probably what I’d do as well! Having them come up and say to me, even yesterday, “This is the first Final Fantasy I’ve ever played in English, it was amazing.” It was just [sound of joy from Koji]. And again, these guys were able to put in that wonderful performance. It’s really humbling, so I’m really excited to do the next thing!
All images taken by author.