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Sunday, July 14, 2024

We talk to Disco Elysium’s incredible narrator, who recorded 350,000 words of dialogue and has never acted before

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Disco Elysium’s free Final Cut update adds new quests and full voice acting to the game, making a great RPG even better. For me, the highlight of the update is the deep, melodic voice of the narrator, who brings the turmoil raging inside Harry’s head to life brilliantly. The man behind this incredible performance is Lenval Brown, a musician from London who, remarkably, has never acted in anything major before. I sat down with him—along with voice director Cash DeCuir—to talk about his work on the Final Cut, and what it was like recording nearly half a million words of dialogue for a videogame.

How did you get involved with Disco Elysium?

Lenval Brown: It’s a crazy, long journey. You know, you’re going along in life and then you meet someone and it all changes. Like the game itself, life leads you down different paths. A friend of mine was at college in London studying anthropology. That’s where she met Kaur Kender (executive producer on Disco Elysium.) They became friends and he told her about the project. She heard they were doing a trailer, and she said “You should use my friend, Len.”

I always used to go around doing stupid voices. I’ve always had this deep voice. So I did a little test on my phone and sent it to them, and they liked it. And that led to me being offered to read some scripts for the Final Cut. It was like 200,000 words, but I wasn’t gonna say no! It was a job, no matter how daunting it sounded. Then, as well as the voices in Harry’s head, they wanted me to do the narration too. It was a lot, but I didn’t hesitate.

It was enjoyable to use my voice in that way. I’d never really done that before. I come from a musical background. I’m a singer and a rapper, a frontman in a band. I’m used to the performance side of things, so I treated it like a performance. And that was pretty much the journey that led to me working on the game. It all happened by chance.

How long did you work on the game?

LB: It was recorded over the space of eight months, three days a week, with the occasional week off if people needed a break or other stuff was going on. I started recording on April 1st in a studio down in Brighton. I was working with Jim Ashilevi (one of Disco Elysium’s voice directors) at first. I was doing a gig down there and I invited some of the guys down, and they all turned up, so I thought “This is a good place to sell myself!”

I’ve done some other things, but nothing on this level. Actually, I was Googling myself to see what’s going on—I’ve never done that before—and I found a credit for this film I recorded a few words for years ago. It was just four words or something. So I went from doing four words to doing like 350,000 in Disco Elysium.

How do you approach an unusual role like this?

LB: I hadn’t played the game and I didn’t truly understand what was going on. But the guide was always to do it low and slow. This dialogue is there to help the player understand what’s going on. The voices in your head have to be slow and meticulous and to the point. So that’s how I decided to approach it. Make it as clear as possible. It’s all one voice, but I tried to put some subtle differences into the performance, depending on which part of Harry’s brain is speaking—whether it’s logic or electrochemistry or whatever.

If I was going wrong, Cash would help me out. I was asked not to overact and focus on relaying the message to the player. And that was better for me, because having to act out hundreds of thousands of lines would have been too much. I couldn’t learn all these lines and I couldn’t read too far ahead, because something might change. So I was always on top of it, doing it day to day. All I could do was take the direction and do it as best as I could.

Cash DeCuir: I think over time we developed a shorthand. Whenever you saw a line that was referencing Dora [Harry’s ex-fiancée, an important character in Disco Elysium], or I told you a line was referencing her, I’d give you that nudge.

LB: Yeah, then I’d make it more tender, more heartfelt. All the voices in Harry’s head have a very different style of writing. Shivers [one of the weirder skills in Disco Elysium, where Harry develops a supernatural, extrasensory connection to the city] was actually an easy one for me. The writing for Shivers is so unique that I could always find the right voice and performance needed to record those lines.

There’s something very intimate, almost soothing about Lenval’s performance…

CDC: That’s right. I wanted Lenval’s performance to be very intimate, because this is the voice inside Harry’s head. And you want it to be a pleasant experience, because it’s going to follow you throughout the whole game. You want it to almost cradle you in a way. There are 24 distinct voices inside the character’s head—but they don’t sound wildly different, because they’re all prisms through which Harry is filtered.

We could have made them wildly different. That’s a different approach we could have taken. But my feeling, which Lenval and I discussed a few times, was that the player has to be able to project their own reading and their own interpretation onto it. If Lenval’s performance was too prescriptive—if you put too much character into it—it might take away from the version of Harry that exists in the player’s head.

LB: It wouldn’t have worked if there were too many different voices. It would’ve been too confusing. There’s so much going on. I tried to play it straight. There are some moments that are funny, but I didn’t want it to feel like I was the one being funny. It’s not about me, it’s about the person playing the game. For me it was about focus and control. It was a good exercise, and I appreciate getting the chance to do it.

CDC: He brings out a real deadpan quality too. There’s a lot of humour in Disco, a lot of absurdity. And it wouldn’t work if the voiceover made it bigger. So the deadpan quality in the performance makes for some wonderful moments.

LB: There’s a calmness to it too. I’ve been playing the game myself recently. I haven’t gotten very far. I’m crap at it. [laughs] But I have been enjoying watching people playing it. And it has a really nice ambience. It’s a beautiful game. It’s a chaotic world with a lot of craziness, and I think you need that calm underneath it all. If I was screaming at you it wouldn’t have the same effect.

What was the recording process like?

CDC: We started recording right as the pandemic hit, and my experience has been totally remote. This is as much visual contact as we’ve had, ever! He was down there in London, and Mikee (Mikee W. Goodman, voice director, and the voice of the game’s Ancient Reptilian Brain, among others) would travel down there to work with him.

LB: Mikee was great. He’s so enthusiastic and he’s always on top of stuff. He’s such a good engineer. That really helped the process. It could have gone on a lot longer than it did. We worked well together, and he has a great understanding of both the game and vocals. He knows how to record stuff. Sometimes I wouldn’t quite get something, and he’d explain it and it would make sense. He’s not just an engineer.

There are hundreds of weird, difficult to pronounce words in Disco Elysium… was that challenging to work with?

LB: Don’t ask me to say any of those words again, because I can’t!

CDC: It’s a long process. It’s something we all took great pains to do. Mikee has a great ear for that. I didn’t have the best connection, because I wasn’t there at the studio. I was listening through an online program called Source-Connect and I spoke to Mikee separately over Skype. But we still managed about 6,000 words a day.

LB: Some of the words were words I’d never heard. There were English words I’d never heard. Cash would have the pronunciation of foreign words, and we’d sometimes look at a dictionary for other words.

CDC: I read through all of Lenval’s scripts beforehand, both to refresh myself, but also to figure out how to direct him so we could get through trickier sections quickly. The name of the game was speed. We had to get it done by a certain time. If we had done very ‘acted’ takes, it’s easy to get lost in that, trying to make it perfect or one specific way. We didn’t have that luxury.

LB: It was about being consistent for me. It would have been difficult to slip in and out of characters, because there were so many. It’s impossible. I’d say that even the best Oscar-winning actor would have difficulty playing 24 different characters in a game.

CDC: And there’s all the Disco words. The names of places and theories and so on. Lenval is the voice of the game. The defining voice, in terms of pronunciation. So we had to get that right. I’d cultivate these huge lists and send them off to some of the other writers, Helen (Helen Hindpere, writer) in particular, who acted as the lead on this project. She would get back to me with pronunciations, and I’d get Mikee to pull them up on his end.

Some were not as bad as others. Some we managed to remember. But others we’d have to go back and check. Like, is it koo-prees kin-eh-mah or kuh-pri kin-eh-mah? [A Coupris Kineema is a type of car in the Disco universe.]

How did you deal with having to record so many lines?

LB: I rap and sing, so I have to write rhymes to fit into a bar. I decided when I was recording the lines, I was gonna do it with rhythm, but not on the beat. I could easily take it and make it into a rap, but I pushed myself away from that, but still kept some of that rhythm.

CDC: [Speaking to Lenval] Were those your notes? You wrote a lot of notes on the scripts. Was that what you were doing?

LB: Yeah, I was looking for a flow. I have to make sure I’m reading it right, to find the rhythm. That’s what made it easier for me. I could go home at night, read the next day’s stuff, and make it flow. Bringing certain lines down a bit, adding emphasis to others, depending on the character. When it’s the Perception skill speaking, I read it a little bit faster. Cash also sent me the written descriptions of each skill to get an idea of them.

How has being a part of Disco Elysium impacted your life?

LB: I’m really grateful for the game, because I wouldn’t have been doing much without it. I’m in a band called Maroon Town. We’ve been going for more than 30 years. We’ve got some gigs coming up, but for the last year, obviously, we haven’t been doing much. It hasn’t been a good year for a lot of people, but I got something out of it. It’s a great game too. It’s artistic, the music’s great, the story is too… I’m happy to be part of it. I only really realised when I finished it that I was playing basically the main character! I’d been so focused on doing the job and getting it done, which was the most important thing.

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