Ep. 1: The Words!

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In the first episode of the Voice Originals podcast, we peer behind the scenes of writing for When in Rome: a travel trivia board game that works with your smart speaker.

This week, we chat with When in Rome’s dialogue directors: community-orientated artist Shane Solanki and playwright Deborah Pearson, diging into the process of sourcing and working with locals from different cities and creating all the wonderful words in the game.

We look at what makes a good local, what makes home feel like home, how to evoke authenticity (and if that’s even possible) and… whether robots are the future!

The Voice Originals podcast takes a look behind the scenes at what goes into making the world’s first series of voice connected games: board games that you play with your smart speaker!

You can read the full transcript of the first episode below:

Ana: Welcome to our Voice Originals podcast. So this is our first episode, which is pretty exciting and what we’re gonna do is take a peek behind the scenes of what goes into making all of our different voice connected games and this week we’re looking at When in Rome.

So if you haven’t heard of When in Rome before, When in Rome is travel trivia board game that works with your smart speaker where you’re racing against other teams to get around the world and use your world smarts to get points. So enough about the game, this is about the people behind the game so we should probably get some intros to the two people that are gonna be chatting for the most part of it.

So Shane and Deborah, would you like to give a little intro about yourselves, what you do and and a little bit about what you’ve been doing in When in Rome.

Deborah: Hi!

Shane: Hi!

Deborah: Well Shane and I are the dialogue directors of When in Rome, so what we do is we cast the locals, we cast all of the voices that you hear in the game. We wrote a lot of the trivia questions that you hear in the game and we also directed the recording sessions for the people who speak in the game basically. And both Shane and I come from more of a contemporary performance background we’re really used to devising with people in that kind of a setting. This was the first time I worked on a board game which was exciting, but I’d done lots of different community led pieces before.

Shane: Yeah sure this is the first time I’ve ever worked in board games or the idea of gaming. Lots of my work has been participatory so it’s been encouraging other people’s stories. So it’s been nice taking that skill and applying it to this process.

Ana: Cool, that’s great. Thank you guys for kicking that off for us, I guess I’ll also add really quickly just like this other random voice that’s interjecting things, my name’s Ana, I’m the community manager for Sensible Object, the team behind Voice Original. But yeah, back to the questions, so in terms of all of the dialogue directing you guys had on your plate there was quite a lot of stuff going on. So, just to pick one place to start, in terms of finding the locals that you were going to direct, what do you feel makes a good local and what was it like in terms of the process of finding the locals for the game?

Deborah: I think that one of the main things we were going for was that we didn’t necessarily want professional voice actors. Some of the people who we’re working with just happen to be coincidental professional voice actors but if that was the case we found out afterwards. So for example the person who we cast for Moscow who usually works in education as an education consultant, we only found once we were actually well into the process, used to be a professional voice actor in Moscow so he does have professional voice acting experience but for the most part we just wanted people who knew their cities really well, who love their cities, who are passionate about their cities and who had a kind of warm, friendly, vibe I guess that you could hear in their voices. Like the kind of people who you would want to stay in touch with afterwards if you were travelling.

Shane: This morning, I went into Greggs which is a bakers’ just around the corner from here and I watched the manager from Greggs pull in 8 people for a job interview and I was thinking about how the kind of culture of every company or every organisation or every team is kind of dictated by the kind of personalities involved in the team. So when I came in to actually meet, to audition for this job as it were, I met the When in Rome team and I was surrounded by this really young, dynamic, fun, friendly, intimate kind of atmosphere. And I think that’s exactly what we were looking for, for me in casting with the same kind of people.

Ana: Yeah I mean that makes a lot of sense. I’ve been listening to the dialogues you guys have been recording and everyone just sounds like the kind of person you could easily chat to and is super friendly which yeah I guess is what you want if you’re travelling around the world. That’s the kind of people you’d ideally want to meet. So yeah that makes a lot of sense. Were there any challenges while you guys were recording that you found, that you weren’t expecting maybe in terms of approaching dialogue directing?

Deborah: I think one thing that’s interesting, I’m aware of this from doing a podcast is that some people will be very very comfortable when they come into the room, and very much themselves and then as soon as they know they’re being recorded, as soon as the microphone’s in front of them they just become a different human being, because they become really self conscious I suppose and they’re overthinking the fact that whatever they’re saying is being recorded. So that’s really been something that I think as a dialogue director where I feel part of our job is just making people feel comfortable throughout the session, making them forget about the microphone and making the real them come out as much as possible on the recordings.

Ana: Is there anything that you’ve found surprisingly rewarding or any really great moments that you had in recording sessions that made you like ‘wow this is something I wasn’t expecting but it’s been really great.’

Shane: There were loads actually, I was kind of reflecting on the fact that in the process it was hard to design because I would’ve liked more room for the improvisation of the moment and the intimacy of the moment to come up. But in the design of the process because the design of the process had to serve the actual game it was difficult to do that. It was almost as though the script became what was important rather than the intimacy of the moment and the improvisation that might come up in conversation. So I think in the answer to your question the good moments were when we captured something that was a little bit off script where personality could really bubble through as opposed to a non professional reading the script.

Deborah: Yeah I’ve been doing a lot of the audio reviews and so I’ve been reviewing some of Shane’s sessions along with my own sessions and there’s one moment I really really loved which was for the Auckland local Josh where Shane somehow, I don’t know how you guys decided to do this, Josh starts singing I believe ‘the robots are the future’ to the tune of Whitney Houston’s song and it’s really, it’s very very funny and it also sort of feels like you guys were just having a nice time in the session and you know you could just push it a little bit further in terms of how silly he was willing to get, which is lovely I really like it.

Shane: The more we’ve moved on with the sessions and the more comfortable we’ve been with each other, so for example Dan’s been here as well and we’ve really kind of been able to effectively relax and the more relaxed we are the more intimate an environment has been created which suits the material that we’re making.

Ana: Okay I definitely want to hear that, Josh’s Auckland singing piece because I haven’t heard that yet that sounds incredible.

Shane: It’s quite fun asking people who are not used to using a microphone to sing so for example, how’s your singing voice?

Ana: Oh it’s very questionable, the tone is normally quite what the song should be but I can give it a shot you know.

Shane: Alright shall we go for ‘I believe the robots are the future’ we can go all three of us if you like.

Ana: Erm I don’t actually know, I’m not sure I know that song.

Shane: You’ve seen the Whitney Houston song ‘the greatest love of all?’ I believe the children are the future. (singing)

Ana: Oh see I recognise it when you sing it but I’m not sure I know it.

Deborah: Oh this is all very convenient isn’t it!

Ana: I mean what can I say you know, if I don’t know the song I guess I couldn’t sing! But no I think we’ll be saving everybody listening to the podcast from hearing my attempt to sing right now especially with my croaking voice in the air. If you guys wanna go I’m happy to listen. If you wanna give ‘I believe robots are the future’ a shot

Shane: We’ll need Alexa’s ‘I believe that robots are the’ – that doesn’t sound like Alexa

Deborah: ‘I believe that robots are the future’

Ana: Yeah!

Deborah: ‘Hello Shane, my name is Alexa’

Shane: That’s weirdly computer-like and weirdly hot, it’s like a female version of Hal.

Deborah: Of Hal yeah! Hal’s kind of attractive in a weird way, sort of, because he’s like really erm, what’s that word where he denies you everything? He’s really withholding.

Shane: Yeah

Deborah: ‘I’m sorry I can’t do that Dave.’ ‘I’m afraid I can’t do that Dave.’

Shane: One of the interesting things about that is, and this game is the fact that things can’t be seen we’re living in an age where everything is so visual and here’s a really interesting experience where personalities that people are hearing in the game, the locals, they can’t be seen, so in effect you’re creating a picture of them as you listen to them, which for me is fascinating.

Deborah: Oh yeah absolutely, I often wonder the extent to which you can tell a person’s age or I don’t know personality, like when I look at the locals and then I hear them I do wonder like how much of the way they look is gonna come across in their voices? But I think what does come across is how warm and personable they all are. I mean I was going to say that was for me the sort of unexpected – I mean it shouldn’t have been unexpected but yet it kind of was because we had so many recording sessions back to back and you’re really just thinking about them in terms of your schedule.

What I think started to dawn on me more gradually, was I suppose I knew it but I didn’t know it, was just how diverse the group of people we were working with more in terms of where they were from and where they’d grown up and what their experiences had been and that’s like being able to spend you know two weeks with, one day with someone who grew up in Australia, the next day with someone who grew up in Hong Kong, the next day with someone who grew up in you know in Lima has been such a pleasure. And it’s a thing we kind of experience all the time living in London anyway because it’s a really international city but it just has been so clear through working through this project. And it’s something that kind of snuck up on me in a really lovely way I just like to be around people from all over the world. It’s a really rich experience.

Shane: It was interesting the contrast between working in a London studio and working with the international studios. Initially, I was kind of freaked out by the discombobulation and the removal of working across skype internationally but the more it went on and the more I kind of sank into the process the more fun it was because you were actually zooming into another place in the world and kind of capturing this very global conversation.

Deborah: Oh yeah absolutely I definitely had that experienced when I was skyping with the guys in Cairo. First of all because Cairo has a little bit of a dodgy internet connection but luckily we were okay most of the time, but secondly because one of the directions that the first sound engineer gave to Muhammad when we were in Cairo was that it would probably help Muhammad a lot if he spoke with his hands more while he was recording. And so I could see them on skype and I could just see Muhammad getting really really expressive with his hands and suddenly I was like, it just really kind of brought home to me like this is really, in Cairo, people speak with their hands all the time and that’s a really big part of the way people speak and it was just like such a lovely moment of being like ‘oh god I wish I could just go to Cairo and just hang out with these guys’ because it seems great!

Shane: That’s so cool. That’s what it felt like in Mumbai actually it felt like I was hanging out in the recording studio in Mumbai. People were kind of coming in and out with cups of tea and I was there!

Ana: Yeah I mean I was gonna ask like, did it feel different or more difficult when you were doing an in person recording versus directing over skype or something like that but it seems like maybe it was sort of like different but in a good way to do over skype sessions as well?

Deborah: I mean we have a minority of sessions that we’re doing over skype I think that is probably for the best because they take longer and they’re just a little bit more complicated for lots of practical and logistical reasons that just aren’t interesting to talk about on a podcast. But they are exciting, like it is really exciting to feel like you’re beaming in at least for me in my case to New York and Cairo that’s really really exciting.

Shane: It was very much about the engineer, and I guess if the job is to create intimacy then face to face as we all know is much much easier to do. You know it’s much easier to create that atmosphere when you’re making eye contact and you’re kind of almost breathing the same air. So with the international ones it was almost down to the engineer. If they were a person that could encourage that form of intimacy then that’s what happens in a way, that’s how it was for me.

Deborah: I think in a way the engineer ends up being the other dialogue director really in that situation because they’re the person who’s in the room with the performers so they do things like give a direction like ‘why don’t you speak with your hands that’ll make you sound more natural’ which was such a good direction and not something that I would’ve ever thought to say because I don’t know him, speaking with one’s hands isn’t necessarily something that we feel is super important to do in western culture.

Ana: Yeah especially I guess if you’re thinking about the voice part so much and you totally forget like actually other signals that you might be using that even if you can’t see them they just naturally feed in to your voice as well but yeah that’s really interesting I hadn’t thought about that before either. But now that I think about it, yeah hand gestures can be a huge part like body language in general.

Deborah: Oh yeah absolutely I mean one thing when we, with a couple of locals like if somebody’s smiling while they’re reading a question you can hear it. Like you can hear a smile in someone’s voice so every now and again if somebody was you if it’s a really really long session and people are getting tired we might say like ‘could you try smiling while you read the next question’ and you can hear it in the recording but also it does up their energy a little bit. It kind of ups everyone’s energy.

Ana: I don’t know when I’ll ever use this information I have no idea when I’ll have to record stuff but I feel I want to remember this to use in the future at some point but yeah I mean did you guys find that your previous experiences, I know you said you haven’t worked on board games but you’ve definitely worked in directing other creative communal, not communal, community sort of projects like have you found that that was useful in working on When in Rome as well?

Deborah: Yeah absolutely I think certainly in terms of the casting that was really useful because Shane and I both had pretty extensive networks where people we knew could kind of contact other people we knew I think because of that we’ve ended up with a really really cool group of people. We have a lot of artists actually in group, a lot of people who make some kind of creative work I think that’s just because of the network we’re able to reach out to in terms of the locals. I would say probably also just the devising sessions because basically what would happen for the game is we would write the questions collectively, a group of about 5 or 6 people wrote the questions as you know because you’re one of the people Ana, and then after the questions were written we would have a 90 minute skype session with each of the locals to just go through all of the questions and devise some things and make the questions feel a bit more personal to them and I think that that was very much, for me a place where I really felt I was using the skill set that I have through making participatory work and more devise contemporary performance work. I don’t know if you would agree Shane.

Shane: I was thinking about something completely different whilst listening to you.

Deborah: Really what were you thinking about? How about how robots are the future?

Shane: I guess I was thinking about Alex Fleetwood’s vision in terms of creating, I remember when we created an engine like a little bit like a, kind of an international whatsapp group for everybody to participate in and he shared with all of us an earlier seed for his project. And this kind of idea for creating an iterative process that a global community could engage in. So for me, this was almost, the first stage I think in what may come later for further Voice Originals games of creating a globally devised family or a globally devised stage. So I feel almost that this is like a first step process of the voice originals team figuring out how to actually create this material that represents a very kind of, devising group, a kind of family, a team, a kind of ensemble from different parts of the world in different locations.

Deborah: Yeah I agree, I think it was also just a situation of like being based in London, was a really really important thing for this game because we could kind of capitalize on the fact that this is a really international city and people come from all over the place I mean my accent is paid to that because I’m not from London originally I’m from Canada. So yeah I think that being based here was a really really useful thing but it is cool to think that we’re devising this kind of global community and I think that the people that we’ve brought on board are the right people to be part of that global community. It’s not like we’re devising with a group of bankers, because that’s a global community too the markets are also a global community.

Shane: That would been fun.

Deborah: That’s the next Voice Originals game.

Shane: I guess, I don’t know how honest we wanna be in this podcast, you can always chop this bit out. But in a way you know the logistics of this project, it was easier to find people from all over the globe here in London, the dream would’ve been to have 40 sessions all over the world but the logistics of that would’ve been an absolute nightmare so we found most of our people here so which in some ways brilliant because it kind of represents what an amazing city London is but also it feels like a bit of a cop-out in a way.

Deborah: I don’t know I mean I think if we had Toronto, if Toronto had been one of the cities I feel like I would’ve been really really proud and happy to represent as the local from Toronto because I actually think that if you’re a person who grew up elsewhere and now you live here you moved here as an adult, although sometimes it means not all of your references will be as contemporary as you like unless you’re visiting quite often which most people do, I think that actually the nostalgia of living away makes you feel like more of a local for the city that you’ve left. At least in my case like I feel really a lot of pride and a lot of love for Toronto even though I don’t live there anymore. Yeah I can’t explain it but I think it’s when you live away from somewhere sometimes that’s where you really understand the extent to which is a kind of home for you.

Shane: That is for me on a slight tangent is such a note which I find really interesting just in terms of how being a child with a diaspora, my parents were born in Kenya, my grandparents in India, how much children in the diaspora community often, kind of almost refuses to let go, things become frozen about their homelands, their traditions, their stories become a little bit frozen which is a fascinating thing.

Deborah: Oh yeah absolutely, yeah my mum is Hungarian refugee in the 1950s so I also have this, I mean my dad’s British but I feel like no connection to the UK even though I live here whereas the Hungarian side of things, maybe it’s because they were forced to leave I don’t really know but yeah there is an element that that Hungarian thing is pretty strong somehow in our family.

Ana: Yeah I mean like, even like, I guess it’s interesting for me listening to like everything you guys have said just understanding where people feel like they’re from versus where you might officially be in your passport or marked as ‘from’ or where you’ve grown up or where you now live and all of those things are like really sort of mixed in this sort of strange personal heritage soup and like it can be really hard to know where you’re from at least for me personally, now we’re just going in a little biography.

Shane: Where are you from?

Ana: Where am I from? So I was born in London, but then my mum’s from Singapore and I moved there when I was young, my dad is from Greece so the majority of my family on his side is still in Greece so yeah I was going to say Deborah the feeling of feeling more connected to the place almost when you’re away from there I definitely get that with Singapore as well, from my accent if you hear it it doesn’t sound Singaporean but funnily the more I’m away from it the more it feels like home which sounds really counterintuitive but in that sense I guess, is there a conclusion to this story, maybe not a very concrete one but it feels like maybe where people are from and their pride for what they would call their home is like not always as straightforward as you might assume and definitely I think like there were limitations when making When in Rome in terms of, yeah it’s so much easier when everyone’s in London with like a tiny team, to have everyone be here but I guess in that sense maybe it’s also uncovered some nice things like just by coincidence in terms of ‘oh so this is what it means to feel like you’re from a place’ even if you’re not necessarily there right now.

Shane: I’m thinking about the cities and where those people were from. You know I think when we were initially casting we were so, I think there was this kind of, you know we definitely wanted people who perhaps were born there. We went through a really interesting process didn’t we with regards to ‘what happens if our Japanese person is Japanese but caucasian’ so that was interesting.

Deborah: Yeah we did have that because there were quite a few people like we had an american guy who auditioned who had lived in Berlin for a long time but he had an 100% american accent and he was interesting, I could see how he considered himself Berlin local but we didn’t cast him because we cast your housemate instead who’s also from Berlin which I think is great.

Shane: He’s so Berlin my housemate, he’s so Berlin.

Deborah: But yeah that did come up a couple of times around whether or not, yeah and we also looked at someone who was Lebanese who’s living in Berlin now who we also almost cast. So there was this question of like what is, what is a local, but I think the people we cast all felt like the right people to cast to be honest.

Shane: That’s a good thing.

Deborah: Yeah, yeah exactly!

Shane: But there was accent as well wasn’t there, it was so fascinating considering. so for example absolutely hands down, you know even though it’s very bad to have favourites my favourite to work with was Cape Town because he’s so gorgeous and his accent is so thick and initially when we recorded him we were like, ‘are people gonna kind of understand what he’s saying’ whereas some of them for example we recorded May in Bangkok yesterday who’s effectively got an american accent and will make it probably quite easy for people in the game in particularly north american’s to play. And when she speaks thai it’s with the most gorgeous thai accent so that was fascinating thinking about. We did something so bad in the process it was almost ‘could you say it a little bit more, for the western ear, could you change the way that you said that’ away from how it should be said and say it in a way that people in the world would be able to understand it.

Deborah: Yeah we had to do that a lot.

Shane: Which feels kind of a little bit –

Deborah: I know –

Shane: Kind of almost colonial you know counterintuitive in a way.

Deborah: Yeah but people do need to be able to play the game and understand what’s going on in the game. I mean I yeah I’ve always felt kind of really torn, there’s always one part of me that’s like ‘no everybody should just be saying things exactly the way that they need to be said’ but at the same time we also just need the players to understand the questions. I don’t know, hard to know.

Shane: So I think when you listen back to Josh from Auckland who you loved but he loved speaking maori words or ‘maori’.

Deborah: He said it like ‘maori’.

Shane: Yeah, And for you you couldn’t understand that.

Deborah: It just sounded like when I heard it, the first time I heard him say ‘maori’ it sounded like he said ‘mouldy’ and I was like oh no and then as we kept going I was like I understand he’s saying maori and he must be saying it the way it’s supposed to be said. But of course in the game you only hear from a local once or twice because of the game design so you don’t have that time for your ear to adjust to the way things should be said. So I don’t know what you guys have decided to do with that maori thing but –

Shane: We kept it.

Deborah: Alright, great, well people just have to get on board.

Shane: We put in a couple of questions about the fact that sometimes he heard people call it ‘mayori’.

Deborah: ‘Mayori’! (laughter)

Ana: I guess like game design plus authenticity plus dialogue directing altogether equals like compromise in some areas like for sure.

Shane: Wow for me that’s a really interesting point in particular given the speed and turnover of this project. I’m not used to working on commercial projects in this way the speed and turnover was insane so marrying, particularly game design to the job that we were doing it was all happening so quickly it was all almost as though decisions were happening so quickly that post, you could say oh we could’ve done it like that but there was a lot of kind of I guess hit in the ground with our feet running.

Ana: Yeah no definitely, like this has been a whirlwind of a project for sure but I think, yeah it’s gonna be really exciting to see you know all of the work you guys have done come together, like we already play testing I know you guys have been at some of the play tests as well and hearing all of the dialogue snippets actually popping through in the game now and it’s just transformed what would be just basically a trivia game into something that really makes you feel like you’re engaging with other parts of the world and learning really interesting connective things about other cities from people that care about them so yeah thank you guys for all the work you’ve done on behalf of the Sensible Object team. It’s been a mammoth task but you guys have done amazing.

Deborah: Thank you, thank you Ana I think that also it’s a thing where you know, you and Andrew who both work usually in marketing have also helped write the game, which I don’t know if you knew you were gonna be doing going in so it goes both ways.

Ana: I mean, it wasn’t like initially ‘this is confirmed’ but it was something that we thought ‘this would be cool if it came up’ and it did so that was really, that’s been really fun for us as well. But yeah thank you guys for joining me for this podcast ranging from robots in the future to finding the best locals!

If you are interested listeners, I’m talking to you guys, if you’re interested in finding out more about When in Rome or any of our Voice Originals products then just head over to voiceoriginals.com and you’ll find everything you wanna know there. Shane, Deborah, is there anything that you guys wanna add at the end?

Shane: This has been such a blast, this has been one of my favourite gigs ever so thanks to y’all.

Deborah: Yeah thank you to you guys.

Ana: Awesome, cool, well thank you guys for listening in and take care!