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Doug Cockle and the case for re-recording voice overs in The Witcher 1 remake

C'mon CDPR.

In October, CD Projekt Red announced it was remaking the first The Witcher game with the help of an external studio called Fool's Theory.

We know the game is codenamed Canis Majoris and will be built in Unreal Engine 5, but that's all we know. We don't know anything about how, or whether, the game's content will change. We don't know how far CDPR is willing to go.

I was speaking to Geralt voice actor Doug Cockle about this during the latest episode of One-to-One, my podcast series, which is available to everyone now (search for "Eurogamer Podcasts" wherever you listen to them). I wanted to know what he thought about the remake and whether he's doing any work for it.

Cockle, remember, is the voice of Geralt in every main Witcher game. It's him you hear in The Witcher 1. So if CDPR wants to re-record or expand that performance, it's Cockle they will need to call.

"I'd be there in an instant," Cockle tells me, if CDPR did phone, but it hasn't rung yet.

"I know as much as you do about this at the moment," he says. "All I know is that CD Projekt Red has announced that they're going to remake Witcher 1 in Unreal [Engine] 5, and that's what I know. So I don't know if they're going to bring me back in to do re-recording of the dialogue, I don't know if they're going to use dialogue from Witcher 1 as it exists. I don't know."

But the more we talk about remake, and what things were like when he recorded The Witcher 1, the more apparent it becomes how much things have moved on since then. And the more convinced I am that re-recording the performances is precisely what CDPR will do.

There are a few reasons why.

The full podcast with Doug Cockle, with the audio version embedded above.

Continuity - many of the actors changed after The Witcher 1

The English-voice Triss you know and recognise from the games is Jaimi Barbakoff, but she did not play Triss in The Witcher 1 - a lady called Jules de Jongh did. Likewise, John Schwab wasn't Dandelion until The Witcher 2.

This is because production between the two games completely changed. Cockle himself almost missed out on being Geralt in The Witcher 2. If it wasn't for a friend who'd auditioned for the same part, he might never have realised it was up for grabs and put himself forward for it (again - a story I told when I first met and interviewed Cockle, six years ago).

As Cockle tells me now: "CD Projekt decided between Witcher 1 and 2 to start with a clean slate. They created a new engine for Witcher 2, to build Witcher 2 in, they decided to go with a whole different production studio - voice production studio - and as part of that there they were recasting everything as well. I ended up being one of the very few who came from Witcher 1 and carried on into Witcher 2 and 3."

This means that the characters we've come to know, and that were cemented by best-selling instalment The Witcher 3, will sound different if CD Projekt decides to stick with the original performances from The Witcher 1. And this will confuse people and jar.

Quality - production improved significantly after The Witcher 1

The Witcher 1 was recorded in 2005, according to Cockle, more than 15 years ago. Not only were the technological capabilities different back then, the whole profession of video game voice acting was. And CDPR was new and inexperienced - The Witcher 1 was its first game.

"It was a different environment altogether," Cockle says, "because it was in 2005, so the whole industry worked differently. I didn't have a director per se on Witcher 1, I was directed by the developers. I can't remember exactly who was there, but there were at least four guys from CD Projekt Red, who were there and they were serving as the directors. And they were great, for being people who I don't think had ever directed a voice actor before, and we got through it and we did this whole thing and it turned out to be a great game."

But it meant when The Witcher 2 rolled around and CDPR decided to do things properly, professional directors were brought in. And as Cockle points out, "The director's impact on the quality of the recording cannot be overstated."

Evolution - Geralt changed a lot in the decade Cockle played him

By the time Cockle recorded his final lines for Witcher 3 expansion Blood and Wine, he'd been playing Geralt for more than a decade. And in that time, not only had his performance as Geralt evolved, the things CDPR wanted changed, as had the writing underpinning it.

"If you do play all the games, Witcher 1 through 3, and then the DLCs, you'll see that Geralt, over the games, he becomes a much more emotional being," Cockle says. "And I think there's a combination of factors in there. One is that I was constantly pushing that envelope, consciously and unconsciously, of giving him more of an emotional life - because if he was just a monster hunter with no emotions, what do we have to connect to in the character? So I was always pushing that envelope a little bit.

"And as CD Projekt, and this is no criticism of them at all - this is actually, in my mind, a celebration of their willingness to evolve - [but] whether it was my pushing gently, or whether it was the confidence of the writers or the producers or the directors or whoever it was [...] I definitely noticed that the writing became more complex and gave me more opportunities to go to that place as the games matured."

To suddenly rewind that progress, and then present it in a new shell, would be strange.

Opportunity - Unreal Engine 5 means the potential to do more

The Witcher 1 was built on BioWare's creaky Aurora engine, which once powered Neverwinter Nights. In gaming terms, that was aeons ago. There were limitations with what it could do, what it could show cinematically, but there are no such limitations now, and I imagine the urge to make the most of those new capabilities and show how far things have come will be strong.

"I imagine, in an ideal world, if they're rebuilding in Unreal 5, they're going to have to tweak the script because they're going to have the ability to do things that they didn't have the ability to do when they first made Witcher 1," Cockle says, "so that may well mean that they may decide to re-voice some or all of the game.

"I just can't imagine," he adds, "that with the technology they have available to them now, that they would try to recreate the same combat system, the same look of the characters [...] I imagine with the technology they have at their fingertips now, they will want to make changes, I just have no idea what those changes might be."

But how far are they willing to go?

It brings us back to the question of how far CD Projekt Red is willing to go with the remake, because as soon as the team starts updating some things, it might find it has to update others, and all of a sudden, it will be making what feels like an entirely new game. And although The Witcher 1 is an old game, it's not a small one. It once took 100 people five long years to make.

I did ask CDPR whether it will re-record voice lines for the remake, incidentally, but it told me it was too early to speak about the remake yet.

Fool's Theory isn't a large studio, either. I count 59 employees listed on its website. How many more CD Projekt Red will add on top of that, I don't know. Can such a team cope with the breadth of potential changes we're talking about?

This isn't the only Witcher game CDPR has in development too, remember. The studio announced it was working on a fourth major Witcher game, one that would begin a new trilogy, and one that will also use Unreal Engine 5. That's in addition to a new IP the company is working on and a second Cyberpunk game, as well as various other bits and bobs.

Today, CDPR is a huge company doing a lot of things. It is no longer a 100-person team proving it can make an RPG. Now, there are expectations, and The Witcher 1 remake will have to meet them.