Lenval Brown's sonorous, assured tones might as well be the voice of my own brain as much as Harry Du Bois' at this point. The musician's presence in Disco Elysium: The Final Cut is an inescapable constant throughout the entirety of ZA/UM's detective RPG, delivering over 350,000 words as both the game's narrator and its manifestation of Du Bois' psyche.
It's a good thing he's such pleasant company, and that stands true beyond the digital shores of Revachol, where Brown tells me how he first got involved with what is now one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time.
"I managed to run into the executive producer through a friend, and somebody got around to hearing my voice to do the game's launch trailer in September 2019," says Brown. "Then a few weeks after I'd done that trailer, the team said they liked my voice and were thinking of expanding the game with the narration. So we started in April the following year."
"I didn't know where I was going with it, because I've never done anything like this before. My background is music; I'm a singer, rapper, and frontman of a band. But expression and performance are all part of the same package, so that's how I looked at it."
You can understand why ZA/UM considered Brown as the perfect fit for the kind of performance they were looking for in Disco Elysium's Final Cut, which adds full voice acting for all of the game's characters in addition to new sidequests and dialogue. His measured, comforting voice offers a reliable anchor point in a psychedelic murder mystery that zigzags wildly; the centre of balance from which the pendulum of Disco Elysium's story swings vigorously between tonal extremes.
"Lenval offers something that's very low and mellow, whereas Disco is, in some ways, quite an intense game," says writer and voice director Cash DeCuir. "It's intensely funny, intensely tragic, intensely absurd, and so on, so having that rounding presence that players can really project into was important."
"If the voice was overacted, or too prescriptive to the character of Harry, it would kind of begin to take away the player's own ability to impose their own views onto what everything means. Even though Lenval's performance is very specific to Lenval, and what he has to offer, it nevertheless provides enough room for the player to still enter it."
This isn't to say that Brown maintained a completely stoic performance across Disco Elysium, however. Playing the 24 different aspects of Du Bois' brain, from Electrochemistry to Esprit De Corps, DeCuir says that he worked with Brown to help "give each skill slightly different feelings to bring out a different energy with their unique lines."
"There's certain parts, like Drama, where I might scream a little bit," adds Brown. "But I always feel that I don't want to scream, because that takes away from the effect of the voice, because the voice is there, and you can't take it away from me. If you start going too crazy, then you won't get any consistency in the individual characters. So I just sort of keep them more or less the same, but using the words as the vehicle to get the character of the Skill across – letting the words speak for themselves."
Finding those nuances was aided by ZA/UM's decision to record Disco Esylium's gargantuan script skill-by-skill, running through all the lines for one particular aspect of DuBois' subconscious, before moving on to the next. Brown and fellow performer Mikee Goodman (another musician, as one half of British metal band Sikth) would be recording the lines in a studio in London, with DeCuir directing remotely.
The team would work together three days a week like this, from nine to five, for approximately eight months, and while there was a conscious effort to never rush through lines, the deadline for The Final Cut's Spring 2021 release window added a looming time pressure to their efforts. Thankfully Goodman, who provides the voices for Harry's Limbic System and Ancient Reptilian Brain in Disco Elysium, proved to be an adept sound coach in the studio.
"I was very conscious of the time that we had to do everything over the course of the days, weeks, and months," says DeCuir. "350,000 words is a long way to go! But sometimes if Lenval would get a bit hung up on a sentence, as some of them are quite long and dense, Mikee would just jump in and give a reading or a suggestion, and Lenval would be able to pick up on it immediately. He's a huge reason why we are able to do this whole thing and get it as well done as we did."
Blurring the lines
Brown is now playing through Disco Elysium for the first time (he's currently on Day 4, if you're interested), and seems unphased by having to listen to the sound of his own voice for hours on end: "I've kind of got used to it, because I can distance myself from it. I actually think it's pretty good!".
For DeCuir, meanwhile, the experience of seeing his writing come to life through Brown's performance has uncovered a whole new way of connecting with the game entirely, as it has for many players who first fell in love with Disco Elysium when it released in 2018, and are now enjoying The Final Cut all over again. "It's a great treat," he tells me, adding that "this is the first time in my career of writing for games that I've had the experience of seeing my words come to life".
"Lenval really does give it an extra depth beyond whatever I originally intended with the writing, if that makes sense. I hope it'll resonate with people, but to be able to almost appreciate it as an audience is quite special. Especially when Lenval's killing it... in a good way!"