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I am currently developing an RPG in which, during character creation, players may choose their pronouns as he/him/his, she/her/hers, or a custom entry based on their own text input. Whenever characters refer to them in dialogue, they will use the pronouns listed as they were typed into the character creation.

To head off some objections that have been raised in comments: this game isn't a hardline historical fiction, it's a video game RPG. My setting is what I write it to be, and in my game I want people to be able to make the character they want.

The trouble I've arrived at is that I will eventually be getting dialogue voice acted, and I am not sure how to account for these voice lines. Say for example a character set their name as Pete and pronouns as he/him/his, the dialogue might appear on screen as:

Hey! This is my friend [Pete]! [He] is new in town, want to help me show [him] around?

Under normal circumstances with a male/female only option, I could simply record two lines which omit the name, such that the line sounds like this in voice:

Hey! This is my friend! He is new in town, want to help me show him around?

Pronouns, however, cannot simply be omitted from speech.

What ways can I account for this in the voice acting of my game? Do there exist examples of voice acted games with custom pronouns that get around this issue?

Solutions I have come up with thus far:

  • Write the story such a way that pronouns simply aren't used in dialogue, only e.g. in UI

This is doable from a writing perspective but doesn't feel right because it makes the pronoun selection feel completely meaningless. I would like players to feel like the gender represented by their pronouns, so a completely pronoun-neutral dialogue would feel weak to me.

  • In voice acting, use a generic "they/them/their" pronouns and display the custom pronouns in text

Players will notice this, and it will feel out of place. Playing as a "he/him/his" or "she/her/hers" will probably seem confusing when they hear their "common" pronoun replaced with a neutral variant. Also, some consider "they/them/theirs" to be grammatically incorrect.

  • In voice acting, record three lines: "he/him/his", "she/her/hers", and "they/them/theirs" used for any custom pronouns

This is the solution I'm currently leaning towards, but it still feels dirty. Like I'm offering token representation but then reducing it to an "other".

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – DMGregory
    Mar 1 at 16:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ Let us continue this discussion in chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex F
    Mar 2 at 16:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ There are now two chat rooms where users are welcome to continue debating these topics, linked above. Please use those chat threads, instead of using comments to reply further. This helps keep the discussion easier to follow, and avoids cluttering the question. \$\endgroup\$
    – DMGregory
    Mar 2 at 20:32
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3x Version

  • In voice acting, record three lines: "he/him/his", "she/her/hers", and "they/them/theirs" used for any custom pronouns

This is the solution I'm currently leaning towards, but it still feels dirty. Like I'm offering token representation but then reducing it to an "other".

While not as powerful as 100% open pronoun selection, I think this is still a valuable direction to explore. There are a lot of players who use they/them pronouns who never even get that third option, so this would be extremely meaningful to them.

Also, from my experience as a queer person in 2SLGBTTIQQA+ community spaces, I've found folks who use other pronouns like ze/fae/etc. will often offer two sets of pronouns, including a more familiar back-up like they/them. It might not be the person's first choice, but ze knows not everyone is ready to pick up a new pronoun on the spot, and it's strictly preferable to being misgendered as he or she.

Just be sure that, if you allow the player to enter custom pronouns beyond the three you've recorded, let them select the spoken pronouns on that same menu/screen. That way the player still has agency over how they'll be referred to, and it doesn't come as an unwelcome surprise later when the audio doesn't match their provided text.

Although this 3x recording approach isn't perfect, it already shows a level of consideration and inclusivity above and beyond what most games offer, and I think that's likely to be appreciated by your audience, rather than perceived as token support.

Increasing your voice acting costs by 50% is not a paltry gesture - that's a serious commitment that I think is praiseworthy.

That said, there is another strategy I've seen used to good effect:

Excerpts

In this approach, the spoken line is not the entire displayed text verbatim, but a shorter version that captures the main idea and emotional tone.

So a displayed line like...

Hey! This is my friend Pete! He is new in town, want to help me show him around?

Might be accompanied by a short bark like...

Hey! This is my friend!

Not only does this help save voice acting budget, it can also help the pacing of the game if it's text-heavy. Players often read faster than they can listen, and narrative game players in particular often re-play several times to try different paths through the story. Using shorter clips means the player doesn't have to cut off the dialogue to play through at their own pace, or feel stuck waiting for a long monologue to finish after they've already read it.

This gives you the ability to incorporate any pronouns you want into the text, so no set of pronouns is relegated to "other". It lets you keep the fidelity and emotional expression of real human voice acting, without limiting the player's choices. And it works as a deliberate stylistic choice - that other games have made for reasons unrelated to gender or other text substitution - so it's not likely to be perceived as a kludge or awkward workaround.

For accessibility, you would still want to consider text-to-speech or screen reader support, to ensure the non-spoken parts of the text can still be understood by all players. But in that context it's somewhat more acceptable if the text-to-speech system doesn't always pronounce everything perfectly or have the right voice/emphasis/emotional tone, since it's not carrying the whole weight of the voice acted narrative on its own.


One quick addendum before I wrap this up. You mention:

Also, some consider "they/them/theirs" to be grammatically incorrect.

Use of "they" as a singular pronoun has a part of the English language since the 1300s. Comparatively speaking, using "you" as a singular is the new-fangled fad, which we only picked up around the 1600s. Before that, "you" was always plural and we used "thou" for singular.

So, myself, I would not consider this objection valid. We've long used "they" as a singular when referring to a hypothetical person, or someone whose gender is unknown or irrelevant to the message. Using it to refer to a specific person in accordance with their gender isn't violating any grammatical rules.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Since you mention automated text-to-speech systems, I wonder if the OP has considered the possibility of letting people enter the pronounciation of neopronouns as well (with the IPA or something similar)? Have each voice actor record a few dozen sounds (English inventory), and string them together with some smoothing/autotune algorithms according to the pronunciation that the player gives. Yes, it will sound a bit weird, and it will have to be written from scratch since I don't think anyone really does this, but it could probably be toggled in settings. This could also work for names. \$\endgroup\$
    – Obie 2.0
    Mar 1 at 15:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ Theraot's answer goes deeper into text-to-speech options, so I tried not to overlap too much with the options presented there. \$\endgroup\$
    – DMGregory
    Mar 1 at 15:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ "Excerpts" - while this is an interesting idea, I personally find mismatch of shown and spoken text to be a huge immersion breaker, much worse one than lack of voice acting to begin with. 3x approach seems pretty good to me. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 1 at 16:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ I absolutely agree with your addendum regarding "they". I was thinking of a certain university philosophy professor who took exception to the use of "they" as a generic singular. Maybe the answer is just to ignore that particular guy. \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex F
    Mar 1 at 17:43
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I personally prefer eliminating all mention of player gender from the entire game. This approach is not workable for every game, but I think it can be applied to many.

Don't offer the player a gender or pronoun. Let them customize their appearance however they want, without categorizing options by gender (e.g. the player should not have to click on a "female" icon to view dresses). Then use clever writing to avoid mentioning the player's gender identity in the dialog.

RPGs which offer romantic relationship options tend to limit your relationship choices based on your gender. E.g. if you create a female character, you can only develop a romantic relationship with a male character (or the token lesbian, if any). Throw out that idea entirely. Since our player's gender is never specified at all, let the player pursue romantic involvement with any character they are interested in. The character does not care about, or comment on, the player's gender identity. See footnote** for more rationale on this.

This approach simplifies the software side of things, since your code never needs to check the player's gender or make any decisions based on gender.

Pronouns, however, cannot simply be omitted from speech.

Sure they can, it's just tricky.

  • "Hey! This is my friend Pete! He is new in town, want to help me show him around?"

becomes

  • "Hey! My friend here is new in town! You want to help me give the grand tour?"

There are a few tricks to make this easier:

  • Give the player character a specific gender-neutral name (e.g. "Alex", "Blake", "Taylor") or a gender-neutral title ("commander", "wanderer", "chosen one") and use this when possible.
  • Use the term "person" when possible, e.g. "you're the nicest person I've ever met"
  • Lump the player in with a group and refer to the group rather than using a gender pronoun

Where writers tend to get hung up is when several other characters are discussing the player.

  • Original: "She says that she wants to fight the dragon, and you agree with her? Maybe she's got a death wish, but I'm not about to throw my life away just to suit her notion of honor. She can get herself killed."

  • Bad rewrite: "The Commander says that the Commander wants to fight the dragon, and you agree with the Commander? Maybe the Commander has a death wish, but I'm not about to throw my life away just to suit the Commander's notion of honor. The Commander can get themself killed."

  • Good rewrite: "The Commander says that we should fight the dragon, and you agree? Maybe the two of you have a death wish, but I'm not about to throw my life away just to suit some arbitrary notion of honor. You can get yourselves killed."

These types of rewrites can be difficult at first, but like anything else they get easier with practice. After a few hours you'll probably find you're able to write genderless dialog without even having to think about it.


**The RPG Knights of the Old Republic has a character, Juhani, who was intended to be a lesbian. However, due to a bug in the code, at release time both male and female player characters could pursue relationships with Juhani. Because Juhani never overtly discusses her sexual preferences, players did not realize this was a bug, and thought she was supposed to be bisexual.

In that case, I would argue that Juhani's sexuality was not an essential part of her character identity, but rather an arbitrary distinction applied by the developers. Maybe the writer intended her to be a lesbian, but this didn't come through in the dialog. If a character can have the "wrong" sexuality due to a bug and nobody can tell that it's a bug, should it really matter whether the player is male, female, or other?

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the idea of a rewrite (it's not as hard as it seems - most conversations in the game will tend to involve the PC, so 90% of the time the pronoun used to refer to the PC will just be you). That said, I'm not 100% sold on romance boiling down to "everyone is vaguely pansexual" - at best it makes the NPCs feel like tools to player's enjoyment rather than actual characters with defined traits including sexuality, at worst it's rife with unfortunate implications when a character is implied to have one sexual preference, but goes along with the PC anyway. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 2 at 10:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MaciejStachowski I would tend to agree that making everyone a prospective partner in a naive way is generally bad, but it’s possible to do it right if you actually account for the NPC’s personalities being able to change. I’ve seen cases like that only a few times, but it’s honestly rather fun trying to romance an NPC who would not normally consider the PC as a prospective partner if the game handles it well. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 2 at 12:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – DMGregory
    Mar 2 at 19:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ Borderlands 3 does something like this. The player character is always referred to as the Vault Hunter or "Killer" by Lilith. There is no he or she or they because it isn't needed to refer a first person character. Third person pronouns are actually not that hard to avoid because the already-gender-neutral second-person pronouns are just fine in most cases. \$\endgroup\$
    – Beefster
    Mar 3 at 16:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Beefster As I noted, you typically run into issues when other characters are talking about the player, rather than to the player. "If she's going to fight the dragon, than so am I!" "Why don't we ask him what he thinks?" "If she is the chosen one prophesied to defeat evil, why do we still have to pay to stay at this inn?" These can all be rewritten, but not necessarily in the second person. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kevin
    Mar 3 at 20:07
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I don't think there is a silver bullet for this. Here are some alternatives you didn't mention…


No Voice Acting

You can convey speech patterns in the speed of the text (don't make it appear all at once, on that note, don't make text too small). You can convey timber with text color. You can use animation for emphasis. Oh, and show me emotion in characters (either on their model or in character portraits accompanying the text on screen).

I'd suggest to do all of the above even if you have voice acting.

For audio you can use grunts, beeps, or similar.

This has the advantage of being cheaper. And does not require to go back to the recording booth if you want to change or add dialog (e.g. for DLC).


Gliberish

You can take The Sims route with Simlish (Warframe Greener speech too).

The voice actors did improvise most of the lines for The Sims. If you want voice acting because it is engaging, with gliberish you get that. Plus gliberish can help convey emotion.

Furthermore, gliberish does not have to be random. In The Sims (and in Warframe too) there are translations for everything they said. They gave the text to the voice actors. For The Sims, the actors improvised the language which resulted in some patterns that you might recognize, in fact there are dictionaries of Simlish (For Warframe, the developers have a tool that mingles English and they gave that to the Voice Actors).

If your game is Sci-Fi or Fantasy, you work the language into the world building.


Custom text to speech

There are solution that will allow you to create custom voice to speech for a premium. If you have the money to throw at it, you may create some from your voice actors, and use it to pronounce the pronouns.

Alternatively, if the custom pronouns are restricted to be uni-syllabic, you might as well have the actors record a syllabary and then pick the closer one to what the user chose. People could write unpronounceable things anyway.

In fact, recording syllables is often part of the process of making a custom voice, and if it is only for single syllable words… You can consider skipping the rest of the process. Although, be aware that you may need a lot of testing to make sure the combination of recordings is not jarring.

This has the advantage of being more accesible. And it is easier to make the game engaging with (good) voice acting.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Do you know any text-to-speech solution which is an adequate substitute for a human voice actor? All I have heard so far are barely suitable for robots or computer voices. \$\endgroup\$
    – Philipp
    Mar 1 at 13:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Philipp Microsoft cognitive services seems good to me. It got general availability recently, you can try it with the free azure credits. Training data must be consistent for a good result. As consequence, you would have to train a voice model for each emotion you want to portray, for each actor (they have a sample of happy and sad voices models from the same person). And it would be expensive to do a whole game with that (you use the azure credits to train the voice model from the samples). Yet, it could be done. \$\endgroup\$
    – Theraot
    Mar 1 at 13:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ Trying and failing to say a person's name/pronoun through text-to-speech may be more insulting than not saying it all. If a person goes by "xe" pronounced as we would "chi", saying it as "zee" would hardly be better than "they", right? \$\endgroup\$ Mar 1 at 16:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ @TheRubberDuck It could be insulting, I suppose. Yet low fidelity representations has never been a problem for video games. In fact, my true position is no voice acting. That budget can go into more and better writing. And yes, text only can be less engaging, but voice acting is not the only solution to engage people with the text. \$\endgroup\$
    – Theraot
    Mar 1 at 16:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TheRubberDuck That problem could be solved by putting a prehear-button next to the pronoun input. That way the player can experiment with different spellings until they found something which the TTS system pronounces correctly. In that case you might want to use two inputs to spearate between how it appears in text and what the TTS engine tries to say (Possessive pronoun: ____ pronounced as _____ [testbutton]) \$\endgroup\$
    – Philipp
    Mar 1 at 16:41
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Write around pronouns in voiced dialog.

Pronouns are a linguistic shortcut which is entirely optional. Whenever you use a pronoun, you can substitute it by a proper noun describing the person being referred to.

Most voice-acted games avoid pronouncing the player's name, by giving them some nickname or title and refer to them by that. ""Dragonborn", "Chosen One", "Commander", "Lone Survivor", "Traveler"... whatever makes sense in the context of the game. But that title can also be used in place of pronouns.

Example:

This is Frodo, the Ringbearer. He must travel to Mount Doom and cast his ring into the fire.

Becomes:

This is The Ringbearer. The Ringbearer must travel to Mount Doom, where The Ringbearer's Ring must be cast into the fire.

Now this example does of course sounds a bit stilted. But by structuring your text differently you can move mentions of the player-character further apart so using the proper noun each time seems more natural.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't think writing around pronouns will be workable. It's not an identity marker like names; the point of asking for them is to provide personal acknowledgement and inclusiveness. Asking for them then pointedly avoiding using them means the acknowledgement and inclusiveness isn't provided, so it might well not be asked for at all. Plus, if the idea is to support people who don't use she/her or he/him, then avoiding using their pronouns altogether would be recreating the transphobia they experience when people refuse to acknowledge their pronouns—that seems like a bad call. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 1 at 15:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Philipp "This is the Ringbearer, who must travel to Mount Doom and cast the Ring into the fire". \$\endgroup\$
    – Kevin
    Mar 2 at 1:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener IIRC, the Battletech video game (or was it Mechwarrior 5?) asks for your personal pronoun, and then never uses it in the dialog. You are always referred to as "commander". The dialog was well-written, and if there hadn't been a big scandal about the "they" option I probably never would have paid attention and noticed that your pronoun isn't actually used. It's not uncommon for games to take this approach; even games that don't offer additional options besides male and female will avoid gender-specific dialog when possible for practicality reasons. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kevin
    Mar 2 at 1:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Kevin I think that a couple regressive trolls getting wrought up about a game having a "they" pronoun option does not deserve to be called a "scandal". \$\endgroup\$
    – Philipp
    Mar 2 at 8:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Philipp I think I spent 10 minutes trying to figure out how to phrase that situation without making it a paragraph and finally gave up and settled on "scandal" for brevity. It certainly was more than "a couple" of regressive trolls. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kevin
    Mar 2 at 20:55
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If you're willing to settle for artfully avoiding the problem, the other answers have you covered. But if you absolutely must have custom pronouns that are voice acted, I can only think of one way it could maybe, possibly be done: (WARNING: what follows is an R&D project, not a prepackaged solution)

Give players the option of replacing the default pronouns with their own audio clips. This is the only way to guarantee correct pronunciation of pronouns that the player invented (which may not follow the conventions of any known language).

Include a recording function on the character creation screen, and/or a way to upload clips. The player will have to provide reasonably good quality recordings if they want good results, but you may be able to apply filters to help decrease static and background noise, etc.

The real challenge is going to be using one set of audio clips-- which probably won't sound like any of your voice actors-- to replace the pronouns spoken by all of the various NPCs. The solution might look something like this:

Step 1: Use voice changing software (e.g. MorphVox, Voicemod, Voxal, etc.) to create a set of custom voices that sound like your actors. Those voices can then be applied to the player's audio clips. If you can't make the custom voices sound enough like the actors, then just create a good set of voices and use them on both the actors and the player.

Step 2: For every replaceable word in the original dialog, create a profile of the relevant audio data (e.g. pitch, volume, duration, etc.). You'll probably want to have a professional sound designer on hand for this step (or for any of this, really).

Step 3: Replace the original pronouns with the players' clips, adjusting them based on the data from Step 2. Use cross-fading and whatever other techniques your sound designer has up their sleeve to blend the clips with the surrounding audio.

Unfortunately, I can't cite any examples of this approach having been implemented successfully. Professional sound designers have had the ability to seamlessly replace individual words in spoken dialog for decades, so I have little doubt that it's possible. Your challenge will be to automate it.

This answer may be a long shot, but it would be really cool if it worked. And it wouldn't be limited to just pronouns. You could also use it for the player's name, and probably other things too. And I'm sure some people would misuse it to hilarious effect.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a very impractical solution. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kevin
    Mar 2 at 1:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Kevin I'm not convinced. It may be the most practical way to achieve what the OP is after. (Though I admit it may be less practical than giving up). \$\endgroup\$ Mar 2 at 2:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ It might not be the answer I'm likely to implement, but I appreciate the out of the box thinking. I'd like to see this answer inspire someone to build a practical version \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex F
    Mar 2 at 2:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Kevin While I'm convinced this is achievable with current tech (until a sound designer tells me otherwise), I admit, the time and effort probably can't be justified financially (although, if that's how we're defining "practical", I'm not sure any effort to accommodate trans people qualifies). I don't disagree with anything you said in your last comment-- avoiding the problem may be the best course of action. But the other answers already have that pretty well covered, so I challenged myself to come up with a way to actually solve it. This was literally the only way I could imagine. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 2 at 3:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AlexF the modders will get it done, you'll see :) \$\endgroup\$ Mar 2 at 3:48
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Summary

Take a hybrid approach. Or limit voices.

This is a problem many developers face: the more freedom you give to the player, to more constraints you place on yourself. Some choose to make the character only one gender, and other do multiple things to work around this. I've done both, so here are my two cent.

Write out pronouns/use other pronouns
Like many others have said, write out pronouns as much as necessary. This will mean rewriting some lines to avoid awkward wording. You can also use nicknames, titles, and other words to replace pronouns.

Hey! This is my friend Pete! He is new in town, want to help me show him around?

Hey! My friend [Pete] here is new to town, so want to help me give a tour?
OR
Hey! This is my friend [Pete]! My buddy's new in town; how about you show "us" around?

But you can leave in a few line were it counts
That is not to say you have to completely eliminate pronouns. If you do have room to record a few more lines, you can use it in cases where you absolutely cannot avoid using a pronoun, or in special events.

Alternatives

By limiting the amount of VO, you can potentially avoid this problem, or at least make it easy enough for you to handle. However, if you were planning the game to be fully-voiced, this will be quite a downgrade.

Excerpts
I like your excerpts idea, but I feel like having half the line feels like a bug. the way I've used it in my games is to make the lines generic, there only to convey the feeling of the speaker.

Hey! This is my friend Pete! He is new in town, want to help me show him around?

would now be accompanied with a voice file like:

"Hey!" (a greeting line)
OR
*friendly laughter* (to show the speaker is in an good mood).

I prefer this because:

  1. The voices are reusable.
  2. It's nice on the wallet.
  3. You can completely avoid the pronoun dilemma.
  4. It's future-proof. You can make changes to the script later an not have to rerecord.

Partially voicing the game
By only voicing the main events in the game, you can limit the amount of reworking you'll need to do to only the ones that really count, and you'll be able to freely use pronoun variables in non-voiced sections. You can combine that with excerpts to give the game a more voiced feel to it if you want, too.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I didn't downvote and don't think this should be downvoted, but it is worth mentioning that this answer, while good on its own, is mostly repeating elements from DMGregory, Philipp, and Kevin's answers \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex F
    Mar 2 at 16:56

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