Voice acting has become a standard in video games. Much like the evolution from silence to talkies in film, we see the same jump in video games. We no longer need to read words on the screen. We can hear it, assimilate it, and enjoy it like a movie.
However, unlike the film industry, the video game industry regularly sees games that come from all over the world. Japanese games are not set-aside in the tiny foreign games section. They play a huge part of the industry. The same thing applies to companies in Europe such as Rare and Ubisoft. Because of that, video games often see a waiting period in between domestic and international releases from companies. They have local offices busy at work to make the game in the native tongue, and to hire the voice actors in that language.
When I watch a foreign film, I prefer to hear in the language for which it was written. The writers chose the words that they did for the sound, the rhythm and flow that worked in their native language. Frequently when those words are literally translated into others, they lose the magic they once had in the native tongue. How could a “play-on-words” in French really make sense to English speakers without some major compromise? On the other side of things, when I watch a dubbed movie, I can’t help but to feel like I lost something. I remember watching Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in French class as a kid, and felt like it wasn’t quite right. I knew enough French (and knew the Disney movie by heart) to know it didn’t translate quite right. It made me wonder what native French speakers thought of it.
I’m in the same situation playing video games made from foreign countries. Some companies try hard to make it more than a literal translation but a true localization to make things fit for the US audience. Intelligent systems do it better than anyone, taking the witty puns in the Paper Mario games and making them equally as humorous here in the states as they are in Japan. Most companies don’t handle this with quite as much care. The result when the voice acting is implemented, it feels forced and unnatural. Most dubbed voice acting is outright terrible and I would prefer to have to read subtitles than have to listen to the alternative.
I am not completely closed minded in the idea of localized voice acting, however. I know there are exceptions to the rules; some companies do take the time to make it feel natural and forget you are playing something foreign. Disney and Square-Enix did that quite nicely with the Kingdom Hearts games. They took the care to hire well-known actors who were familiar with voice-work. Hayden Panitierre was best known as the voice of Dot in A Bug’s Life before she took on the role of Kairi (and later our favorite cheerleader in Heroes). Haley Joel Osmett frequently does voices on Family Guy. Not to mention, Disney hired all the voice actors who regularly play the Disney voices, and when they couldn’t hire the originals found top-notch sound-alikes. Everything flowed well. The timing of the animations still lined up. There were no uncomfortable pauses, they made everything fit and fit well.
So the question that lies is this: Why can’t they all be that good?
Perhaps the reason why Kingdom Hearts worked so well is because Disney is a film company first and foremost. They most likely either sought our their voice actors or held casting calls in places like Variety (or wherever they post auditions) that Hollywood actors could see. They had the money to make their wishes well known. Perhaps this is something more companies should factor in their budget, particularly the ones who can easily afford it. When I say this I mean big companies like EA, Activision-Blizzard (whatever they are called now), Capcom, Konami, Squenix, Nintendo, Sony etc. They should be proud of their work and accept nothing less than the best actors to make their vision come alive. If the localization has awkward pauses in the dialogue, then they should hire programmers to try to fix that. I would welcome a delay in release if I knew a game receiving fixes like those.
I’m not completely familiar with how recording voice work for a cartoon works, but I feel like there has to be some sort of interaction between the actors when dialogue between two or more people happens. I feel that when I watch Disney or Dream works movies. I rarely feel that when I play localized video games. The dialogue frequently sounds like the actors are in rooms by themselves and have no context to which they can relay their lines. There is no “in the moment” magic that is supposed to happen with good acting between multiple characters. Good actors become their characters. Bad actors are reading lines. This is something publishers/developers NEED to invest in to keep the medium evolving. I also wonder if the voice actors get the chance to watch the dialogue of their games in their native Japanese. If they heard the Japanese voice actors’ tone perhaps they would get a better idea of the context for their lines and execute them more effectively.
Unfortunately, not all companies can afford this. I understand that. I would challenge them to take a risk instead. By taking a risk, I mean keeping the original voice tracks. Films do it, why not video games? I can read dialogue. It doesn’t matter to me if what I’m hearing is German, or Spanish. If the text I read is English I will get the idea, not to mention I will get to hear it in the language it was originally intended. I understand that there are consumers who do not like to read when playing a video game, for whatever reason. I think parents would be happy about it was it would encourage their kids to read. I suppose the only people unhappy about that would be a mindless slugs in our society who don’t to have to “strain their brain reading a vid’ya game.” Frankly those people need the exercise to their brains more than anyone. It would be good for them.
There is a lot that could happen to help improve the state of voice acting and dealing with foreign media. Words are powerful; like music they have phrasing, a high point and a low point. Changing the words that don’t flow as well is disruptive and takes the musicality out of it. Extra work has to be done to capture the same rhythm and melody. It pays off when companies do it. Unfortunately for every one of these:
Is about ten more of these: