Here's something that a lot of people don't get: videogames shouldn't always talk. There is a variety of reasons for this, but I'll just touch on a few. For one, videogame characters are most often made out of hand-drawn sprites and/or polygons. Where do they get off trying to talk like people? Do they really think they're going to convince me that they are "real boys" (and girls)?
Now, when games start talking gibberish, that's something else entirely. Gibberish-speaking videogame characters get my full endorsement. Hit the jump for a rundown of the best babblers in the videogame world.
Star Fox was one of the first home console games to feature tons of unintelligible banter with English subtitles, and it's also one of the most effective uses of the technique to date. Star Fox is a weird series, featuring Disney-style anthropomorphic animals in a serious sci-fi, Star Wars-style world. Trying to appease talking animal-loving kids and adult sci-fi fans at the same time is a fine line to walk. Err too far on the side of cute and the sci-fi fans will ditch you, but make things too serious and the kids won't know what to think.
Enter the gibberish: a pitch-perfect way of keeping things kid-friendly but still "believably alien." Hearing Slippy Toad yak his wacky yakkity-yak makes players keenly aware that this frog man isn't from our planet, which gives adults who fear for their maturity something of an out when assessing how grown-up they are while playing the game. Slippy isn't just a cute little cartoon frog anymore; now he's an alien, and aliens are serious adult business.
Future Star Fox developers would be wise to bring back the unique moonspeak found in the original game. The language has an iconic flair that would do wonders to tweak the nostalgia nerve of affluent 30-something Wii owners who are hungry for reliving their Super FX-powered childhoods.
Flower, Sun, and Rain
Sometimes, in-game gibberish isn't second-best to full voice acting. When conjoined with a certain type of writing, gibberish can be better at providing the player with an emotionally believable experience. Harrison Ford once said that the dialogue in the original Star Wars looked great on paper, but that actually saying stuff like "laser brain" and "nerf herder" out loud is almost impossible to do without sounding stupid, and worse, fake. Had Flower, Sun and Rain used full voice acting, it would have suffered a similar fate. No one in the game talks like a real human being, which is a big part of the title's charm. Most, if not all, of the game's many laugh-out-loud lines would only work if read by the player, as opposed to heard.
In case you don't know, Flower Sun and Rain is another avant-garde exploration of the human condition from auteur/developer Suda51. It's creepy and weird from start to finish, featuring terrorist attacks, cute girls with pink pet alligators, homoerotic computer "hacking" of eye sockets, and countless other surreal flourishes.
Like most of Suda's games, Flower Sun and Rain feels like a feverish dream, or a fractured, half-inaccurate memory of a vacation you think you had. The game's gibberish-only dialogue adds a lot to the half-real feeling that permeates the title. Whereas in Star Fox the gibberish was cute, and expected due to the game's cartridge-based delivery, Flower, Sun and Rain's blabber feels pointed and intentional. Reading the game's dialogue while hearing the distorted speech at the same time makes you feel like you are telepathically communicating with the game's characters, like one does with the characters in their imagination. The barriers to true communication present in all verbal interactions are simply removed from the equation, leaving only sing-song vocal inflection and the written word to convey the meaning.
Back to the cute: Animal Crossing's unique language, "Animalese," is actually a literal phonetic expression of English. If you listen very closely to the animals talking, you'll hear that every sound they make corresponds with the words on screen. Sword becomes "Ess-Double-you-Oh-Arr-Dee," and so on.
It may seem like a little thing, but it's just a small piece of the greater whole that makes Animal Crossing a unique entity in the gaming world. What the AC series does like no other is to provide the player with a real little world just like our own, where everything is weirder, easier, and more fun. More importantly, Animal Crossing doesn't attempt to recreate real life (like The Sims does); rather, it re-imagines it for the better. "Animalese" is no small part of that process.
Animalese is the language that "people" speak in a place where nothing bad ever happens to anyone, and everything is easy and fun. That's what makes it special.
Street Fighter II
Street Fighter II came out before the Internet, before anime became popular in the States, and before videogames did much talking beyond the occasional utterance of "We're bad!" or "%&#@$." It was under these bygone conditions when the American public was first exposed the the "words" hadouken and shoryuken. In Japan, these terms might have made sense (to some), but the American public, they were completely random.
Street Fighter II wasn't the first one-on-one versus fighting game on the market, but it would go on to become the most famous and influential game in the genre. What Street Fighter II had that other games like it lacked was a combination of cosmetic and functional majesty, mixed with a particular sensibility that combined mysterious manga logic with American comic book sensibilities. The game just showed up in arcades without warning, and completely blew everyone's minds. "Hadouken" was the battle cry for this new type of gaming experience, though at the time, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone in the country who knew what it meant.
The total amount of mispronunciations for "shoryuken" are to many to list: all-you-can, whore-mucus, call-you-kid, and haul-pukin' are just four off the top of my head. Debates about what exactly everyone was saying became just as much a part of the Street Fighter II experience as the actual gameplay. As we arcade goers worked to try to figure out everyone's combos and special moves, we also debated on what they hell they were saying and why.
Although most of the mysteries have been solved by now, some still linger in my mind. To this day, I'd swear on a stack of Bibles that Chun-Li yells "defeat Don KING" during her spinning bird kick.
In case you haven't played Seaman, I'll give you a brief recap. Seaman is a game where you study and care for a bizarre new form of life. You help to raise the thing from the prenatal stage to the point where it can live independently, sort of like a cross between Nintendogs and Monty Python. The game cleverly drags the player along, never letting you know exactly what to expect next, while remaining familiar to anyone who's ever witnessed the growth of a human being from birth to toddler-hood.
One of the many, many interesting parts of the game takes place in the middle, when your Seamen are just starting to gain the ability to verbally respond to your attempts at conversation. At this point in their development, your little pets/children can't form words, but they can express themselves verbally, with statements like "cholaray" and "plee-blow."
Ask any honest parent of a teenager, and they'll probably tell you that they liked their kids better when they couldn't talk. That's certainly the case with Seaman. Although the player will likely be anxiously awaiting Seaman's growth to the the point where he can engage in real conversation, once he gets there, the player will likely begin to miss the "plee-blow" days pretty quickly.
What's the lesson in this? I don't know, maybe that just being with someone is sometimes better than talking to them? I leave that up to you to decide. All I know is, nearly ten years later I still say "plee-blow" to myself every once in a while, and when I do, it feels like I mean something by it, something that couldn't be expressed with real words.
Little King's Story
This game also offers a mix of English and gibberish, though for different design reasons that those in Seaman. It's never explicitly stated in the game, but it seems that you, the King of Little King's Story, are incapable of understanding words that you don't want to hear. It's a bit like that Far Side cartoon about canine listening skills. Unless it's something like "My King!" or "Yes, sir!", the King just doesn't hear it.
The gibberish-talk that replaces speech is still very likable, and it's not as though the King doesn't enjoy small talk with his people. It's just that his idea of important words only includes those that involve total subservience and reverence to his station. The only exception to this rule comes from Pancho the cow, a key member of the King's military cabinet. When planning the kingdom's next avenue of attack, Pancho's input (which ranges from "moo" to "moo-moo") is taken very seriously by all.
It's stuff like this that makes Little King's Story my favorite game about monarchy EVAR.
This is my second favorite game about monarchy ever, and that's because the King of All Cosmos is the greatest videogame king of all time. He's so thoroughly alien, yet still immediately recognizable as a ridiculously controlling and demeaning type of parent, that just about everyone on the planet understands. He spits rainbows and uses stars as tennis balls, and he makes his kid clean up his messes for him; one part Terry Gilliam, and one part Al Bundy.
I can only imagine how easy it would have been for a voice actor to screw up the depiction of this brilliant character. No matter how convincing the performance, how could an actor ever do justice to voicing God in a skin-tight leotard? Namco wisely opted out of the use of voice-acting for the character, and instead went with the sounds of scratching records. Abrasive, lighthearted, unconventional, and lyrical; that's who the King of All Cosmos is, and that's what his turntable-talk delivers.
This isn't a numbered list, but if it were, it's very likely that LocoRoco would be number one. It's a game that comes packed with an entirely new language that combines many of the best aspects of the above listed gibberish techniques into a sort of super-gibberish. You get the alien-but-inviting vibe of Star Fox, the familiar-yet-new of feel of Animal Crossing, and the otherworldly and dream-like effect of Flower, Sun and Rain all in one package.
The game's developers seemed to know that they were onto something with language as well. They had sixty songs recorded for the game's soundtrack, all in LocoRoco-speak, as well as sing-a-long commercials produced and an actual translation guide for the fictional dialect.
LocoRoco is a great game, but I'm not sure how much I'd have enjoyed it if all the characters spoke in English. So much of the series' mystery and charm would have been lost in the translation.
As technology continues to move forward, many in the game industry (press, publishing, and development) seem ever more keen on the idea that everything in gaming should become more expensive, impressive, and "real." This thinking means that if a game doesn't feature actual voice-acting, it must be sub-standard. Some reviewers have even marked games down for not featuring voice-acting, regardless of any consideration for how it would have affected the way the game works.
I'm asking the industry to look at videogames from a different angle, to see that not every game in every genre would be better served by inclusion of the human voice. The human voice is, in fact, highly overrated -- it often weakens the creative strength of a videogame, diluting it into an inferior anime/Hollywood knock-off, when it could have been something truly original. It's just not good to include people talking in everything. While many love books on tape, others would greatly prefer to read a book on their own. Some love their anime dubbed, but others prefer it subtitled -- regardless of the quality of the translation -- and almost no one prefers "narrated video comics" to the real thing.
It's not a sign that a game is cheap or substandard if it lacks voice-overs. It's often a sign that the game is more true to the medium's strengths. Realism, and real humans talking, isn't what videogames do best. It's not what videogames have traditionally tried to do. If it were, I wouldn't have chosen videogames over other mediums to begin with.