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Dubs vs Subs: War of the Words


You Flaming Idiots!

The Internet is iconic for being a battlefield of opposing opinions. My motto is that as long as they don’t hurt anyone, it’s great to have contrasting thoughts and to respectfully debate them! But we all know the Internet will toxicify any and all discussions, and I’ve not seen many such debates elevate to memetic status as much as this question; is a game made in another country (usually a country named Japan, for some reason involving anime) better dubbed in your native language, or subtitled with text accompanying the foreign voice-overs? The short response is that it’s far too trivial to raise flame wars over. But the short response never makes for a good read, plus that doesn’t change the fact that this topic has raised plenty more flame wars than it should. As dual audio and similar decisions become more and more prevalent in discussions about localized games, I think now’s as good of a time as any to try diluting the toxins at least a little by analyzing the roots and reasonings surrounding this topic. To start, let’s see where everyone leans on this subject with this Strawpoll...

Gave your answer? Now, let’s address the elephant in the room; how did this question become so relevant in the first place? To answer that, we’ll have to take an abridged trip through the history of video game voice overs.

Voice acting has been relevant to video games for a long time, as old as the Nintendo 64 / PlayStation 1 era. If you’ve ever played a game from that generation with a lot of voice acting, you may remember that it… existed. Some games got it down well, but like any creative format, voice acting for games required time to mature and raise its standards. Voice acting was also a very memory costly thing; it wasn’t so simple to include both an original and translated voice on the game. At least in America, most, if not all localized voiced games stuck with one VO and nothing more.

Somewhere around the next console generation, things had begun to change. The Internet picked up speed and popularity. Information exchanged more rapidly from country to country… including media. Enthusiasts of Japanese animation began to rely less on what aired here and more on foreign shows. Like the technology it ran on, multimedia trends were evolving. Multiple languages became a standard option in video games. Dual audio spread, giving international audiences the opportunity to play with their preferred language in certain lucky games.

Around the PS3/Wii/360 era, trends shifted further. Some publishers, most (in/)famously Koei Tecmo, began to completely omit English voiceovers in the majority of their localized games, even in series that had used dubs for years by this point. This was a pivotal moment; now that dubs were no longer taken for granted, it sparked the question of whether this was a smart business decision or a lazy way to cut corners. It’s no longer possible to deny the relevance of subs over dubs, since publishers like KT demonstrated their preference of them. On one hand, it’s great that such a move affirmed the cross-cultural value of voice acting!

Buuut thanks to that precedent - especially in the infamous examples of KT’s Dynasty Warriors series - we now have an audience of gamers raising a vocal outcry against the inclusion of dubs, claiming that Japanese games are better off with only the original VO. Likewise, seeing as KT’s Warriors games have become stronger sellers, there isn’t any question whether or not they can afford quality dubs. This prompts the other side of their audience to ask why they heck they aren’t dubbing their games? Corporate penny pinching? Laziness? Lack of faith in dubs? Whatever the reason, the two factions have continually raised their voices in response to this unusual localization conundrum. Their war continues to this very day, sweeping entire nations in their verbal flames of conflict.

Scene from the trailer for Anime Crimes Division, highlighting the tension between the Subber and Dubber gangs.

The importance of choosing between dubs or subs has been magnified by a divisive business trend that shaves off one of the strengths of multimedia’s evolution. People would argue about the two regardless, of course, but this trend changes that from purely a question of personal preference to a question of defining good business practices. Dual audio continues to grow within many publishers, yet outliers (and the never ending salt of Internet opinions) perpetuate the argument. Which brings us to the heart of this topic… why choose one over the other?

The obvious argument in favor of dubs is that you’re listening to a language you understand. But subs also convey the information of their dialogue through text. That’s what subtitles exist for. In theory, this means that subs make dubs obsolete… yet that’s only if you consider the conveyance of language to be the sole purpose of listening to a language. Video games often have a lot happening on screen.

Being able to listen to dialogue instead of read it allows you to more easily focus your attention on vital happenings the dialogue describes, rather than just reading the text describing what else is on screen. Not that it takes a huge amount of effort, but the act of listening to speech instead of reading it comes more naturally. It’s more cohesive. It feels more familiar to actually understand what people are saying than to rely on a translator. Understanding the language spoken can act as a bridge to pull you closer into the game’s world, to get more intimate with the cast and their happenings.

Or maybe make up your own language to dub your game in, I dunno.

And yet, sometimes that very familiarity factor can also create an awkward moment, if only a brief one. A trope that appears now and then in narratives taking place in Japan is a character admitting their inability to speak a foreign language like English… while their dialogue is presented in a foreign language like English. It’s a blatant segregation between the presentation and story. However, audiences tend to be quick to pick up on this fact.

While this clash between setting and language does break immersion for a split moment, it’s also quite simple to suspend disbelief again, similarly to the act of reading subtitles. Still, there’s also something much more natural about a story’s voiceovers being presented in the language that would logically be spoken in a story, such as a story in Tokyo being Japanese, a New York tale told in English, and using Banjo Kazooie mumblespeak for… whatever fictional nation Banjo Kazooie takes place in. It’s an innate appeal in favor of subs. There’s also the fact that any two languages have very different grammar and connotation rules that can drastically dilute the meaning of the original script, even when dubbed accurately. On the other hand, to an audience only familiar with their native language, that nuanced connotation is completely lost and may be better substituted with an equivalently nuanced dub.

But I usually hear people who advocate subs over dubs present a different argument than these.

What I usually hear is that subs sound better than dubs… or to be more specific, that they’re voice acted better than dubs. When I look back on my personal experiences with English dubs versus Japanese VOs, I tend to think of various contrasting qualities. Many of the more memorable dubs are less emotive. The dubs may feature voices that don’t belong to the bodies that use them. The dubs’ characters may speak in tones that don’t mesh with the tone of the scene. The dubs may sound more bland than their world or even their own scripts. Dubs are infamous for a lot of quality blunders like these, facets of their work that you’re more likely to laugh at than play along with.

While I’m certain that similarly horrible native Japanese VOs exist for some works, they aren’t remotely as iconic for the medium as bad English dubs. Similarly, even though that low bar of quality isn’t a universal constant for dubs, many people dread the chance of a localization being that poor because there are so many well-known examples of it.

Having said all of that in favor of both sides, you may be wondering where I lean in this whole debate. While I insist that dual audio is an ideal compromise to advocate for (if not quintuple audio or so on), I’m sure everyone would rather know what setting I prefer to use in any game which offers dual audio, and why I have that preference?

I’ve listened to dubs my whole life because that’s what felt most natural to me. I value understanding information first and foremost; quality voiceovers in my native language is how I most easily understand such information. And by information, I don’t just mean the spoken words, but the audio connotation behind those words - their tone, their fluctuation, their emotion, and other things understood most clearly within a language you’re intimately familiar with. The issue that stance is that, to be frank, many English dubs aren’t that high quality. But that isn’t an issue with the nature of English itself; it’s an issue with the voice acting industry.

If you don’t mind massive Metal Gear Solid 2 spoilers, give this video a listen, just for a minute or so.

You can easily find many examples of lackluster English dubs like what we’ve seen thus far out of Radiant Historia’s remake, but you can also find excellent ones such as the Dragon Quest series. The shining examples tend to fly past our notice because the Internet has a tendency to highlight bad things to laugh at before good things to respect. While there’s obviously a flaw with the overall quality of English dubs across our history, it’s unreasonable to blame that on the nature of English voice acting itself when there’s examples of dubs defying that supposed nature. Remember last year’s English voice acting strike? That arose because of various issues involving low pay (which suggests a low bar of acceptable quality) and poor working conditions (which damages one’s ability to act effectively).

The argument that subs sound better than dubs is, in many ways, technically correct. But that alone fails to account for underlying variables that only circumstantially prevent dubs from sounding better than subs. While there will always be distinctions to prefer one option over the other, the overall quality of dubs has been held back by extrinsic problems. I’ve gotten so attached to dubs because I’ve listened to so much quality English voicework full of emotion and nuance and convincing acting. I’m able to get invested into those moments much more easily when I feel as if I’m witnessing them mostly through my own senses rather than through text on a screen. If that high bar of quality ever becomes the usual, I think the common arguments against the quality of dubs would dissolve in favor of discussion revolving around the nature of language itself. That would be a far more interesting debate to have than just “It sucks” versus “I don’t get it”, one that could possibly challenge us to appreciate all languages more.

So in conclusion, dubs over subs, git gud scrubs.

Wait please don’t get the pitchforks I didn’t mean that literally it was just a dank meme I'm not actually insulting anyone nopleasenonono-

- Thanks for reading, and don't implode!

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About Chris Hovermaleone of us since 8:03 PM on 07.31.2017

I'm a former Contributor who goes by the screen name Cedi or CediFonei on most corners of the internet! Not quite obligatory disclosure; I backed Chris Niosi's TOME RPG on Kickstarter. I really wish that wasn't the first Kickstarter game I ever backed...

I first joined the site wanting to make a name for myself as a blogger, and somehow, did so enough to get a good run as a staff member. I left the team so I could better focus on new goals in life, but I hang around the community because I've made so many great friends here. Expect me to share some less critical and more creative shenanigans in the blogs from time to time...!

As far as social media is concerned, you can find me on my personal Twitter account! Fair advice, you can expect to see a lot more of the big blue character in my banner if you check that out. Whether that's a recommendation or a warning depends. By the way, that banner is a commission by Twitter user @kaizer33226.