Friday, May 15, 2009

Friday afternoon tidbits

I've had a two-week layoff from reviewing games, and in that time I have played... nothing. Didn't pick up an old favorite, or finish off something that had been lingering. Haven't even turned on a console. Weird. But I've still been reading lots of blogs!

-There were a couple of good editorials at Game|Life this week. Earnest Cavalli said good riddance to Duke Nukem, calling him a relic with no place in 2009. It's true that Duke is an anachronism today, but it's possible that a solidly executed Duke Nukem Forever would have made that seem like a good thing. After all, who doesn't get sucked into watching Commando on AMC every time it's on? Even though the character might still have his place, it's probably for the best that we close the book on Duke Nukem, forever. This game would have had too much baggage, regardless of how it turned out.

(As an aside: Remember when Daikatana was an oft-delayed, much-maligned punchline? It's still got nothing on DNF, right?)

-Also at Game|Life, Chris Kohler decried the looming possibility of an English-only audio track for Final Fantasy XIII. Although I think it would be nice for players to have the option of Japanese audio, I disagree with his premise. Movies and games are not a fair comparison when discussing the merits of dubbing and subtitles. The reason for this is simple: all video games are dubbed.

Sure, I'd rather watch a live-action movie in the original language, with the voices belonging to the actors onscreen. It's jarring when the movement of someone's lips don't match the words coming out of their mouth. And, quite often, inferior actors are used for the voiceover. In a film, the dialogue, the actor's voice, and his movements are equal parts of the performance. You can't reconstitute it from its many parts and make it work. I doubt anyone would argue that.

But in the majority of animated films and video games, the voice actor in the studio is providing only one element of the performance, whether he's the "original" performer or not. He's not doing motion-capture in most cases, nor is the movement of the characters' mouths so precise that you can tell when the lip-synching fails. There is no inherent drawback to dubbing animated characters. The process for giving them voice is exactly the same. (It may be the case that the Japanese voice actors are better than their American counterparts, but that's confusing the issue. The solution to that problem would be to hire better American actors.)

Kohler's larger point about not scrubbing the "cultural odor" from the Japanese-made game is one that I sympathize with a little more, but that's not the reality of the market. If Square Enix wants to sell millions of copies of Final Fantasy XIII to Western audiences, they have no choice. Maybe it's a shame, but you may as well complain about the sun always coming up in the East.

-Michael Abbott makes a great point about what video games are really sending the wrong messages to kids. Certain culture warriors get hung up on depictions of violence, sex, and profanity in games, but one thing they never seem to do is consider the context. Often, violent games make an effort not to reward indiscriminate bloodshed. Even the notorious Grand Theft Auto series sends the cops after you when you break the law. Believe me, I'm not giving a pass to GTA or anybody else, but at least they implement some kind of recognizable morality system in their games (usually too simplistic a one, in fact).

Marketing games specifically to kids that emphasize rabid consumerism, materialism, and social climbing -- that's just as bad. Now, I don't think playing a first-person shooter will make a kid shoot up his school, and I don't think playing Style Up for Prom will make a kid max out her parents' credit cards. But I've called for everyone, from publishers to players, to take the messages of their games more seriously, and what's bad about the games Michael mentions is how innocuous they seem to be. Lots of parents look at Grand Theft Auto and say, "Not appropriate for my kid." What parent would say the same about these?

-Finally, Gary Hodges bids farewell to Joystick Division, and, apparently, to freelance game reviews. Can't say I blame him. It's very hard to do this for the love of the game, especially when there's so much about the game that makes it hard to love. In his reviews for Village Voice Media, and his posts on JD, Gary's always shown thoughtfulness, integrity, and a real ability to get to the core of a game in just a few words. We'll miss him.


Scott Juster said...

"There is no inherent drawback to dubbing animated characters."

Perhaps in theory, but I think animated characters are modeled on their voice actors more often than we realize. Check out Colbert in "Monsters vs. Aliens" or Jack Black in the upcoming "Brutal Legend" for a recent example.

Many animated characters contain mannerisms that are culturally and linguistically specific, so even the best dubbing is prone to feel a bit "off."

The biggest reason I stopped playing FFX was the insufferable dubbing. The dialogue was bad, but it was also dissonant with the kinds of mannerisms the characters had. If I could have just listened to the dialogue in Japanese and read the dialogue, I would have been happy.

But, like you point out, that's most likely a minority opinion in the market, and the bottom line rules at the end of the day.

Anonymous said...

I for one look forward to the death of the DNF punchline. It hasn't been amusing in a very, very long time.

Excellent point on how voice dubbing in games (or animated features) is different from those in live action films. I wonder though: is it just about the lip sync? If a game works hard to make the lip movements clearly match the (original) spoken voice, does that negate your arguments? I feel like there's more to it, although I can't quite put my finger on it.

(And in my view, I always prefer the English dub over the English subtitle. I'm just not capable of not reading ahead, which ruins the effect anyway.)

Daniel said...

You forget the very real problem with English dubbing in video games: it's quite often terrible.

I like having the Japanese vocal track available because, whether or not it sucks, I don't know it sucks. It's not a question of purity, but rather the simple fact that they're pros out there and are paid quite a bit more than the US voice actors.