Games have been a massive part of my livelihood. I adore the medium, and consider them to be as vital to my being as air or water. Recently I decided to try to strip video games down to their basest ingredients in an attempt to highlight what works best and what simply doesn’t. I’ll be covering a myriad of topics and concepts within this series, with examples of games that manage to impress me with its handling of the subject, as well as titles that failed miserably at it.
Repetition really is a make or break aspect of games, no matter how it decides to manifest itself. Recently, however, I discovered a nagging correlation between three of the games I was playing at the time – they all had a high frequency of repeated dialogue, and one of them was to such a degree that it crippled the enjoyment of the entire game for me. The three games in question were Madworld, Exit DS and Oblivion. I touched upon the issue a little when I wrote the impression piece regarding them a while back, but now I’m going to fully discuss why it bothered me, as well as presenting some additional examples, good and bad, for additional discussion. This is certainly not intended to be an encompassing article, but merely an introduction. Let’s begin with the one that got my ire most first.
Unfortunately, it was the game I was most anticipating when it was announced, and it seemed that it couldn’t do any wrong given the pedigree of who was behind it. Alas, Madworld has been sitting in my game case ever since I wrote the impression piece back in January, and I am planning on selling it in the near future. The gameplay was great, despite me occasionally slinging the Wiimote too hard (usually when they had to be separated from each other). It certainly was a visceral, violent game, but it stood out as stylish to me. The graphical approach was also well executed. It seemed like all would go well. There was a problem, though, and it slowly began to dawn on me as I got more engaged into the action (Grace, who was getting VERY agitated about it, noticed it a lot sooner) – the enemies had far too limited a sound bite bank to pull quips from. Here’s what I reported back then about this:
Basic explanation: you’ll hear the same three or four guttural shrieks that have the word “fucker” in it somewhere every 10 or so seconds…maybe even more frequent than that. Or you’ll hear “Sir!”, which I don’t have any clue as to why that is even being said in the first place.
I didn’t lie. It’s beyond frequent – hearing “fucker” is like clockwork in Madworld. It’s going to happen a lot. I’d be willing to bet I heard the same insult over 100 times, and I only got through the first two levels. What drove Sega to record such a scant amount of dialogue for their standard grunts is baffling to me. Clearly they cared some about their audio choices, otherwise they’d have not hired Steve Blum, Greg Proops and John DiMaggio, who are talented VA’s. Maybe they cared too much for their headliners. Maybe they ran out of room on the disc. Maybe they figured people hear “fucker” so much in the real world they wouldn’t care. Shame is, I did care. I’m not a fan of censorship, and I cuss fairly often (not a ton on the blog, outside of angry Amazon diatribes, at least) when I’m with Grace, so the word itself is not the issue. It’s the excessive abuse of three infinitely looping lines that ruined Madworld for me. They could have been saying “pen!” – it still would have been irritating. And then there’s the issue of the nonsensical “Sir!” that both confounds and annoys me. Why are they screaming it all the time? It makes no rational sense. Sure, Jack is a man, but I don’t believe they’re shouting it at him. Do they communicate in military lingo in reference to each other? That may be more feasible, but it’s still weird. And in the grand scheme of things, it wore out its WTF value in moments. Before “fucker” even sunk into my skull, the amount I was hearing “Sir!” was sending off warning alarms. I find it to be tragic, really, because I liked the game. I genuinely got a kick out of it. It’s too bad that Sega had to make such a decision.
Now, I can hear some of you saying “Well, why not turn the sound off, then, if it bothers you that much?”, and that’s a reasonable question. I would have done that, but Sega and Platinum made another audio folly that becomes far more noticeable without sound – the Wiimote revs like a chainsaw when Jack uses his wrist-mounted weapon, and having that racket continually break the silence over and over also became intolerable.
Fortunately, the other two games have their own saving graces, despite featuring the same repetitive voice over issue. Exit DS reuses the same voice clips for its victims that Mr. ESC has to rescue per civilian type, and after a few stages, it loses any trace of appeal. Mr. Esc’s shouts are also a little much after a bit. Must they be so gutteral? It sounds like a serial killer from a bad horror flick or something. Thankfully for me, I don’t care much for the music either, so I play it with the sound off (which doesn’t have special sound effects coming from the machine when it’s silent!).
Oblivion, on the other hand, does tend to repeat similar dialogue as you roam around the various cities, but because the game had such a massive amount of voice work performed, as well as the player actively participating in the world which opened up more topics for discussion, it didn’t blemish my overall enjoyment of the game all that much. It did get a little tiring hearing several townsfolk talk about the Fighter’s Guild, for example, but that wasn’t the only discussion topic flowing from their lips, either.
That was a bit lengthy for an introduction to the overall piece, but I think Madworld serves as a pristine example as to how much audio influences the overall picture of a game. It deserves equal care, thought and proper development to truly shine and build upon the game’s visual and gameplay impact, giving birth to a unique and powerful connection to the player. Repetition is something that must be accounted for, and if it exists, it has to be done very carefully to escape tormenting its participants. Let’s dig into some other game genres that feature some voice-over repetition, and if it becomes a nuisance or not.
Sports games are notorious for repetition because of the simple fact that commentators are not actively recording each game as a unique performance. The frequent regurgitation of the sound bites will happen because the announcers/VA’s are unable (monetarily and time-wise) to be able to treat each game with the spur-of-the-moment passion and enthusiasm that the real deal can garner. A long recording session, the determination of what to record and how much dialogue to take from each subject from the session, and the need to cherry-pick the finest (or weirdest, in some cases) material all come into play. As nice as it would be to actually have John Madden and Al Michaels be there in the recording booth properly reacting to your game as it happened, the odds of such an event are not all that great. However, some games do pull off their play-by-play better than others.
International Superstar Soccer 98 happens to be one of my favorite sports games, and magically, Konami’s hiring of Tony Gubba worked very well to the game’s advantage, despite the space limitations of the N64 cartridge. While Konami could only stuff so much audio onto the game’s code, what they recorded is the key thing. While Gubba repeats himself a bit, his commentary manages to find the sweet spot that doesn’t grow obnoxious over time. His reactions are perfect, his lines fitting, and his voice is more than tolerable (it probably helps that he does this sort of thing for a living). If I were making a soccer game, I would definitely consider him to be the commentator for it.
On the other hand, football games like Madden and, when they existed, the NFL 2K series, have had the tendency to limit their recordings on particular football mechanics, and will recycle the same quip whenever it happens. There’s a solid enough reason for this to occur – in real-life football, these kinds of events are rare, and one would expect that the videogaming equivalent would act the same. Unfortunately, because of its very nature of being a videogame, rare real-life situations can be easily replicated. If one can score several defensive touchdowns, or can block a punt, or returns a kickoff for a TD, the likelihood that they will hear the exact same comments they heard last time they accomplished that feat is almost guaranteed. Chris Berman’s intros and Sportscenter bits are a solid example of this. You’ll be able to recite some of his witticisms after one season in franchise mode.
Fighting games have one of the highest frequencies of repetition in gaming, and it’s absolutely vital to have solid voice actors supplying those lines. I’ve noticed that the Japanese voiceovers tend to be more successful than English dubs in fighting games, but I haven’t discovered why I feel that way. Maybe Soul Calibur’s half-hearted attempt to do English TWICE has left a distinct imprint on my brain (thank Soul Edge that they left the Japanese tracks in both SCII and SCIII). Japanese seemingly makes the lines more meaningful, or at least tolerable, to me. Imagine if Ryu yelled “FIREBALL!” every time he used his Hadoken. It would be a little awkward, wouldn’t it? Or, even better, directly translating the Japanese SHO-RYU-KEN to “Rising Dragon Fist”. Ken would lose a little of his awesomeness if he let that one loose on the battlefield. Mortal Kombat may be the only case of English-speaking fighters that did not bother me. Killer Instinct I’ve played too little of to comment on, and any other significant US/Europe based fighter is escaping my memory.
Capcom’s Street Fighter series has consistently been delivering excellent voice-over work for its cast, with only the occasional miscast (I really want to know what Capcom was thinking when they replaced Cammy’s voice in Capcom Vs. SNK 2 – she’s bloody British!) marring its reputation. While Grace may think otherwise (she’s not much into the fighting scene), I think that the voices and exclamations are excellent and fitting, and I can listen to “Hadoken” millions of times without any sort of irritation (I probably have, to be honest). What makes Street Fighter so effective is that Capcom puts a high level of thought into all the necessary components that a fighter’s voice needs – the moans of being struck, the grunts of throwing a hard punch or kick, the crushing gasp of defeat, and everything in between. Their voice builds upon the character’s artistic design, transcending them from being mere players on a screen to something more substantial.
SNK’s Fatal Fury/King of Fighters series also have done some awesome stuff with voiceovers. While they have run into a few more snags than Capcom’s SF cast (Whip in KoF Evolution is aggravating as all hell), they’ve managed to successfully blend Japanese with horribly mangled English to create some of the most memorable lines in fighter history. Terry’s “Are you okay? Buster Wolf!” is just incredible, for one.
Also, I think Iori’s voice actor is one of the best voices in gaming. He captures the sinister element of Iori’s personality perfectly.
Since the introduction of voice into the videogaming medium, repetition has been a hurdle many sound designers have had to leap. Some have cleared it, while others have tripped and failed. At the very least, I can wish that you’ll be thinking about the subject a little more than you have before thanks to this article. It was one that I enjoyed writing, and one I may revisit to delve into more.