I have recently started playing Remember Me, a cyberpunk action-adventure hybrid game developed by Dontnod Entertainment in 2013. I haven’t been playing for long, but within the first few minutes of gameplay I already have something I want to talk about.
In nearly every game I play I switch on the subtitles. It is easy when you’re in the middle of a melee in any game that you might miss what your friendly AI will say to you, so I like having the subtitles there to catch any mis-heard dialogue. And so when I went to Remember Me‘s menu to switch the subtitles on, I saw another tab, “Languages”. I didn’t touch the tab and went back to the game, but after a few minutes I paused the game again and switched the language from English to French. Not because the voice-actors weren’t engaging, far from it. The reason I changed was due to the setting of the game; Remember Me is set in Neo-Paris (Paris in 2084), yet all the actors spoke with perfect English/American accents.
As I’ve played through I’ve switched back and forth at times just to see how the different languages change the characters, but I’m mainly keeping to the French (luckily all the menus, hints, tutorials, and subtitles are still in English). It was a strange urge to change the language of a game, so let us dig into the idea of language as an important fragment to a game.
“Parlez-vous des jeux vidéo?” – How language is used in video games
As I said in the pre-amble, I didn’t change the language due to poor delivery, it was more to do with setting. If the game took place in Neo-London or Neo-York City I probably would have gone along with it. But there was something jarring about English accents being in Paris (despite the two countries only being around 20 miles apart from each other). It is an interesting concept; we can all agree a bad delivery can throw us off a game, but can an out-of-place accent do the same? Well, by the fact I’m writing this, yes it can, but let’s at least go through some other aspects of language in games.
English-accents-not-being-where-they-were-supposed-to-be was highlighted in another French-based game, Assassin’s Creed Unity, where all the inhabitants of Paris were speaking the Queen’s (and the topic of a joke on the Conan O’Brien show when he played the game (1:49 and 2:49)). Interestingly, the idea of changing language was brought up in the first Assassin’s Creed (see “Translation”). When main character Desmond asks technician Lucy why the people in the Animus speak like they’re from the modern day, Lucy responds,
Lucy: The Animus is translating speech it deems vital into more modern English. So expect a few anachronisms. I could probably make it more authentic, but…have you read any Chaucer?
Lucy: Yeah, definitely not for you.
The sequels AC2 and AC: Brotherhood were filled with comically broad Italian accents, but the fact that there was an attempt to bridge the gap (along with a few choice words in Italian) help strengthen this bond between player and language. A similar thing was done in AC: Revelations with the ancillary characters speaking English but with Turkish accents and a few foreign words being inserted into dialogue. For Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, the writers inserted English and Cockney slang into the game, which had a more general word in brackets next to it (e.g., 20:03, “bottle” being translate to “nerve”).
Sleeping Dogs was similar to AC, using English for the majority of dialogue, but using choice words in Cantonese to highlight the setting (Hong Kong). The one constant use of Cantonese Sleeping Dogs had was for swearing. This is reminiscent of what scholar Lelia Mellini wrote about using foreign words in writing; “Swearing and insulting [in foreign languages]…is an art form and should be exercised [within writing].” (n.d. link to full essay).
Max Payne 3 had a great mix of English and Brazilian Portuguese, keeping both elements separate when it came to subtitles. As Max screams during the second half of the game, “I don’t speak your f***ing language!”, it makes perfect thematic sense to not translate the non-English dialogue. During these scenes, the player is like Max, completely lost and only barely understanding the surrounding events and hostilities (such as 10:47-11:38). At certain points the dialogue did translate, but only when Max was not the point-of-view during the scene (34:57).
Another excellent example is in Battlefield V. The game has main characters from Norway, Senegal, and Germany, each speaking their mother tongue. It’s so thought-out that German characters speaking Norwegian do so with a German accent (verified for me by a native German/Norwegian speaker). That’s a level of detail so small only a fraction of the player base would notice it, but speaks to a level of commitment from the developers rarely seen in games.
On the flip side, games like the recent Hitman reboot will have the player heading off to France, Italy, Morocco, Thailand, and Japan, but without a hint of an accent or a single word of the native language being spoken from characters in those countries. In the age of subtitling, different languages shouldn’t have been an issue, but it rather speaks to lack of funding to get non-English voice actors or lack of commitment to create authenticity for the players.
Moving away from Western-developed games, it is interesting how Japanese developers use language in their games. One game that does languages wrong is Virtua Fighter 5. All the Asian characters are relegated to speaking Japanese while all the other fighters speak English without even a hint of an accent, such as Lion (French), Wolf (Canadian), El Blaze (Mexican Spanish), or Brad (Italian). Maybe it is a culture thing, but it would be interesting to know whether Asian players get annoyed at a Chinese character speaking Japanese. There is also the fact that Virtua Fighter has no story mode, so getting several voice actors for different languages might be more than Sega wants to do for the game. The redeeming value is that some of the quotes are astronomically terrible and endlessly hilarious, especially Lion.
Characters in Resident Evil have had many voice actor changes as the series has gone on, but the first game’s awkward delivery of dialogue is always mentioned as an odd highlight. Norwegian voice actors were hired to voice the characters which lead to some beautiful moments of “Engrish” (the term for badly translated dialogue in games e.g. “All your base are belong to us”). This continued into Resident Evil 4, with Leon and Napoleon’s bitchy quips being elevated by the level of ham in the delivery. Would the games be the cult classics they are if they had more “normal” voice work?
On the other survival horror side, would Silent Hill 2 be as compelling without Guy Cihi’s delivery of James Sunderland’s lines? Cihi’s awkward delivery (Cihi wasn’t an actor and his only voice role was SH2) adds to the unreality that the Silent Hill series is known for. Would it have worked just as well with a professionally trained actor? In a similar vein part of the subversion of Spec Ops: The Line works for me because of Nolan North’s portrayal of protagonist Captain Walker.
Nolan North is known in games for his heroic, wisecracking characters. And at the beginning of Spec Ops we hear Nolan North’s recognisable voice and think the game is going to be like his other work. But that helps the game in the later stages when it reveals itself to be much more than a simple shooter. Add to the fact that the voicework was all done in order to help add to the characters unravelling sanity, would a simple redub for another audience done the same with its voice actors in an attempt to give the same deliveries? Would we have heard the noticeable difference in Walker’s voice if it had been done out of order or over a few days? Voice actors are amazing artists and could have pulled it off, but North said it was made to make the “…player…feel that he’s gone through hell.”
Edit: In the same interview, North said that if he could redo any voiceover he,
“…would do Prince of Persia (2008)…I really wanted to do a little bit of a Middle Eastern accent, or actually a slightly British accent…I just think it needed a little bit of flavour to it, because I just felt that the middle-American accent didn’t match the beautiful artwork that the game had. For me, personally, there was just a slight disconnect.”
It shows that creators are also conscious of this sense of character and language and whether it would work well within a game.
[Return to original text].
I have moved out a bit from my original idea of languages into more of an overall debate on voice actors all together, so let’s come back round to language as part of the immersion.
It is odd that there isn’t a real movement of dubs and subs in video games. There are voice actors that we all like and are inseparable from their roles; Michael Ironside (Sam Fisher), Elias Toufexis (Adam Jensen), David Bateson (Agent 47), but I haven’t heard of a large culture of say Japanese games only being played in Japanese. I know Persona 5 had a Japanese voice track that players could download, but there is no gaming equivalent that I can think of that is similar to the foreign film industry or anime culture where anything that isn’t the original voice track is hellspawn.
The only case that comes to mind was the expensive dub for the original Yakuza with voice talent such as Michael Madsen, Mark Hamill, and Eliza Dushku replacing the original Japanese cast. That dub was only for the 2005 release and an English translation wasn’t even an option for the Yakuza Kiwami remake in 2016.
Part of the complaint against dubbing is the fidelity of graphics nowadays, with lips not matching up with the words being spoken (this is definitely something I have picked up on during Remember Me). Tie into this that a lot of games are motion-captured to sync up movement and voice performance which was the reason given for not having Michael Ironside reprise the role of Sam Fisher in Splinter Cell: Blacklist.
Another dub/sub complaint is with intent in the dialogue i.e. the “wrong” words being used because there is no equivalent. I found this when researching my university dissertation, where the subtitles for Tokyo Godfathers would label transgender characters as gay instead. Going back to Remember Me, it would be interesting to know whether the subtitles are giving me the English dub lines or are reconfiguring for the French dialogue (it is probably the former, but the aspect about putting emphasis on different words is the point I’m getting at).
Just off-topic for a second; through research for this piece I’ve found a large contingent of players that like to play games in different languages as an aid to learning said language, which is pretty cool. I’ve picked up small parts of languages from songs and comic books and I learnt a few Spanish phrases from Tomb Raider Anniversary and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. If I ever get round to learning a language I might try a game I know off by heart to try and figure out certain words.
So, let’s throw the question out to you; does language affect how you play your games? Do you change the language setting when playing to aid immersion? If you’re not a native English speaker do you leave the game in its default setting or do you change it to your preferred language? Let me know in the comments.
This post was partly inspired by “The Pros and Cons of Dubbing and Subtitling” by Cees M. Koolstra, Allerd L. Peters and Herman Spinhof in 2002. It was featured in the European Journal of Communication Vol. 17. Here is a link to the full essay.
Edit: Now that I have completed Remember Me I went through the cutscenes in English and I can say I enjoy the French translation a lot more. Characters like Edge and Doctor Quaid have more shade to them, Madame is more menacing, the Cartier-Wells’ have more emotion, Captain Trace has more of a Big Bad Wolf voice (he taunts Nilin by comparing her to Little Red Riding Hood), and Nilin is overwhelmingly better in the emotionally-driven personal scenes and the in-between moments, such as walking into the personal shopper robot.
Photo Source: womenwriteaboutcomics.com.