Thursday, October 27, 2011

Voice recording: Directly to the Heart

“Go Ahead. Make my day.”

The phrase, which most should immediately recognize, is spouted by police detective Harry Callahan while holding a criminal at the gunpoint of his 44 magnum. As a Spanish speaker used to seeing all American films dubbed into my native language, that phrase will always resonate with me as: “Anda, alégrame el día,” and I doubt that I’ll ever forget the lack of impact that the famous line fizzled with when I first saw the film in its original English with only Spanish subtitles. Another example which generated an equally lackluster impression occurred when listening to Colonel Kilgore utter in the film Apocalypse Now, “I’m not afraid to surf this place, I’ll surf this whole fucking place!” which in Spanish is expressed as, “Me sobran cojones para hacer surf en esta playa”.

I certainly recognize that a Spanish attempting to mimic the original English expression in these cases would not carry the equivalent weight, likely sounding rather absurd and ultimately failing to do justice to the original, but the fact remains that I (and millions of others) grew up watching these movies in Spanish!

It was just recently that I came to the personal realization that the feelings evoked by these powerful phrases were not related most directly to the language itself, but that it was the Spanish voice which I was cherishing. Hearing is, along with smell, a sense that cannot be easily ignored. You can close your eyes or you mouth, but any scent or sound passing through the related sensory organ will go directly to the brain, activating all kinds of related memories or feelings that you may have or have had.

I noticed then that it was due to this logic that I have long struggled to understand how videogame publishers often justify neglecting voice recording for video games when it is unquestionably one of the most important pieces of a proper localization if you hope for the target audience to feel that the game was developed just for them. Of course, some players may prefer to experience a game in its original language, but if the original language is say, Japanese, does the player prefer to spend 100 hours hearing conversations or messages that she is unable to understand, or would she prefer to just sit down and enjoy the game?  Given the way that many games are designed, the answer is an obvious one, as the ability to play and proceed through a game in the way that the creators intended is often largely contingent upon the player’s ability to understand both the game’s text and auditory cues and messages.

In time I came to realize (following my direct involvement in the game localization process) that one of the primary reasons linked to why publishers are reluctant to localize voice work is due to the overpriced quotes that they often receive from studios. The first time that I received one of these estimates, I found nearly half of the items to be largely irrelevant, and in the end, so high was the lowest quote that we received for the project - over $100,000 USD - which was reasonably more expensive than the other costs associated with the development of that particular game itself, that we made the decision to venture off into the realm of doing the actual dubbing work by ourselves, with “actors” consisting of the non-Japanese staff working at the company at the time. The result was reasonably high-quality dub work with what could be considered a bit of a cool “edge” to the final product, and costs consisting of just the studio rate of $8,000 USD.

Using the Japanese game industry as an example, it’s rather easy to recognize that Japanese publishers are usually enthusiastic towards the prospect of recording with professional voice actors, yet we also notice that many overseas markets fail to receive voice tracks in their respective languages with a level of quality on par with that of the original voice work present in the original Japanese version of the game.  The justification for this quality discrepancy is often explained away by quoting the differences in how the overarching system for famous “talents” in Japan operate, with famous actors and performers often lending their services (aka: voices) to a variety of entertainment media irrespective of the medium, whether it be film, anime, TV commercials, talk shows or video games.  While this may be the reality, the primary reason for turning down opportunities for a quality voice localization is actually much more simple, and obvious: It is often cheaper to call in actors to record and rerecord everything in multiple sessions and to then purchase all of the rights than it is to pay the Japanese voice actor the secondary rights for releasing his or her voice abroad.

Game publishers often left asking why it is that their localized versions sold so poorly in secondary markets such as Italy or Spain could be well served by looking into working with smaller localization companies and recording studios which are regularly capable of doing some very interesting work at much more reasonable rates. I firmly believe that a proper voice recording is the key to being able to really grasp players’ hearts, particularly given many games’ current trend toward an increasingly cinematic presentation and reliance on audio over text in order to produce a cleaner UI and a more naturally intuitive means of communicating with the player without interrupting the game experience.  The question remains however as to whether or not the day will come when publishers producing games of different scales will regularly and seriously consider the potential impact that the localized versions of their games are having on their respective target markets, or whether they will just continue to produce “translated” videogames. Creating quality and focused products is no longer optional if a publisher hopes to reach their desired sales numbers in this era of globalization, particularly for video games, a medium that continues to fight to erase 20+ years of being interpreted by many cultures as a “children’s pastime” while simultaneously searching for ways to express to newer audiences the medium’s inherent value tied into its still largely untapped power of expression.

For those publishers who still wish to continue to pump out “translated software,” the option is certainly available.  However when it comes time to predict sales numbers and player reviews, Harry Callahan begs that those electing to walk that line ask themselves just one more question:
“Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk? “