Monday, 15 January 2018

Feature: 7 Moments of Terrible Voice Acting in Old School Video Games

Original, uncut FMV opening for Resident Evil (1996)

Article previously featured on Whatculture.

If you're a gamer and old enough to have hairs on your chest, then chances are you'll remember when video games used to have terrible voice acting. I'm not talking about the occasional low-rent performance, which crops up even in modern big-budget games. No, I'm referring to the 90's and early 00's special brand of terrible. The sort of voice acting in which the developer's accountant would be called in to voice the protagonist: forced record his lines in a poky shed. And because it saved gamers from having to spend a few more hours reading text screens of purple prose, this was considered a good thing. As technology perpetually evolves, so does the standard, and so Chris' mate's mate earning a few quid in the studio becomes no longer acceptable. Which is perfectly fine when considering entries on this list.

7. Martian Gothic: Unification (2000)

Space. That yawning abyss filled with quasars, black holes, and planets which, by nature, would completely destroy our fleshy bodies. It's unsurprising that there's a rich history of grisly horror set in uncaring space in the video game industry. Martian Gothic: Unification for the PSOne was one such game, and was the alien's misshapen 'nads for fans of The Thing, Virus, and Event Horizon. Set in a martian base overrun with body horror monsters and aliens, the game can best be described as a Japanese Dead Space. Only with a surprising lack of tentacles getting frisky with the female protagonist.

Amidst all the visceral horror there was also a little bit of Lost in Translation thrown in. The Lost in Translation influence comes from the fact that the principal cast sounds so god damn bored. There's a part where one of the main characters attempts to describe the supernatural qualities of an alien monstrosity standing literally feet away, and he sounds closer to a bored Stephen King reading aloud his kid's latest terrible story. Bear in mind that the aliens in this game resemble the aftermath of trying to watch a VHS with a couple of mates in a David Cronenberg film. It's hard to care for the survival element of a survival horror if it feels like the characters don't care if they live to see tomorrow. You'd find more emotion in a supermarket where a patron has discovered his favourite soup is out of stock.

6. House of the Dead 2 (1998)

A stone cold schlocky classic that's featured on more unflattering lists than the local flasher. This game is pure B-movie to begin with, what with its cartoonish monsters and gore, cheesy tropes, and convoluted plots by evil corporations. What sets zombie-slaying House of the Dead 2 apart from the rest of the entries on this list, however, is that, as an arcade light gun game, no one would really expect it to have a stellar voice cast. That'd be like having Ian McKellan star in stage show version of The Room. You can't blame Sega for not bringing out their A-material for a machine designed to just have coins pumped into it, in exchange for providing cheap thrills (akin to those vibrating motel beds) and little more.

But even by the standards of everyone else in the game, antagonist Goldman is a stoic robot of a man. His drawn-out delivery is up there with Bob Newhart. Instead of sounding like it's being purposely done for dramatic effect, however, it comes across as though Goldman is suffering from advanced radiation poisoning. So lifeless and robotic-like is his acting that by comparison his colleagues (who, frankly, are also rather bad) actually sound emotive and engaging. It's extremely suspicious that Goldman is able to draw his scenes out for the exact time it takes to beleaguer an unfortunate parent into giving you enough change for the obviously upcoming boss battles. He's as unscrupulous as a phone sex line.

5. Forbidden Siren (2003)

Immersion is the keystone of horror games. If you're not invested in the scenario the developers are building, then it's going to be difficult to appreciate the atmosphere of the game's supposedly harrowing world. Which is a bit like being a Tory MP and attempting to care for the peasants you rule over. The survival horror game Forbidden Siren, for the PS2, essentially turned immersion into a gameplay feature by literally letting you into the mind of your ghostly enemies. "What's that stream of yellow water?" You might say, as you watch from the POV of an undead villager as he turns his attention from his peasant duties, only to find that it is indeed your terrified piss and he's about to chomp down on you.

This attempt at creating a truly gripping atmosphere was noteworthy, but ultimately scuppered by the game's utterly incongruous voice acting. Sure, Project Siren wants the player to feel like they're trapped in this nightmarish village of undead abominations, but it's incredibly hard to do that when all the native Japanese characters sound as stereotypically 'British' as the cast of fucking Oliver Twist. They're all so flat and emotionless too. It's not even a case of Sean Connery syndrome, but rather that the developers seeming chose the most inappropriately sounding voice actors they could. I'll actually take back the derisive remarks from earlier, it does add an extra dimension to the game the player ends up spending their time watching out for the inevitable chimney sweep ghost. Most likely played by Dick Van Dyke.

4. Chaos Wars (2006)

Is there a better way of setting the tone for an epic, cross-continuity Role Playing Game than having the dialogue delivered by your mum? I ask because that's what the voice acting in Chaos Wars resembles. On paper Chaos Wars is the weeaboo's wet dream: the soggy biscuit of JRPGs, born from the popular series/games like Shadow Hearts, Gungrave, and Blazing Souls. But fucking hell, this is like getting your mum to read out the script for your anime inspired wank-fantasies. And yes, I actually do think the cast is made up of the developers' relatives. This is the type of nepotism reserved for popes and their nephews.

You can practically hear the actors die a little inside every time they have spout one of the more fantastical lines of dialogue. Clearly, this mess was the result of a series of: 'remember that favour you owe me?' exchanges. During the PSOne era barely an eyelid would have been batted at this, but it came across as far less acceptable for a PS2 game. The sad part is that the game is largely remembered for the poor quality voice acting, when it's actually a rather enjoyable JRPG. Perhaps the developers had bitten off more than they could chew financially with such an ambitious project, and decided to skimp where they could. Or maybe this was some poor casting director's ingenious way of explaining away those cum-soaked hentai drawings his mum found under his mattress.

3. Resident Evil (1996)

The original Resident Evil, for the PSOne, is a landmark game which helped to popularise the survival horror genre. Alongside Silent Hill 2 and Amnesia, Resident Evil is one of few games to have legitimately made me shit my pants like a six-pack of Red Bull. Zombie dogs prowl the woods outside the mansion you're trapped in, and zombies, mutants, and murderous traitors stalk its dusty halls. The atmosphere is spot-on: combining scarce resources with jump scares and overwhelming odds, meant that you never truly felt prepared for any of the game's challenges. In terms of sheer terror, Resident Evil was on par with a weekend at Kevin Spacey's house. Though it is rightly regarded as a classic and thought of fondly, these days it's mostly remembered for it's hilariously awful voice acting and dialogue.

Not that I blame the actors themselves for the terrible voice acting. They can do so much with the material they're given. And this script is full of terrible, but quotable, bits of dialogue. Things like "Jill sandwich", and "master of unlocking". Bear in mind that this is a game which opens with a fucking live action cast reveal in which all the characters, played by real 'actors' stand around trying to look all hard. There's Chris as the fucking boy band Snake Plissken (minus eye-patch), bearded Barry (aka, 'the secret forth member of the Bee Gees); and the blonde haired, sunglasses wearing Wesker, who tries to look like the cool, would shag your mum in front of you type, but looks more like he'd probably get bummed to death on Fire Island.

That intro really sets the tone for this campy game, and the voice acting cements its B-movie status. The actors all deliver their lines in an almost-monotone voice, with awkward pauses between each word, as though the Midnight Punctuation Bandito had been on a rampage. Adding to the awkwardness of each scene is that the actors place unusual emphasis on the wrong word of each sentence. It reminds me of when you had to read aloud in class, and you were trying so hard to not look like a knob that you read as slowly and carefully as possible. And the bullies still beat you up anyway.

2. Michigan: Report from Hell (2005)

There are things beyond the realm of mere human comprehension. The Hutchinson Effect, simulacrum in the Eagle Nebula, how Cthulhu even got laid so he could have his 'starspawn', and the entirety of Michigan: Report from Hell. It's completely devoid of logic in both plot and design: though being a Suda 51 (the man behind Killer 7) game, this is to be expected. Report from Hell is a survival horror game in which you play as a cameraman, who orders his sexy female reporter sidekick to fight all the monsters for him. If the reporter is killed, you're simply assigned another and get to skip ahead to the next level. A cunning metaphor for the media's callous treatment of its female stars, perhaps?

In a game filled with grotesque monsters, questionable gameplay mechanics, and out of place 'sexy' bits, what really sticks out is downright awful voice acting of the deuteragonist. Whilst you play the game from the perspective of the aforementioned silent cameraman's camera, support character Brisco (the sound guy) is off-screen and seriously overacting to every situation he is in. Rather poorly too. If overacting were an Olympic sport he'd take all three podium spots, while Shatner was busy throwing himself into walls. Brisco comes across as less actually being terrified for his life, and more like he is both severely inebriated and suffering from the after-effects of a Vindaloo. In the end I was determined to find out who was responsible for this monstrosity, and thus searched the IMDB belonging to Brisco's voice actor: the bleak result of which probably why he sounded so distraught in the first place.

1. Zelda: Wand of Gamelon (1993)

Think back to the most unpleasant noise you've ever heard in your life: your parents fucking in the next room, the terrible whisperings of the Elder Ones who exist beyond the veil of known reality, a Maroon 5 CD. Now I want you to completely disregard that deeply suppressed memory of yours, because there's already a whole pantheon of those adept in the ways of terrible noise mastery: the Zelda: Wand of Gamelon voice acting cast. Wand of Gamelon (and its sibling, Link: Faces of Evil) saw the Legend of Zelda series appear on the Philips CD-i; a games console which was the size of the average bible, and notable only for having a CD-ROM drive at a time when they were more precious than your own children.

What to say about this one? Criticising the voice acting in a Zelda game is somewhat akin to lambasting the acting in a porn film: both are virtually non-existent, and largely consist of strange grunts like, "HIUAAAAAAAAAAAAAH." The entirety of the voice acting sounds as though it's been lifted from a particularly low rent eighties, Saturday morning cartoon. Link, the fucking master swordsmanboy and stalwart time-travelling hero of fantasy kingdom #12453, blurts out lines like: "gee, it sure is boring around here." He goes from Hero of Time, to the type of insufferably enthusiastic (and naïve) kid who always dies first in public safety films.

The characters all say things entirely detrimental to their established personae, in the most annoying manner as possible, and the whole affair has all the effectiveness of Doctor Zhivago as acted out by alley cats. It just goes to show that if you can, doesn't mean that you should. Philips wanted to show off the CD-i's full capabilities and so ordered that the game had to unnecessary shit like FMVs. And now the game is only ever remembered for its shoddy voice acting. Which is a shame because the backgrounds during gameplay have a nice pastoral painting quality to them, and the series' usual sweeping orchestral soundtrack is boldly replaced by an interesting mix of synth and electric guitar.

I blame Nintendo for this monstrosity. If they hadn't been so desperate for a CD peripheral for the SNES, and gone from studio to studio (Sony, Philips, etc) like a forty-year-old woman who has decided "it's time for a baby", we'd have been spared this mess. You bastards!

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