I’ve always been someone who prefers watching a foreign movies with subtitles instead of dubbed. I didn’t figure out why, exactly, until after I’d lived in Japan for two years and then, back in the States, watched a bit of a dubbed anime with a friend and realized why the English voice actors were so weird sounding: they had no idea why they were saying what they were saying.
But it wasn’t their fault – when a movie, TV show, or game is localized to a new language, the process very rarely involves a director giving the actors extensive coaching, let alone a director fully versed in the original culture and language who therefore gets all the nuances of the original performances and can try to bring the same things out in the dubbed version. So the dubbed version is not just different than the original voice performances but equal – in most cases, the emotions and contexts being read into the voice performances are being put there by actors who don’t really know what the character is trying to say or why they’re saying it the way they are.
A character with a quirky sense of humor in the original might come off as a creepy old man in the dubbed version (I’m looking at you, Shigure in Fruits Basket), for instance, or a character who is using a tone of voice that makes total sense within the context of Japanese schoolgirl culture and behavior might come off as a complete ditz in English by imitating a tone of voice that doesn’t make sense in English-language culture. So even for languages I don’t speak and cultures I don’t know very well, I prefer subtitles to dubbing because the original voice performances help me understand the intended emotions and give me a sense of the mannerisms and vocal patterns of the original culture.
Lately, I’ve come across a few video games (all Japanese, so far) that offer subtitling and original Japanese voice acting as an alternative to English dubbing. Valkyria Chronicles for PS3 is perhaps the best example I’ve found, though what Odin Sphere for PS2 offers subtitles and Japanese voices, too. I suspect that the JRPG genre is the trailblazer here, which makes total sense, because it’s a more narrative-based genre, and that’s where having voice actors who know the cultural and emotional context of what they’re saying makes the most difference – having Japanese voice acting in Super Mario Bros. might be interesting, but playing it dubbed does not, I imagine, take away much nuance from the simple story or character motivations. If you ask gamers whether they’d rather have the original voice acting in Metal Gear Solid or Mario, they’re almost all going to say Metal Gear, because that’s where the story and characters, and therefore the voice acting, matter more.
Valkyria Chronicles was an immensely better game subtitled than it would have been dubbed (I watched a few YouTube videos of dubbed scenes for comparison). For example, Jann is a heavy-weapons specialist character who, in English, comes off as an extreme (and for many players offensive) gay stereotype. In the Japanese, his voice acting is less outrageous, because the somewhat-effeminate type that it evokes isn’t always necessarily gay in Japanese culture, and homosexuality isn’t as stigmatized or controversial in Japan.
So hearing the scenes in English first would have pulled me out of the game as I would be wondering if the developers were trying to be offensive or not, while hearing them in Japanese made sense and were less unintentionally controversial, while still presenting variety in character type. And in general, the Japanese voice acting in the game made sense for the characters, while most of the English voice actors had at least a few lines where it was pretty obvious to me that they either didn’t know what the line was really supposed to mean or they didn’t know quite what the emotional subtext to the line was or why it should be read with the emotion that was indicated for them.
Playing Valkyria Chronicles and enjoying the much more sensible voice acting made me feel foolish for never having realized before that subtitles for foreign games with important story components was something I very much wanted. In a sense, my failure to demand it was selling short narrative video games, because I definitely demand subtitles when watching anime, since the dubbed versions just seem weird, with shows I love subtitled just coming off confusing when dubbed in many cases. But now that I realize that subtitles are an option for foreign games, I find myself noticing games that might have been saved by that option. Final Fantasy XIII is one glaring example. The bizarre English voice acting for that game (Vanille’s frequent strange nonverbal sounds, for instance) makes so much more sense if you realize that these are English voice actors basically imitating the vocal performances of the original Japanese actors.
Which would be fine if the nonverbal sounds and tones of voice that have cultural meaning in Japanese had the same meanings in English…but they don’t, so the characters come off as weird and the player (this player, anyway) winds up more emotionally detached from the story. FFXIII would be so much more playable if every time the characters opened their mouths wasn’t a WTF moment because of the bizarre English voice acting that isn’t really the actors’ fault. Take Troy Baker, for example. His performance as Snow Villiers in FFXIII is often laughably bad, yet his work as Booker DeWitt in Bioshock: Infinite is superb (and he’s great in Catherine and what I’ve seen of him as Joel in The Last of Us, too) – so the problem here isn’t the actor, it’s the dubbing process that loses the sense of the lines.
Games like Final Fantasy XIII should have options for subtitles and original-language voice tracks. Q: How hard would this be to offer? A: Not that hard! The original-language voice acting has already been recorded and paid for, so the costs would be negligible. And nearly all story-related games offer English subtitles anyway, so there wouldn’t be extra work there, either. The thing that makes this a no-brainer is that this wouldn’t take anything away from players who just want the dubbing – subtitles and original-language voices would be completely optional, as they are in Valkyria Chronicles and the other games that already do this.
Alternatively, game localizers could bring in directors to coach dubbing actors better – in fact, this wouldn’t be a bad idea anyway – better dubbing would be a good thing regardless of whether subtitles are also available. But localization actor coaching would cost extra money, while subtitles and original-language acting would cost practically nothing, so that needs to happen now. Games are a storytelling medium, and gamers deserve the better storytelling that it would be incredibly easy for localizers to provide via a subtitling option.