Video Games, Voice Over Localisation And The US
Until the moment I could get my own earballs around it, when it loaded in front of me, I suspected the particulars of Portal 2 had been misreported; that I’d find Stephen Merchant’s performance restricted to UK copies, a fun little bit of localisation well-aimed at crossover fans, and that we’d get some American. A peripheral star, part of some deal to help them gain exposure.
I thought of Robbie The Reindeer, how although nobody would be difficult to understand from the original cast, it was redubbed with American actors just to make it feel less foreign. This would be even easier: Wheatley doesn’t even have a mouth to worry about synching.
Yet here before me was Merchant’s unapologetically English performance. The choice seemed so unlikely, I felt like this copy was just for me. Like listening to an Adam and Joe podcast in a US city, it had the notion about it of a sneaky, well, portal, through the ether to home.
In entertainment, English accents belong to villains, overeducated sophisticates or butlers. And those are the posh ones. Regional accents are rare, and Merchant certainly sounds regional, each bumpy spoken line forming a map of Bristol. In addition, the timing, inflections, charmingly fumbled delivery; qualities I’d have thought most successful with British players.
The barrier is such that most regional types don’t even get the chance. Poor wee Cheryl Cole, evidently from the wrong bit of Britain, has been fighting for her position on the X-Factor judges’ panel, execs ostensibly unsure if she’d be understood. I’d rather been looking forward to some cheekbones with my dinner.
Brit accents are scarce enough that, should one appear, perhaps in a commercial, you can hear a mile off that it’s been inexpertly put on by an American voice actor because the company bore a clichéd wish to portray quality and refinement while tragically short on both. To be fair, it’s no less classy than the radio advertisements I used to hear at home, frauds doing American accents to make some product or event sound showbiz and exciting.
While I was delighted to hear Merchant’s now-famous Wheatley sessions throughout Portal 2, I felt something like shame for the entire English language track portraying US soldiers in Operation Flashpoint: Red River.
I don’t know if it was shame for myself, appearing to condone such rubbish by regularly playing this otherwise fun game; shame for the writers and producers who believed they were making something raw that came out forced and absurd; or shame for the fighting men of the armed forces who might — Christ — actually be like this.
Undoubtedly HBO’s Generation Kill was the game’s studied source of tough modern war realism, the language often interchangeable, but having missed the show’s nuances — the shouty Sergeant Major’s peculiarities and preoccupation with grooming that made him memorable for more than being shouty; Colbert’s perplexing, quiet aptitude for war — you can only hear so much of ‘bitchtits’ and ‘cock holsters’ before the onset of profanity fatigue. Speech: disabled.
Mute combat is a more startling, reflective experience than a pack of one-dimensional meatheads trying to out-swear each other.
One soundtrack greatly enhances a game, the other clearly detracts, leaving the gaming universe in balance, I suppose. Despite citing Portal 2 as his most exhausting gig yet, Merchant, at least, should be coming back, won over by such a positive reception. Flashpoint’s dummies, I hope, have taken enough flak both on and off the battlefield to not re-enlist in a year or two.