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Bring back text boxes: why video games were better before they used voice actors

With the loss of text, we lose an understated emotional impact that just cant be delivered through v..

With the loss of text, we lose an understated emotional impact that just cant be delivered through voice acting.

“Do you want to hear what I said again?” the owl asked, and my overly enthusiastic, trigger-happy finger – eager to get back to cutting the grass in the Kingdom of Hyrule – replied “Yes” before I realised what was being asked. Wait, I thought, I meant no! I didnt want to hear it the first time!

Anyone whos played The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) will be familiar with this encounter. The game, prior to this moment, had shown a vast open field begging for exploration, and yet now a big owl with a penchant for spewing out chunks of exposition was making me slow down to read box after box of text. Attempting to quickly skip through it by mashing buttons, as I did, often only means that you have to listen to him all over again.


The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Its easy to see how text boxes in video games get a bad reputation. And yet despite this encounter, I cant help but miss the days when text boxes dominated video games; when voice acting was not the norm.

It was the release of Final Fantasy IX in the year 2000, a game I played before Ocarina of Time, that made me care for the stories that could be contained within these simple darn rectangles. I wanted to read them; I enjoyed reading them. Before this, I had struggled with the focus required to keep my head in good book – video games even helped me improve my own writing (and should probably be credited with earning me the honour of “Best Jabberwocky-inspired Story” in Year Six).

In games, the characters, themes, and story were all made accessible for me at my own pace. Information could be repeated or entirely skipped. I was the director of the narrative.

Late into Final Fantasy IX, one scene cemented how engaging text in games can be. During one of the many moments in which Vivi, a playable prototype mage (wizard) character, ponders the meaning of his own mortality, he says: “I dont think I really understand what it means to live and die.” Wow, ten-year-old me thought, do I? Whether he is thinking this line or actually saying it aloud is somewhat down to players interpretation. Its a quiet and personal moment for Vivi, the weight of the line conveyed far better when you read and muse alongside him. But when Kingdom Hearts II (a game that incorporated some of the characters from the Final Fantasy series) was released in 2005, an actors voice was given to Vivi. Entirely different to the voice I'd heard in my head for years, the lines delivery in this Vivi voice felt jarring.

When told entirely via text, the game gave me ownership of the voice that came from the character; something that was entirely personal to me. The games examination on themes like the aforementioned mortality would probably not have stuck with me for all these years if I had first heard those lines spoken in a hammy actor's voice – the way they were in the 2005 remake.


Would swearing characters lose their charm?

Interesting questions emerge when exploring these old video games text boxes. For example, if they ever get around to remaking Final Fantasy VII, a game often derided for its poor translation job, will it be well received by fans? Many of the characters were known for their swearing, which was censored with various symbols and special characters. The harmless, feigned profanity is part of what made them so charming. But it's safe to assume that they would become far less appealing if we were to hear whatever words are being shielded by that garbled string of text.

And, swearing aside, when games increasingly started opted for voice actors, some performances left a lot to be desired. With many such video games coming from studios in Japan, questions around voice acting arose. How does a native Japanese-speaking director direct English-speaking actors? Which language do they synchronise the lip sync for? When Regina – a secret ops agent from Dino Crisis (1999) – arrives to the scene of a mutilated corpse and glibly says, “Thats disgusting”, does it make her gamings best portrayal of a female sociopath, or should they have done another line read? When you dig deeper into the writing behind games, more issues begin to wildly appear, with the unwelcome frequency of a Zubat.

For example the Japanese dialect has plenty of non-word sounds – think grunts and growls – that cause issues when translated for cutscenes, which are used to break up the gameplay. An English-speaking character is going to require more airtime/frames to say “what?” than would have been necessary for the Japanese versions original grunt, meaning dialogue is rushed out of the actors mouth and as such comes with a stilted delivery. Text boxes previously provided more room for dialogue than a few seconds of a cutscene could allow, so the translation team had more freedom to be creative. This is something the Yakuza series gets right: rather than try to get English-speaking actors to haphazardly fill spaces made for Japanese, the creators simply kept the original Japanese voice cast and subtitled the game in English.

Another issue is that voice actors in games have started becoming too recognisable; you will often see the same names appearing across various cast lists. Troy Baker is one who appears in a long list of them, and in every new game you cant help but notice him. While this works well for some of Bakers games (see: Persona 4 and Last Of Us), many others struggle to overcome his recognisable voice in the gaming world (see:Silent Hill 2), with the Baker-voiced characters failing to sound like “just a normal guy”. Instead they sound like Troy Baker, with all the bells and whistles of a heavily coached performance.

While Silent Hill 2 may not benefit from its casting of Baker as main character James Sunderland, it does show how powerful text can be in otherwise understated moments. In the game – a psychological horror – Sunderland, makes a bad decision that sends him into the eponymous, fog-filled town of Silent Hill, where he receives a letter from his recently deceased wife Mary. “Thats definitely Marys name in her own handwriting,” the oral description of the letter says.

Yet as the game progresses and reality unravels for James, the player can check their inventory for clues. If you look at the letter near the end of the game, your inventory will tell you, in simple white text, that “Theres nothing written on the stationery.” The town of Silent Hill had tricked Sunderland and the letter wasn't real, it was a manifestation created to make him acknowledge his guilt. Not all players will experience this moment; a player must actively look at the letter again for this reveal to occur. And with this clever use of menus and text boxes, we see that games can create an atmosphere that is entirely unique for its medium – although I cant help but feel a remake would (detrimentally for the game) try and make these little moments into far more cinematic ones.


The letter in
Silent Hill 2

On the plus side, video game performances are much better nowadays, and their characters way more expressive. Plus, the end of text means weve finally killed the overuse of the ellipsis… Hooray… New tech has started to allow us to tell far more cinematic stories with performances that are award-worthy endeavours. But although games have come on a long way from the days of Tim Currys 1994 Gabriel Knight, played with a heavily exaggerated and inconsistent New Orleans accent, I cant help but feel games are often too keen on rewriting their history rather than embracing their pasts.

But, as much as I miss them, if they ever do decide to bring back the text boxes, I just hope that when asked “Do you want to hear what I said again?”, they place the “No” option above the “Yes”.

This article was part of the NSs “Vintage video games week”, click here to read more in the series.

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China deploys anti-ship missiles in the desert making them harder to intercept

Beijing has announced it has deployed intermediate ballistic missiles to the country's north-we..

Beijing has announced it has deployed intermediate ballistic missiles to the country's north-west region, saying the weapons have the capacity to destroy US ships entering disputed waters in the South China Sea.

Key points:

  • The missiles can fire long distances and would be difficult for US ships to shoot down
  • Defence strategy expert Dr Malcom Davis said the move means China can back up its threats
  • The news came after a US guided missile destroyer passed through the South China Sea

The DF-26 missiles — which have been previously dubbed the 'Guam Killer' or 'Guam Express' by Chinese media and defence experts — are capable of carrying conventional or nuclear warheads.

They have a range of 4,500 kilometres, making them capable of reaching as far as Guam in the east and Indonesia in the south, providing Beijing with a powerful weapon as tensions continue to rise in the South China Sea.

External Link: @globaltimesnews: China's df-26 missiles

According to Chinese state media publication The Global Times, the DF-26 missiles are now stationed in north-west China's sparse plateau and desert areas, carried on the backs of trucks able to traverse the harsh terrain.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Beijing-based military expert told the Times that positioning the missiles deep in China's mainland made them more difficult to intercept as it allowed the missile to enter its final stages at a high speed.

Footage on CCTV showed trucks carrying the missiles driving through rough terrain and sand dunes.

The missiles were first paraded in 2015 and China confirmed they were now operational in April last year, but this is the first footage of the missiles outside of a parade.

It is unclear when the missiles were moved to the northwest region, the Times reported. (more…)

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Melbourne driver who cheated death when sign fell on car in no rush to drive again

Related Story: Dashcam footage shows moment car was crushed by falling freeway sign

The Melbourne ..

Related Story: Dashcam footage shows moment car was crushed by falling freeway sign

The Melbourne driver who cheated death when an overhead road sign fell and crushed her car says she cannot believe such an accident could happen in Australia.

Key points:

  • A second sign on the Tullamarine Freeway has been taken down as a precautionary measure
  • An inspection of similar-sized sign and gantries is underway
  • VicRoads says an independent investigator has been brought in to determine what happened

Extraordinary dashcam footage shows the moment the five-by-four metre sign fell in front of, and then on top of, Nella Lettieri's car as she was travelling on Melbourne's Tullamarine Freeway earlier this week.

While the 53-year-old was not seriously injured, she is bruised and battered — and wondering how she is still alive.

"It felt like a roller door had slammed shut in front of me," Ms Lettieri said.

"I've gone to swerve, but as I swerved, it just felt like the sign was actually falling on the car.

"And it just kept bouncing, and I felt like it was pushing me to the right, and I'm thinking, 'OK, is it going to stop?'"

A woman smiling and looking off camera.

She thought the metal object may have been from a plane landing or taking off from the nearby Essendon Airport, or from a truck on the freeway.

But she was shocked to discover it was actually an overhead sign, meant to be directing drivers to their destination. (more…)

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In his Brexit speech in Wakefield, Jeremy Corbyn again demanded the impossible

Speaking in Wakefield this morning, Jeremy Corbyn restated his demand for a solution to the Brexit i..

Speaking in Wakefield this morning, Jeremy Corbyn restated his demand for a solution to the Brexit impasse that appears effectively impossible: a general election.

In what is likely to be his last major public statement before MPs vote on the withdrawal agreement next Tuesday, he attempted to redefine the terms of the question facing both the Labour leadership and its MPs – from those that threaten to stretch his fissiparous electoral coalition to breaking point, to those which, on paper, unite it.

That resulted in a speech whose thrust was an appeal to class consciousness from Remainers in Tottenham and Leavers in Mansfield, rather than any meaningful debate over the validity or viability of Brexit itself. “Youre up against it,” Corbyn said, citing austerity, stagnant wages, and the cost of living crisis, “but youre not against each other.”

Accordingly, his cursory repetition of Labours policy – that a second referendum should remain on the table as an option in the event a general election does not happen – came with a caveat so huge that it amounted to an implicit dismissal of a so-called peoples vote. “Any political leader who wants to bring the country together cannot wish away the votes of 17 million people who wanted to leave, any more than they can ignore the concerns of the 16 million who voted to remain.”

But despite the fact that his attention was more or less exclusively focussed on the question of what sort of future relationship with Europe would negotiate – with the fact of the divorce undisputed – Corbyn categorically ruled out doing anything but whipping his MPs to vote against the withdrawal agreement. The vast majority of them will do so on Thursday, after which point Corbyn said, as expected, that Labour would table a motion of no confidence in the hope of securing an election and with it the chance to renegotiate Brexit (rather than, say, holding a second referendum).

Notably, however, he did not specify a timescale for tabling a confidence vote after Mays deal falls – despite several of his shadow cabinet ministers insisting that he would do so “immediately”. He instead put on the record the more cautious line briefed by his team yesterday: “Labour will table a motion of no confidence in the government at the moment we judge it to have the best chance of success.”

That statement of intent was followed with a caveat seldom offered by shadow cabinet ministers sent out to spin the partys line on Brexit. “Clearly,” Corbyn said, “Labour does not have enough MPs in parliament to win a confidence vote on its own.” As he himself alluded to when he urged opposition MPs to join Labour in voting against the government, Labours chances remain slim until such time that the ten DUP MPs drop the government. (That every other party will is a racing certainty.) Paradoxically, the defeat of the withdrawal agreement – and with it the backstop Mays sometime coalition partners object to – will make that chance even slimmer.

We know from what Corbyn said this morning that the Labour leadership will not whip its MPs to approve Theresa Mays Brexit, back a second referendum out of choice – both courses threaten its electoral base in different ways – or support any attempt by Downing Street to make the Brexit deal more amenable to Labour MPs by tacking on guarantees on workers rights. That strategy has held until now.

But failure to roll the pitch for any alternative at all – or, indeed, for the inevitable breakdown in party discipline after Mays vote is defeated and Labour has no way to bind MPs who seek mutually exclusive Brexit aims – will make the messy politics of the aftermath of next Tuesday rather more difficult to finesse.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent. (more…)

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