Language!

Last weekend I realized that I haven’t posted anything the past two months, but I do have the perfect excuse: Dragon Age Inquisition. If you haven’t played it yet, by all means do. The  story is beautifully written, the settings incredible, the dialogue options many and the characters both cliché and colourful. I especially loved Cassandra, that kick-ass warrior with the delightful accent, and that brings me straight to what I really wanted to write about: language and the reason why I play most games not in my native tongue, which is German, but in English. Three reasons, in fact: shoddy translation, bland voiceovers and, admittedly, habit.

A sample of Casandra’s voice and accent from the intro of the “Game of the Year”-trailer. The range of voice colours in general is incredible, by the way.

It is very easy to translate dialogue if the only thing you are aiming at is to convey the general meaning of what is being said. I have done translations and I know it takes time and no little effort to not just translate the basic meaning but to make it sound natural in the language you are translating it to. Dialogue is a very central part of the gaming experience – at least in the games I tend to play – the choice of words just as much as the way in which they are delivered. Dialect is part of that, which is why I started this post with Dragon Age as an example. In the German version Cassandra does not have any accent at all. Yet it is as much part of her identity as her cheekbones, to quote elven mage Solas.

Language conveys meaning by the tone of voice, by pronounciation and the deliberate emphasizing of certain words as much as by what is actually being said. An accent or dialect also places people in a certain country or region, and once we know something of that region, be it real or virtual, there are associations that come with it. Take Ezio from Assassin’s Creed, one of my favourite game characters. I loved his warm Italian accent just as much as I admired his voice actor’s skill in developing the character from whining teenager to mature adult by actually changing his voice colour. You see, voice colour also shapes the identity of the character. While Witcher Geralt’s English voice is rather gruff, fitting his demeanour, at least in The Witcher 3, which is the only part of the series I have played, the German voiceover is metallic and cold. Which, having read all the Witcher novels, fits Geralt actually much better. I still didn’t like it.

I do not want to condemn every German voiceover. There are  commendable exceptions. Joel from The Last of Us is one. And, speaking of voice colour, Adam Jensen, the hero of Deus Ex:Human Revolution, does have a very special voice inded. But for technical reasons I had to play DXHR in German first and whoever they cast as the voiceover has one of the smoothest, most beautiful voices I have ever heard and it fit Adam just as well. And the dialogues’ translation didn’t seem shoddy at all. The same happend with the reboot of Thief. Garrett’s German voiceover managed to bring more emotion to the character than was, maybe, fitting for the original Garrett, but just fine with me. And maybe I just like that type of voice colour.

Language is very important, as human beings it is one of the majour means of communicating our mood. And while character animation has become so much better over the past few years I dare say that without the support of the perfect voiceover I would not have been able to undestand as much of what my dialogue partners of choice were getting at in DXHR (not so great facial animation) or Dragon Age Inquisition (pretty great facial animation).

What are your experiences? If you like, comment below.


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