Jan Werkmeister of Synthesis Germany explores the finer points of voice localisation
I allege that some of the non-English native gamers playing on a regular basis are fully able to play games in English and understand above 90 per cent of its content (depending on their country of origin).
And because there have been a lot of badly localised games in the past you hear these gamers often say 'I prefer playing games as English original versions, because they have a more convincing appeal to me,'. One of the reasons for this is of course the appeal of a foreign language.
As an example: I saw plenty of Italians complaining about a recent game that some Italian localised voices were 'crap' and then English people coming by and saying 'they are so much better than the English ones'. That’s like with many things in life: your neighbour's grass will always be greener.
But stating that localising games might not be worth it is totally wrong. The more games are 'growing up' the more they are developing towards being based on more complex, more serious and more emotional storytelling (we all remember Quantic Dream’s recent 'Kara' Dev trailer). In order to fully delve into the game and its subtle play between its characters it won’t be sufficient to get 90 per cent of the story, you have to get all of it.
And acting within a virtual world that doesn’t speak your language won’t ever let you create a very strong emotional connection with the game – which is needed to experience what a developer has originally created for the player:
I won’t forget all the magic moments I had when running through the huge landscape of Skyrim and discovering all those mysterious sites with imaginative names written in my mother tongue.
LOCALISATION IS NOT BORING
It’s quite common to think about localisation as a very formal and structured process without much creativity involved.
People assume localisation to be a boring imitation of an already existing product. Due to its costs I believe publishers would be more than glad to have some kind of automated localisation software to convert the English original to French, German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Russian and so on at a click of a button.
But that’s not what localisation is about. Imagine there’s a developer coming from one cultural sphere with its unique and complex repertoire of communication standards, history and pop culture. And this developer creates a piece of audio/visual communication - the game - in order to let the players of the same cultural sphere experience exactly what he intended them to experience. Wouldn’t this developer want the players with other cultural backgrounds experience the very same game in the very same way players of his origin do? I believe so. And that’s what localisation is about. It’s not about just imitating but transforming and adapting.
Transferring a game’s language from one cultural sphere to another sounds like a pretty complex task, maybe even intimidating, like communicating with an alien culture. Maybe you ask yourself 'whoo, how on earth will my game be received by those little martians ?'
Luckily there are already a lot of communication standards that have been 'globalised' especially within the Western world. Due to these global communication standards of media and cultural similarities, a US developer doesn’t need to worry that an European player won’t understand that the guy with a strange undefined Middle Eastern accent is the terrorist and his enemy for the next hours of play (just to mention one of the typical clichés).
But I’m also quite astonished by the fact that it’s generally a localisation standard in Germany to not make use of any accents but at the same time it’s been shown to be very effective in making use of Eastern Europe or Oriental accents for serious characters.
But stay away from trying to make use of any Scandinavian accents for proud Viking-like characters; it’ll suck and will only make people think of the funny voice used in German IKEA ads on TV or the Chef from the Muppet Show.
Sometimes I wonder: Maybe the established use of a Russian accent goes back to a long history of Cold War movies presenting the good Western guys fighting against the evil Russians – of course with a strong accent! I don’t know. What can we learn from this? You have to take the history of voice dubbing for movies and TV into account. You will find a lot of unspoken and very unique rules of how to dub a character’s voice in each and every country that has a strong dubbing culture.
Since people have been watching movies and TV for decades those practices have formed the reception of media in a fundamental way and due to these many choices you would like to make in localisation are already predefined. You have to know about this and have to adapt to what people think is convincing or just absurd.
NOT SO EASY TO HANDLE
Although accents are a pretty hard issue to cope with we have to face this in localisation every day.
US American developers especially make intensive use of their regional peculiarities and stereotypes in order to get vivid characters. Language and how we use it is often a mirror of how we live our lives and how we interact with the world around us. Since it’s not common sense in European or Asian countries to know exactly what attributes of character are associated with a particular region and it’s an even greater challenge to find an equivalent for a regional accent, it’s quite clear that you can’t just imitate but have to create completely new characters during localisation.
Don’t copy, create something new.
Think of an unique Texan game character with a typical accent and behavior. Although a character that is well set up will never be only limited to 'being a Texan' but as highlighted before, the developer might use stereotypic sound and behavior to give this character a basic definition and a clear and immediate recognition.
Now imagine your task is to localise this character for a French market where you very likely won’t have an accent available that represents typical Texan attributes and it won’t help to imitate Texan speech melody because that probably will sound quite ridiculous in French. What can you do?
You have to go one step further and stop copying a character and start creating a new character that will work the same way a Texan does in an US English context, in a French, Spanish or Chinese or whatever context.
BRING YOUR FRENCH COWBOY TO LIFE
Once you created your French cowboy, it’s not yet done. If you’d ask our Audio Supervisors or Audio Directors why they, once they have found a matching voice / actor, just don’t copy line per line of the original audio with their new French cowboy, you’d always get the very same answer: During localization you created a new character that needs to be 100 per cent consistent within its character’s boundaries to be as convincing as the original. Players would immediately be detached from the localised character’s emotions and play if they noticed it being just a copy and not having its “own life”.
COMMUNICATE THE DETAILS
In order to get a convincing localised character, you need to provide the localisation people responsible for its creation and recording with as much information as possible.
Usually the English audio recordings of an triple-A game are done with huge effort and has the same development team involved who created the game’s story and characters in the first place. By knowing all the details of the story and deciding what their localised character would do in a certain situation and letting the voice actor fill it with life – that’s how the audio teams in each territory can achieve a convincing result.
And please bear in mind the context issue. All localisation people are used to working with plain Excel sheets that are usually not very inspiring. Although it’s part of their daily work dealing with tons of 'unemotional' data, as a developer or publisher you shouldn’t forget about implementing such fundamental information as the context and basic mood of a scene or a dialogue. Commentary, pictures, videos – put in everything that might help the audio director to find the right tone in audio localisation.
TRUST THE PEOPLE IN THE TERRITORIES
Provided you work with experienced industry professionals you should trust the people being responsible for localisation for their territory.
There’s a limitation to what you are able to assess from a non-native perspective. The more subtle it gets in terms of storytelling, the cleverer you have to localise. An easy example is localising humor especially when it involves any references to regional (US American, British, Asian, etcetera.) pop culture.
In this case plain translating would just end up in a disaster: Players won’t recognise any of the references and it won’t be funny at all - just ridiculous. And as a developer that’s very likely the last thing you need: including clever and subtle written jokes in your game which get literally devastated during localisation and players ultimately thinking you are a moron.
The only way to solve that issue is to give the localisation guys the freedom to not translate your jokes but to transfer its style to the destination language. You will end up with jokes that won’t have anything in common with its original (content-wise) but will be based on its own references working in the same manner within the targeted territory.
Do yourself a favour; decide to work with the clever localisation guys and don’t try to save each and every cent on localisation because it’s 'just for translation'. Your players will be thankful for that wise decision.
What do we do in order to achieve an excellent localisation? In our approach at Synthesis, the translation marks the very beginning of an excellent localisation. It’s not just about transferring words but fully localizing a game’s content as I explained before. Without optimised translation processes including the highest standard of quality assurance and consistency you won’t manage to handle millions of words without going crazy.
Any possible special technical requirements must be taken into account as well and we have the specialists which are needed to 'doctor' a script in order to achieve a natural lip synch cut-scene in any relevant language.
You want this scene to be spoken by the German voice of Bruce Willis? No problem at all, we have voice actors so similar, you’ll have players thinking that dear old Bruce can speak fluent German. Our overall aim at Synthesis is to ensure that players, regardless of where they are or what language they speak, experience the game as the developers intended.