I have become so accustomed to Japanese character models and American voice acting that Xenoblade’s British voice acting cast came as quite a shock to me as a Brit (and no doubt to a great many American gamers who imported the game).
Xenoblade’s British streak hints at something lacking in more of our gaming experiences (in English at least). We’ve lost a lot of our world view. We’ve started to expect the characters in our games to sound a certain way. With all the same regional hallmarks.
Sounding distinctly foreign
Xenoblade’s British voice acting cast came as a welcome shock to me. It was wonderful to hear many of my native tones and accents pour of the screen. It was also strangely jarring. I grew up with games that didn’t speak, and those that did were a rare and impressive novelty. My immersion into game characters sounding a certain way came very slowly.
I read text heavy games such as Final Fantasy VII in my own style internally, I imagined Cloud and the other characters speaking in my native accent, in the same way that you imagine a character in a book looking or sounding in a way particular to your own instincts and background. That’s not to say that’s how any of those characters sounded, but that’s merely how I imagined them within the framework of what I knew.
Over time though this imaginative approach to gaming has been slowly eroded away by the inclusion of voice acting. While this is for the most part totally welcome it’s definitely affected the way that I now perceive games. I don’t even blink hearing lead characters with an American accent anymore, or even a Japanese audio track.
Yet hearing the Xenoblade characters for the first few minutes was very hard work – despite how brilliant the voice acting is. The British tones are how I hear Shulk and Reyn when I imagine them now – without question. I was merely taken aback by how ubiquitous American and Japanese voices have become in the gaming world, how rare and exciting it was to hear my own country in the audio track of this distinctly Japanese game.
I hadn’t realised this voice casting bias had happened until Xenoblade came along, and now I’ve realised it, it’s really made me question why more games aren’t voiced by people from another region.
Xenoblade’s not the only example of British voice acting of course, but it’s one of the first I’ve experienced, and certainly the first one to really make me sit up and think about this, precisely because of the polarity between how this games sounds and what I am used to. It’s marvellous.
A slow change in standards
Of course the quality of the voice acting in a game is an important factor too. A good voice acting cast will often make me forget about the original nationality of the voice actors. Mass Effect is a great example of this. The only reason I found Xenoblade so briefly jarring was because of the rarity of hearing my native accent in the context of a game.
Another difficulty with voice acting comes with the localisation and modernisation of older games that didn’t previously have an audio track for voices. A part of me still prefers to read game dialogue than to hear it, as I can take in the story at my own pace – perhaps faster or even slower than someone acting the part could allow.
It can also be extremely hard to hear characters you know intimately who were previously silent. I still can’t watch Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children with the English audio track. No one will ever sound or come close to sounding how I imagined those characters through our hundreds of hours together. The “sound” of that game has become something very personal to me, and it’s a difficult listen for someone else to retrospectively try to voice those characters.
That’s why a game like Xenoblade stands more of a chance at exposing the issue of the lack of variety of video game voice acting. The characters are new to us and stand a better chance of making their mark as to how those characters should sound to a Western audience.
The fact that it’s come to Europe first means the localisation has been done with a European audience in mind, with a voice cast to match, and that’s turning the tables to an American audience, forcing some gamers (perhaps sometimes uncomfortably) to realise what we on this side of the Atlantic have realised for some time. That voice acting may not always be pretty – that it can infuriate and not always be appropriate to your needs, or how you feel a character should sound.
Certainly not in Xenoblade’s case though, I think the voice cast have done a fabulous job, and I highly recommend any American gamers awaiting the NA release try it (rather than the Japanese voices) to see what I mean.