Simlish: Because sometimes babble is better.

On Thursday, January 5, 2012 1 comments

Voice acting is a novelty. I’m old enough to remember when games didn’t have voices. All you had was a wall of text, and maybe a synthesized laugh to add to the mood. Technology increases by leaps and bounds, and it wasn’t long before there was enough processing power to include actual voices in video games. Voiced dialogue is such a powerful narrative tool that it can make or break a dramatic scene.  Despite how effective voice acting can be, some video games choose to remain silent. Other video games developed a method of having characters spout nonsense syllables to simulate talking, without actually speaking intelligible words. I refer to this as “simlish."

Clover Studio’s game Okami has a distinctive sumi-e art style, with the characters looking like they stepped out of a Japanese ink painting. One side-effect of this is that the mouths are barely more than ink splotches, making actually lip-syncing impractical. Instead, the character’s mouths wiggle and contract like an ant caught in hot molasses, and they spout a bunch of nonsense syllables that sound vaguely like archaic Japanese. More than giving the game a sense of style, the dialogue choice is purposely used to foreshadow events without completely giving away the plot.

You can tell just from looking that Okami isn't your standard video game.

Waka is the game’s loose cannon. He shows up everywhere, always one step ahead of the player, but his motives are more shadowy than the lighting in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. At least, you think they are. However, the game cleverly uses your beetle-buddy Issun to turn you against the flute-playing foreigner. Many of Waka’s lines can be read as either condescending or genuinely worried. It all depends on the tone. Since Issun suffers a major inferiority complex towards Waka, he infers the tone for you, assuming that every sentence is laced with threats. For example, look at some of Issun’s dialogue about Waka:
Issun: This guy gives me the creeps. Better keep your eye on him!
Issun: Why you...! Were you behind that near disaster?
Doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, does it? In fact, Issun’s sour attitude biases players against Waka, making them suspect his every move. However, when you view the lines by themselves, it’s easy to see that there is no malice in them:

Waka: I just had a fleeting glimpse of your future. You see, I have the power to see that which is yet to come. Even if it were something you'd rather not know...
This isn’t a threat. It’s Waka warning Amaterasu about difficult things to come, and showing concern about her ability. And then there’s lines that come across as incredibly threatening, like this one:
Issun: Quick and easy...? Wait a sec... Don't tell me you're behind this funky mist? Is this part of a plan to conquer the city and take over the world!?
You're always up to no good, so I wouldn't be surprised...
Waka: The world? Not bad, my little bouncing friend. You're only half wrong...I seek the other world... I desire a path to the heavens.
 In this scene, Issun is quick to judge Waka without a whole lot of substantial evidence against him.

This sounds like some master plot, until you beat the game and find out that Waka isn’t up to anything bad; he just wants to go home. However, without an actual voice actor reading the lines, it’s up to the player to guess inflection. Since so much of communication relies on how people say things,  toneless dialogue forces players to make their own interpretation. Clover Studios takes advantage of this, using misdirection and manipulative musical scores to add suspense. So in some cases, speaking Simlish adds more to the experience than actual voice acting can.

Of course, having the characters babble in the next Call of Duty might be a bit out of place, but there’s no reason more fairy-tale like games can’t take advantage of it. The Legend of Zelda is infamous for choosing not to use voice acting. Presumably, Nintendo wants people to use their imagination to supply the voices. However, spare text accompanied by the occasional visceral grunt doesn’t make an immersive gaming experience. In recent Zelda games, like Skyward Sword, the groans and squawks aren’t enough to carry the story.

She may occasionally sound like a babbling child, but it's still ten times better than silence.

Midna, the feisty little imp from Twilight Princess, spoke in Simlish. The trend continues with Fi. Both of these characters have voices without speaking discernible words. Now imagine a Zelda game where all characters had voices. If Nintendo used Simlish, then the games could still be immersive without taking away from player interpretation. As Okami shows, even the most harmless sentences can sound sinister (and vice versa) without tone, meaning that it still lets players use their imaginations to fill the gaps. Simlish provides that middle-ground between imagining your own version of a character and long, awkward silences. And, honestly Nintendo, isn’t it about time to let your games have a voice?

Quotes from the game found from:

1 comment:

  1. This is definitely an interesting debate you're bringing up here. I think that in the kinds single-player games that you write about here, the designers have more freedom in whether they do or don't use voices for NPCs.

    We could think of it in reference to novels and films, since these mediums also conveniently differ in whether they are voiced or not (we'll postpone discussing silent films, for now). If a game decides to forego voice acting, the narrative is more like a novel. If the characters are voice acted, however, this would make the game more film-like.

    In my personal opinion, novels always feel more "real" than films do. This likely has something to do with the different kind of thought processes that trigger when you read, in contrast to when you watch. It's not surprising, then, that older games--MUDs, for example--we're just as immersive, even though they had rudimentary graphics.

    I would disagree with you when you argue that text and occasional grunting isn't enough to immerse a player. I would even take that a step further: It's really not the story that immerses a player, but the gameplay. Games without stories can be immersive, but story-games with horrible gameplay always disrupt immersion. Simlish, as a kind of pseudo-language that exists only for representation, might not make much of a difference. (And here's a thought: What about deaf gamers? Though I have no personal experience with being deaf, nor do I know anyone who is.)

    The significant point to draw out of this relationship is, however, as you mention, how involved the player is with bringing other characters to life. The trend in game development is toward providing characters with voice acting--even the player character, e.g. Mass Effect. I find it very interesting that BioWare has attempted to provide voice acting as much as possible for NPCs in The Old Republic.

    Who's more real? The characters voiced by actors, or the other players who can only type? If there wasn't any voice acting or the characters only used Simlish, I doubt that this question would arise.

    --Afterthought: I'd be curious to see if Waka's name is in reference to 和歌 (waka). Given Japanese literary tradition, I wouldn't be surprised.