Welcome to Horror Declassified — here we’ll be examining mechanics, tropes and design philosophies that are common in the horror genre. Have something you’d like covered? Send us an email.
Written by Matthew Ritter, @matthewmritter
Back before CD tech was common voice acting in games was rare and gimmicky. A few lines here and there often with a strange sort of warble that made it sound like static more than human speech. The first game to feature such a cacophony was Stratovox with memorable phrases like “Help me!”. The old school voice I’ll always remember is the one from Berzerk, “The humanoid must not escape!” It worked well because it had robots that were shouting these things.
Most games used text to get their dialogue across for quite a long time. A lot of the creepieist games back in this era were text adventures, such as The Lurking Horror (from 1987) which was taking inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft long before graphical games really got into it.
That all changed for horror games, for better or worse. There had been other voice acted games, but this would become the benchmark. It started out as a remake of Sweet Home — an odd little psychological horror role playing game for the original Nintendo that was never released outside of Japan. It was published by Capcom and had a lot of things going for it; Disturbing imagery, multiple endings and a story told mostly through notes left around a ghost filled house.
It was followed by a game called Biohazard, better known as Resident Evil in America. Not too much of the original Sweet Home was kept, but the multiple endings and characters with their own special abilities, a story fleshed out through scattered notes, as well as it all taking place inside a mansion were kept.
It also featured voice acting, and even live-action cut scenes! They weren’t pretty.
It did manage to capture the feel of a hilariously bad B-horror movie, yet it scared the hell out of a lot of gamers at the time. The game did some things very well; the notes and journals were well written and built up a horrific back story while adding a palpable sense of dread. This persisted despite classic lines like “You were almost a Jill Sandwich.” that gamers love to quote today.
It’s the same issue that horror has always had. Something about it often seems to swing towards camp. Of all the genres, horror may age the worst. The voice acting has an excuse, and Resident Evil wasn’t the only offender. Resident Evil 2 was better, but only marginally so. There are other games, lots of other games, like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Shenmue, and Sonic adventure, among others, with voice acting that will live on well beyond the games themselves. It’s a long list that still gets added to today. There was even a time when horror games and poor voice acting were thought to go hand-in-hand.
It was a new tech at the time, being made for the most part in Japan, before being translated to English without too much money for localization. Still, it’s that sort of thing that many horror games want to get away from, while others embrace.
A fact not known by many is Resident Evil, unlike many poorly voice acted games from Japan actually used the English voice acting instead of Japanese voice acting in the Japanese release. This decision was made out of a desire to use the English voices to create a sense of immersion as the story takes place in the US.
What’s even more surprising, and even a little disturbing, is the original Japanese voice acting was dropped — at least according to ‘The True Story Behind Biohazard featurette’ that came with the Sega Saturn version of the game — because it was “really bad.” That’s right, the Japanese voice acting was worse than the English voice acting. I don’t speak Japanese so I can’t grade its quality, but the original cut is even stranger than what they ended up with.
The reason this is important to talk about with horror games is that this genre is all about atmosphere. You can’t scare someone who is laughing at how lame you sound. The importance of voice acting to establish mood is hard to understate.
Eternal Darkness is a great example of this, because each section of the game is started by the main character reading from a book that’s narrated by her dead grandfather, which then transitions into the voice of the character you’ll be playing for that chapter. Its a beautiful progression that helps the player slide from the world we know into a Lovecraftian hodgepodge.
Deadly Premonition is another example, found on the other side of the spectrum. Fans will tell you it has a great story, others will say it’s a train wreck, and some will say its so bad it’s good. The poor voice acting is only one of the many parts that don’t come together quite like they should, but to me it’s almost impossible to get past. I can forgive a lot for mood, but people that sound like that? No, no I can not.
Good tension in a horror game is also knowing when not to use voice acting. When the ripped up note stained in blood is going to be more effective at exposition than having a character actually talk to the player. It’s the kind of immersion that only games can provide.
Will bad voice acting in horror games ever stop? Probably not. Resident Evil 6 has more then a few awful lines in it and Heavy Rain, though not necessarily a horror game, is full of French people trying, and often failing, to sound American. Also, go ahead and play a few random relatively unknown indie games and you’ll find someone who had no money and had to use their friends. As long as we live in a world with language barriers, accent barriers, and money barriers, we’ll still run into poor voice acting.
Still, the nature of it is amusing, and a lot of these games seem to live on thanks as much to the bad voice acting as anything else. There’s something special about it, maybe it’s best to never lose that sense of terrific terribleness.