In The Know: Voice Over in Flash Gordon, Star Wars, The Big Lebowski & Alan Wake

“Marooned on the planet of Mongo after they had deflected it with their rocket ship from its course towards the earth, Flash Gordon and Dale Arden fall into the clutches of Ming, The Merciless, Ruler of Mongo…..Ming’s attempt to force Dale to marry him is frustrated by Flash and Prince Thun of Lion Men..Flash and Dale are captured by shark men and brought to their undersea city..Thun is left unconscious on the bank of the river..Kala, king of shark men, orders Dale returned to Ming..Flash is thrown in to a torture chamber..the wall opens, a yellow hand gives Flash a diving helmet and directions to Dale’s room..on arriving at the room flash finds the window torn out and Dale missing! LET’S RETURN TO THUN, THE LION MAN…”

So begins strip #13 of the original 1936 Flash Gordon Sunday story line. If you were an avid follower of the strip this intro would act as a handy reminder of what went on last time. If this was the first time you’d met Flash, or you’d missed out on a few strips, this would help get you up to speed and allow you to dive in to the story with the minimum of fuss. It’s crass and unsophisticated, but space is at a premium and, heck, using text is just so darn easy. It works. It does it’s job – no more, no less.

It’s cute, then, that a couple of years later when they started making serialised film stories about Flash’s adventures that they used precisely the same method to solve the same problem (N.B. this clip is from the 1940 serial Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe):

It’s worth noting that, just like the first comic strip in a series, the first film in a series had no use for such recapitulations, there being nothing to recap – where the first comic strip relied on text and pictures to set up whatever it was Gordon must spend the rest of the series saving mankind from, the first film episode used voice over and moving image to convey the peril. The fact that the first episode used VO * and subsequent episodes used text to set the scene, when they could quite easily have used a VO-led “previously on Flash Gordon”-style reminder montage, only serves to highlight the fact that they were well aware of the film’s heritage and chose to give a knowing nod and a wink to fans of the comic strip. But such trivialities didn’t put off one of Flash Gordon’s biggest fans when he came to emulate it some 40 years later with the release of his very own serialised space opera:

The opening crawl to Star Wars is pure cheese – it immediately let’s you know that the film isn’t going to take itself seriously. It says “we could have wasted time doing this properly, but this is just a popcorn flick and we wont pretend otherwise – here’s what’s been going on in this galaxy up to this point. Got it? Good. Right, here we go”. As a method or device for communicating information it is indisputably unsophisticated; the lowest common denominator. But by referencing cheap-ass film serials from the late 30s and their low budget laziness, it buys our acceptance by being knowingly lazy. That doesn’t apply so much these day of course, but in the mid-1970s just before A New Hope‘s release the Flash Gordon film serials had been shown on PBS stations across the USA making them a relevant cultural reference point for much of the film’s younger audience as well as grown-ups familiar with the broadcasts and screenings from their own youth. You don’t even have to get the reference to appreciate what it’s trying to do – the writing is so pulpy and the technique so lazy, it’s quite clear what’s in store. Or so you think – one could argue that this introduction was designed to set the bar so shockingly low that it made the following spectacle of cutting edge special effects have even more impact. But the real point I’m trying to make [stay on target] is that something is missing…

When George Lucas watched the 1930s and 40s Flash Gordon serials as a boy, he did so on TV in the 1950s. Not only were these TV versions renamed to avoid confusion with a newfangled 1954/55 Flash Gordon made-for-TV series, but they’d been messed around with. Crucially, voice over had been added to the opening crawl + (oh, didn’t anyone tell you? Yeah, people who watch TV are stupid and can’t read. Also, TVs used to be really small, kids!):

So, Lucas intended for the opening of his film (indeed, the whole film itself) to be nostalgically naive but he had enough sense (or enough people with sense working with him) not to piss away whatever semblance of class it may have had with its cutting edge visuals by slapping a narrator’s voice over the top. I had the opportunity recently to ask the film’s producer, Gary Kurtz, if VO was ever on the cards for the opening crawl – “no, that was never a consideration”. And thank goodness for that!

You don’t see much “lazy text” in movies these days (I’m not sure location introductions or time settings count: “France, 1945”), film having shed this hang-over from the silent era long ago in favour of more sophisticated ways of communicating information. The closest you’ll get is probably the lazy use of a voice over to introduce a character. One great, knowing, example of this is the intro to the Coen Brother’s The Big Lebowski (1998). It’s probably best if you watch this for yourself – if you haven’t, you really ought to. In lieu of a YouTube clip here’s a transcript:

“Way out west there was this fella… fella I wanna tell ya about… fella by the name of Jeff Lebowski. At least that was the handle his loving parents gave him, but he never had much use for it himself. Mr. Lebowski, he called himself “The Dude”. Now, “Dude” – that’s a name no one would self-apply where I come from. But then there was a lot about the Dude that didn’t make a whole lot of sense. And a lot about where he lived, likewise. But then again, maybe that’s why I found the place so darned interestin’.

They call Los Angeles the “City Of Angels.” I didn’t find it to be that, exactly. But I’ll allow there are some nice folks there. ‘Course I can’t say I’ve seen London, and I ain’t never been to France. And I ain’t never seen no queen in her damned undies, so the feller says. But I’ll tell you what – after seeing Los Angeles, and this here story I’m about to unfold, well, I guess I seen somethin’ every bit as stupefyin’ as you’d see in any of them other places. And in English, too. So I can die with a smile on my face, without feelin’ like the good Lord gypped me.

Now this here story I’m about to unfold took place back in the early ’90s, just about the time of our conflict with Sad’m and the I-raqis. I only mention it because sometimes there’s a man – I won’t say a hero, ’cause, what’s a hero? – but sometimes, there’s a man – and I’m talkin’ about the Dude here – sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that’s the Dude, in Los Angeles. And even if he’s a lazy man – and the Dude was most certainly that, quite possibly the laziest in Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the runnin’ for laziest worldwide – but sometimes there’s a man… sometimes, there’s a man… Aw. I lost my train of thought here. But… aw, hell. I’ve done introduced him enough.”

Narration is a clichéd, hackneyed and lazy technique. But this sequence is aware of this, and it invites us to share in the gag; it’s incredibly clumsy, the narrator explains what he is doing even though it is self-evident, repeats himself, goes off on tangents, stumbles and rambles on for so long that he forgets what he’s talking about. It’s beautifully realised and terribly witty.

And then there’s the intro to Alan Wake:

It’s as narratively lazy as the Star Wars opening crawl, but without any of the pop culture references. And it’s as ridiculous as the opening narration to The Big Lebowski but without any of the knowing intent. The opening words leading up to the logo reveal are good – the quote from Stephen King is genuinely thought provoking – but their lackluster performance and inconsiderate editing, which has removed whatever pacing may have been in the original performance, present them as if they are the “small print” at the end of a financial services ad, that is to say with no attempt to make sure that you’ve had enough time to let any of them sink in. No pauses between sentences whatsoever. Kinda like this:

“stephenkingoncewrotethatnightmaresexistoutsideoflogicandtheres
littlefuntobehadinexplanationstheyreantitheticaltothepoetryoffe
arinahorrorstorythevictimkeepsaskingwhybuttherecanbenoexplanati
onandthereshouldntbeonetheunansweredmysteryiswhatstayswithusthe
longestanditswhatwellrememberintheendmynameisalanwakeimawriter.”

The intro to Alan Wake continues. Not content with simply telling you all about a nightmare he’s had, we get to see Alan’s nightmare in action. The problem with this is that by telling us what happened Alan strips the visuals of any meaningful purpose they may have had, primarily because there is little to no interplay between what is said and what is seen. Conversely, when we are shown the mysterious disappearance of the dead body of a hitch-hiker Alan has hit with his car, his tardy comment on this event several seconds later, “Suddenly, his body was gone”, comes too late, has zero value and feels incredibly awkward. This duplication of information doesn’t make the experience twice as strong, it makes it the square root of what it could have been. It’s a bit like being told several versions of the same story at the same time by multiple storytellers – you can still understand what’s going on but it fails to present the story as strongly as a well-honed, practiced yarn from someone with the gift of the gab. It could so easily have been made more coherent:

“Suddenly…” [cut to missing body] “…his body was gone”.

We then get to work our way through the rest of the dream as gameplay. There’s a constant running commentary from Alan who continues to describe his dream as we relive it with him. This is an interesting concept, but the VO is clunky and annoying, frequently ruining the experience. Whenever Alan helpfully chimes in with a comment it’s always a prime example of information-heavy game dialogue. Any intrigue or inferred information that has been built up gets thoroughly neutered:

Hitch-Hiker:
“You don’t even recognise me, do you, writer?”
“Think you’re God? You think you can just make up stuff? Play with people’s lives and kill them when you think it adds to the drama?”
“You’re in this story now, and I’ll make you suffer!”
“You’re a joke. There wouldn’t be a single readable sentence in your books if it wasn’t for your editor.”
“You’ll never publish another one of your shitty stories, ‘cause I’m gonna kill you!”
“It’s not like your stories are any good, not like they have any artistic merit. You’re a lousy writer! Cheap thrills and pretentious shit, that’s all you’re good for – just look at me! Look at your work!”

Alan:
“I realised that the hitch-hiker was a character from the story I’d been working on”.

Thanks for your invaluable insight, Alan. The thing is, I agree with everything the hitch-hiker is saying. Alan Wake is an incompetent storyteller, and here is one of his creations quite rightly having a go at him. But before I hail Remedy as my new heroes, knowingly using bad game dialogue for comic effect, we need to take in to account the fact that it’s highly unlikely anybody heard what the hitch-hiker had to say. Despite the fact I’ve quoted him word for word, I’ve got to be totally honest; I’m really not that perceptive. The first time I played through the beginning of the intro level I wasn’t listening to what the hitch-hiker was shouting at me:

a) because he was trying to chop me in half with an axe

b) because he was trying to chop me in half with an axe

c) because I was focused on playing the game and controlling Mr. Wake, and was therefore too busy flailing and button-mashing in an attempt to get away from this axe-wielding psycho who was trying to chop me in half

d) because game dialogue is so endemically, habitually toilet that I have been trained to completely ignore it in a self-preserving attempt to have a good experience. This Pavlovian conditioning, which I strongly believe all experienced gamers suffer from (and this therefore includes most game developers), is part of the reason why we totally suck at this stuff – we don’t listen. Especially when someone is trying to chop you in half with an axe.

It doesn’t matter if Remedy knowingly filled their game with worst-in-class VO, dialogue and poor storytelling, wrapping it up with the oh-so-hilarious excuse that the person telling the story is a poor storyteller – they didn’t let the audience in on the gag. But I fail to see how this could have been a good entertainment experience even if they had. I’m not even convinced that this was actually their intention, it’s far more likely that they’re making the same mistakes and are just as clueless about this story in games lark as the rest of us. Which is such a shame – there are aspects of the sound in the game which are absolutely world class.

What I do know for sure is that Alan Wake is not the game that will teach you to listen to game dialogue again.

The search [dramatic pause] continues…

Footnotes

* Voice Over (short for “Voice Over Picture”, often abbreviated to “VO”) and dialogue are not the same thing. You’d think this was fairly obvious what with them being two distinct terms, VO being a particularly transparent one, and yet many folks working in game development use the terms interchangeably. Can you imagine anyone of any responsibility on a film calling their dialogue VO? They’d really have to care so little about what they were making to have such a nonchalant attitude. But that’s the thing – voice tends to matter in film, it’s merely a cheap trick in games.

+ I made this discovery as a result of hunting for Flash Gordon clips on YouTube and noticing that they were radically different to the DVD versions I’d received as my “Secret Santa” at last years Media Molecule Christmas party. After a bit of research it turns out that both versions have proliferated after the original film versions became public domain.

4 thoughts on “In The Know: Voice Over in Flash Gordon, Star Wars, The Big Lebowski & Alan Wake

  1. "because game dialogue is so endemically, habitually toilet that I have been trained to completely ignore it in a self-preserving attempt to have a good experience. This Pavlovian conditioning…"

    Actually, it's operant conditioning.

    Other than this nitpick, I think this is a very worthwhile post. I personally have made the VO/dialog mistake; will try to stop now.

    You've managed to thoroughly savage Alan Wake without even making reference to its combat mechanics or repetitive encounter structure. And the idea had so much promise.

  2. Pingback: Character Introductions in Destiny and The Swapper | GameSound.org

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