Monday, August 8, 2011

Mucking with Masterpieces

It may be old news now, but Konami's recasting of voice talent in the Silent Hill HD Collection (which I alluded to in my Portal 2 review) has me more outraged than I've probably ever been when it comes to video games.

What's funny is that the voice acting in Silent Hill 2 and 3 is often (legitimately) considered amateurish, and for some it's an ugly seam in an otherwise well-woven pair of horror stories. Adding more professional voice work to an HD remaster makes just as much sense as bumping up the resolution. For some people. For me, however, this is not a matter of technical fidelity. It's not a new coat of paint. It's taking a hammer to Michelangelo's David and having enough warped assurance to claim that lopping off his genitals makes the work more palatable. Rape and destruction of this caliber is beyond even the powers of the infamous Pyramid Head. Congratulations, Konami. You've out-evil'd your own monster.

Perhaps I should explain why, without the aid of nostalgia, Silent Hill 2's awkward performances have established themselves as my favorite in any video game. Of course it helps that they're backed by a ludicrously great script, but the actors who breathe life into those words deserve to have their art investigated and celebrated. Let's begin with Monica Horgan's reading of Mary's posthumous letter to James, the motivation for his wandering through the foggy and memory-tortured streets of Silent Hill:
"In my restless dreams, I see that town: Silent Hill. You promised you'd take me there again someday... but you never did. Well, I'm alone there now, in our special place, waiting for you..."
The word "promised" jumps ironically on a guilt-inducing hiccup of wistful half-laughter, and the ellipses that trail "someday" conjure an image of Mary smiling into space, reminiscing. Which makes the latter half of the sentence, with its squinting, sighing sadness, ambiguous as to whether it's forgiving or condemning, all the more acheful. The next sentence's kick-off "well" has Horgan exhaling right into the microphone, providing an as yet unrivaled sensation of intimacy. Her pronunciation of "special place" uses a strong "s" sound to heighten its seductive mystery, and her lifted-eyebrows whisper of "waiting for you" creates in James and the player a simultaneous feeling of hopeful arousal and stomach-churning apprehension. Such is the emotional nuance of this game's voice work.

Of course, the real star of Silent Hill 2 (save Pyramid Head) is its mild-mannered sad sack of a protagonist, James Sunderland, voiced with charm and pathos by the irreplaceable Guy Cihi. His delivery is often understated, sedate, somewhat absent, with deflated vowels and ringing consonants, a slight rumbling in the throat, clearly audible mouth movements, and a whistling quality that accentuate's the character's meekness and confusion. This makes James' more passionate outbursts all the more authentic and bloody, such as his desperate cry of "Leave her alone! Leave us both the hell alone!" which could have dipped into bathos were it not for his previous restraint. Cihi becomes James, taking on all his insecurity, pain, dorkiness, and spiritual destitution, and the result is a truly unique performance.

While Cihi may shine brightest, the whole production features stellar, thoughtful casting. For example, Angela Orosco, a 19-year-old girl, was played by Donna Burke, a middle-aged woman; the choice reflects the unnatural aging Angela suffered due to her father's abuse. Her manner is highly confused and disconcerting, bouncing between depression, fear, anger, and apology, all the while disposed towards a disgusting fatalism and self-blame. She also gets to deliver my all-time favorite video game quote: "You see it too? For me, it's always like this." For her ultimate line, Burke puts aside the strange pronunciations and not-quite-right pauses, announcing her character's tragic condition with chilling sobriety and resigned conviction. It's a fucking gut-punch.

As enigmatic temptress Maria, Monica Horgan asks sexually charged questions no game in the last decade has had the balls to echo. She puts James in the uncomfortable position of being her alpha male knight, yelling at him to protect her, teasing him about his lack of strength (that ring in the refrigerator scene has to be one of the most sly and mature in the medium), and almost explicitly requesting his sexual attention. Horgan not only had to manage Maria's balancing act of sympathy, sex, fear, promise, and manipulative evil, but she also had to play Mary, James' deceased wife. Her attacks are cringe-worthy, her resentment is palpable, and finally, in a brave reading of Mary's last letter, her loving forgiveness is at once divine and unbearably human.

This is what acting is. It's giving oneself up to the emotions requested by the fiction; to be good at it, one must have true courage and be willing to follow his inhabited ego into unpleasant depths. This is what Silent Hill 2 is. It shows us our darkness, and, as a video game, allows us to share in the performance, to artificially exercise the demons of a sad, lost man. Playing Silent Hill 2 requires bravery; it's a pretty harrowing experience. Its (to quote Nich Maragos) "expertly crafted abyss" is in large part a product of the actors who animate it. To replace them and still call the thing Silent Hill 2 is dishonest and cruel. I won't go into why it's happening or what Guy Cihi has to say about it here (needless to say, it's a case of the producer fucking the artist over), but I don't like it. 

The same goes for Silent Hill 3 of course; I thought Heather Morris' turn as Heather Mason was very authentic and emotionally naked. Apparently Konami is redoing the voices for the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection as well. Which is just madness, as nobody ever even asked for better voice acting from those games; and what's worse is that the VO from Sons of Liberty is actually nostalgic for me. All in all, fuck you, Konami. Here I was, excited to play some of my favorite PS2 games in bumpin' HD, and you had to piss all over the whole affair. As Mr. Sunderland might say, "Leave us both the hell alone!"


  1. i could not agree with you more. I know that they are changing the actors for monetary reasons, but they have ripped out the soul of one my favorites. good thing i have number 2 and 3 for ps2.

  2. Thank you!
    You're insights and thoughtful prose do fair justice to the vision, poise and sincerity of Team Silent and the original cast.
    All the best,
    Guy Cihi

  3. You are a wonderful writer yourself and your insights into the script I wrote are deep and moving. I read this piece with great delight and gratitude that a game that I had the honor to work on had such a powerful impact. Thank you.


    Jeremy Blaustein

  4. Holy crap! Thank you Mr. Cihi and Mr. Blaustein. As should be obvious, I admire the work both of you have done very much. To Mr. Blaustein: this piece focused on the voice acting, so I barely scratched the surface of the script's genius. You've also worked on games like Metal Gear Solid which is another all-time favorite, and I'd like to commend you for your memorable translations. It's a real honor to receive any kind of feedback from both of you.