The House of the Dead 2 is fondly remembered for many reasons: Its incredible gameplay, its abundance of enjoyably gruesome enemies, its complex route system bursting with secrets… and its cheesy dialogue, spoken cheesily by cheesy characters. Today I am going to defend that giant block of gaming Cheddar, and I’m not going to fall back on the phrase “It’s so bad it’s good” either, because the fact is it’s just good – not bad-good, ironic-good, or Kimimi-I-think-you-need-a-lie-down-good – just regular old good: “satisfactory in quality, quantity, or degree”. The House of the Dead 2’s script understood its role, accepted it, and then executed it perfectly, and it deserves to be praised for its efforts.
Context is key here. Beautiful prose and amusing witticisms are of little use in the environment The House of the Dead 2 was designed for, which being realistic involves being squeezed in between a Time Crisis and a Dynamite Deka 2 cab with some noisy coin-pushing game blooping away in the background. It had to catch someone’s eye in a room already filled with eye-catching games and then hold their attention: a monumental task in an arcade, an entertainment medium that by design allows players to literally walk away whenever they wish. Under these conditions a script has at best seconds to make itself understood and maybe, if the writer is very lucky, sneak a little characterisation in there too. Every single word had to count.
That alone would be challenging enough at the best of times but The House of the Dead 2 had another major hurdle for its uncredited writer(s) to overcome: The dialogue had to work if someone was playing alone as either James (player one) or Gary (player two), if two people were playing together, and it also had to hold together even if one person – either of them – dropped out (or joined in) at any point along the way too. Imagine having to write a conversation and not being able to guarantee who was in it?
Let’s analyse the opening stage’s script so we can see this streamlined genius at work:
[One quick note: Screenshots were captured from the old UK PC release, as that was the easiest one for me to grab English subtitles from. Please excuse any minor graphical glitches.]
James/Gary: “We’re meeting G over there.”
The first line in the game is one of many (but not all) that’s written the same for both James and Gary, although both voice actors have their own separately recorded take on it. Regardless of whether the vagueness of “over there” was a conscious choice, or a handy broadness that future-proofed the sentence against any redesigns the artists could come up with, this short snippet explains still what we’re doing and who we’re looking for.
Zeal: “I’ve already taken care of G. This is only the beginning. You’re next.”
There’s a heck of a lot packed in here. This guy – a winged monster capable of human speech – is dangerous enough to incapacitate this G you’re looking for (remember – there’s no guarantee anyone playing has seen the explanatory attract sequence), has further trouble planned, and sees you as someone they’re personally interested in taking down. The game hasn’t even begun and already our plan has gone awry and someone’s got a personal vendetta against us. As an added bonus anyone who played the original The House of the Dead would be deeply concerned by Zeal’s behaviour, as the only other bioweapon capable of human speech on this sort of level was The Magician – the first game’s last boss.
Zeal: “Get him!” [Solo]
Zeal: “Get them!” [Co-op]
James: “Let’s go Gary!” [Co-op]
Now this is clever: “Get him!” works equally well for either character which saves everyone involved a bit of work but “Get them!” (which seems to reuse the exact same sound file as “Get him!“), followed by James’ “Let’s go Gary!” in co-op is the first instance of this shooty arcade game from 1998 making subtle changes to the script based entirely on whether or not both characters are present. It’s almost impressive enough to make you miss the fact that both of these miniscule sentences make clear this flappy fellow has either the authority or the power to control lesser monsters in some way – something of a worry seeing as the streets are littered with the undead.
James: “Please be safe G!” [1P/Co-op]
Gary: “No, not G…” [2P]
I should mention here that in a co-op game, James’ dialogue always takes charge – he’s officially the older, wiser, leader of this little group – and Gary’s is generally only heard when playing as the second player alone. I know this sounds like something of a rare scenario but this is where context rears its head again: As an arcade title where most goes last single-digit minutes it’s actually highly likely either player may be left alone at a moment’s notice and need their own dialogue, so creating a script for the second character (and The House of the Dead as a series goes to surprising lengths to have characters) isn’t as “wasteful” as it may first appear.
Either way, we now know a little bit more about G, James, and Gary. This G (the repeated use of his name rather than a more natural “I hope he’s OK!“, not only making the subject clear in the absence of all body language and facial expressions but also ensuring we definitely know the character’s name before we finally meet them) is someone both characters care for, and neither of our gun-toting AMS agents are too cool to refrain from openly expressing concern for someone else.
James: “How could anyone do this?” [1P/Co-op]
Gary: “How could this happen?” [2P]
These minor variations on the same sentiment reinforce the idea that current events are unusual even for trained AMS agents, and both of our heroes have enough warmth and humanity to them to find this situation shocking. Also – there’s a corpse on the floor. Although this is honestly more of an action game than anything else The House of the Dead 2 never forgets its horror roots, and that includes the importance of communicating the human consequences of the ongoing carnage through scenes like this (as well as the more obvious NPC-in-peril segments).
Let’s have a quick recap: We’re only about eight sentences in and yet we already know we’re supposed to meet up with G, G has been injured by an unknown monster capable of ordering others around, the situation is shocking even to trained professionals, and the two leads are good-natured people who care for others. That’s pretty impressive for a light gun game, don’t you think?
G: “James/Gary… I tried… Don’t underestimate the enemy. James/Gary take this.”
After a few zombies, we finally meet the currently wounded and perpetually mysterious G. His lines open with the player character’s name (or James’ name in co-op) and he speaks directly to them again shortly afterwards – the characters here matter in a way they didn’t in Virtua Cop (as incredible as those games are). More importantly than that he gives us a warning and some help – and if G’s concerned…
G: “Harry and Amy are coming to back us up. Hurry, GO!”
James/Gary: “Thanks G.”
G then gives us a fresh piece of information: We’re going to meet up with (and hopefully get help from) two other friendly faces soon. G himself is brave enough to urge us to continue on without him even though he’s clearly injured and extremely vulnerable, seeing as the undead have by now crashed through both sets of library doors. The lack of hesitance in both agent’s reactions indicates that James and Gary know him – or at least his reputation – well enough to believe that even in this state he’s going to be OK without us.
This Guy: “I don’t wanna die.”
James/Gary: “My God.”
Everyone remembers this guy, don’t they? Look at his sad little face. But even this charmingly hammy scene serves a purpose: The small amount of relief you felt after seeing G alive and learning that back up was on the way has been hastily pulled away by an axe-wielding zombie (they’re called “Johnny”, if you were wondering) and a frightened man’s last moments. Like the corpse you saw a minute or so ago under a desk in the library this is another example of The House of the Dead 2 honouring its influences: The city is in chaos and you can’t save everyone – not even if they were alive a few seconds earlier.
James/Gary: “G’s bloodstains.”
This moment is important enough for the game to set aside a little time for it regardless of who you’re playing as or whether you took the route straight through the gate and passed the fountain with the zom-frogs or optionally saved both NPCs and went out through the side door on the left. Why? Because the thick splodges of blood show that G must be one heck of an agent if he managed to drag himself a few streets away and still insist he’s going to be OK on his own after taking that kind of damage, which in turn reminds you that Zeal – whereabouts currently unknown – must be a serious threat if they could gravely wound someone as tough as he obviously is.
Zeal: “Seems like my advice had no effect. Suffer, like G did.”
He said it! He said the thing! The delivery of these two short sentences can only be described as perfect. Little Zeal clearly revels in the panic and misery they’ve created, and their cocky tone suggests they did not consider making G suffer an especially difficult task – and a large part of why that line lands as memorably as it does is because the rest of the stage so carefully emphasised the significance and strength of the character in question.
Zeal: “Sir Go-l-d…”
Oh that’s a big deal. All that power, and you’ve only beaten a lackey – a lackey incapable of giving you any answers, seeing as that was their death cry.
James/Gary: “Amy! Harry!”
Amy: “Thank God you’re all right!”
As the stage concludes we finally meet up with Amy and Harry, characters we’ve been expecting and already know are our backup thanks to G’s earlier line.
James/Gary: “What the hell’s going on in this city?”
Harry: “Don’t know… but it’s very similar to the 1998 Curien case.”
James/Gary: “That case?!”
Harry: “James/Gary, go and prevent the confusion in the city.”
Harry: “Let’s meet at Sunset Bridge.”
Harry: “We’re counting on you James.” [1P/Co-op]
Amy: “We’re counting on you Gary.” [2P]
James: “No more fooling around.” [1P/Co-op]
Gary: “Leave it to me.” [2P]
This is the longest cutscene by far, although taking a break for a post-boss chat does give aching trigger fingers a brief rest and also loads us up with enough information to allow the second stage, “Muddy”, to kick off with a car covered in zombies and then smoothly carry on at that same arcade-friendly tempo. In the astonishing nine lines we’ve got here we are treated to a little link back to the original game – enough of a name drop for fans (and intro viewers) to recognise, light enough for everyone else to ignore – and a new location to aim for, its vagueness implying that everyone speaking is already familiar with “the city” enough for us players to not have to worry about remembering the details. You’ll notice that Amy and Harry do something here that pops up again in the third stage, “Darkness”: Harry speaks their closing line to James, while Amy talks to Gary if he’s alone. The end result is the same, but it’s another point of personalisation without delaying your return to the action. Both James’ and Gary’s final lines (it’s worth mentioning that James’ is broad enough to account for Gary’s presence or absence) are spoken with confidence – they’ve got this.
I could go on (Goldman’s consistent use of “friends” implies he doesn’t consider the AMS a serious threat, for example), but I think I’ve made my point. The House of the Dead 2’s dialogue may not sound natural or go into any great detail but the script wasn’t supposed to sound like it came from your new favourite zombie TV show, it was supposed to be was entertaining, informative, and easily understood in the context it was going to be heard in.
If that’s not good writing, then what is?