Global Gamers, Global Developers: #TorrentialDownpour and Improving Localizations
There has been a certain amount of controversy online about the poor localization of the NA release for Fire Emblem Fates from Nintendo. The EU release of Bravely Second helped stir the pot farther, more from removal of sub-plot outcomes from the game, as well as items cut from the collector’s art book and edited outfits, than of the localization of dialog. While it’s easy rail against the bad examples, one thing I feel is important is to focus on ways to improve the situation.
Let’s lay a fact bare: nobody wants direct translations when bring games overseas. The fans don’t, and localizers themselves don’t. So people can find common ground in that localization is needed in most cases to some degree if you are going to bring a title to a different region. The questions being how much is required to preserve intent and how much are you respecting the original property?
“Personally, I don’t see the point in extremely literal translations, because the second it goes from Japanese to English, it’s already different. Sorry, you changed it. If you chose to translate はい as Yes/Yeah/Okay/Right/Uh-huh or something else entirely based on context, you’ve made a localization choice. There’s just little point in doing a machine translation with no intent, because it’s actually easier to lose intent that way. I know this from so…sooooo much experience…” – Hatsuu (XSEED Games)
Before getting into the meat of why I am here with you today, let’s get another thing clear. Criticism of a title does not mean one is disregarding it. To the contrary, people who are passionate about something and want to support a product or franchise are those who will normally argue the most about it. Speaking from my experience, I am more likely to ignore something I abjectly dislike, but will critique something that I like (or want to like), but think can be made better, for an hour straight.
The want to point this out comes from observing interactions between overseas fans of Japanese games upset about Fire Emblem Fates and their detractors engaging in discussions online and in the #TorrentialDownpour tag on Twitter. There is this misunderstanding where critics of the fans speaking up say they are calling for mass boycotts, when I have never seen a call for a boycott from this group. The detractors are also taking the sales numbers for the NA release of Fire Emblem Fates and rubbing in the face of a boycott that never existed.
Bottom line is that there is a segment of the consumer base that is raising concern about the quality of a product, and that manifests itself in criticism. This does not mean that this segment doesn’t want this product. Just cursory interaction with people interacting with the #TorrentialDownpour tag shows that people just want to point out what they see as poor choices, and let the developers on both the localization side and the Japanese side know that they feel their product is having a disservice done to it.
With that said, the localization scene is not entirely mired. When asked, fans were eager to offer up good examples, localization compromises that made sense, and companies that do it right in their eyes. People were also surprisingly on the same page when offering their views, and there were a few things I heard more than a handful of times.
Based on these interactions, I wanted to offer what came up most when fans described what they would like to see more of in the future.
Time and time again the topic of transparency was touched on in talks the most. On a surface level, this is a great thing for consumers, as they can make purchase decisions based on their ability to be informed of the path a product will take before it’s released. No one wants to be surprised by a poor quality game on launch in any scenario.
Below the surface, being open and detailed about your localization philosophy can let fans understand why certain choices are made. When drastic changes are chosen, lessening the surprise of it can also lessen the anger made by some decisions. With this, I think there needs to be better answers than “because it’s from Japan” or “because it might make people uncomfortable.”
Being transparent about processes also allows companies to hear a plurality of consumer views instead of making assumptions based off possibly biased media sites and internal gatekeepers. Even more connected companies may even choose to work with the community on bigger localization choices. These are your consumers to love or let leave.
With the internet being ubiquitous to most regions these days, companies are shooting themselves in the foot if they are not using it to interact with their audience. As shown with the gold standard among fans, XSEED Games keeps up a blog that goes into detail about their projects. Combined with their social media presence, their consumers seem to feel connected and valued.
This should be marketing 101, but I see companies in a variety of sectors miss this valuable opportunity for engagement over and over.
Dedication to Original Intent
I swear I am not paid a dime for mentioning XSEED so often, they just come up on a regular basis when it comes to consumer trust and how open they are with their dedication to providing quality localizations.
When asked about achieving a nuanced localization, XSEED Games localization specialist Tom Lipschultz said,
“We start by asking ourselves, what is the tone of the game? Is it a silly game? A serious game? Somewhere in between? And how is that mood expressed in the Japanese? Is it overt? Subtle?”
This plays into using Fire Emblem Fates as an example. As a disclaimer, I haven’t played a Fire Emblem game since Game Boy Advance. But I still know the tone of the game — being a medieval type setting that brings in inspirations from various mythologies — just doesn’t lend itself to things like calls to random internet references and quotes from cult movies only three people have seen.
Which just left me baffled when I started seeing screenshots like this popping up after release:
This is just one example of a drastically altered tone in a specific localization that some fans are vocally calling out. While choices like this might lend itself more something like a Paper Mario or Pokémon game when it comes to tone, Treehouse seemingly choose to take the localization in a direction that assumed what their “target demographic” was.
A pattern I noticed while researching what I could of localization houses that do well in keeping to the creator’s intent was that localized dialog was brought before the original developers often. XSEED mentions this more than once in interviews about their approach, and folks like David Crislip from Capcom reinforces this approach when talking about working with Kamiya on Okami.
It’s been argued online that creative writing shouldn’t be applied to localizations, but process of altering a script from pure translation into something more organic is itself a creative process. Not to say that a line shouldn’t be drawn. If you find yourself altering the core personality of a character, or sacrificing exposition for meta-jokes, then you should pull a full stop.
I feel fans just want to know that localizers are working with the original intent, and not against it. A quality localization should have players of both versions sharing the same plot beats and experiences while playing.
Quit assuming your audience are idiots that don’t want to learn about other cultures
Contrary to what most online discourse may lead some to look like, most people are not idiots. Most do not mind looking up a reference they may not get. And not everyone wants their games from different regions wrapped in comfortable Americentrism. Speaking purely from the personal, a lot of overtly Japanese games that I play and anime that I watch is enjoyable partly because I get to immerse myself in the sensibilities of a part of the world different from mine. Same to be said for media I consume from any part of the world.
Atlus is known for keeping Japanese references intact if they will better keep with the original intent of the game. Speaking with the site Godisageek.com, Atlus PR Manager John Hardin mentions a couple specific instances in Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth.
God Is A Geek: Many games in Japan make use of a lot of references that won’t be too familiar in the West. A good example is Persona Q’s 4th dungeon, involving strong men carrying an arc seen in festivals.
John Hardin: In the case of Persona Q we added a lot of dialogue that explains some things. This let us be accurate to the true tone of the game and get the meaning across.
God Is A Geek: Some words remain unchanged, like Takoyaki in Persona Q. I had no idea what it was when I played the game until I looked it up.
John Hardin: It’s a matter of taste. We try and stay close to the origins. You probably have seen the comic strip featuring Phoenix Wright. The changes get more and more pronounced. There’s a frame showing him wearing a kimono and eating sashimi, while the bubble says ‘Eat your hamburger Apollo!’ or something to that extent. We want to avoid that. We don’t change things if we don’t need to. You can see Takoyaki in the visuals so we didn’t want to make it so that Junpei would ask Rei about a hamburger instead of Takoyaki.
This brings to mind an argument that detractors to people who are questioning the quality of some localizations bring up. To paraphrase Jeff Gerstmann, “Localizations have had issues for decades, so quit whining and learn Japanese.”
Games and other Japanese content have been altered in translation for decades. If that’s a real problem for you, sidestep it! Right?
— Jeff Gerstmann (@jeffgerstmann) February 26, 2016
Back in my day, if someone was pissed off about a game translation, they learned Japanese and started importing instead of whining forever.
— Jeff Gerstmann (@jeffgerstmann) February 26, 2016
Now this is starting to starting to get a bit divisive in tone, let’s roll back to what people are on the same page on. It’s not localization as a process that is bad, and everyone from fans to the translators agree. It’s a matter of how close to tone and intent one wishes to keep, and — ultimately — what you think of your audience when you release a localization for them.
Telling people to shut up and just learn the original language for the content they would like to consume, and that companies would like to release overseas, is just a cop-out and an anti-consumer response. Especially when not every device is unlocked region-wise just yet. Not to mention that learning the base language of all the media some consume would require people learn multiple languages. The issue of localizations and translation of media for a global market is not restricted to just Japanese to Western transitions. Most people do not have the time to learn another language just to enjoy some movies or a video game, and if a product is being localized for your region then you should not be expected to learn another language just to enjoy it.
We are in a global market, with global consumers wanting to buy products that companies want to release globally. It is not over the line for consumers to voice out in support of quality and care when these regional transitions are made.
Options, Options, Options
People love options. While not all projects will lend themselves to offering things like dual language options and cut scene subtitles, either due to budget or other constraints, but where possible choice should be embraced. Developers do not have the space restraints that they did in the past, so keeping the Japanese audio for text heavy games shouldn’t be much of an issue in that respect.
Fighting games have been ahead of the curve in this regard. It’s hard for me to think of a recent fighting game that doesn’t offer dual audio, and it’s something I alway enjoy having. There have been instances where having the Japanese audio over the English text localization was a better experience, like when I found the wonderful world of Undub patches (patches that changed the English VO with the Japanese VO, and subtitled FMVs when needed) for Playstation 2 games. Playing Final Fantasy 10 undubbed was a much more enjoyable experience than playing the vanilla NA version. Having an option like this built into localized games as a standard would be a fantastic step.
Crowdfunding games is not something new, but there has not been as much of a push to crowdfund specific development costs like localization. Reaching out to fans passionate about a product for funding on localizations seems like a no-brainer to me, as it opens up a product to a larger audience beyond just those funding the localization. While hard data on localization costs are sparse, just by using logic we can assume that they are a fraction of the costs of developing a game itself. Handing off the costs of localization to the folks who will then evangelize your product just sounds like smart business.
Localization costs can be further reduced by crowdsourcing certain tasks. Think of a specialized Amazon Turks, built for global localizations. Never underestimate the passion of fans, or those looking to build skills in their chosen field. Being able to outsource things like QA, line translations, insertion, etc, to people who will work for pennies on the dollar (or even free just for the joy of working on a passion project or to get their name in the credits). Now, you don’t want to outsource the whole of the localization process, but I think utilizing the power of the people using a platform built specifically for localizing video games for world consumption could be a powerful tool for editing teams working on video game localizations.
While I may not have hard experience in creating video games myself, or working for a larger company that does, there are certain practices that seem like common sense. I don’t feel these suggestions are unreasonable to offer. In fact, everything mentioned here today is a practice that is already in use, or is being considered, by at least one organization.
At the end of the day, consumers just want to be reassured that their purchase is going to be one that represents the best quality possible, and that the original source is not being disrespected in its transition for a different audience. We don’t think that is too much to ask.
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