Friday, December 2, 2011

Interview - Localization of Demon’s Souls

Creating games for current generation hardware still continues to be a risky proposition for many small to mid-size developers due to cost and the potential repercussions of putting out a product that fails to reach its perceived target market. A flourishing genre on the PlayStation 2, the selection of RPGs developed in Japan for current hardware is still noticeably thin.

By all accounts, Demon’s Souls should have been a tough sell, which it likely was given the fact that Sony Computer Entertainment elected to pass on publishing the game in the U.S. and Europe (published by Atlus and Bandai Namco respectively), a decision that the company openly admits was not the correct one in hindsight.

The game went on to achieve both critical acclaim and satisfying sales numbers in each region, two things increasingly difficult to attain in unison, eventually reaching well beyond everyone’s expectations. The title continues to be a reference point for a multitude of topics related to video games in the spheres of both design and market potential.

In this special interview AGM sat down with James Mountain, the primary localizer for the English version of the game, to discuss the process of bringing such a special game to the English speaking world of game players, a game that defied and exceeded expectations all the way down through each and every crevice of game industry, media and player communities.

AGM - Demon’s Souls was developed in Japan and incorporates what many would consider a number of “traditional” design principles well established in the region, however the game contained a bit more of a “Western” aesthetic, resulting in a rather unique fusion for the end product. Did that shine through somewhere in the content that you were working with?

J. Mountain - With regards to visuals, to be honest I actually didn’t see any screens, video or images of any of the actual game until rather far into the localization process. I basically received a massive collection of files one day which was divided between what I was supposed to translate and what had already been done. My main job then was, naturally, to complete the unfinished part of the translation that I was assigned, but I was also told to take a look at the material that was already complete and to let the client know what I thought about the general quality, both give them feedback on it as well as make changes if I felt they were necessary. As long as I made sure to include an explanation about the changes that I made I was pretty much free to do as I pleased with the material.

So just from the dialogue that I had initially received, pretty much all that I could gauge was that it was something in the vein of your knights, dragons, demons-type action-oriented RPG, and it was obvious by the work done on the translation so far that whoever had worked on it obviously had the Western aesthetic in mind, I mean, it was full of “thees,” “thys” and “thous,” but to be honest it felt as if it was kind of lacking something, so I decided to get in and make a good number of changes to that content as well.

For the translation then, I guess this is kind of obvious, but I basically tried to translate it as faithfully as possible without making it sound like it was translated, trying to make it sound as Western native and natural as possible. That was of course the overall goal, but once I finally saw game in action, videos and whatnot, I ended up going back and making a fair number of changes because based only on the text… I had some image of what something looked like, say a character or an item, but then actually seeing it there were some areas that I felt like I could express better based on what the developers had created visually.

I wouldn’t say that I wasn’t thinking about the feeling of the game, but throughout the whole process I was thinking more about how I felt about the game, my image of the game as opposed to what it was that the developers necessarily intended because, I mean, not having direct contact with the developers, that really felt like the best approach in order to make something honest and cohesive.

AGM - That’s interesting that you didn’t get much media on the game early on given the scale of the game. With regards to other games that you’ve personally worked on, does that seem to be a common trend?

J. Mountain - It completely depends on the project. I mean, sometimes they’ll give me, say, 2,000 to 3,000 characters to translate, a small project, maybe it’s just an instruction manual or one section of a game or something, like the tutorial section, but then together with that assignment I’ll also get a huge collection of files full of screenshots, explanations of the game’s systems, reviews or whatever. The extreme opposite case then would be, I’ll get a game project consisting of 40,000 to 50,000 characters and I’m told, “It’s an action game – go.” I basically get told, you know, this is the name of the game, this is the system it’s for, stick to the terminology. I may not even get a terminology list for the game itself, just for the hardware that it’s on. So those would be the two extremes, I guess.

AGM - Were there any areas of the original Japanese text that you felt were somewhat difficult to carry over in the English translation?

J. Mountain - There was I bit, yeah, the weapons and armor and things like that in particular. A lot of the names and terms were pulled straight from English, but then a lot of them were really ambiguous in the sense that the terminology, based only on the text available, could have been expressed many different ways. For example the Japanese text, let’s say it was a weapon that could have been translated as “short sword.” Well it could also possibly have been translated as “dagger,” “long knife,” “blade,” “scimitar” or whatever, so with only the text it was tough to tell how I best to express those things and I was really forced to take an educated guess, do what I felt sounded best.

There were a lot of parts that, I’m not sure if they did this intentionally or not, maybe they weren’t sure if the player would be using a particular weapon at a specific time or whatever, but because of the way that it was written in Japanese, I felt like I was really forced to take my best guess, submit it to the client, tell them, “This is what I got from this,” and go from there.
The main problems were mainly, not so much “How do I put this into English?” when it came to things like dialogue, but mostly with individual terminology that was supposed to express a certain image, things like weapons and items and such.

AGM - It’s interesting that you mention that because the developers have explained that, although the game’s story and system were conceived as a cohesive unit, Demon’s Souls is primarily a systems game. Did this come through in the game’s text presentation and how did you grapple with that?

J. Mountain - To be honest, and this sounds bad, but I actually haven’t gotten around to playing the game yet, so I can’t speak to how the game plays in relation to the story and what the game is aiming to express with the text so much.

However even when I was just getting into the text it was rather apparent that, as you said, it was a more systems based game as opposed to something more story based because a lot of the things that I was translating weren’t nearly so much for the progression of the story itself as it was for, I guess you could say the progression of the “game,” you know, in order to get you further. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the story didn’t matter, and as I said I haven’t played the game yet, but it seemed like they had something concrete that they really wanted the player to work with.

And it was kind of funny that, usually when I’d turn in translations of items and things like that it seemed as though they’d dig through whatever I turned in with a good deal of care, regularly coming back with questions and whatnot. But when I turned in alterations to the dialogue they regularly just accepted what it was that I gave them. So those parts, the parts based around the progression of the game itself as opposed to the story, dialogue, character development or whatever, that was what I really had to be careful with, regularly confirming things and going over them together with the client.

I think that’s something rather important that unconsciously gets overlooked by players, particularly when it comes to big games like RPGs. The story and characters and the parts of the localization around fleshing out those elements tend to get a lot of attention, since that’s where the player is most consciously aware of the role of the game’s text, but if those details around the core of the game’s system aren’t clear, that’s when you’ve got trouble.
And that was definitely the number one point of interest for the developer, I think, making sure that everything related to the system made sense.

That was probably the part that, I wouldn’t say I had the most trouble with, but had to be the most careful with, when I was translating parts related to the multiplayer aspect of the game. For example there are parts where you can jump into the world of other players and tamper with their experience, and when it comes to something like that it’s really important that every bit of it is really accurate. The intricacies there, a mistranslation of something as simple as a direction or an item’s usage could really create confusion on the user end of the experience. So with this game it really felt like that’s where I had to take the most care and put most of my energy, and the communication that I had with the client seemed to confirm that was the right decision.

AGM - Was there an experience that you’ve had working on another game that you feel prepared you for working on a game like Demon’s Souls? And then on the flipside of that, was there something that you feel you learned from working on Demon’s Souls that you can apply to working on other games in the future?

J. Mountain - It’s kind of unrelated but there was a game that I worked on prior that contained just a ridiculous amount of text, very story-based, and the content really required a full localization. This was a clear case where the term “localization” really rang true, as opposed to a mere “translation” which wouldn’t have done the game justice in any way. Combined with the fact that it wasn’t exactly an ideal setting with regards to general support and communication – it was just an overall good learning experience that really put a lot in perspective for me. Coming off of that project and going and working on Demon’s Souls shortly after, my overall view on all of the demands involved with putting out a quality localization I think really contributed, not just to the project, but to me as a professional.

Actually, although it’s a very different game on the surface, having worked on Demon’s Souls really helped me when I worked on Gran Turismo. It’s a game that isn’t really based on story or linear progression, but very technical. I had to pay a lot of attention to a lot of really fine details, be very specific with all of the technical terminology and provide a clear explanation so that the player would be able to understand the relationship between all of the game’s elements. Making sure that everything was very cohesive in the end was quite a chore, all of the terminology and everything.

AGM - Were there any areas then where you felt that you needed to take some liberties in how you carried out the game’s translation?
J. Mountain - As far as localization goes, the game takes place in a completely made-up, imaginary world. For example if I were translating a game like Grand Theft Auto or something, it’s a game that takes place in contemporary times so I’d have to pay attention to things like which side of the road to drive on, or to the names of actual locations and things like that. But with Demon’s Souls, it was a made-up fantasy world with made-up fantasy characters, so it was primarily a matter of making sure that the player understands what’s going on. My job was to make everything clear and consistent .

I actually had a lot of freedom with the translation itself. Most of the item names and things weren’t already fixed, so I basically just had to make sure that I was consistent. With other areas of the translation, as I said before they were really receptive to me stepping in and making changes where I felt they were needed.

The reason that I felt I needed to step in and make changes in those areas, and this might be something rather pervasive throughout video games, but the original text… it wasn’t bad. I understood it and it served its purpose, but the original writing . . . I guess you could say that, writing in the genre of Western fantasy storytelling was maybe not the original writer’s strength. And I’m no pro myself, but for example, the writer was consistently using old English vocabular commonly found in such stories, but then regularly mixing them with very modern terminology. The non-system related text didn’t need to be rewritten in order to be understood. The game would have probably turned out well even if I had left it as is, assuming the core game itself was enjoyable. But the writing left room for improvement, and even though I’m not profiting off of the sales of the game or anything like that, if I’m going to have my name attached to the project I want to give the game the attention that it deserves and put out a decent product.

AGM - Was there something about this project, Demon’s Souls, which made it somewhat unique from other games that you’ve worked on, maybe forcing you to alter your approach to handling the localization?

J. Mountain - One main difference was that, as opposed to getting a giant block of text at once and being told, “You have until this day to get it all finished up,” I initially got a huge block of files and was told at that time, “Get to work, and we’ll probably be sending you more later on.” So I’d be translating away, I’d turn something in, and then I’d get a couple more files that were, say, 10,000 characters each. Then partway through that I’d get another file or two, and then maybe a month or two later I’d get another file with another 30,000 characters, or something like that. Thinking back on it now, I don’t know if the order in which they sent this content out to me was intentionally organized with some goal in mind, or random, or what.

It was kind of difficult because there were parts that they’d give me with text referring to, say, a specific item. Then 2 or 3 weeks later I’d get a file with a list of items and descriptions, and the item that I had been forced to describe out of context several weeks prior would be described in detail in this new terminology sheet or in a new context, so then I’d have to go back to the developer, explain the situation, make the necessary corrections and retranslate a fair bit of material, something which happened on a number of occasions. So instead of getting everything all at once and being able to pick through it and decide what I should do first, I was pretty much stuck with what I had and had to work with that, so there were quite a few things that I was translating that I really had little understanding of when I first encountered it. That was sort of the first time that I had really experienced that sort of work flow on a game of this scale, which made for a good learning experience.

AGM - You referred then a bit to your back-and-forth with the publisher. What was that experience like and did you find it to be mutually supportive in a way that you feel helped you efficiently put out a quality product?

J. Mountain - It was pretty straight forward, really. I would mostly just go to them with questions like, “Is this item going to be used in gameplay?” or, “With regards to this character’s name, would you prefer that I give him name ‘A’ which is a direct translation of the original Japanese, or can I go with ‘B’ which sounds a bit cooler in English?” Those sorts of questions. There were no real issues, it was just a simple back and forth and it worked.

I’ve had projects before where you ask a simple question, like “In this situation an item is referred to as ‘red’ but in this other context it’s ‘blue’. Is this the same item or something different?” Then I’d get a several page response thoroughly explaining every detail of the item and it’s relation to the game’s context.

The opposite example would be a situation where I’ve had really important questions related to a translation, something that’s significant throughout the entire experience of the game, but when I’d ask I’d get no response until right before the deadline when the client is asking, “So, do you have the game done? Can you send it over?”

In that sense, working on Demon’s Souls was actually pretty comfortable. There weren’t multiple mail exchanges everyday or anything like that, but I was always promptly helped out by being given enough information when I needed it and at the same time I wasn’t being hounded all the time to hurry up and turn in more files. I guess you could say it was rather ideal given the alternatives, because you can really have either of those two polar opposite examples that I described before or just about anything in-between when working on a game’s localization.

AGM - Thanks so much for your time, James. We’re all looking forward to your next big project!