Monday, August 27, 2012

Non-Game Elements Of Game Localization

When localizing a video game, the biggest part of the project is obviously the localization of the language and content of the game itself. However, there can be many other aspects of a game localization job that many people don’t even consider when thinking of such projects.

One element of video game localization is a game’s manual. This aspect has many inner elements itself. For example, as is the case with in-game text, translated text will not always fit properly into the space allotted in the original manual. This is especially true when translating from a language such as Japanese – in which entire phrases can sometimes be written in just a few characters – to a language such as German – in which a single word can easily take up a dozen characters or more. This also applies to text-based graphics throughout the manual, as well as to charts, etc. Usually problems with such “overflows” are dealt with by conferring with the client and having them either alter the manual layout, or decided which parts of the text to cut, when necessary.

Another aspect of game localization which is similar in nature to the one above is the game’s packaging. On top of text overflows (and sometimes, conversely, large gaps or openings in the text boxes), depending on the country for which the game is being localized, there are some types of scenes and screenshots which may have been prominent on the original packaging but which cannot be displayed on the localized version. Violence, nudity, and blood are extremely common on Japanese video game packages, but in some cultures – especially particularly religious ones – these sorts of images are forbidden. This of course has little to nothing to do with the job of the translator himself, but once a translator becomes a “localizer,” the chance that these factors will have to come into consideration rise considerably.

Websites are another such part of the game localization process which must be dealt with carefully. Once again, the overflow/text gap matter comes into play – although this is much more easily dealt with on a Website as opposed to a physical manual, and so does the matter of proper and improper imagery and content. For more video- and audio-heavy Websites, regional bandwidth allowance must sometimes be taken into consideration as well. (Countries such as Australia have notoriously low monthly bandwidth allowances, which may drive prospective users away from an extremely content-heavy Website).

Finally, there is the matter of press releases and advertising. Although a developer will oftentimes hire two or more unrelated agencies for the translation and localization of a game and it’s directly related branches (manual, Website, etc.) and PR-related materials, they also sometimes hire a single agency/translator for the entire package. This can be rather tricky, as a translator with great expertise in actual video game translation may not exactly be equipped for formal press releases and advertising translations, and vice versa. After all, the sort of terminology and language used in video games can differ quite significantly from that used in more business-like press releases.

As you can see, video game localization is much more than just translating the in-game text on an Excel file and sending it back in. All-inclusive video game localization can be much more tedious and trying than simple in-game text translation, but at the same time on top of having the obvious benefit of broadening a translator’s skill set, it can also be much more lucrative and profitable for those willing to commit to the extra work.

Why Japan is Doing it Right

Nowadays, it seems that complaining about the Japanese Game Industry is the “cool” thing to do. Browse along the major gaming sites, or read industry magazines and there are likely to be legions of commenters complaining about how the East is lagging behind the West and how they need to step up their game if they want to be able to compete.

And why shouldn’t they, if even outspoken developers from the East (ex-Capcom employee Keiji Inafune being one of particular note) are more than eager to point out that Japanese game companies radically need to change their modus operandi lest they be crushed by the giants of the West?

But I think they are wrong. In fact, I think Japan is on a much more viable track of game design than the West and, in fact, I would even go so far as to say the entire industry may be doomed if the game industry keeps “evolving” the way it is now.

You see, when people say Japanese games are not as good as Western ones, they tend to equate graphical prowess to design quality. These are not the same things. It’s a pity that there is such a big emphasis on pretty graphics nowadays, especially since it results in a lot of people not giving certain wonderful low-budget games an honest chance simply because they think the games look like they were made in the last generation, or just because they do not match some personal arbitrary standard of what a video game should look like.

Some of my favorite games in this generation have been criticized of having sub-par graphics despite presenting intelligent and deeply emotional experiences (most notably games like NieR[1] and Deadly Premonition[2]), and it is a worrisome trend in the industry (undoubtedly fueled by Hollywood) that games are being primarily judged on their visuals and not on their actual merits anymore. So worrisome in fact, that I think this trend is steering the industry in a possibly fatal direction.

The symptoms we’re currently seeing aren’t all that different from the big North American Video Game Crash in 1983. Again, we’re seeing a market with an overabundance of consoles and big budget games that have to struggle to break even, even if they sell millions of copies. The reason we’ve ended up here is because the cost of creating video games keeps rising and rising, mainly because there is far too much emphasis on “mind-blowing graphics” and special effects extravaganzas.

Compare that to the relative success of “humbler” games (not only Indie games, but also lower-budget games from bigger companies) and it seems obvious that we need to start thinking smaller, rather than bigger, lest the entire industry collapses under its own weight.

Recently, the boss of 2K games, Christoph Hartmann, stated that “Until games are photorealistic, it'll be very hard to open up to new genres. We can really only focus on action and shooter titles; those are suitable for consoles now,” stressing the importance of photorealistic graphics for the future of video games.

Now I have tremendous respect for 2K and their games: BioShock[3] and Borderlands[4] rank among my favorite FPS games of all time (both of which contain bright colors and cartoonish design, ironically), but it is this exact mindset that is going to harm the industry rather than nourish it.

The creation of photorealistic graphics is only going to increase the production costs of video games, and if the developers still actually want to make money on their products, they are likely going to have to raise the prizes as well. As it stands, it’s quite common for a new game to be priced close to $60 which a lot of people consider a hefty sum of money. (Now I would personally argue that this is nothing new, since video games have always been expensive, especially in the cartridge days, but that’s a story for another day.) The fact remains that in the current global economic situation, for many players $60 is already a lot of money, and further increasing the average price of video games is more than likely going to scare off a lot of potential customers. It is very much a downward spiral, albeit one that looks increasingly pretty as you get closer to the inevitable end.

The key to the survival of the medium then, is not to strive for photorealism and Hollywood-style blockbuster video games, but instead to take a step back, cut down on production costs, and deliver quieter games (who knows, maybe even cleverer ones?) with lower budgets, which is exactly what many Japanese companies are doing.

Of course, in many cases, this is a necessary evil rather than a personal choice, but the fact remains, and Japanese games are a prime example of how the quality of a video game is determined by the ideas behind them, not the horse power. In fact, one might even argue that having to work under more restricted circumstances is a catalyst for the creative thought and fresh ideas that so many of today’s high-tech blockbuster titles seem to lack.

The major video game publishers have created an industry that runs on appearance rather than content, and they’re about to find out that more polygons do not necessarily build a stronger foundation.

[1] NieR (Cavia, 2010) is an Action RPG for the PS3/Xbox 360 in which you play a middle-aged man trying to cure his daughter from a disease. The game was ousted for its outdated graphics but found a solid fanbase among people who enjoyed the emotional plot, humorous dialogue and satirical elements. Interestingly, both console versions in the West featured the father figure (a rarity in JRPGs in the first place), whereas for the Japanese PS3 version, the protagonist was replaced with the girl’s older brother.
[2] Deadly Premonition (Access Games, 2010) is an Action/Adventure game heavily inspired by the TV drama Twin Peaks, starring FBI special agent Francis York Morgan, who visits a small rural town in the US to solve a murder case. Again, the game was ousted by many review outlets for its lackluster graphics and wonky controls, but it also found a very vocal and adamant fanbase for its unique narrative, hilarious dialogue and off-the-wall humor.
[3] BioShock (2K Boston, 2007) is a first person shooter (FPS) taking place in the fictional underwater dystopian city of Rapture. The game was critically acclaimed for its atmosphere, political commentary as well as its now-famous plot twist that questioned the nature of video games.
[4] Borderlands (Gearbox Software, 2009) is a first person shooter with some light RPG elements. Featuring cell-shaded graphics (quite unusual in this genre), the game was well-received mostly for its unique system of randomly generating weapons, which allowed for an unparalleled variety in guns.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Natsuko Toda – My Own Personal Hero

When Japanese people hear the word “subtitles”, usually a single name pops into mind: Natsuko Toda. Natsuko Toda is the most famous moviesubtitler in Japan, having worked in the industry for almost 40 years and usually being employed to take on most major Hollywood films that are released in Japan.

Her big break came almost purely by accident in 1979, when she was chosen at the last minute to take over the job of creating the Japanese subtitles for Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” when the original subtitler was forced to bow out due to health issues. According to the story, Coppola took a personal liking to Toda, and her reputation as a charismatic subtitler spread quickly throughout the industry.

Since 1979, Toda has been consistently put in charge of subtitling a large chunk of English-language movies released in Japan, including E.T., Titanic, the Harry Potter and Indiana Jones series, and the last three installments of the Star Wars series.

Toda’s success, however, has come in spite of her fair share of trouble and criticism. In 2001 Toda was hired to oversee the script translation and subtitle creation of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings”. Upon the film’s release, backlash from fans regarding Toda’s use of abbreviation, apparently arbitrary translation, and blatant mistakes and/or unwarranted additions and omissions from the film’s dialog was significant. In May of 2002, 1281 people signed a petition to be sent to Herald Pictures Japan demanding that Toda be dropped from the remaining installments of the series. In December of the same year, filmmaker Peter Jackson himself made an announcement that he was unsatisfied with Toda’s translations and would refuse to use her for the remaining two films.

Although Toda is widely considered among English-speaking Japanese cinema fans (and non-Japanese Japanese-speaking cinema fans as well) to be considerably lacking in translation skill, she has managed to find success mainly through her personal charisma and connections with major Hollywood actors, producers and directors, and through her numerous appearances on English educational televisions shows in Japan. Regardless what sort of opinion you may hold of Toda and her work, one can’t help but admit that she has made a lasting name for herself – and probably a pretty substantial amount of money – in the world of translation.