Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Localizing the Fantasy: A Look Inside the Video Game Localization Process

Localization. One of those words that gets thrown around all the time in the gaming world. Games aren’t translated, per say, they’re localized. Yes, this does, of course, include translation, but it also comprises numerous things that gamers playing a freshly localized copy of Death Zombie 89 or Free Fantawilly would never realize. Admittedly, many gamers wouldn’t care even if they knew everything that went on behind the scenes in making their favorite games understandable, but that’s part of the point of localization itself—to seamlessly create a game that can be enjoyed by the locale where it’s being released. By merely translating a game, there are still any number of cultural, regional, or even language-specific issues that could crop up in the completed game, which could lead to a decrease in enjoyment value or even a lack of comprehension for the gamers.

So what exactly is it that localizers do when they, well, localize a game? The amount of work required for any specific game will differ depending on the type of game it is—text-heavy games will take much longer to localize than puzzle games, for instance, but games with ample word-play would take even longer. While it would be impossible to go into each and every aspect of a game that might possibly need to be localized, there are a few categories we can split these aspects of localization into for easier accessibility. For this article, I’ve grouped them into Translation, Censorship, Hardware, and Marketing.

Translation is the real meat of localization, as well as the first thing that comes to mind when the average person thinks of game localization. A game starts out in another language—it then needs to be translated to another. A fairly simple concept, really (though I’ve been astounded at the amount of people who think there is no text in games, so why would they need to be translated?). But let’s put aside the basic act of transcribing one language to another (important as it may be) and instead focus on the bits of game text that can really cause issues for localizers, and which require that extra bit of creative “oomph” to get the gaming juices flowing.

Jokes! Word-play! Puns! All the sorts of things that can add wit and pizazz to writing, and which can turn a monotonous, simple game into one filled with humor and sarcasm. In other words, the heart and soul of some games. To rid a game of its witty writing could turn a great game into a blah game, so translators and localizers alike have to be extremely careful when they get a snarky gem on their hands. Jokes don’t carry well across languages, and puns are heavily reliant on language, which means that neither of these issues can be handled with straight-up translation. Localizers quickly turn from translators to scenario writers when anything untranslatable graces their computer screen. An experienced localizer will know when to leave out a joke in the Japanese and instead add an English joke in a few lines later where it might fit better, or when a direct translation might seem dry or unnatural and they instead need to spice up or tweak the wording.

Let’s take a look at a few examples from an old SNES gem Super Mario RPG, a game chock-full of witticisms and tongue-in-cheek writing:

©Nintendo, Squaresoft

In this example, a toad is explaining treasure box coins to Mario. In the Japanese, he makes a pun on the word “coin,” using it as an onomatopoeic word for the sound of the coin when it comes out of the box. Instead of trying to translate this in what no doubt would have been an awkward sentence, the localizer instead left it out altogether.

©Nintendo, Squaresoft

In this example, Mario is getting hit on by a young female toad running around outside her house. The first dialogue box doesn’t differ greatly between the Japanese and English, but the content of the second dialogue box is completely different. The Japanese toad says that even if she and Mario get married, it will be okay, because if Bowser comes she’ll just akkanbee (a common facial expression in Japan where the bottom eyelid is pulled down and the tongue is stuck out). This expression doesn’t exist in English (both the word expression and the facial expression), so an English speaker would be lost if this were translated directly. The localizer decided to avoid potential awkwardness altogether and simply wrote a new line for the toad that would be relatable and amusing for English gamers.

An avid gamer might know that many characters’ names change, if even slightly, when a game is localized from Japanese into other languages (in this case, English). Sometimes it’s simply to make things easier or to simplify the spelling, such as with Penelo and Balthier from Final Fantasy XII (“Panelo” and “Balflear” respectively in the Japanese). Sometimes it’s to make a name sound less Japanese, such as with Ari from Okage: Shadow King (“Ruka” in the Japanese). Sometimes names get changed from one game to the next, such as with Bartz from Final Fantasy V (“Butz” in the first English translations) or with Lutz from Arc the Lad III (“Rutz” in Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits, which was localized by a different company). Localizers have a lot of power in how gamers see the characters they help bring to life simply through the power of naming. Easily the franchise with the most creative new names in all languages is the Pokémon franchise. The original Japanese names for each Pokémon describe their shape, appearance, and/or abilities, such as Hitokage, which literally means “Fire Lizard.” This Pokémon became Charmander in the English translation. The Japanese Pokémon name Rokon is a play on words that means “six,” along with the sound a fox makes, “kon.” Its evolution, Kyuukon is that same fox sound but mashed together with the word “nine.” These Pokémon became Vulpix and Ninetails respectively. Each and every Pokémon had to be renamed using similar types of word play in the new languages, meaning a lot of work (and no doubt a strain on creative brain power) for localizers.

One last translation issue I’m going to touch on is dialects. The Japanese language has any number of different dialects that get spoken in various regions across the country. Many of these dialects have stereotypes that come with them about the people that speak them, which makes it incredibly difficult to translate them successfully into other languages. English, for example, just doesn’t have the same type of dialects as Japanese, and certainly not ones that would give across the same image of that character as the original Japanese. The localizer has to then make a choice—don’t implement the dialect in the translation, or try to recreate it using some other technique. The first choice is no doubt the easiest, but much of the character him or herself can be lost along with the dialect. By the same token, characters can also be ruined if they’re given strange dialects in the new language that don’t match them.

One of the most interesting dialect choices I’ve seen comes from Squaresoft’s old answer to the Zelda franchise, Brave Fencer Musashi:

©Nintendo, Squaresoft

The character Ben speaks in kansai dialect, or the dialect of Western Japan. One of the common ways of trying to recreate this in English is to have the character speak in an Australian, or sometimes even a Boston accent. Here, however, rather than giving Ben an accent in English, they’ve gone in a completely different direction and made him stutter. This certainly changes up the way that he speaks! Though if you’ve played both games, you’ll notice that his character pulls a 180—in the Japanese, he’s rough-speaking and hot-headed, but in the English, he sounds more like a blubbering idiot.

Alright, so now you’ve translated the text of a game. The game reads smoothly in your new language with any and all snark included, and feels like a game that could very well have been originally written in your language. Success! But wait, you’re not done yet. Remember how I mentioned that censorship issues still need to be dealt with? For a game to be fully localized to match what gamers in a certain locale will be comfortable with, a localizer will need to tweak, change, or even remove parts of the game either based on the client’s instructions or their own intuition (though it’s always important to run it by the client first!). This concept might seem odd to some—why do games need to be censored? Surely America has produced far worse games than any that have been imported from Japan! But everything comes down to who the game is intended for and whether or not it’s appropriate for their innocent eyes. It’s also important to take into account that censorship laws differ from country to country.

Censorship doesn’t always take forms that are easily identifiable. In the new Pokémon games, for instance, subtle hints were added into the English version, as well as an entirely redone mini-game, in order to both tone down and discourage gambling:


The slot machine mini-game on the right was taken out in favor of the card-based minigame on the left. The game center itself was also modified to look less like a casino, and your Pokémon were tweaked to act uncomfortable and suspicious within the game center rather than happy and excited. As this game is marketed mainly towards children and teens, Nintendo of America felt it necessary to downplay the gambling aspects of the game (Japanese children must be immune to the sins of gambling). Though considering children aren’t allowed in casinos anyway, whether this change was highly necessary is another story entirely.

In a similar vein, a lot of subtle censorship happens in the Harvest Moon series of farming games, mostly in the form of drink names. The original Japanese versions of the game include names of alcoholic beverages from beer to wine and various cocktails. As this is another game marketed towards a younger audience, however, during localization, every drink name was changed to a form of juice to downplay any alcohol consumption in the game.

Sometimes rather than being tweaked or changed, scenes, dialogue, or other aspects of a game can be completely removed. The Xenosaga games, with all of their extensive cut-scenes, had a number of scenes that were changed to remove or censor parts that were deemed inappropriate for North American gamers. For instance, this scene from Xenosaga I:

©Square Enix

This image was never shown in the North American release of the game as perhaps it was seen as too sexual and disturbing (especially as the girl appears very young). Though in the game, this scene has nothing to do with sex, it was still deemed as inappropriate and cut, perhaps to ensure that the game got a T rating. There are a number of other examples of censorship when it comes to characters’ ages, particularly if you’ve played any localized hentai games. Japanese audiences wouldn’t bat an eye at underage characters being placed in sexual situations, but in North America, this simply wouldn’t fly. In the English release of Enzai: Wrongfully Accused, the first BL (boy’s love) game released on American shores, underage characters were aged up to 18. At the same time, however, the sexual images used in the game were actually decensored, as Japan has laws about nudity while the U.S. doesn’t.

Let’s move away from the contents of the game itself now and take a look at a few other factors that people tend to forget about when it comes to game localization, namely, Hardware and Marketing. We’ve translated the text, made sure it was appropriate and relatable to gamers in the target country… what else could there possibly be that needs to be changed when localizing a game?! Try looking down at the controller in your hands—if it’s a PS2 controller, you’re using a localized button configuration! Have you ever tried playing an imported PS2 game and been completely bewildered and flabbergasted when the buttons didn’t seem to do what you were telling them to do? That’s because the functions of the X and O buttons are switched on U.S. versions of games. In Japan, the X has a negative connotation—similar to “bad!” “no good!” or “wrong!” Thus, in Japanese games, the X button is used as the cancel or back button. In the U.S., however, as the general populace doesn’t have this preconceived mindset about the letter X, it is used as the confirm button, while the O button is used to cancel. This can make playing a game in a language different from what you’re used to entirely confusing! For this reason, references to buttons and which ones to press might need to be changed when localizing the game.

Finally, if you’re going to sell a game in a different country and to a different audience, you need to think about how to market that game to a new set of consumers. The box, for instance. What type of box is sure to grab the attention of gamers and non-gamers alike as they walk by it in the store? It certainly seems that Japanese and Western audiences are looking for different things when it comes to the appearance of their games:

©Square Enix

On the right is the original Japanese release of Final Fantasy XII, while on the left, is the localized U.S. release. The Japanese box art is simple, and includes only the game’s logo, while the U.S. release is extraordinarily busy, featuring every playable character photoshopped onto a background with clouds and sky and even more airships photoshopped around their faces. What a difference! Let’s see if this holds true for any other games:


While not as drastic as the Final Fantasy XII boxes, the Japanese and U.S. boxes for Okage: Shadow King (“Me and Satan King” in the original Japanese) are certainly different. On the U.S. cover, the main protagonist has been enlarged, and the entire scene has been zoomed, leaving less of the box as “empty space.” Another interesting point about the localization of this game is the main character’s appearance—in the original Japanese, he had very large eyes (the same as the rest of the characters), but in the U.S. version, his eyes were shrunk to a normal size. This was no doubt a marketing choice by the localization team, though I’ll admit I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps it wasn’t thought that American gamers would be able to play as such a cute, big-eyed protagonist?

The way a game is marketed, either through its box art, advertisements, or even the appearance of its characters, is clearly an important point when it comes to selling a game in a different locale (otherwise, every game would have the same exact cover no matter the language), which is why it’s important that localizers have a grasp on what is appealing and attractive to gamers in the target country. Each and every aspect of localization is important when it comes to transforming a game from one locale to another. It’s not just about translation anymore—there are so many other aspects that need to be tweaked and changed in order for the game to be fully appreciated by its new audience. Whether you’re playing that new RPG game or that popular puzzle game that everyone’s talking about, both games went through a thorough localization process before your grubby little hands could grab it in a format you can understand. Next time you pop in your favorite epic, monster-battling adventure game, think about the many voices that had their say into shaping the experience currently playing out on your screen—a localizer’s work is never done!