You've been playing Zwei: The Arges Adventure and Legrand Legacy: Tale of the Fatebounds while snagging genre classics on the cheap from our jRPG Days sale. Now it's time to take a look behind the scenes: team leader Ken Berry and localization producer Thomas Lipschultz have taken some time to chat with us about how XSEED handles the release and localization of their beloved JRPG series.
The interview is broken down into two parts, for convenience. Stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow, January 30.
So, let's start with a quick year in review – from your professional point of view, has 2017 been good to Japanese games in the West?
Ken: Yes, I would say that 2017 has been a very good year for Japanese games in the West. The obvious big winner is Nintendo with their extremely successful launch of the Switch, as I remember some Japanese executives being concerned whether the idea of one machine being both a home console and a portable machine could succeed in North America where public transportation is not nearly as prevalent as Japan.
The PC platform also continues to get more support from the Japanese gaming industry. Not only are you seeing more instances of simultaneous PC launches with the console release, but they seem to be gradually accepting the idea of DRM-free on PC as well, which had always been a huge challenge in the past because they would often mistakenly equate “DRM-free” to “free.”
A lot can be said about different sensibilities in Japan vs. the West. In the past year, maybe more than ever, sexuality, sexualization, and consent, are talked about in mainstream Western culture – taboos are being broken and lines being drawn. Has this had an impact on your approach and your work?
Tom: As a company, I think it’s definitely made us stop and take stock of a game’s content a lot earlier in the process than ever before, so we know well in advance whether there will be any potentially problematic content, and can prepare ourselves to deal with that content as production ramps up.
For me specifically, it’s been kind of an inner struggle, as I think a lot of people are aware that I have a personal zero-tolerance policy for censorship in video games, along with a fairly broad definition of what constitutes censorship (for me, it consists of any content changes made not out of legal or contractual necessity, but solely in an attempt to avoid offending or upsetting members of the target audience). Despite this, I do fully understand that from a business standpoint – and even from a moral standpoint – it’s always best to avoid upsetting your fans, because obviously, an upset fan is not going to remain a fan for very long, and signing off on upsetting or troublesome language or imagery is never something anyone wants to do!
The problem I have, though, is that I truly do consider video games – ALL video games – to be art, and just as it wouldn’t feel right to me if someone painted over offensive material in a painting, edited out offensive material in a book, or cut offensive material from a film, I don’t want to see anyone (least of all us) editing out offensive material in games. My thought is, if it’s that offensive, then we probably shouldn’t be releasing the game at all – though that’s obviously not always a realistic option.
Recently, however, with all the news that’s come out about systemic sexual harassment and abuse in Hollywood and elsewhere, as well as the issues being faced by the LGBTQ community in this modern political climate, it’s become much harder to justify maintaining a zero-tolerance approach – and with a lot of Japanese games starting to really push the boundaries of “good taste” more and more, the looming threat of censorship has become much larger and more imposing than ever, and certainly more of a beast to fight on multiple levels. And it’s really not a battle I WANT to fight – I’d rather just localize games that everybody can enjoy!
I still hold firm in my belief, however, that if we want video games to be classified as an art form on par with books, films, and paintings, we need to maintain zero tolerance for censorship in localization, no matter how offensive the content we’re localizing may be. And if there’s any positive to be gained by doing so, it’s that the presence of offensive content in localized titles will spark much-needed discussion about those topics, and hopefully lead to a dialogue on the state of the industry in Japan, possibly even resulting in creators being a little more cognizant of people outside their tight-knit circle of acquaintances when designing new titles from here on out.
But for the immediate future, I believe content alteration will occur a little more often in the West than it has before (hopefully not by us, but regrettably, that isn’t outside the realm of possibility!), while little else will change for the industry overseas. My solace lies in the thought that we’ll just keep getting more games like the Zwei titles to work on: superb examples of classic action JRPG design with content that’s often snarky and a little mischievous, but never crosses the line into offensive territory, and thus isn’t at any risk of being toned down in localization. Those remain a joy to work on, and the more games of that sort I’m given, the less worried I’ll be about censorship moving forward.
The titles. We need to talk about the game titles...
What is it that makes Japanese naming conventions so different? How do you approach localizing a game's title, and what does it take to make it work in the West?
Tom: I don’t think most Japanese naming conventions are all that different, honestly, save for the fact that they’re usually much longer than the names we tend to see here (with subtitles on top of subtitles, e.g. “Corpse Party: BloodCovered: …Repeated Fear”). Which, I believe, is mostly attributable to some general differences in the way games are advertised in Japan, with more text meaning a bigger poster on the wall and more space allotted to discuss the game in print… not to mention the ability to strike a pose and rattle off a long name, looking and sounding kind of dorkily awesome in the process!
In the Western world, though, we’re definitely all about succinct naming: something short and to the point, that rolls off the tongue, with one or two words being the ideal. Especially if it’s unique enough to be Googlable! We want the name to be easy to remember so that prospective fans can always find information on it at a moment’s notice, even if they haven’t heard anyone talking about the game for quite some time.
I assume you’re speaking more in terms of translations, though (“Sen no Kiseki” → “Trails of Cold Steel”), as well as the rare addition of subtitles (“Zwei!!” → “Zwei: The Arges Adventure”). In the former case, the goal is to come up with something that remains relatively true to the original Japanese but still sounds snappy and natural in English, with bonus points for picking a name that perfectly fits the tone and content of the game (as “Trails of Cold Steel” most definitely does).
And in the latter case, we were really just trying to avoid drawing attention to the fact that we were releasing “Zwei II” before “Zwei” – a luxury afforded us by the fact that the two games tell standalone stories, and necessitated by the fact that Zwei II was finished and ready for release quite a bit sooner. We considered numerous possible subtitles for both games, but ultimately chose “The Ilvard Insurrection” for Zwei II because… well, it preserved the acronym, “Zwei:II”!
We attempted something similar with the first game, but despite our best attempts, we couldn’t come up with any viable names that would form the acronyms ONE, EINS, or even WAN, nor any single-word subtitles beginning with the letter I. We settled on AA to preserve the double lettering of Ilvard Insurrection, and because A is the first letter of the alphabet… and also because the first Zwei is a pretty tough game, so we anticipated a lot of people would be saying “AAAAAA” when playing it!