Regardless of how much information we see, hear and consume, there will always be one barrier that prevents us from consuming information, Language. Language is how we understand information and if we don’t understand the language, we can’t consume it. Even if we have the technology to read what’s happening halfway across the world, if it’s not in a language we understand then we cannot consume it. Media itself is always translated and localized for it’s intended audience. Books, movies and games, are all localized/translated so the target audience can consume it. Generally speaking, books and movies generally have a direct translation. For example, not much if anything is lost when translating Harry Potter into French or Spanish. Games however, are quite different.
Like any global business trying to gain worldwide appeal, game developers have localization teams. They’re job is to translate and edit the game to appeal to a specific market. Like Mcdonalds, they adapt their product to suit the country the product is in. As seen in the above picture, the two versions of Soul Blazer not only have different names but the woman has a different appearance. On the left, she has more of a European appearance while on the right, her facial structure is more similar to that of Japanese animation. Games can have either major or minor differences across versions. This can lead to having completely different experiences when playing either one.
In terms of major differences, a wonderful example is the game Nier. The game was developed in Japan by Cavia games and published by Square Enix for both PS3 and Xbox 360. In Japan, the game received two different versions. One being called Nier Replicant and the other Nier Gestalt. Replicant had the player play as Yonah’s older brother, a young and slim teenager. Gestalt had the player play as Yonah’s father who looks to be quite old and muscular. When question about this change, developers Yoko Taro and Yosuke Saito commented: Full interview transcript here (Japanese)
Taro: “Lately the teenage version (The one that later became Replicant) was the only one that was being made but, there was a story from Saito that made me think about the overseas market. From there, there was a debate in the Square Enix localization studio, saying that there was no way we could have a slim young man. Therefore we made a decision to make a macho-like protagonist for the international version.”
Saito: “With a new IP we had strong feelings that it had no choice but to sell, Yoko settled with a young teenage protagonist which he wanted to do, with this in mind we kept the teenage protagonist in the Japanese version while developing the two versions. Of course, not everyone shares the same tastes, for example in France, they understand multiple layers of Japanese culture and we’ve heard lots of people requesting for the Replicant version. Anyway, during development there was a bit of talk regarding the global release.”
As Saito mentions, Yoko Taro really wanted to do the teenage protagonist. However due to the different tastes of foreign audiences, an entirely new protagonist was made for the international version of the game, Gestalt. This brings the question, is the game still the same in terms of gameplay and story? Gameplay-wise, it’s still the exact same game and the end result of quests within the game play out the same way. However, chemistry and interaction between characters has been altered. Since Nier is an action RPG with a huge focus on story and it’s characters, this changes the game quite a bit.
The story was made with teenage Nier in mind. While there is no official statement to prove this, as Yoko Taro said, it was the one he wanted most to be in the game. On top of this, the game has been discussed to be a deconstruction of the RPG genre of games, which young Nier is a spitting image of your typical RPG pretty boy protagonist.
So not only does Japan receive two versions of Nier but the only one to make it out of Japan was the Gestalt version. Because of this, you’re given a slightly different experience and possibly even different perspective of the story depending on which version you play. Sadly there is no official release of Nier Replicant outside of Japan, so this prevents anyone who doesn’t know Japanese to experience it for themselves. Which again brings back the point of controlling how someone experiences a product through language. While it is not crucial to play both versions, it does add an extra layer of interest to the Nier games. This isn’t the same as censorship however. The Drakengard series (Which Nier is a part of) has multiple timelines. While Yoko Taro did say he wanted to use the young Nier, Gestalt is considered canon and takes place in an alternate timeline. As said earlier, this adds to the experience if you know about both versions
With that said, what other examples are there? One popular title is Fire Emblem Fates (Also known as Fire Emblem if in Japan).
There are times where localization only edits some content to make it more suitable for a suitable for a foreign audience. There are also times where a localization team decides to take away features and change a lot more than just character names. Fire Emblem Fates is the latter. Safe to say, the reception of the localization changes received quite the backlash.
So what changed with Fire Emblem Fates? The most significant change was the removal of the Skinship feature. Think Pokemon Amie but with people’s faces instead. Here’s a quick clip to show you what Skinship looks like:
Regardless of how people feel about the removal, localization team, Treehouse felt the need to remove the feature. Sadly the only remnants of this feature that are left are when you marry a character. Once the player character’s avatar and another character reach an S rank relationship in the English version, the player is able to wake up their significant other by tapping their face via the touch screen or blowing into the 3DS mic. This is the most significant feature that was removed.
To give a little context, Fire Emblem is a series that puts a huge focus on it’s characters. Fire Emblem always has a large roster of characters to play as and with Fire Emblem Fates there are over 70 characters. Each with their own backstory and interactions with most characters. With such a large cast of characters, majority of the characterization is done through conversations that the characters have with each other. It’s through these conversations that they’ll show their personality and quirks. This places huge importance over translating these conversations properly, so that the character’s personalities aren’t lost in translation. Sad to say but, Treehouse did a number on that part too. Take a look:
Thankfully not all conversations between characters have been altered to this extent. However there have been enough changes made to majority of the conversations for someone to have played both Japanese and English versions for them to notice a huge difference. Here’s another example:
As you can see, the English version and Japanese version give different experiences. Unlike Nier however, playing both the English and Japanese version doesn’t enhance the experience. In fact, if you understand Japanese then it’s clear the Japanese version is superior because it contains the creator’s original message and characters. When playing through the English version, it feels like something is missing. This is essentially censorship. Regardless of what the original creator intended, the localization team behind it changed characters and took away a key feature in the game. The game was changed to how Treehouse wanted you to experience it.
So, what’s a good example of a great localization? Square Enix had developer Cavia games change it’s protagonist for the international version, Fire Emblem Fates took a feature away and altered character interactions, how does one do a good localization? Dragon Quest VIII (Also known as Dragon Quest VIII: The Sky, the Ocean, the Earth, and the Cursed Princess in Japan) is one.
To give a bit of context the Dragon Quest series is often referred to as the godfather of the Japanese RPG genre. It was the first one of it’s kind in Japan. It released in 1986 for Nintendo’s Famicom. The games were released only in Japan and North America for a short while, until Dragon Quest VIII. Dragon Quest VIII is the first completely 3D title in the series and first one to have a complete worldwide release. So, if it’s such a good localization, that must mean there’s no difference between the Japanese and English versions, right? Wrong.
A good localization is able to translate a game and let a foreign audience have the same experience as the original audience that was intended. No effort was made to censor the game in any way like previous games. However, keep in mind, the game released while the PS2 was fairly new. The Dragon Quest series was never in 3D before and it was the first time a Dragon Quest game was being released in Europe. Obtaining a large following with Dragon Quest VIII was essential for the series success outside of Japan.
A few changes were made to the international version of the game. The most significant changes would be the design of the menu. Here’s a comparison between the Japanese and English version:
As you can see the overall menu has been overhauled for the English versions of the game. The Japanese version’s aesthetic is consistent with the previous games in the series while the English version has more details and color.
Not only the menu was changed but the entire soundtrack as well. Instead of using the same in-studio recordings as the Japanese version did, the international versions of the game received orchestrated versions of the entire soundtrack. Take a listen of the battle theme present in the Japanese version:
And here’s the English version:
As you can hear, the English soundtrack is entirely orchestrated. The entire game is high quality both in English and in Japanese. So what makes this localization special from the rest? Dragon Quest in itself, is a very Japanese game. Despite having roots in western RPGs such as Ultima Online and Wizardry, it has a very Japanese feel to it. The manga-esque aesthetic drawn by Akira Toriyama, the exaggerated and cheesy dialogue, it all adds to a unique experience made in Japan. The localization team behind Dragon Quest VIII was able to retain that feeling AND have it appeal to a foreign audience, without anything lost.
In summary, when it comes to video games, what you received out of the box may not always be the same thing someone else across the ocean got. Games are a unique medium that allows the player to interact with a world, they have an effect within it. Tampering with a few characters here and there while mostly minor changes, can lead to a completely different experience. Which in turn changes your perspective on the game.