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Interview: Localization Consultant Jessica Chavez Talks Game Localization 101

We go to school with game localization & its difficulties with localization guru Jessica Chavez.
This article is over 7 years old and may contain outdated information

What is video game localization? If you were to ask me, I’d say it’s the process by which games are made to retain their message while becoming more suitable for the region they’ll be released in. Localization has been around for as long video games themselves. 

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From Super Mario Bros. to Final Fantasy, countless games have made their way worldwide thanks to localization. It also goes without saying but it has helped video games to become an enjoyable past time anywhere on the globe.

Recently however, localization has received some less than favorable publicity. Fans have been quick to call it censorship, and this has arisen for many reasons — whether it be changing a character’s age or removing the mention of questionable drugs during dialogue. Many have been quick to cry foul, especially in the recent cases of title such Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE and Fire Emblem Fates.

Naturally, this has lead to quite a few questions on the subject and its inner workings.

So, with burning questions on the matter of game localization, we took the opportunity to get in touch with a veteran in the industry. We picked the brain of video game localization consultant, dark comedy author, and coffee connoisseur Jessica Chavez. You may learn a thing or two about game localization, because we certainly did.

On the off chance someone is uninformed, how would you best describe what localization is?

Jessica Chavez (JC): I’d say…localization is a process where we try to recreate the experience of the original work for a new audience. On a basic level (for games) that means script, graphics, controls, etc., but it’s really about feel, I’d say. We want the new audience to feel the humor, the adventure, the drama of the original, and that’s what localization tries to accomplish.

Being very familiar with playing localized games myself, that definition is quite different from my own. I would imagine the same would be said for many who think about the subject. So certainly it’s a process to retain the original intent and message of the source material.

When a game is chosen for localization, is that based upon popularity? Are there other factors we may not be aware of? 

JC: Depends on the company and the goals they have for a title, really. Often, games chosen for localization aren’t what many would consider ‘popular’ (especially with the numbers that AAA games put up), but they are at least considered ‘viable’.

Questions you have to ask yourself before pursuing a title are things like: Does it have potential with our audience? How much work would it entail? Will it be able to pass that magic threshold that makes it profitable, i.e. will it sell more than the resources allocated to bring it over and also be worth the time invested?

Games are also brought up for consideration because, well, they’re fun, but they need to meet the needs of the company. A company that can’t turn a profit doesn’t stay in business long, after all.

Often times on message boards and etc., you’ll see fans being vocal about why a game hasn’t been localized. As Jessica elaborates, there a many business aspects that need to be addressed before it gets into our hands. A recent example of this would be the announcement of Dragon Quest VII for the Nintendo 3DS. The game was released in Japan in February 2013, while western territories will be seeing a release this September. In this game’s case, the reason more than likely was due to the its massive script.

During the process, a localization team gets rather intimate with a game and its nuances right? That sounds pretty daunting. 

JC: Well, we try. Deadlines willing, anyway. That’s the daunting part, especially for text heavy titles. As much as we wish we could polish every nook and cranny of the games we work on, you have to balance time spent on each line of text with the deadline. That’s why it’s essential that you have a lot of back and forth between translators and editors to make sure that things are correct and all the subtleties of the text come through.

You play the game, research a bit, check your lines in context if you can, and hope like hell you don’t misinterpret or miss something important. The things you miss haunt you, seriously.

In your professional opinion, is there an easy part to localizing a game? How about least difficult if possible?

JC: An easy part? Hmmm… I’d say quest text, I guess. Usually, because quests are designed to be direct so that the player knows what to do, those lines are pretty straightforward. With items you want to research to make sure you’re not missing any lore or story callbacks, with system text you have to make sure it’s compliant with first-party rules (is it “b button” or “B Button”), and with story text or NPC lines there are always layers. Especially for games like Trails in the Sky...

Localization has been getting a lot of “attention” in the news recently. What would you say is one the misconceptions with the profession?

JC: That it’s easy or simple. Every time I read online that localization is just slapping a translation into a game, I die a little inside.

How could I ever forget this infamous forum post?

“…it’s literally just taking a sentence and rewriting it. How hard is that? I could translate a book in like a day.”

I’ve detailed the overall process on my blog, but there’s also a ton of labor that goes into just the text alone. Getting lines right when you often have little to no context, lining up terminology across the board, ensuring a consistent tone over the whole script, formatting and reworking text so that it doesn’t spill out of windows and break the game… Don’t even get me started on the jokes. It’s tough, grueling work, especially when you have deadlines.

It would be quite an understatement to say there’s a lot misunderstanding with the profession. The forum post Jessica describes is a sentiment you’ll often see with localization news. Some had no problem expressing the same when it came to the localization of Fire Emblem Fates. Jessica’s feelings on opinions like these are understandable.

Localization involves the navigation of language, nuances, scene progression and etc. To put it into layman’s terms you’re essentially creating a movie, a game, and a novel. All while staying true to the source material and making it regionally relevant. Doesn’t exactly fall into the realm of easy if you were to ask me.

This is often seen online; but why don’t all games feature dual audio? We understand that there’s licensing and monetary reasons why. Could you elaborate a bit on the matter?

JC: The monetary reasons could be anything from the game budget not being able to accommodate having both VOs, the licensing could be prohibitively expensive (or completely unavailable as mentioned below), having dual audio could bump up the game size to a more expensive cart, the publisher might have to choose between which audio they prioritize to maximize their potential audience…

 As for licensing, the rights may be authorized by the voice actor and/or their agent/studio only for specific regions. Contracts can be very particular about where the VO can be legally used. It sucks, but sometimes that’s the case.

These are just some of the reasons behind no dual audio. Each company has their own particular circumstances, though, so it’s best not to try and compare them 1:1.

Thus, we’re given some more insight on the matter of voice overs. You don’t have to look far, but among gamers there’s those that only want original audio. There’s those who don’t mind and others that aren’t affected either way. Audio options, as we’ve learned, are all part of that business plan for a game. Many fans may not be are of the proverbial red tape involved. We of course don’t know all the reasons as to why those choices (if available) are made. 

It’s not entirely foreign, we’ve seen companies release titles dubbed and others not dubbed. For example, Aksys Games released Guilty Gear Xrd -Sign last year fully dubbed. This year’s Guilty Gear Xrd: Revelator was released with subtitles only.

Earlier Jessica mentioned viability, and that also applies to the audio options as well. Companies may or may not be aware there’s an audience that would prefer, say, Japanese voice work over English voice work. When they see the opportunity it maybe a possibility in the future.

Case in point: ATLUS/SEGA’s Persona 5. Josh Hardin, PR manager, took to social media to address the title’s audio choices. Via Twitter he stated they will attempt to provide Japanese audio as a post launch DLC option. Again, he stressed there are no guarantees but they will try because fans asked.

How closely do localizers work with voice actors, if at all?

JC: Pretty closely on the English dubbing side. Or at least I did. When I worked at XSEED it was almost a given that the editor or translator who worked on a game that needed voice recording would be on the team that went to the studio to tape the lines.

Over the course of my time there I would help select the voice actors for each part, work up the script, explain the roles/direction to the voice actors, sit in and listen at the studio, approve lines, tweak the takes, and I even took over directing for a couple of sessions when necessary.

Many of us have also been known to grab a few beers with those lovely guys and gals from time to time.

At this point, I would like to add that localization also requires you to wear the hat of an acting director. (Again, debunking any notion of it being remotely easy.)

If someone is interested in having a career in localization — what’s one important piece of advice you would offer?

JC: I would implore them to really hone in on what they want to do and then work the hell out of it. Resumes with general ‘Japanese Major’ or ‘English’ degrees made almost no impression on me when I was part of the vetting process at XSEED. You have to demonstrate your passion.

Create something tangible like a book, or a portfolio of translation projects, make a game, design game covers, etc. If you show yourself to be proactive in some part of the field, it stands out.

This tidbit is certainly interesting. Considering the levels of work she’s described that goes into localization, it makes sense. You would need an array of skills at your command. Writing, production, and a professional aptitude to adapt. After all, mistakes and or a title that leaves something to be desired is remembered forever.

Localization I think is something of an under-rated profession at times. Any suggestions as to how fans can continue to support their favorite localization teams? A genuine thank you for their hard work on social media perhaps?

JC: It is always wonderful to hear from fans on social media. Following the people who work on the games you like and then letting them know that you liked what they did — really makes it all worthwhile sometimes. Spreading the good word online to others is also a great way to show your appreciation. Word of mouth is the lifeblood of a lot of niche projects. 

Last question, this maybe hard to answer but we have to know. Is there one game you are most proud to have worked on? You can answer two or three if one is too hard.

JC: Tough call… I’ve worked on a ton of games, and each one had its, ah, memorable moments.

My favorites, though? Half-Minute Hero, Rune Factory: Frontier, Fishing Resort (surprised?), and the one I’m most proud to have been a part of (because in a sane world it had no chance given the circumstances, the size, and the unbelievable hurdles we had to overcome during its localization): Trails in the Sky.

I’ll never forget Trails in the Sky FC(first chapter) and SC(second chapter). I’ve tried, believe me. But, yeah, pretty proud to have been a part of it…and survived.

When you take a look at what games she’s most proud of you’ll notice they’re quite diverse amongst each other. One’s a unique spin on the JRPG genre, the other Harvest Moon-like where you wield a sword, and one is a collection of family fishing activities.

Now, the Trails in the Sky titles she makes note of are known to be massive. Fans tout the titles for being rich in story, quests, and dialogue. They also consider them to some of the best localized titles they’ve played.

What can fans of your work look forward to in the future?

JC: I might be on a bit of a ‘break’ at the moment while I navigate motherhood and moving countries (again), but I’m neck deep in the sequel to my first published book, Dead Endings, and my latest project with XSEED is up to bat any day now. Look forward to Xanadu Next. Seriously. It’s soooo good. I felt like a kid again playing it. More on that to come, I promise. 

 We certainly are looking forward to her next projects and future titles. We would highly suggest that perhaps you should as well.

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Jeffrey Rousseau
32. Haitian. Writer. Fan of niche arts/media. Health/fitness addict. Maybe fashionista, speedster, jjba fan music aficionado . Product of Miami, FL.