The 1980s saw the worldwide rise of Japanese culture, as the likes of Sega and Nintendo cornered the floundering western videogame market, injected a healthy dose of quality and awesomeness, and brought about the recovery of the medium. Japanese games, fuelled by their parent consoles, dominated the market. As the industry accelerated in popularity, more and more games from the land of the rising sun were being translated and brought over to western audiences.
The task of translation and localisation was fraught with issues and obstacles during the early years of gaming. The use of language specialists was rare and, more often than not, it would be the developers themselves who would handle the assignment, armed with little more than a phrasebook and their own prior knowledge. The result was a slew of poorly-translated games, often confusing western audiences with their bizarre interpretations of the English language. This all stemmed from the fact that translation was low down on the development priority list, around where bug-fixing is for today’s industry. Allocated resources and funds were relatively minimal in the grand scheme of the development process, and thus we were graced with lost-in-translation gems such as the infamous “A winner is you” in the popular NES games Pro Wrestling.
Thankfully things have changed for the better in today’s world. The global village mentality, coupled together with the growing economic and cultural prowess of the videogames industry, has brought the art of translation into the upper echelons of importance, as publishers seek to garner as large an audience as possible for their blockbusters. The rise of voice-acting, as opposed to simple text exposition, has been one of the main contributing factors for the increasing priority and investment in translation. This has in turn given rise to new technical hurdles which need to be addressed purely for the act of translation, such as language-specific lip-syncing. Such mechanical factors, coupled with the need to hire actors to represent the multitude of languages, has caused the costs of videogame translation to escalate through the roof.
These costs are only multiplied by the many other forms of translation developers have to see to. We’ve already covered in-game dialogue via dubbing, as well as text, but these areas barely scratch the surface. The packaging/box-art, readme files, user interfaces, online store blurbs, manuals, official websites, all of these add up to pretty eye-watering mountains of money. It is indeed not surprising then that many niche Japanese developers are choosing not to localise their games for western release.
This has, in turn, brought about the return of fan-made translations. The practice was common during the eighties and nineties due to the aforementioned haphazard attempts made by developers. Fans often took it upon themselves, and their keyboards, to correct the glaring mistakes that plagued games of the period. Today however, they offer a lifeline for western audiences wishing to experience obscure gems of the Japanese gaming industry. From obscure cult classics such as Takeshi’s Challenge, released only in Japan in 1986 (don’t ask why gamers in the west wanted this abomination) to recent releases such as Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, fan translations have allowed for a whole new audience to experience these games.
However, the question arises of whether or not a game needs any form of spoken language at all. Thatgamecompany’s 2012 masterpiece Journey completely forewent any form of spoken or written communication. Players are dropped into a mysterious world devoid of such factors, and the only way to converse with fellow travellers is through beautifully realised musical cries. Such a minimalist approach opens the game up to audiences across the world, abolishing the language barrier which can hold so many others back. A game that does not need verbal or literary translation can save a developer millions of dollars in production costs, and such a strategy should be more widely considered by game developers in the wake of Journey’s critical and commercial success.
But that’s not to say that every single game out there should throw the linguistic arts out to the curb. Having fully voiced, motion-captured epics is something we shouldn’t and couldn’t do without. It’s a marvel of modern game development that we can now have vast RPGs full to the gills with content, which can last for over 200+ hours. However, for smaller indie teams such goals are financially unattainable, and thus many should consider abolishing language in their games altogether. The cost reductions are astronomical, and it paints the way from innovative artistic interpretations which could push the medium of videogame storytelling to realms as yet unseen.