How localization changed the game

Localization — the process of adapting a piece of content for another culture, language or region. It treads the fine line between translation and transcreation: it is both precise to the point of being pedantic and yet creative, transformative and culturally aware.

With the explosion of the video game industry in the 1970s and 1980s, gaming localization rose in popularity as well. Today, almost every game is at least partially localized for multiple regions.

Dawn of localization

Sources are not of one mind on this matter, but the general consensus is that the first video game ever was created in 1958 by American physicist William Higinbotham. Using mostly resistors, capacitors and relays, he made what he later called Tennis for Two. It closely resembled another iconic early title, classic sports game Pong by Atari (though that one came much later, in 1972). However, both Tennis for Two and Pong were the so-called physics games, based on motion and not storyline. As such, they contained no plot and no characters and therefore required no localization.

We would have to wait for the arrival of the 1980s to see gaming localization make its first steps. Just like most things in that industry, the history of game localization begins with Pac-Man. The iconic maze chaser by Namco is probably one of the most legendary and popular game releases of all times. It continues ranking among the highest-grossing game titles and the yellow dot-eating creature is an integral part of pop culture to this very day.

What you may not know is that Pac-Man is actually the localized name of the game. In fact, its original title in Japanese roughly transliterates as “Puck-Man.” However, when exporting the game for the United States, game developers Namco had some language-related concerns. They feared the word “Puck” might be associated with obscene words in English, and therefore changed it to “Pac.”

What is more, the colorful ghosts in Pac-Man all have names, and those also differ from the originals in Japanese. In order to account for the cultural differences between Japan and the US, the original names Reddie, Pinky, Bluey and Slowly were instead changed to Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde. As you can see, the original naming structure has been preserved: three similarly sounding ones and an odd one out. However, the way they were changed accounted for what the US audience liked and understood. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is localization.

With the lightning-fast development of information technologies, games started becoming more and more complex as well. Text and storyline became essential components of every release and the explosion of global trade meant only one thing: games were no longer a local phenomenon. As such, localization became a necessary requirement. But with more complex games came problems.

Beyond two words

Many of the issues and challenges the first game localizers faced still exist today, so let’s see which parts of gaming localization present such a hardship. After all, language fluency is something inherent to every translator, so it can’t be that hard, right? Right?

The “it can’t be that hard” mentality is the first pitfall many fall into. What localizers need to understand is that gaming-related content, while in text form, is unlike any document, literary work or other text forms.

Challenge 1: The hourglass

The first and most important hurdle is time. Game release schedules are strict and often impossible to alter. However, in order to have a properly localized version of a game, one needs to look at its entirety, get an in-depth understanding of its gameplay mechanics, and also know how in-game logic works as a whole. Then, once translated, the content needs to be reviewed, further adjusted, checked for layout issues and so on. This turns the whole debacle into a monumental, time-consuming task. Not understanding that can land you in really hot water.

A good example of how an impossible deadline can mess things up is action adventure game Beyond Oasis, also known as The Story of Thor: A Successor of The Light, released by Sega for the Sega Genesis in 1994. The game had to be translated from Japanese into English really quickly, but due to the strict deadlines, the translation was so bad that it was deemed completely nonsensical and the entire text was scrapped.

Faced with an impossible situation and a nearing release date, the publishers opted to rewrite the entire game’s content with no input from the translator. When simply redoing everything from scratch is the faster option, you know you’re doing localization wrong.

Challenge 2: Think outside the box, fit into the box

One of the many peculiarities that sets game text apart lies within the very nature of games. You see, a game is, at its core, a program. As such, the text it contains cannot be defined as pages or even sentences, but as strings. These strings need to be appropriated into the program’s visual representation, the user interface (UI).

In games, just like in other types of software, there is limited space available for each string, so you cannot afford lengthy, verbose localizations. Exceeding the string’s length limits often results in text bleeding out of its allocated space, which is detrimental to the UI’s aesthetics, can create issues with other strings and can even render the string unreadable.

As you are probably aware, different languages have different levels of verbosity. While a phrase may appear relatively short in English, for example, it could take two or three times more space in another language. Languages that use a lot of prepositions are especially problematic in that regard. Game localization involves the fine art of being precise yet succinct, something few linguists are capable of.

In the past, length limits used to be a massive issue in game localization. This was because there was no precise way to measure how much space the localizer really had. American video game producer and translator of Final Fantasy VI Ted Woolsey recounts that he had to review and cut his English translations multiple times so that they properly fit into the game’s layout.

Look at those tiny menu boxes! You can’t fit “Attack with your weapon, dealing physical damage” in there, but “Attack” is clear enough on its own.

Luckily, length limits are somewhat easier to manage these days. This is thanks to technological advancements around the 2000s that allowed strings to be stored in the ASCII format and not as images, and the rise of computer-assisted translation (CAT) software. These translation programs permit importing the original strings for side-by-side translation, and often contain functionalities that allow setting specific length limits for each string. Localizers still have to keep limits in mind, but at least they don’t have to rely on guesswork.

Challenge 3: A language within a language

Not everyone is into geeky culture, and game-specific lingo is nigh incomprehensible for the uninitiated. There have been cases of native speakers listening to entire conversations between gamers, with the listeners reporting that it all sounded like some bizarre, alien version of their own language.

The reason for this is that just like any subculture, gaming loves its slang. Some terminology is used only for specific games, while other terms have gained widespread use and are considered the standard among speakers of, well, let’s just call it gaming slang.

The thing is, gaming slang can be deceptive. Even a simple “Invite to party” can wreak havoc in translation if the linguist thinks “party” is some sort of festivity. For example, an “upset” is a sports term related to an underdog beating a favorite in some sort of tournament or competition. It’s often used in competitive gaming and esports. However, if you’re not in the know, the title “A Plague of Upsets Among Favorites” can easily become “Favorites Plagued by Upset Stomach” in translation (no, not joking, and luckily, the editor caught that one early).

This means you need a gaming linguist, one that is familiar both with gaming as a whole and with the game being localized. Otherwise, the end client might be… upset.

Challenge 4: Stranger in a strange land

Another issue often coming up in the game localization industry is one of fluency and native-sounding target text. A literal translation simply will not do — it often means the translated text sounds awkward and “translated.” It might seem like a trivial thing at first glance. After all, as long as the text is understandable, the game can still be played, right?

However, in gaming, immersion and atmosphere are everything. In order to have a release that’s successful both locally and abroad, you need that atmospheric element that draws the player in and leaves them glued to the screen for hours and often days. And for that to happen, you need your content to flow freely in the target language. Trying to cut costs by hiring a nonnative localizer can often set you up for disaster.

Gaming history knows many instances of localization gone wrong, ranging from translations being overly literal to disastrously inaccurate. However, none is more famous than the baffling case of Zero Wing. Published by Taito in 1989, the side-scrolling shooter arcade tells the epic tale of a lone adventurer trying to save the universe. Or at least it would, if someone had managed to properly localize it. Instead of hiring a native speaker for the European Mega Drive port, Taito decided to use someone with a very limited understanding of the English language. The result is a timeless hilarity that shall forever remain in the hearts of internet meme lovers:

 The “All your base are belong to us” phrase is actually from the game’s intro, which features a dialogue that is just as hilarious:

Captain: What happen ?

Mechanic: Somebody set up us the bomb.

Operator: We get signal.

Captain: What !

Operator: Main screen turn on.

Captain: It’s you !!

CATS: How are you gentlemen !!

CATS: All your base are belong to us.

CATS: You are on the way to destruction.

Captain: What you say !!

CATS: You have no chance to survive make your time.

CATS: Ha ha ha ha …

Operator: Captain !!

Captain: Take off every ‘ZIG’!!

Captain: You know what you doing.

Captain: Move ‘ZIG’.

Captain: For great justice.

The game itself is actually pretty good and was praised by both critics and the community, but the translation didn’t exactly deliver. Zero Wing remains an important lesson to game localizers: choose your resources well, or else.

Glory of the localization champion

While by no means an easy feat, game localization can be done right. Oftentimes, well-localized gaming content is a better ambassador than any marketing campaign.

Keep in mind, video games are no longer a niche hobby for nerds. Nowadays, gaming is an entertainment platform worth billions. With the recent explosion of esports’ popularity, we’re talking hundreds of billions. And localization is very much to thank for this booming industry. A huge chunk of this flourishing market is based in China, where both local and localized games are a huge hit. A good example is Valve Corporation’s title Dota 2. The MOBA colossus is localized in 25 languages (if you count Pirate English), including Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese.

As most Chinese players are not particularly fluent in English, having a Chinese localization not only popularized the title in China, but also helped Chinese pro gamers shine on the Dota 2 esports scene. Some of the most successful professional Dota 2 teams nowadays are Chinese, such as PSG.LGD, which claimed second place at Valve’s The International 2018 tournament, which sported the astronomical prize pool of $25 million.

But let’s not focus strictly on the financial side of things. In terms of pure artistic value, localization has produced some astonishing results. There have been cases where localizers have gone above and beyond the call of duty and created true masterpieces, comparable or even better than the original.

Game developer Blizzard Entertainment is famous for its well-localized content across all of its games. However, its Russian localization team appears to be on a completely different level. During the launch campaign for the latest expansion of Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, the developers released a number of animated shorts featuring important characters from the game and their backstories. One of those shorts involved a song, a beautiful and sad sea shanty called Daughter of the Sea.

While the original song is a work of art on its own, the Russian localization team did their magic, invited Russian harpist and singer Natalia O’Shea to perform the female vocals and blew everyone away. They managed to take the sea shanty and make it their own, transforming it into a heart-wrenching Russian ballad.

If you’re somewhat fluent in Russian, you should check the lyrics out; they are relayed masterfully. The French localized version is also amazing, but the Russians are in a league of their own.

Also, although we showed you some bad examples of JP-EN localization early on, Japanese localizers are renowned for their skill. In one specific case, they managed to insert more context into the game than the original had.

USgamer tells us the localization saga of Undertale, the award-winning role-playing game developed by American indie developer Toby Fox. It has earned critical acclaim and is beloved by gamers for its deep, nuanced plot, fun gameplay and catchy original soundtrack. When localizing Undertale in Japanese, however, the linguists did something amazing: they put an additional layer of complexity over already complex references.

Two of the characters the player encounters in-game are skeleton brothers Papyrus and Sans. As you can probably guess, those two are named after popular fonts Papyrus and Comic Sans. This is also visually represented by their lines being written in their respective fonts. In Japanese, however, there is no equivalent to those fonts, but the localization team decided to relay the reference anyway. They used a blurry, narrow top-to-bottom font for Papyrus and a wide, crisp Manga-style font for Sans.

And apparently, that is only scratching the surface of their efforts. Gaming website Kotaku’s community has delved deep into Undertale’s Japanese localization and discovered more references, including differences in pronouns and other small, subtle hints. Now that is localization mastery!

As you can see, gaming and localization dance a complex, intricate dance for two and the music isn’t stopping anytime soon. The necessary ingredients for a well-localized game involve the right resources, proper time management, the right balance between technical understanding and creative freedom and many, many more variables. In a time where new game titles are being pushed every other month, localizers have a lot of work to do, breaking down language barriers one brick at a time.