This past week saw the release of the PSP visual novel, Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom, to retailers in America. The first game in Idea Factory's popular franchise, Hakuoki tells the tale of the Shinsengumi, demons and just a touch of romance. While the game is technically an otome title (marketed towards women), there is plenty here for everyone to enjoy. That 'M' rating isn't for nothing kiddies.
In light of the occasion, I had the opportunity to ask Senior Editor over at Aksys Games, Ben Batemen, a few questions about the localization process on a game like this. With visual novels being such a rarity in the western market, he had some enlightening things to say about the whole ordeal.
Follow me after the break as Ben and I chat about samurai, sweet loving, and editing huge chunks of text.
Elliot: Hi Ben, I’d just like to thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom. I can imagine you’re a pretty busy man, being surrounded by all those beautiful samurai and what not! To start things off, could you tell the readers a little bit about what you do over at Aksys Games? Introduce yourself! We want to know more about you!
Ben: ‘Sup, bros and bro-...whatever the feminine-conjugated version of “bro” is. “Bra”? “Broette”?
I’m Ben Bateman, and I’m one of two editors here at Aksys Games. You could call me the senior editor, because I’ve been here longer than Engler, and because if enough people do maybe I’ll be able to convince IHOP to give me that discount. My primary job is editing text, although I also wear a lot of (metaphorical, my head is freakishly huge and cannot accommodate normal) hats. For instance, if you’ve ever talked to the Official Aksys Games Twitter Account,we have spoken.
As an editor, though, my job goes pretty much like this:
● Our translators...translate...the text and digitally hand me the English version of the script for whatever game I happen to be working on. (I know all of a single character in Japanese: の)
● The translation is made with an eye for meaning, not sentence flow, character, etc. My job is to make it talk pretty. How long this takes varies a lot depending on the game, but it usually takes a while. In the case of Hakuoki, it took almost half a year.
● Once I’m finished with the script, I send it off to Japan, where it’s implemented back into the game. Sometimes I’ll check in on the bug reports to make sure the testers aren’t ruining my perfect baby, and I also help out with other promotional stuff like interviews.
Also I really, really like cats.
Elliot: Before coming onto Hakuoki, had you worked on any visual novel-like titles? Given that they're not exactly a common commodity in western territories, what was your general impression of the genre?
Ben: I’ve worked on more visual novels or visual-novel-like-things than probably a good 90% of localization editors working today (Claim not based on actual math or research)! More specifically, I was the primary (and only!) editor on the following projects:
1. Jake Hunter: Memories of the Past
2. Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors
Jake Hunter is actually part of a long, long franchise that had never been to the States before we published it (twice), and is—if you’re not familiar with it—a little bit like a Law and Order-y version of Phoenix Wright, if Lenny Briscoe talked like he was pretending he was Humphrey Bogart. 999 is less strict-visual-novel, as it contains *gasp* gameplay in the form of puzzles, but it also has a fat load of text so you spend most of the game reading.
My impression of the genre is...complicated. Personally, I’m real big on narrative, and it’s nice to see a genre that places that at the forefront, unlike...pretty much any other videogame. On the other hand, why spend $30 or $40 or more on something I’ll be reading off of a tiny screen that hurts my eyes when I can buy a book for a third of that price? Additionally, most of the visual novels I’ve been made aware of either seem to be convoluted just for the sake of being convoluted, misogynistic harem fantasies, or both (although to be fair, this describes a lot of Japanese media). My own exposure is extremely limited, though. There are some games that would fall under the visual novel umbrella that I’ve enjoyed quite a bit, like Phoenix Wright, but as the Japanese market focuses more and more on wringing money out of the otaku demographic, I think that any sort of mainstream acceptance will fade away, and with it chances of more titles being localized. Which would kind of suck.
Elliot: Having read quite a few visual novels over the last couple of years, I can see them being somewhat intimidating to a lot of publishers. Typically lacking traditional gameplay but containing bountiful amounts of text, I can only imagine that editing it all must be a nightmare. Can you tell us a little bit about your work schedule on Hakuoki? How did you go about approaching such vast quantities of text?
Ben:If I recall correctly, my work schedule for Hakuoki lasted for about 6 months, during which time I did essentially nothing else.
As far as how I tackle that sort of thing, by and large the answer is not very exciting—I just sit down and work at it. It’s a little like eating an entire cow: You just take it a little bit at a time and before long you realize you ate an entire animal and what in God’s name is wrong with you.
When I start, I usually sit down with the translators (who are usually a little ways into the project by the time I start) and talk about some of the important terms in the game: Should we localize them? If so, how? We build a list of what terms localize to what, which helps our team of translators (we’ll usually have anywhere from one to three working on a project at once) make sure their translations for specific terms stay consistent. Usually we’ll discover new terms as we move through the text, or discover more meaning behind terms we’ve already decided on, and have to go back and revise things.
You can imagine the process of localization as being a little like this:
Someone has given you the first draft of a novel. The plot is solid and the skeletons of the characters are there, but the writing isn’t that great and the characters need to be fleshed out.
You get one draft, and half the time you’d like to have.
Elliot: Taking place in old Japan can't have made things any easier. I find that older Japanese can get pretty wordy and circular at times, and I feel as though even the raw, translated text would probably have similar issues. What sort of process did you take to find a unique voice for all of the main characters?
Ben: I really wish I could say “Lots and lots of hard liquor” but I don’t really drink so that would be a bald-faced lie.
Probably a good 50% of my “method” (for just about everything, to be honest, not just writing) is what you might call “winging it.” I do something, and if it feels right, I keep it. If it feels bad, I change it. The more I write for a character, the better of a feel I get for who they are, and the easier that part gets.
For another, say, 30% or so, I look at who the character is, and what they’re about, and I think about how I could reflect that in how they talk. Hijikata and Saito are probably two of the best examples.
Hijikata is a rough, hard son of a bitch. He wasn’t born a samurai, and he’s had to bust his hump to get where he is. Even though Kondou is officially the head of the Shinsengumi, it’s Hijikata who gets everything done, figures out who needs to go where, decides who has to die. He’s a good man at heart, but he’s carrying an almost unbelievable weight on his shoulders, and his response to that stress has been to tighten up, pull all of his emotions into himself, and harden himself against the rest of the world. He doesn’t waste anything—thoughts, words, or especially actions.
I tried to reflect this by giving him a speech pattern that is hard, clipped, and extremely terse. Many times I would write a line for him, then take a look at it and say, “All right, how can I get rid of more words?” I like to imagine that when he’s forming a sentence in his head, he just whips out the Japanese equivalent of a butcher knife, hacks off anything unnecessary, and slams it down in front of him, daring anyone to challenge it. He actually ended up sounding a little bit like Rorschach, from Watchmen, which is...interesting. His word choice and speech is still rough—i.e., he swears, using slang and contractions, etc—to reflect both his somewhat humble origins, and the fact that he quite literally has no time for your shit, and said shit includes being polite.
Saito, on the other hand, is defined by his silence and introspection. His entire worldview is predicated on service and obedience, but instead of being some sort of mindless grunt he spends a hell of a lot of time contemplating the world and his place in it. Unlike Hijikata, he actually comes from a samurai background, but left it for reasons that will be revealed in the game hint hint hint and now actually does a lot of the Shinsengumi’s dirty work.
All of this is (hopefully) reflected in the fact that his speech is very flat, but very formal. He rarely expresses any sort of emotion, but his words are calm, well-thought-out, and well-structured. This is probably kind of a bizzare analogy, but if Hijikata hacks away at his sentences like a butcher and throws them in front of his audience, Saito’s words are like thick pewter, carefully set on a heavy sheet of rich, dark velvet.
The other 20% is probably, like, dicking around on Twitter or something. Honestly I kind of tune out for a lot of it.
Elliot: In particular, was there a certain character(s) that proved more difficult to write for than the rest? Why?
Ben: I’d say there were probably two that were the hardest, for very different reasons.
Out of the romanceable guys, Harada was probably the most difficult to write, simply because he was the most “normal.” Hijikata is the stone cold commander with a heart of steel, Saito is the silent assassin, Toudou is the kid, etc. Harada is just...the one with the spear who hangs out with Nagakura and drinks a lot. He’s a little bit of a bro, and he’s real big on protecting women and keeping them off the battlefield, but apart from that his personality is hard to define, apart from “nice guy,” which is made even more difficult by the fact that Nagakura is very similar, just...more. It reflects the fact that they’re like brothers from different mothers, but it made him really hard to write for. He doesn’t come off sounding bad, per se, his character just didn’t feel quite as developed to me as some of the others.
Now, Chizuru on the other hand...
I have to admit something: I’ve probably changed Chizuru quite a bit. Not what she does, obviously, or even necessarily what she says, but what she thinks is somewhat different. Chizuru was difficult to write because she was frequently doing one—or all!—of the following things:
1. Being less than clever
2. Responding to everything with insane, noodley-arm-waving terror
3. Unwittingly describing her romantic encounters as if they were some kind of assault
4. Repeating every. Single. Thing.
Some of these (especially 3 and 4) are just because of how Japanese works, how things translate, and how the Japanese talk about love and romance. For instance, I’m quite sure that the authors didn’t intend for her to make a kiss sound like she was being attacked, but when you translate it that’s how it sounds, for both cultural and semantic reasons.
The others are... I don’t know, to be honest. But she wasn’t a sympathetic character. She wasn’t even really a likable character, unless you like wide-eyed doormats. Clearly something had to be done.
I didn’t want to change her too much, because that goes against the whole point of my job (plus it is a lot of work), and obviously she still had to do everything she does in the game. What I eventually resolved to do was try to cast her actions in a slightly different light by modifying how she perceived and interpreted them in her internal monologue (which is what narrates the story). Now, instead of thinking the equivalent of “Oh my gosh oh my gosh oh my gosh” whenever something remotely exciting and confusing happens, she is more likely to comment on it with something approaching dry humor. She doesn’t repeat to herself (or out loud) everything everyone says. She raises intelligent questions about what’s going on and what it means, even if they’re sometimes only to herself. I also tried to tweak the tone of the monologue slightly, so that it sounds slightly more adult and educated, as if she’s retelling the story of her younger years to a friend or a child some time later.
Whether this will pay off or I’ll be hung for blasphemy remains to be seen, but it’s done now so I might as well fess up to it.
Elliot: In Japan, Hakuoki is a huge franchise. Spanning multiple games, manga and anime series, you'll find entire sections of stores dedicated to it. It's also marketed as an otome game, meaning that the primary demographic they're aiming for in Japan are the female buyers. I personally think there's plenty to enjoy here regardless of gender, but what would you say to buyers who are on the fence about Hakuoki?
Ben: If you’re on the fence because it’s “for girls” and you are a dude, then I would say: “Grow a pair.” Women have been buying games targeted at men for years and—to the extent of my admittedly anecdotal knowledge—it has not caused them to develop testicles, grow copious body hair, or otherwise change into something they are not.
In all seriousness, though, I think the game has something for everyone. The romance is pretty understated, which may or not be a selling point depending on what you’re looking for. It’s really a quasi-historical supernatural drama first, and a romance game second. A lot of time is spent examining the political situation at the end of the Edo period—something you might already be a little familiar with if you’ve seen, for example, Kenshin—and the personalities and histories of the guys. It’s got intrigue, fights, blood, supernatural monsters, and just enough romance to make you feel warm inside.
Elliot: All right, now it's time to get serious. Out of the entire cast of Hakuoki, men and women, who would you most like to romance? Answer truthfully, good sir. I can sense lies!
Ben: Man, you really ask the tough questions, don’t you?
I think I’m gonna have to go with Okita, even though I know it would never work out since neither one of us—so far as I know—is gay, or even bi. But a man can dream!
I enjoyed Okita’s character the most, and his arc—which is about a man who walls himself off from others emotionally by being a snarky asshole (something I obviously know nothing about)—was one of the character journeys I liked most in the game. More importantly, though, he was the guy who treated Chizuru the most like an equal, and I can only hope he would treat me the same way. <3
Plus, I mean, have you seen him? His milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, and I should know.
Elliot: With the first game finished, what are the chances of you folks releasing any of the subsequent Hakuoki games? Will we ever see Hijikata and his crew of beautiful badasses again?
Ben: I honestly have absolutely no idea. Although I am graciously allowed to express my opinion in company meetings, that decision is ultimately way above my pay grade. If Hakuoki were to go out and sell a million copies, I can pretty much guarantee that we’d have the next one we could get our hands on out before the ink on the contract was dry. Unfortunately, we’re about as likely to get those kinds of sales numbers on this title as I am to wake up and discover I’ve suddenly grown a six-pack, The Rock-style pecs, and a thick mat of luxurious chest and back hair.
If the game does well enough, there’s always a chance we’ll consider bringing over some of the other Hakuoki titles, but that’s a question only the future can answer, and to be honest he’s kind of a dick and never returns my calls.
Elliot: Final question. If you could pick any Japanese game for localization, what would you choose?
[Special thanks to Mr. Ben Batemen for taking the time to answer some questions about Aksys Games' newly released visual novel, Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom. If you haven't already, check out Michelle's review!]
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