Graem Howard, Associate Producer at 8-4 discusses how the studio helped to introduce Saga to the North American Market.
E3 was a stand out year for fan-favourite JRPGs making their way to a new audience, thanks to the ubiquity of the Nintendo Switch. From the Last Remnant: Remastered and the remaster of Final Fantasy VIII, to never before seen in North American entries to the much-loved SaGa franchise, Romancing SaGa 3 and Saga Scarlet Grace: Ambitions, a whole new generation of players can enjoy deep narratives, stunning worlds, and engaging characters.
In order to bring franchises that are beloved in Japan to North America, careful and considerate localization is essential in order to covey the original intentions of the developers and literally translate the aspects of the games that fans have grown to love. That’s where localization studio, 8-4, comes in. Since 2005, the Shibuya-based company has successfully bridged the gap between the Japanese and Western game industries, helping developers bring their games to the Western market. Having worked with gaming giants such as Square Enix, Bandai Namco, and Konami, and with a gameography of titles such as NieR: Automata, Soul Calibur V, and Tales of Vesperia, the studio has helped introduce many beloved games to audiences worldwide.
Most recently, 8-4 worked with Square Enix to localize Saga Scarlet Grace: Ambitions for its entry into North America. CG Magazine recently spoke to Graeme Howard, Associate Producer at 8-4 to learn more about how the studio helped to introduce this beloved title to the North American Market.
CG Magazine: For those players who have never had the chance to experience any of the SaGa games, could you tell us a little bit about some of the stand-out features that set it apart from other JRPGs they may be familiar with?
Graeme Howard: …the SaGa series is widely known for its experimental game mechanics and penchant for reinventing itself with each entry, in Japan it is also celebrated for having terrific writing. Akitoshi Kawazu’s style is very singular, with lots of dry wit and terrifically unique phrasings throughout. It was important for us to of course convey all the meaning condensed into each line, but also package it in a way that reads interestingly to the player. We hope the dialogue keeps players on their toes just as much as the combat does!
CGM: As SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions presents a strong and rich narrative to its audience, how were you able to convey the subtle meanings and themes in your translations?
Graeme Howard: Luckily, the narrative depicted in the source material was so rich in universally intelligible themes that more focus could be directed toward preserving what was already present in the Japanese as opposed to interpreting it in a way that would be more palatable to an overseas audience. The most important thing here was to localize as faithfully as possible and let the team’s work speak for itself.
CGM: Since the game has four distinct storylines for each of the main characters, how did you create a unique voice for each of the characters in order to capture their unique personalities and blend them throughout their storylines?
Graeme Howard: This is something we spent a lot of time on. While only a small percentage of players might choose to play through the game multiple times, we wanted to write the characters such that every playthrough felt fresh. One example of this would be the contrast we hope players will see when comparing Urpina and Leonard’s storylines, for example. Urpina is a highborn, well-to-do young lady surrounded by people similar standing, and we felt the archaic, authoritative tones present in their Japanese would be well-served with some strokes of low fantasy in how their dialogue was localized. Leonard (and his companion Elisabeth), on the other hand, feel extremely modern by comparison—like any average city dwellers you might encounter on the streets today, spouting all sorts of inappropriate colloquialisms. We did our best to rise to the challenge, though we must admit that much of that work was already handled by the excellent Japanese script.
CGM: What were some of the unique challenges presented by this project and what strategies did you employ to overcome them?
Graeme Howard: Putting aside dialogue for a moment, one thing that people might be interested to learn about the game is that it has two screen modes for the player to choose from, which completely change the interface and menu layout. The “Modern” mode is a brand-new UI created for large, high-definition displays, whereas “Classic” is loosely based on the layout used for the game’s original Japanese release on the PlayStation Vita, making for easier reading on smaller screens such as those on handheld devices. Because of this, text used in menus presented a tremendous challenge as the amount of space we have would vary depending on what screen mode is selected. There’s even text that might be used in as many as three places in one user interface, which means six places across both interfaces! It was a lot to keep track of.
CGM: You have an impressive gameography of projects you have been involved in. Over the years, what were some of the most important things you have learned to help evolve and support your work?
Graeme Howard: Here at 8-4 we’re big fans of asking lots and lots of questions—which is something we tend to warn people about in advance. We find it’s important to let our development partners know what they’re getting into—localization is far from a simple process, and the best way to create something that the fans and original creators will be satisfied with is to have open channels for communication that can be used to relay questions and concerns between both sides.
CGM: Are there any unique challenges in terms of concepts and cultural differences when translating from Japanese to English for a North American audience? How does 8-4 approach these challenges and what do you do to provide context and keep the meaning behind these ideas in order to translate them for a North American audience?
Graeme Howard: Cultural differences can run the gamut from small things that would speak to people who are only familiar with more mundane, day-to-day life aspects of living in Japan—like references to local foods or recent trends—to big-picture moral or ethical concepts, which would obviously be presented through the culturally Japanese lens of its creators. How to handle said smaller things would depend on the setting (it could seem odd for a game obviously set in Japan to be filled with things that clearly belong elsewhere, after all—in this case simply contextualizing them is often the correct choice), but they can often be replaced wholesale with North American equivalents if necessary.
Big-picture concepts are always interesting to tackle, as people the world over tend to struggle with similar ethical and moral dilemmas—it’s the culturally agreed-upon dialog on how to approach them that differs. Loyalty (both filial and professional) are big things in Japan. It is in North America as well of course, but often for different reasons, and the ways those views are articulated can be worlds apart. As localizers, we’re not about touching the thesis—just rephrasing the argument in English such that would be as convincing to North Americans as the original script was to folks in Japan!