“Rally-ho, true believers!” I shout, swinging into the grand hall on a chandelier, interrupting the fancy party. Everything stops as eyes are focused solely on me – on my roguish good looks, my brand-name tabard, my elk leather highboots. I somersault to the floor, landing on my feet with a flourish and a bow. “I know you must have thought this high society gathering dreadfully dull without me here to tell you about the intricacies of composing prose for novel electronic amusements, so I’ve come to enlighten and entertain thee. Also, did you know all the food here is free? My pockets are full of cocktail wieners right now.”
Indeed, it’s an honor to see you again, dear readers. I hope you enjoyed my previous blog about the upcoming PC release of Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection. As a small refresher, it served as something of an introduction to Zwei: II as a game – what it’s all about, its two main characters, the setup of the story, and its battle and leveling system. You can think of it as a sampler platter to give you a taste of why this game’s cool.
Do a barrel roll
Today, in my second Zwei: II blog, I’d like to go into more detail on the process of writing and editing for the game, and some of the things I dealt with and thought about as I localized it. I’ve done an entry like this for each of my prior projects, and I always enjoy it because it gives me a chance to briefly pull back the curtain and share with you some of the minutiae of localization, and the truism that every project is its own beast.
One interesting thing of note about this project is that it’s the first project on which I served as the sole editor. When I started working at XSEED, most of my prior localization experience had been as part of a team working on large single projects, while most of XSEED’s workflow at that time had been to keep a single editor on a project as much as possible. Each method has its own benefits, as you’d expect. When I work with a partner or team, I enjoy being able to bounce ideas off them or ask for hot takes any time I want, like, “Okay, which of these five potential quest names sounds the best to you?” or “Here’s what I have so far for this scene, but I want this girl to sound more disinterested. How would you do it?” We solicit general impressions from the office fairly regularly, but having other editors acquainted with the specifics and setting of the project you’re working on gives you access to an informed, expanded scope beyond your own intuition and experience. That’s important, because every editor is naturally going to have some characters or scenes they click with more readily than others.
On the other hand, flying solo can also be nice because it represents a purer distillation of editorial voice. With single-editor projects, you know that all the text in the game was overseen by the same person, making thoughtful choices with full knowledge of where everything fits in the greater scheme of the story. I think that’s what XSEED values about this methodology, but with the arrival of mammoth-sized scripts like those for the Story of Seasons and Trails of Cold Steel games, it became a matter of practicality to learn to work well as small teams on projects – a challenge I think our editors have risen to meet in admirable fashion. Of course, that’s not to say I didn’t have a lifeline or two working on Zwei: II. Junpei and Tom were an ever-present source of support whenever I had a question about something in the Japanese – and there were many, many of those over the duration of the project. Even when you’re working alone, you’re never truly alone when you’ve got the office familia backin’ you up.
Getting to work on a project by myself has also helped me better understand my own work process. One nice thing is that everything I mentally bring to a project – the stories I’ve consumed and experiences I’ve had that color how I interpret characters and scenes – remains consistent throughout. This is especially pertinent when writing for comedic scenes, as no two editors will have the exact same sense of humor, and Zwei has more than its share of wisecracks and comedy. The scary thing about being the sole face of a game, though, is that anything that’s weird or wrong, any jokes that totally fall flat, emotional connections that don’t get made – that’s all on me. In a way, it’s a test of myself as a writer and editor, with you all as the judges. With the original Story of Seasons, Tom and Ryan lent me a hand, and I had the dashing Young Kris as my partner for the first Trails of Cold Steel, but here, you get pure Nick, for better or worse (hopefully for better).
I mentioned briefly in my previous blog that Zwei: II felt like it was deeply informed by ’90s anime and manga, and I’d like to unpack that a little more for you here, in case your curiosity was piqued at the notion. After all, a lot of the games we work on here at XSEED are pretty anime-flavored, right? What’s one more on the list?
Here’s my take. Over time, the general vibe of anime has undergone change, as all thriving arts tend to. One major difference – the one most relevant to our discussion – is the observation that protagonists in many modern series tend to be passive, disaffected, reticent, or otherwise hesitant to engage the world and situations around them. They’re the reactive sort. Sometimes it’s because they’re exceptionally socially aware. Sometimes it may be because they’re awkward youths. Sometimes it’s because you get the impression that the writer really wants you to think this person is cool or above it all. Anime from the ’90s, on the other hand, is much more associated with protagonists who leap into situations without thinking, do things without considering the ramifications of their actions, and adhere to a personal code or philosophy that the character consciously or unconsciously holds. Both approaches, in the hands of a good storyteller, can and have made for some great entertainment, but from a writing perspective, the “’90s anime” types are definitely easier for me to work with. They’re more expressive, more willing to engage, and their very being tends to create conflicts that help drive the story and the growth of both themselves and other characters.
During the time I was working on Zwei: II, I actually ended up rewatching a season of Ranma ½ (those blu-rays are preeeeetty sweet) and seeing the Tenchi Muyo TV series for the first time (on loan from Tom). Seeing those really made this whole point click with me, like, “…That’s it! That’s the kind of comedic stylings Zwei is trying to channel!” Not in the sense of specific plot points or characters from any particular series, but the sort of atmosphere that was about creating opportunities for amusing things to happen. Ranma, for instance, tends to nettle many of the characters in his series not on purpose, but just by being who he is. And not just that – doing it on purpose also comes very easily to him (just watch how he loves to bait Ryoga or Kuno with his taunting). Ragna is less purposefully ornery, but his decisive personality draws the admiration of some and the exasperation of others. Plus, later on in the game, you run across a genuine hot spring, and we all know what a staple of the era that is. 😉
You’ve probably heard the saying, “Tragedy is easy, comedy is hard,” and there’s truth in it. Most of us love a good comedy, but do any two of us love all the same comedies or laugh at all the same things? Humor is deceptively difficult because it’s so mercurial, influenced by the times, by moods, by delivery, and more. A bit that might leave you stone-faced Monday night could have you busting a gut Thursday night. Understanding why something that makes you laugh does so is the study of a lifetime. There’s really no shortcutting it – you have to get the mileage, experiencing things that make you laugh, thinking about why, and chasing the next thing you think might give you another shot of mirth. I can only hope that I’ve imbibed enough of the spirit of humor to properly convey the charm of what is perhaps Falcom’s most levity-laden title.
Yeah…just hangin’ in there, y'know…
Beyond my approach to the game itself, we have its characters – the heart and soul of the action. Quite often, early on in the process of localizing a game, I’ll get an impression of a character as, “Oh…I guess he’s a lot like X from [other source],” and as I make a couple of those anchoring connections and begin considering the characters in the game from those perspectives, they begin to show their multiple facets. Lest you think this sounds too close to, “Oh no, he’s just taking an existing character and foisting that persona on this carefully crafted, unique game character!”, take a measure of comfort in my assurance that I, too, would be dissatisfied with an approach that oversimplified. Think of it more as a basic framework – scaffolding that lets me clamber around the object d’art to get at the fine detailing.
With Ragna, for instance, his characterization is very front-loaded in the game. Right away, you know he’s a freewheeling pilot, sort of a hotshot, and likes to do things his own way. The image he creates is very “early 20th-century flyboy,” and I sort of conceptualized him as a guy who wouldn’t feel out of place if you stuck him in among the cast of “The Rocketeer.” Speech-wise, his alternating between laid back and fired up reminded me of Gundam Wing’s Duo Maxwell, and like that character, Ragna likes to chime in with some tongue-in-cheek commentary if something patently ludicrous or weird happens in the game. Finding characters who are reasonably like the one you’re writing for helps, as does understanding the milieu in which a character exists – what they were doing just before the story began, and what the world around them that shaped them is like.
There are actually a couple characters who have what I termed “Ragna-variant” speaking styles. Ragna’s main vocal tic is that he sometimes truncates words ending in “-ing” (so “nothing” would become “nothin’,” and “fighting” would be “fightin’,” though I tried to generally keep it to one per text box – it’s a spice, not a marinade), so among the expanded cast, you get some people who speak that way because they have similar lifestyles. Odessa, as a rough-and-tumble Treasure Hunter who specializes in capturing bounties, is very colloquial in her faux old-west style. Gashler, who runs the garage out by the airstrip, is a full-bearded, goggled mechanic that sort of reminded me of Cid from Final Fantasy IV, and his speaking style is pretty thick – one of the most affected in the game, though I tried to make it still pretty easy to comprehend. One also has to consider that people who have special styles of speech have certain occasions where that’s either suppressed somewhat, or is expressed with even greater emphasis than normal. Even old man Gashler might speak (mostly) standard English if you dragged him to a black-tie event, but on the other hand, if someone said his workmanship is rubbish, I have no doubt that he’d be cussin’ up a storm, blastin’ furnace-fire, and lettin’ loose with the sort of strange, idiomatic expressions that only grease-stained mechanics know.
Ragna being an unusually “American-feeling” character made him pretty easy to write for right from the start. Alwen took a little more finesse and more time to find her ground – but not because she was difficult in a conventional sense. The trick with Alwen was that she definitely inhabits a certain archetype, at least partially, but I needed to figure out how much of that I needed to accurately represent her, and when to let her individual characteristics shine.
Alwen, as the daughter of an esteemed Trueblood vampire house, can be very prideful, bordering sometimes on haughty. She learns fairly quickly that the world beyond her castle has more complexities than she gave it credit for, but her distance from the world of humans actually gives her some surprising insights. Now, the most common way you see characters like Alwen played are that they step out into the greater world, eventually realize how much they don’t know, and depend on their friends to teach them what it means to really live along the way. Alwen…has some of that, but it’s the way she interfaces with the world that makes her an interesting and fun character. For example, she doesn’t technically NEED to eat food, but likes eating a ton of it (on Ragna’s dime, of course) just because it’s tasty. She’s not afraid to walk right into town and make small talk with the people. Alwen may be a vampire, but she’s refreshingly (and oddly) free of so many of the preconceived expectations people have about what vampires are like. She even calls Ragna out on this early on in the game when he’s shocked that she walks around just fine in the bright morning sunlight. A great deal of Zwei: II’s story is really her story, especially when it comes to getting the ball rolling, and it helps the story greatly to have a character who both entices with a bit of the familiar but also stands out due to individual quirks.
I also did with Alwen a variant of what I did for Laura in Trails of Cold Steel, where I shifted her from talking with a “proper,” antiquated style of speech to a more natural speaking style that still retains the idea that she’s highborn. Coming at this from a lore perspective, Alwen hasn’t been out of her castle in the last 100 years or so and has learned what she knows of the world from her estate’s extensive library, so it would be very feasible for her speaking style to sound older than that of Ragna or the people of Artte. In practice, though, Ragna having a casual style of speech and Alwen’s speech being fairly rigid made it difficult for the comedy to land, and to really connect with Alwen as a character. Can you imagine what Star Wars would’ve been like if Princess Leia spoke like a medieval fantasy princess while trying to banter with Han Solo? That’s the kind of disparity I’m talking about. It might’ve been funny, but for reasons entirely unintended. So after thinking on it a while, I decided to adjust Alwen’s speaking style, dialing it back. My priority was to keep her sounding articulate and well spoken, but casual up the language so that the banter between her and Ragna has the requisite snap it ought to. In my opinion, the net gain from that was well worth the adjustment, which you’ll be able to see for yourself when you play.
Sort of tangentially related to that, in the Japanese version, Ragna goes through basically the whole game calling Alwen “Princess” (“hime-san”). The best reasoning I could figure is that maybe, having taken on some power from their blood contract, Ragna feels he should acknowledge her as his liege, but…that explanation totally flies in the face of Ragna’s personality. Ragna is a guy for whom there is ONLY a first-name basis (or a nickname if he finds one for you he likes). The most likely explanation is that it’s just the difference between politeness levels in Japanese personal address versus Western personal address, but the title put a certain amount of “distance” between them that I didn’t want to remain there for the duration of the game. The alteration I made to compensate for this was to have Ragna refer to Alwen as “princess” a bit at the very outset of the game, but quickly fall into using her first name, which feels much more natural for the character. To draw the analogy with Star Wars again, think of it as Han Solo going from calling Leia “princess” or “your worship” in a sort of snarky context when he doesn’t really know her to simply calling her “Leia” once he’s spent time with her and knows her as an individual. Plus, with as big a deal as Ragna makes over wanting to work together with Alwen as “equal partners” at the start of the game, it would be weird for him to then go on to refer to her by her royal title for the rest of the game.
This discussion isn’t meant to be a comprehensive retrospective of Zwei: II’s localization, of course; just a list of some of the noteworthy things I grappled with working on the game. Editorial work does have its pressures and difficulties – when the buck basically stops with you, how do you know you’re making the right call? – but ultimately, these kinds of challenges are what keep the job fresh and interesting. The point of all the character personality profiling, the speech styles, the fine-tuning, is for players to be able to sit down and experience a fun story and memorable characters that “just work,” no speculative microscope examinations of the translation required. I think my obsessive tweaking and spit-polishing will make for a better game experience…but you don’t have to take MY word for it. Give Zwei: The Ilvard Insurrection a try when it comes out and see for yourself!