Why silly JRPG dialogue may not be a problem

This is a column by Jason Schreier dedicated to the analysis (and occasional mocking) of his favorite genre, the Japanese role-playing game. Whether it's because they're too antiquated or just too niche, he believes JRPGs don't get enough attention in the gaming industry today. It's time to change that.

I've been playing a lot of Final Fantasy XIII-2 lately. I can't post my full thoughts until the embargo's up (January 30), but there's one question I've been pondering ever since I popped in the disc: What's up with this dialogue?

Thanks to a lot of silly jargon and awkward phrasing, a large chunk of Final Fantasy XIII-2's conversations elevate it into the "wouldn't want anyone to watch me playing this" category, alongside titles like Star Ocean: The Last Hope and any Tales game.

"Become an arrow through time and speed your way to Serah," one of the game's characters says in the game's intro sequence. Other bits of dialogue are similarly awkward, mixing metaphors, dropping strange proper nouns and completely confusing whoever's playing (read: me).

(Another choice line: "If the paradox is eliminated, spacetime will return to normal.")

Of course, it'd be unfair to only pick on the latest Final Fantasy for this issue. Japanese role playing games -- even moreso than other game genres -- are not known for their fluid, witty dialogue. JRPG scripts are more infamous for mistranslations ("This guy are sick.") than smart or clever bits of writing.

But does it matter? Can a JRPG still be awesome even if its dialogue sucks?

For starters, let's be clear on something: It is difficult to tell whether a JRPG script's problems draw from its translation or its source material. Since we Yankees are seeing somebody else's interpretation of the writers' original work, we don't know who's messing up along the way.

But while I don't know who is at fault for the silliness of Final Fantasy XIII-2, I do know that proper localization can completely overhaul the quality of a game. Games like the Lunar series and XSEED's The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky stand out because their scripts are stuffed with charm, nuance and subtlety. The humor can be hit-or-miss, depending on your taste, but the effort always shows.


The importance of proper localization cannot be overstated. In an interview last year, XSEED senior editor Jessica Chavez told me about the complex process that goes into translating Japanese games. Needless to say, it's a crucial part of making JRPGs work.

"To produce a good localization of a JRPG," Chavez said, "you need 1) to stay as true to the intent of the original script as possible, 2) to remember the audience and 3) to have fun where fun can be had." Chavez also says a bad translation can turn a fresh game rotten, though that isn't always the case. Games like Illusion of Gaia and Suikoden (one of my personal favorites) are riddled with localization errors, yet they succeed on the merits of their other features.

Sometimes, weird translations can even make a game more charming. Just ask Ted Woolsey, whose oft-liberal translations of games like Final Fantasy VI and Secret of Mana have been mocked across the Internet for ages. Lines like "Son of a submariner!" and "You spoony bard!" add a type of quirkiness to those games that you just won't find anywhere else.

I don't mind that. I love embracing silliness in videogames. But games like Final Fantasy XIII-2 seem to ignore Chavez's rule #3: Have fun where fun can be had. The reason I'm disconcerted by its script is that it takes itself too seriously, throwing around terms like "paradox" and "L'Cie" without a trace of the self-awareness found in a game like Final Fantasy VI, where both the player and game are cognizant of just how ridiculous everything is. FFXIII-2 is a silly game that doesn't realize it's silly.


And ultimately, isn't that silliness one of the reasons we play JRPGs? Their stories, their scripts -- while sometimes over-the-top and nonsensical -- are hard to find elsewhere. Bizarre dialogue isn't such a bad thing. As long as it doesn't take itself too seriously.

Jason Schreier is a freelance writer/editor based out of NYC. He's a contributing writer for Wired.com and occasionally writes for a number of other sites and publications, including Edge Magazine, the Onion News Network and G4TV. You can follow him on Twitter at @jasonschreier.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.