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Joystiq interviews Odin Sphere's Bill Alexander


Odin Sphere evokes an odd sense of unwavering tradition. Everything about it appears to be old-fashioned, meticulously crafted and heavy. It's the dusty painting hanging in a cluttered museum compared to next-gen's LCD television mounted on a pretentiously bare wall. That's the impression you're left with after first encountering Atlus' "traditional" action RPG for the PlayStation 2. But you've been fooled. When you weren't looking, the flashy television and the painting traded places.

That isn't to say Odin Sphere completely reinvents the role-playing genre -- the game has its fair share of ancient artifacts, warring nations and apocalyptic scenarios -- but its delicately crafted and strikingly beautiful approach seems in sharp contrast to what has become our own modern tradition of manufactured glitz. The game shuns the third dimension, telling its tale with bold 2-D artwork and gorgeous sprites. Gone are science fiction trappings and effervescent dialogue, replaced with Shakespearean drama and criss-crossing character arcs.

Giving the characters their English voices is Atlus, a publisher which has made localizing unusual Japanese games its tradition. We spoke with Odin Sphere's project lead, Bill Alexander, about the crucial translation process.

Gallery: Odin Sphere (PS2) | 18 Photos

[Note: The diagram to the right depicts the game's timeline according to each of the game's five main characters. Don't worry, any spoilers have been removed! Click to enlarge.]

You've been dubbed the project lead for Odin Sphere. What exactly does that position entail?

As Project Lead, you're pretty much involved in all aspects of a project: localization planning, scheduling, voice recording, package design, marketing, submissions, and QA. It was my job to make sure everything was running smoothly and on time, and communicate with all the team members to get things done. Fortunately, I was working with a very talented team, including Sammy Matsushima who was our lead translator and assisted with communications to Japan, Mike Meeker who edited the dialogue, Michiko Shiikuma who put together the manual, Hans Christian Pena who tested on the game and created trailers and flash banners, Mike Manzanares who managed the testing team, and Jeremy Cail who worked on the ads and packaging. Thanks, guys!

What was the localization philosophy adopted for Odin Sphere?

Early on, we were told by our parent company that the game had a Shakespearean feel to it. One of the things we wanted to do was maintain that feel. This proved to be quite a challenge, due to space constraints and timing limitations. But, Mike Meeker really rose to the occasion and delivered a fantastic script.

Generally, there's quite a gap between a game's Japanese release and its English debut. With Odin Sphere, however, the two versions are being released within a few days of each other -- how did that affect your traditional process?

It was really exciting, actually. We took the opportunity and ran with it. We tried to sync our press announcements with our parent company, and we even posted the English version of the website shortly after theirs went live. We were able to create a lot more buzz because the news was so current. Also, we had to adjust our schedule for things like the packaging-typically, we receive many of the assets at the beginning of a project. But in Odin Sphere's case, these images were not available until later, since they were still being created by the artists in Japan. Again, the staff here really came through during crunch time.

Is there such a thing as a "traditional process?" Or does each game demand a notably different approach?

There's a core localization process that remains the same, but we tailor it to each individual project. We always start a project by meeting as a team and asking a slew of important questions: What is our target audience? What kind of tone are we going for? What is each character's personality like, and how will we convey that? What should the font look like? What is the line limit we're working with? Are we going to create special packaging, or add special features? In Odin Sphere's case, this grew into the idea of including the bilingual option, so that players could enjoy the game in English or the original Japanese. Next, we usually determine who will work on what, and in what order. Generally, voiced dialogue must be translated and edited first so that a script can be prepared for voice recording. In Odin Sphere, the extra step of checking the timing of each message was necessary, since scenes advance automatically rather than at the press of a button.

At this year's Game Developer's Conference, Square Enix's localization director, Richard Honeywood, emphasized that a key element in a good localization is to have constant communication between the translators and game developers. Does that sound about right?

Absolutely. Communication between all members of the team is key. Our editors work very closely with our translators, who in turn contact the developer when they have questions.

Were there any technical issues that made your job difficult? I always hear horror stories about cramming text into tiny boxes.

That's generally the case, since Kanji allows the writer to cram more information into a smaller space than the English alphabet allows. Aside from fitting the text inside the word bubbles, which in Odin Sphere's case had to be individually resized, we also had to worry about word bubble placement on the screen and the timing of the messages. We were also concerned that adding the bilingual feature might create new problems, but the developers were able to pull it off without any hitches.

What about cultural issues? Were there any jokes or situations in the game that needed to be changed for a Western audience?

There aren't a lot of jokes in Odin Sphere, and since it's set in an imaginary world, there were few cultural references compared to a game like Persona 3, which is set in Japan. As far as I can recall, there really wasn't anything that needed to be changed.

With the game featuring multiple heroes that all experience the storyline differently, their characterizations must have been a strong focus of the project.

That's true. They each have distinct personalities as well as back stories. These were identified at the beginning of the project, and were taken into consideration throughout the localization. To complicate things even further, some characters such as Mercedes exhibit a great deal of personal growth as the story progresses, so this had to be subtly conveyed through her wording and voice acting.

How difficult is it to retain something like personality and mannerisms when crossing the language barrier? Is there a danger of the Japanese character not matching up to the English one?

Well, it can be a challenge, but with the proper planning, the danger is pretty minimal. Believe it or not, we discuss characters' speech patterns in quite some detail. Sometimes we have to find creative ways to show their personality. For example, in Digital Devil Saga, we gave Cielo a Jamaican accent to show his easy-going, friendly nature.

All the characters in the game are represented by beautifully animated 2D artwork. Is there a connection between the visual presentation and the translation?

As I mentioned earlier, the Japanese version of the game has a Shakespearean feel to it. If you think about the dialogue scenes, they resemble a play as it would be performed on a theater stage. With that in mind, the dialogue was written in a somewhat elevated style, to give the characters a noble feel. At the same time, the game is framed in the act of a little girl reading a storybook. So, of course, there is also a hint of fairy tale writing sprinkled throughout, which complements the artwork in the game very well, I think.

Given the games that thrive in today's market, are you worried that there are gamers out there who will look at Odin Sphere and turn it down because of its perspective?

I am more concerned that people may never find out about the game. We're a small, but growing publisher, and it's a constant fight for attention and shelf space. I believe that once gamers actually hear about Odin Sphere or check out the trailer on our website, they'll immediately be drawn to it. There are a lot of fans of the fantasy genre out there, and this game has all the makings of a classic.

What about those that see ancient artifacts, prophecies and the end of the world and think, "Oh no, not this again?"

In our business, we're constantly asked to sum our games up in a few key phrases, or to name a few titles that they compare to. When comparing Odin Sphere to other games, it was really difficult to select titles that it had a lot in common with. Kingdom Hearts, Viewtiful Joe, Lord of the Rings, and Valkyrie Profile are a few examples we give. But, it's really quite different from all of these, and that's a rather diverse list. Once players get their hands on the game, they'll see that not only does it have a phenomenal story, but also incredible graphics and well-designed gameplay. But, don't take my word for it; check out some reviews. The first review the game received was a perfect 10 from PLAY magazine. I can't tell you how excited we were when we saw that issue.

Are you ever frustrated by game design elements during your translation?

Sure, once in a while. More often than not, it's space limitations. The worst is when you have to replace a single Kanji with a two letter English abbreviation. That can be confusing for players, so whenever possible, we try to find a way around it.

Capcom's Phoenix Wright: Justice For All was released with a myriad of typing errors, grammatical mistakes and the hilarious line from the bad ending, "The miracle never happen". How do you think that happened? Is time a major pressure?

I can't really speak for other companies, but Atlus prides itself on its localization. That's one of the reasons we have such loyal fans. They know that not only are they getting quality games, but quality translations. And, we continually challenge ourselves to live up to our reputation. Employees here are gamers themselves, and we care deeply about each of our products.

Television's a good way to unwind, of course. Tomm Hulett said he watched House for inspiration on his Trauma Center localization, and Jamie Ortiz pointed to Veronica Mars as his muse for Touch Detective. What did you look to?

Mike Meeker, editor for Odin Sphere interjects: For Odin Sphere, I took a hint from the developer and brushed up on The Bard himself, William Shakespeare. A little bit of King Lear and A Midsummer Night's Dream influenced my writing, and reading Beowulf helped me get some of the darker tones.

I was sort of expecting you to name a cooking show, what with item cooking playing a surprising part in Odin Sphere. What is it with cooking and saving the world anyway?

I don't know... Too much Iron Chef? "Whose Odin Sphere cuisine will reign supreme!?"

Throw away tradition and then embrace it when Odin Sphere hits the PlayStation 2 next week on 22 May.

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