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999 and Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward Interview: Aksys gets things done

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Aksys is one of the feistiest companies in the business. It takes chances other companies wouldn’t even consider and is single handedly championing visual novel games on handhelds. It’s biggest risk and success is Chunsoft’s Zero Escape series, which includes 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors and Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward. These two games have shown there is a demand for intelligent, well written thrillers that challenge players to think critically to survive and reach a true ending.

I’m tempted to call 999 and Zero Escape cult classics, but I think they’ve managed to get enough mainstream attention to receive the honor of just being called “classics.” They’re the kind of games any 3DS and Vita owner should be playing. From one’s first moments playing, they’re pulled into an engaging story. It’s a novel experience and I think it’s because of the efforts of Aksys Editor and Translator Ben Bateman and Nobara Nakayama that both games work so well. GamerTell was able to send some questions their way, and the two volleyed back a response. I hope it’s enlightening!

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GamerTell: 999 and Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward deal with some pretty serious subjects. When you go through the translating/editing/localization process, do you have to get any zone or start reading, watching or listening to similar media to get you in the right mindset? Or does the writing and feeling just come naturally?

Ben Bateman: For the most part I guess you could say it comes naturally. I did spend a lot of time on Wikipedia, researching the Prisoners Dilemma and some of the other concepts they talk about, but generally I don’t seek out similar media to consume while I’m working on a project—in fact sometimes I actively avoid it. I don’t want to end up just making stuff a pastiche of a movie or TV show I just watched, and if I’ve been watching stuff with similar themes, that’s all too easy to do.

Nobara Nakayama: Personally, the Zero Escape series is engaging enough that I don’t really need to watch or listen to anything similar. In fact, I feel like if I do that, my feelings will shift to that piece’s tone, so I try to just focus on the title on its own. As a fan of Uchikoshi’s writing, and a person who loves to read, I’m easily drawn into his storytelling and I can instantly get myself in the zone.

GamerTell: With so much text, I’d imagine translating 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward was more like translating a book rather than a game. What kind of challenges come from such intensive projects and does it influence the way you tackle the translation/localization process?

Bateman: The biggest challenge is keeping everything straight, especially with something like 999 or VLR that has branching paths. When Sigma and Alice exchange a few lines here, has he learned about her past yet? Even if they don’t explicitly mention it, that knowledge could affect their word choice, or their attitudes. Fortunately, most of the broad logic has already been dealt with by the development team, who would have struggled with the same thing, but there will still be plenty of times where specific word choice in English will need to reflect whether a character knows something or not, and that means we have to trace their path backward a bit, which can get tricky.

VLR has a large, interesting cast, and their characters make up a good chunk of why people want to read the story—or at least they should. For projects like this, before I start editing I write up a document that lays out some characterization details for each person. In VLR, for instance, for each character I solicited character descriptions from our translators (since they’d played the game and I couldn’t), and then wrote up my own thoughts on characterization, agenda, secrets, and who I imagined them sounding/acting like in my head. Dio, for instance, I described as “Asshole version of Ben Browder, a bro,” while I imagined K as a cross between Grissom from CSI and a sort of zen C-3P0.

For 999, I’m not gonna lie: I was in a huge hurry and pretty much did everything on the fly. Exhilarating! The challenge was getting everything done on time. Other challenges kind of had to take a back seat.

Nakayama: (Spoiler alert) For a title like this where narrative is such a key element to the actual gameplay, the challenge is your battle against time. [Kotako] Uchikoshi’s writing has so many twists and turns, you pretty much need to know the stories in and out. So the challenge is to find a way to play the whole game, understand how everything works, and then tackle localization.

For 999, I played a good chunk of it before I started to localize and the process was very smooth. But I remember the moment I finished the game I was more than half way through translating, and I saw the big ending about door 9. The plot was a Japanese pun! I remember the minute I saw that I thought FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF and I got up, looked at Ben, and said, “Uh oh…”

Ben’s eyes grew wide and I remember saying, “We have to talk.” And we halted localization and had to put our brains together to make it work. After we figured it out, we contacted Uchikoshi immediately and had to discuss how to go about it.

Because of the pun ending, we had to look throughout the whole game to make sure it all made sense.

For VLR, the challenge was to be able to catch the little hints the game gave where it had the characters coming in and out of a different time zone. Since that plot is revealed towards the end of the game, we had to make sure we caught those subtle hints.

999 zero escapeGamerTell: One thing you notice with both 999 and VLR is that the games both flow really well and don’t read as though they were translated from a different language. Is this just because the source material is that good (and you’re awesome) or is it because of the localization efforts (and your general awesomeness)?

Bateman: Both, of course!

It should go without saying that the source material is great, and it’s 90% of the reason 999 and VLR are as good as they are.

The other 10%, I would humbly submit, is us being awesome. We take the “localization” part of “Aksys Games Localization” very seriously, and this means adapting the text, not just translating it. Often, translation can come down to a decision: Do I make this sound like something a native speaker would say, or do I keep it strictly accurate to what was written in Japanese? Our philosophy is to tend toward the former. A game is a piece of entertainment, not a textbook; this is definitely a case where you don’t want the letter of the law, but the spirit.

The best way to do this, in my experience, is to shift your scope and look at the text from a wider view. Instead of examining things on a word or even sentence level, look at it line by line, or even scene by scene. Forget what it says—what is this line or scene trying to convey? How would you convey that in English? There might be people who say that’s disrespectful to the original author, which I admit is a concern I’ve grappled with, but ultimately I think it’s the opposite: As attached as they might be to their words (and most writers are very attached to their words), an author knows that when their work is translated all those words are going to disappear. What’s going to remain are the ideas, and it’s up to the localization team to convey those ideas in a way that’s as true to the spirit of the original text as possible.

Nakayama: Yes. It’s just that both Uchikoshi and we are awesome.

GamerTell: What was one of your favorite segments to work on in VLR?

Bateman: Luna’s ending.

Nakayama: Because I was so engulfed in the story, I loved to work on the revealing and emotional parts. So I can pretty much say all the ending parts were very fun. It was so emotional, and this was where it was dependent on us the localization team to properly convey the emotion to make the story come alive. So it was both a pleasure to work on but the part we needed to take seriously the most.

GamerTell: Was there any character in the series so far whose dialogue has been exceptionally fun to write?

Bateman: I always very much enjoy writing character who are snarky, clever assholes, so Snake in 999 was a lot of fun, as was Phi. In addition to snarky, clever assholes, I also love writing utterly evil, egotistical assholes, so Dio was delightful. G-OLM was also a lot of fun, and an interesting challenge, since I’d never written anyone who spoke like that before. Whether or not he was reasonably accurate or believable I’m still not sure…

Nakayama: I liked the interaction between Sigma and Phi. They have that weird vibe like they’ve known each other for years, and they kid around while being complete strangers.

I also liked writing Dio’s part. He was such a bastard from start to finish, and it’s sometimes refreshing to write mean things. At the end of the day you can blame the character’s personality for being mean and not your own.

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GamerTell: Though both 999 and Zero Escape: VLR deal with serious subject matter, there’s also quite a bit of levity. For example, early on in VLR, Phi goes through all the superheroes she isn’t and when Sigma is pondering how he found himself in that situation, he wonders if he had an affair with a politician’s mistress. Was this present in the original scripts or were you given the go ahead to “wing it?”

Bateman: Phi’s joke about superheroes, in its current form, was not in the original game. She makes a joke there, but it uses Japanese word endings to make a bunch of puns that would make absolutely zero sense in English, so I had to come up with something else. It…took me a while. I think that section remained empty until pretty late in production because it was so hard to come up with something that fit. Sigma’s comment about having an affair with a politician’s mistress is 100% straight from the original text, though.

In general, I’m given pretty free reign in terms of what I can change or add. As long as it doesn’t disrupt the game or the plot, I can do more or less whatever I want. Usually, whenever you see a joke or pun in the script, there was a joke or pun in the Japanese, just a different one. I usually try to make the joke “type” and content/ideas match as closely as I can. For instance, in the storehouse when Alice, Clover, and Sigma are trying to figure out what to do with the card slot underneath the monitor, there’s a joke where (in Japanese) Clover says it might be for a “Suica.” A Suica is a sort of bus/train pass in Japan that you can also use to buy stuff, but it’s also the word for “watermelon.” The joke is that apparently Sigma thinks she wants to try and shove a watermelon into the slot. Obviously that wouldn’t make sense in English. The joke I changed it to also deals with Clover and Sigma misunderstanding what the other one is actually talking about, although instead of a watermelon, it’s a credit card and Snake’s…equipment.

Nakayama: No, this part is all Uchikoshi. He loves to throw in random jokes…and often times they were jokes that were popular during his time or cultural jokes. So when I see those I laugh… then pull out my hair because I know it just won’t resonate in the U.S. since we don’t have a cultural background like that. And already I can see Ben IMing me asking, “Explain”…and it’s really hard to explain.

For instance the “sukumizu” in the original stood for “School swimsuit.” There’s so much cultural background to that word. It depicts high school girls and their innocence, and the perversion behind it. It’s more accepted in Japan, but how can we make it “appropriate” to the U.S. audience? Those are the moments I just leave it in the hands of Ben to make it similar in tone of being funny while being appropriate.

GamerTell: One of my favorite parts of Zero Escape: VLR is Sigma’s verbal tic where he starts using cat puns when he starts looking at or talking about a cat. It’s purrfectly integrated into the plot and I was wondering it was beclaws you were just directly translating them from Japanese or because you were able to make up your own feline puns?

Bateman: In Japanese it’s super easy to make someone “talk like a cat” or any animal, really: You just add the noise that animal makes, or in some cases just the name of the animal, to the end of their sentences. Cats go “nyan” in Japan instead of “meow,” so in the original Japanese, all of Sigma’s cat sentences just end with “nyan.” Sometimes this is just translated more or less literally as “meow” so you end up with lines like “It’s a book about cats, meow.” I felt like that was kind of boring, though, so I decided that it would be more fun for him to spontaneously erupt into puns instead. Zero III is actually the same thing. In the original Japanese version he adds “usa” to ends of his sentences which is short for the Japanese word for rabbit, “usagi.” I don’t even know what noise rabbits are supposed to make in English, so I went for puns again instead.

999 ds 2 zero escapeGamerTell: About how long did you work on each game?

Bateman: I believe I was editing VLR for about 4 months straight. I think 999 was about two months, but at a pace I would describe as “feverish.”

Nakayama: For 999 and strictly translation, I spent roughly 30 business days to translate it. During the beginning half of the game, we had an addition to our staff and she assisted me in the translation process.

For VLR, the whole translation department (which was 3 people including me) was involved in the translation and it took us a little over 3 months to finish.

But for me, I do both translation and correspondence to help the project run smoothly, so I also had to do email correspondence with Spike Chunsoft to make sure we were properly conveying the message and the game worked as intended. So if we consider all of that, for 999 I spent roughly 8 months and for VLR it was a little over 9 months from when we received the text to release.

GamerTell: How do you feel about 999 and Zero Escape: VLR‘s success? Did Aksys have any idea that the games would be so well received?

Bateman: I feel pretty good about it! I’m glad we were able to put out something that people really seem to enjoy. As far as what we expected… I can’t speak for the rest of the company, but I was a little surprised at how well the game was received. 999 especially was an extremely wordy game that focused mainly on reading, a lot, and solving some puzzles. It was also an M-rated game on a platform with fewer of those than I have digits. We had some idea how well VLR would do based on 999, so it was a little less of a surprise.

Nakayama: Honestly, for 999 many people didn’t have much faith in it. I think a good chunk of us turned it down during evaluation period. At the time, the visual novel genre was pretty much non-existent in the U.S., and many of the staff members who evaluate the games can’t speak Japanese, so it is very hard to determine what is good. That was probably why many said no to it.

However I was among the very few who actually wanted to localize it. I played it, and I was hooked from the start. I remember I even personally asked the CEO during my review, “If we do it, I would like to head the localization team.”

Aksys took a big risk to localize it, and 999 was such a cult hit—it was very surprising. And that gave me hope for the visual novel genre. There was room for its success; we just needed to tap into the right market.

For VLR, because of the success of 999, none of us questioned its success. We knew that it was going to be received really well and it’s gotten to the point that it was nominated as best narrative for GDC’s Awards.

zero escape ally betray
GamerTell: Nonary Game: Ambidex Edition Time! You’re in the box right now and have to choose “Ally” or “Betray” after answering 9 questions. You have 7 BP and I have 1 BP. What do you do?

Bateman: “Ally,” obviously. If you do the right thing, we both get some points, and I can stick around to make sure everyone gets out. If you make the mistake of picking betray, I have enough points that I’ll be fine once the AB Rooms open, at which point I can…deal with you appropriately.

Nakayama: I will ally…because I need you alive to let my interview out to the public. :p

Both 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors and Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward are immediately available. You can grab 999 for your 3DS at the bargain price of $19.99. Zero Escape: VLR is available for either your 3DS or Vita for $39.99 each, both as physical and digital copies via the appropriate stores.

Site [999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors] Site [Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward]

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