Thursday, December 15, 2005

A Dark Day in Gaming

Yesterday, I saw a bit of gaming news that made me very, very depressed. Working Designs has shut it doors. Some other people might talk about the death of Black Isle or the end of Sega's hardware days, but for me, this is easily the worst video game news that I have ever heard. Apparently they've been dead for some time, but Vic (the company's head and founder) finally let everyone know a few days ago on the forum, and a little part of me died inside.

Working Designs was special in a lot of ways. It was a company built entirely upon Vic's love of Japanese RPGs, and his desire to bring those games to western audiences. Vic would choose a JRPG that he'd personally played and enjoyed and that had little chance of seeing a domestic release, and then approach the company that developed it and obtain the rights to translate it and release it domestically. It was a small company, employing anywhere from five to a dozen people, depending upon what stage of the development cycle they were in, which is positively tiny compared to the size of most development houses these days, and was fairly small even when it began making games some 17 years ago. Perhaps as a result of that size, Working Designs was always a very accessible company as well. If you wanted to know what they were working on or how things were going, you could simply visit their forum and ask Vic himself. It really made you feel involved in the process. To this day (and, unfortunately, probably not from this day forward), it's the only forum that I visit regularly.

Back when Working Designs began, game translations were often lazy products of Japanese programmers with a passing familiarity with English, and were barely readable messes. Some were more transliterations than translations, and nowhere was this problem more apparent than in niche-market, text-heavy RPGs. But then WD stepped in and showed people how to do it right. In fact, they even went further than that, and made the script their own. They did the sort of things that makes the twins livid, and that even I hate if it's done by anyone other than Working Designs. They'd take the script, and, rather than just translate it, would rewrite it entirely, to make it more accessible to western audiences. They'd rename characters, insert pop-culture jokes, re-dub any voice-work with western voice actors, and re-write and re-dub entire songs in English. It's the sort of stuff that makes me cringe today, but I really thank them for doing it back then. If the hadn't made such things so accessible to me as a child, I wouldn't have taken such a liking to them and be such a fan now that I can afford to be an elitist purist.

And they really pulled out all the stops in other respects as well. They'd update the graphics, add new in-game items or features, and various other bells and whistles. They'd include large hard-bound, full-colour instruction booklets with red cloth bookmarks, soundtrack CDs, and they'd write their own in-house strategy guides for sale separately. They released two versions of most games: the cheap package consisting of just the game and instruction booklet, or the pricey deluxe package consisting of the game and an omake box full of crazy and lovingly constructed extras, from cardboard character stands and medallions to a boxing puppet of the main antagonist.

One aspect of the way Working Designs conducted their business that turned a lot of people off was the delay between games. With such a small staff, and such an emphasis on quality, they were far from quick. Even at their most prolific, Working Designs never released more than a few games a year, and they were often not at their most prolific. They'd release a game to much fanfare, then disappear for half a year until their next one came out, leaving most people to forget who they were or that they existed at all. For this reason, they had a very small but very dedicated fanbase, of which I am proud to consider myself a member.

The delays were much worse near the end, with the wait between games measured in years, thanks mostly to Sony. Sony's approval process was unreasonably harsh, and after Vic fought to get the rights to a gem of a JRPG series, Sony would tell him that they wouldn't allow plain-looking 2D games on their system unless they were in some kind of collection and jumped through a few other hoops as well. Without the steady income of periodic releases, WD just couldn't survive, and in the end, it was the approval process for Goemon (which apparently is almost finished, but Sony still won't allow it to be released) which killed them.

If it weren't for the efforts or Working Designs, I don't think JRPG's would be as well-received in today's market as the currently are. Nippon Ichi might be releasing their own games here now, but I don't think their first games would have sold as well if WD hadn't paved the way. Without WD, I'd never have known the brilliant craziness that was Dragon Force for the Sega Saturn. I might not even have purchased a Playstation were it not for Working Designs. I had placed my bets early on in the previous console generation, and decided that I was a Nintendo 64 man. And I was, right up until Aiden brought his Playstation over and showed me Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete. I went out and bought a Playstation and Lunar the very next day, and never looked back. Lunar remains one of my favorite games of all time-- I can sing both the intro song and the boat song perfectly.

I never knew when I was playing through Growlanser Generations earlier this year that I was playing my last Working Designs games. If I had, I think I might have stopped and appreciated a little more that it was one last hurrah. I'm thankful that I decided in the end to buy the deluxe edition, with the jeweled ring and the deck of cards. If only more people had done the same. Goodbye, Working Designs-- I'll miss you, and the industry is weaker for your departure.

Update: For all zero of you that care, Gamespot did an interview with Vic recently on WD's demise.


Anonymous NOS said...

A test because if I type something up and this thing eats it again I'm going to kill something.

Thursday, December 15, 2005 6:29:00 PM  
Anonymous NOS said...


I shall ignore the main thrust of your topic (poor Working Designs) and comment on translation. Mainly because you called to mind a book I read a while ago on the topic.

Basically branching off the following: "They'd take the script, and, rather than just translate it, would rewrite it entirely, to make it more accessible to western audiences. They'd rename characters, insert pop-culture jokes, re-dub any voice-work with western voice actors, and re-write and re-dub entire songs in English. It's the sort of stuff that makes me cringe today..."

Long ago I would be lockstep with you (and, apprantly, the twins) on this, and I hesitate to comment as I've not even played any of the games you are talking about. However, in principle, I now no longer care for such "faithfulness" in the translation process.

The book this brings to mind is a pretty weighty tome on the topic of translation, called "Le Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language" by one D. R. Hofstadter (whom I've likely raved about at great length on many an occasion.) It's pretty rambling, but its main ideas are on the topic of what it means to "translate" something. This goes beyond "which of some set of grammatically correct transliterations of this sentence is proper" but talks about form, structure, style and everything in between. It has me thoroughly convinced that the form and structure of some creative work is nearly/totally on an equal level with the content itself.

So, as an example, if there are jokes that, when literally translated from Japan to English fall flat (because they rely on a different cultural background or just plain don't make sense (for example, wordplay/puns/etc.)) there is no reason NOT to replace them with something from our own culture (pop or not). I'd say not doing so is a failure of the translator, just the same as if he looked at some word/phrase that described a certain je ne sais quoi and thought "screw it, just leave the words in there."

Of course, I have no idea if that's the case in the games you are talking about. I'm just saying that there are many cases where a straight transliteration of material can really loses the heart of whatever it is you are translating.

Thursday, December 15, 2005 6:50:00 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Ignoring whether or not I agree with you, you have hit the nail quite on the head. You've pretty much just described WD's translation ethic (which they've always made a point of calling "localization" rather than translation). They've always emphasised style and tone over content, and replaced anything that they didn't think would make sense to western audiences with more accessible material with a similar thrust/feel. And Japanese humour is rife with wordplay that doesn't translate. Just watch Hamtaro on YTV sometime:

"I'm a used car salesman."
"Did you say octopus?"

That's not an actual example, but I've seen plenty just like it. There's a character on that show who's whole deal is that he makes constant puns, and none of them ever translate well.

All that being said, I still prefer direct translations, because I don't trust the translators to be as intelligent/skillful as the original writers, and for anything that doesn't quite make sense, I can try and fill in the blanks myself. Or a nice set of translation notes can fill in those blanks for me.

Friday, December 16, 2005 10:24:00 AM  
Blogger Stefan Robak said...

I prefer direct tranlsations with notes for anime, but with videogames, I would find that very awkward. I just think that it takes a special kind of translator (or team) to get the tone right, and that doesn't happen very often.

After all, there are a lot of Japanese phrases (and cliches) that sound really awkward (or cheesier than it was originally) when translated, but if one tries to rework it, it might lose the spirit of the what was being said.

Example: Japanese humour tends to be very different than English humour when it comes to delivery. I can't explain it too well and it's not alien enough to be completely radically different, but the fact is somethings weren't intended to translate. I mean, look at Homestar Runner. The cartoons there play with the English language and slang and it doesn't even make sense to narrowminded humour crowd.

My point? I don't quite remember. Oh yeah, translation requires a delicate balance and also needs to be someone who understands the difference not only in the languages but the way it is intended to be used. I hope this post didn't sound like vague goobledygook. I didn't have the time to type a clearer example of what I'm trying to say.

Friday, December 16, 2005 11:15:00 AM  
Blogger Stefan Robak said...

OK, what I should have added was that for videogames, I just think notes and such wmight ruin the flow of gameplay. At least if their constantly coming at you (if one can find a no-intrusive way to do that, I clearly wouldn't mind.

Friday, December 16, 2005 11:16:00 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home