A Fascination With Localization: An Interview With Aksys Games’ Ben Bateman

As an editor at Aksys Games, Ben Bateman plays a crucial role in the games you and I play. Were it not for his profession, I’d be bumbling my way through a mountain of kanji, hiragana, and katakana in my efforts to enjoy the latest out of Japan. Bateman manages to take the original material and turn it into something I can understand, and more importantly enjoy. But it’s not as simple as finding the English equivalent of each and every word (which isn’t even possible in many cases), Bateman localizes games in the truest sense of the word. Whether it be the niece of a renowned video game producer, or an AI that speaks in rabbit puns, he takes a title’s script and makes it work best for an English speaking audience. From 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors to Sweet Fuse: At Your Side, Bateman has constantly impressed, and is certainly at the forefront of his craft (you can find his portfolio here).

Ben Bateman took the time to speak with me about Sweet Fuse, Otome in North America, and how the name Akane is not always a reference to 999. If this interview isn’t enough, be sure to follow him on Twitter!

Your work speaks for your experience, but did you ever struggle writing for Saki? She’s a female protagonist, and the game requires a lot of emotional writing. Did you ever need to run some of the dialogue past other women to test its ‘authenticity’?

Ben Bateman (BB): Occasionally I would ask my co-workers if a given bit of text sounded romantic or just dumb, because I’m one of the least romantic people I know, but apart from that, not really. Most people just talk like people, which is a group that includes women.

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Sweet Fuse has a very playful tone, but there is still lives at stake in the game’s fiction. Was it at all difficult finding the language and dialog that can walk the line between fun and danger?

Ben Bateman (BB): Not really. Balancing humor is often an important part of anything that’s serious/high stakes, because if you don’t have a few jokes in there it starts to take a huge mental toll—look at horror movies for instance, they usually include humor (albeit often pretty dark humor) to help the viewer along. There’s a period of adjustment on a title, where I need to get a “feel” for how it thinks, but after that it’s usually smooth sailing.

What is the biggest barrier to Otome games ‘catching on’ in North America, and what would you do to fix that?

Ben Bateman (BB): I think one of the biggest barriers is just lack of acceptance of visual novels in general. They’re still pretty new in the west, and I think people either aren’t read to accept them as “games” or aren’t quite sure what to do with them yet. As the visual novel genre gets more “normal” I think otome games will start to catch on more.

Unfortunately I also feel like there tends to be an undercurrent to the discussion of otome games in the games press that runs along the lines of “Ah yes, games for women obviously those can’t be very good/ha ha how quaint and adorable, games for women.” I actually talked about it on Tumblr a bit, if you feel like reading it.  Although part of this is tied into the larger issue of how our society looks at gender and sexuality, some of it is just a result of how the discourse happens with these games. Press members play into it by asking questions like “Can guys enjoy otome games too? What’s in there for them?” (spoiler: yes, they can) and I play into it too by offering answers like “Well Hakuoki doesn’t have that much romance and there are samurai and supernatural stuff and political intrigue.” These kinds of questions aren’t really getting to the bottom of anything, they’re just reinforcing the idea that these games are something other, something outside what we consider “real games.”

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I feel like right now otome games kind of get treated like a curiosity, and that ends up marginalizing them, and their fans—and discouraging potential fans. My hope is that the popular image of them can become more “normalized” for lack of a better word. Nobody thinks twice about a game where the point is to spend 6 hours murdering aliens—how is that so much less odd than a game where you spend 15 hours trying to kiss boys? For our part, I think we can help by trying to present and market these titles as fully rounded experiences—not just falling back on “Look ladies, HOT MENS” as an advertising strategy—and encouraging people to talk about them. The more titles there are, the more all this stuff will happen. Right now, they’re still pretty new, but I have high hopes. 🙂

Do you feel the need to defend Sweet Fuse (and visual novels in general) as ‘games’ to critics?

Ben Bateman (BB): Nope.

With the Zero Escape series, you were very much in touch with its creator, Kotaro Uchikoshi, through its localization. Were those behind Sweet Fuse just as accessible to you?

Ben Bateman (BB): Not really. We were able to get in touch with the team when we needed clarification on terms and story elements, but it wasn’t as close of a relationship as we had with Uchikoshi.

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The art of localization is more appreciated than ever, with folks like 8-4, Ltd. and Nintendo’s Treehouse rising to prominence. But is there still a struggle with people understanding the difference between localization and translation? How do you please both sides?

Ben Bateman (BB):  I don’t. Pleasing people demanding a “literal translation” is impossible, because there’s no such thing. The nature of translation is change. To me, the end result of our work is not a translated game, but a game—it’s a piece of entertainment first, and a piece of entertainment that used to be in Japanese second. If we fail to make the game entertaining, it won’t matter if the translation is “closer” to the original Japanese. If the game is entertaining, hewing “closer” to the Japanese won’t matter.

In your work, has there ever beem a time where you worry you’ve put too much of yourself in the localization?

Ben Bateman (BB): There are almost certainly some, but I’ve forgotten them. :3 I have had some friends tell me that when they read a game, they can tell I worked on it because it sounds like me.

Some localizations can be criticized for involving memes or current pop culture for humour (such as Bill Clinton jokes in Working Designs’ titles). Is there a place for this, or does this kind of humour date a title?

Ben Bateman (BB): For stuff that I work on, I have a couple of loose guidelines that I try to consider when I feel like doing something along those lines.

  • Does the joke/reference include concepts that would be unknown to people in the world where it takes place? For instance, in an imaginary fantasy world, “Bill Clinton” almost certainly don’t exist, and therefore a joke that references him by name would be exceedingly strange. This only relates to specific things, though. Obviously someone in a distant space-faring civilization would have no idea what the significance of “It’s over 9000!” might be, but the concepts in that sentence are perfectly normal ones and not foreign to that world.
  • Does the joke/reference call undue attention to itself? That’s hard to judge, of course, but oftentimes if I find I need to ask this question the answer is probably “yes it does” and it should therefore be left out and/or reconsidered.
  • Does the tone of the game feel like it can accommodate the sort of referential/meta humor I want to put in? This can manifest in a lot of ways, but an example might be that a Lord of the Rings joke would fit Agarest much better than something else since they both have a fantasy setting.
  • Does the joke reference something that happened in the past year? Usually if the answer is yes, I’m reluctant to include it, since it has yet to stand the test of time, so to speak, and there’s no way to know how relevant that joke will be twenty years from now.

Ultimately, though, it’s all about what you think fits. If it feels like the game is constantly winking at the audience, then I feel like your jokes have started to take over the game (unless that’s the point of the game, of course). Extremely topical jokes can definitely date a game, although in some cases I don’t know that that’s necessarily a bad thing: Sometimes it can be fun to play a game like that years after it was released, because it feel like an artifact of the past, and maybe stokes a bit of nostalgia. It’s definitely something to be careful with—goodness knows I could probably stand to put less of that kind of humor in the stuff I work on—but I think sometimes it has its place. Ideally, I feel like meme jokes or pop culture references should be kind of like little hidden treats for people who get them: they don’t stand out, but they’re fun when you find them.

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You’ve tackled many genres as an editor, is there anything that you’d like to try your hand at? Anything outside of your comfort zone?

Ben Bateman (BB): Not especially. I’d just like to work on games with good stories and interesting characters.

Forgetting the business side of things for just a moment, is there any title, old or new, that you dream of localizing for the West?

Ben Bateman (BB): Duel Love! Also I’d love to do Grand Knights History, but mostly just because I want to PLAY Grand Knights History. Before NISA snatched it up, I probably would have said Danganronpa.

Has any of your own work been translated into another language (French, German, etc.)? How did that feel, and was there anything lost from being twice removed from the original Japanese text?

Ben Bateman (BB): I’m not aware of any, although I suppose it may have happened? I’d definitely be interested to see how it ended up if it was translated from the English version, not the Japanese one. It could be fun to see how much stuff changes.

Lastly, I have to ask if the name Akane was in the original Sweet Fuse text, or if this is a little shout out to your love of the Zero Escape games?

Ben Bateman (BB): Nope, she was called Akane in the original script. 🙂

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