Trail Blaz’r: An Interview With Mike Engler of Aksys Games

Mike Engler’s humility surprises me. Not that anyone deserves an inflated ego, mind you. It’s just that as an editor, he’s been behind the localization of some of my favourite games. With a resume that lists works such as Retro Game Challenge and Muramasa Rebirth, it’s a wonder he could show any worry over the quality of his work.

But for Mike, a self confessed Localization Drone (as well as Text Monkey, and Text Magician), Aksys Games’ upcoming visual novel, XBlaze Code: Embryo, is a far cry from the projects he’s handled before. Not that he’s unprepared; Mike has had his hands in the BlazBlue series of fighting games, a world that XBlaze serves as a prequel to. Set 150 years before the BlazBlue games, players take on the role of Touya Kagari, a high school sophomore whose adventure unravels some of the greater mysteries of the BlazBlue universe. Even those unfamiliar with BB will enjoy this tale of multiple factions seeking out the power that created the universe. XBlaze is announced to release this Summer for the PS3 and Vita.

I got the opportunity to speak with Mike about XBlaze Code: Embryo, as well as some of his past work.

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It’s great seeing Aksys continuing to release visual novel games with XBlaze Code: Embryo. Other publishers are joining in on the fun, so I’d like to know what you feel sets XBlaze apart from games like Virtue’s Last Reward and Danganronpa?

Mike Engler: Probably the biggest thing is that, unlike Dangan and VLR, which I’d consider adventure games, XBlaze is more of a pure visual novel. While there is a certain level of player interaction in XBlaze, it is far more subtle, with the results of the player’s choices not always immediately apparent until they get further into the story.

Another difference between XBlaze and its ADV compatriots is the presentation of the story scenes. They tend to be far more dynamic and play out more like an animated feature; with multiple camera angles used to give a sense of movement.

I have to add that all three games mentioned are worth playing, so grab them all for a couple of months’ worth of entertainment.

Is it possible to explain the game’s title, XBlaze Code: Embryo, or does that dip into spoiler territory?

ME: My stock answer to questions like this was “I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of Area 51.” However, since the US government confirmed that it’s there…

But yes, there is a Santa Claus; and bacon does go with just about everything.

XBlaze is a visual novel set within the world of the BlazBlue fighting series. Fans can look forward to some revelations, but how would you sell this to a player not acquainted with the series (something I’m guilty of)?

ME: The story in XBlaze stands alone, so you don’t need any knowledge of the BlazBlue universe to enjoy it. I’d recommend the game to those who like anime, but wish they could nudge the story in different directions. And, of course, XBlaze is also a (hopefully) must-buy for visual novel fans wanting a solid, slightly sci-fi/action-adventure story.

Oh yes, and there’s an amusing, not to mention sizable, Easter egg included that I hope people will take the time to search out.

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With the unacquainted taken care of, how will you entice BlazBlue fans to take a dip into the Visual Novel genre?

ME: Oddly enough, this really isn’t much of an issue, as BlazBlue‘s story mode is essentially a visual novel, although punctuated with the occasional fight. You’d be surprised how many people buy BB just for the story, and while basically a wholly separate game, XBlaze talks about the origins of certain…aspects…found in the BB storyline.

On Twitter, you’ve expressed some self doubt over your work on the title. You career is marked by some terrific localizations, so I’d like to know what makes XBlaze so different?

ME: Thanks for the kind words, though I wouldn’t personally describe anything I’ve done so far as “terrific” per se, mainly due to the fact that, with one exception, deadline constraints have never allowed me to polish a game’s text to a level I’d like. But that’s a complaint probably every editor in the localization salt mines has.

As for my concerns about XBlaze, it mainly stems from the fact that it’s the first true visual novel I’ve worked on. Unlike every other game I’ve edited, where the main focus is on the game play, XBlaze is entirely driven by its narrative. So if the story and dialog aren’t up to snuff, people won’t want to play it, or drop it after starting it.

If you play any of the other games I’ve worked on, you’ll notice a few writing quirks of mine, such as my love of GRE-level vocabulary, (over)use of oxford commas, and addiction to compound sentences. However, none of these things really occur in normal conversation, and definitely wouldn’t fly considering the setting of the story. So I found myself going way outside of my comfort zone and having to write the dialog so that it read in a much more natural and conversational style. After doing a quick once-over of the text recently, I’d like to think I mostly succeeded, though there are a few things I’ll probably change before final master, time permitting.

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The TOi system seems interesting, as it let’s players interested in the world understand it better, while also opening new narrative paths. Can you explain the TOi in detail? As well, does the game progress like Virtue’s Last Reward, where players can jump around a flow chart?

ME: TOi is basically an in-universe news aggregator that grabs articles from the (in-universe) interwebs based on the user’s set preferences. More importantly, it’s set to the preferences of the main character, and will update throughout the game. The story will follow the path determined by which articles the player chooses to read or ignore, as well as which of the other characters in the game have read the same article(s).

A notice will be displayed during story scenes to let the player know when new TOi articles become available (and when a TOi-related event is taking place), but players aren’t obligated to check it right away, or indeed, at all.

And unlike the flowchart in VLR, where your choices are pretty clearly laid out, the paths to the various endings in XBlaze are a bit more subtle.

Are there any romance systems in place between characters?

ME: Maybe?

With Arc System Works as the developer, what do they bring to the genre that you wouldn’t see from a studio like Idea Factory or Spike Chunsoft?

ME: Every company brings something unique to the genre, and Arc isn’t any different. In the case of XBlaze, the presentation is far more dynamic and anime-inspired than the average visual novel. As I mentioned earlier, there are a lot camera angle shifts and multiple perspectives used, as opposed to the normal 3/4 static portraits normally found during VN exposition scenes.

However, I feel the need to add a disclaimer: I really haven’t played too many visual novels outside of our releases and a couple of other big titles, so I am far from being an expert on the genre.

Barring any surprises from the series’ past, is the game’s cast largely composed of new characters?

ME: XBlaze takes place around 200 years or so before the events of BlazBlue, so all of the characters are new and unique to the game…more or less…

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In speaking with folks like Ben Bateman and Phoenix Spaulding, it’s clear that a good relationship with the developer is paramount for an editor. How is it working with arc? Are they surprised that XBlaze is coming to North America?

ME: It definitely makes things much easier when the devs are on your side. Working with ASW has been pretty straightforward and there haven’t been any real issues to speak of outside of the normal things that occur during the course of localization. I’ve mentioned it numerous times in various interviews, but NOTHING will break a game faster or more completely than swapping out text.

As for whether ASW is surprised about XBlaze coming over, I can’t really say. But both us and Arc have put in some serious work to make the game solid, so hopefully people will buy the game and enjoy the fruits of our labor.

How did you get your start as an editor? Is it something you always intended to do?

ME: Like most of the people that I know in localization, I just sort of fell into it. I had just returned to the states after a number of years overseas and was actually looking for HR positions at the time. A friend of mine worked at a placement agency and recommended that I apply at XSEED. I got the job, after which my friend attempted to assassinate me by taking me out for/with Sundubu jjigae (I’m deathly allergic to shellfish, one of the main ingredients in the stock used in the dish).

Is it fair to ask you to pick a favourite work of yours? I’m partial to Retro Game Challenge, myself.

ME: A fair question, and one I have an answer for. I’m probably most proud of my work on Muramasa Rebirth, with the characters I worked on in BlazBlue: Continuum Shift coming in a close second (doing the conversations between Taokaka and Ragna was a joy).

And as for your favorite, I did a series of blog posts on 1up way back in the day if you’re interested in some of the more sordid details of the localization of RGC.

You can see links for all of the entries near the bottom of the page; I think there’s five of them altogether.
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With Retro Game Challenge, you managed to take a game about the Japanese experience of a child playing games and make it work for an American audience. How did you come up with using American writers in the in-game magazines? Did the Japanese version do something similar?

ME: In the original game, the devs used the names and pictures of the staff from the TV show and we all thought it was only appropriate to do something similar. So we reached out to a number of editors and writers within the North American gaming press and after a number of boring legal details, got permission to use their likenesses and whatnot.

As for the actual adaptation of the text, I went into it in some detail in the before mentioned 1up blogs, but the approach was to keep things as close in intent to the original as possible. That meant doing a bit of time shifting in terms of gaming trends, but I think it turned out rather well in the end, especially all of the fake game titles I had to make up when doing the sales rankings in the magazines.

Muramasa Rebirth is an interesting project of yours. Your work on the game was the second localization it had received (after originally being published on the Wii by Ignition). Not only was your work being compared to the original Japanese, but also it’s English counterpart. Did this impact your process at all?

ME: Nope.

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I’m currently playing through and enjoying Jikandia. One thing I’ve noticed is that the dialog windows leave little room for text, and it can move slowly to the next line of dialog. Did this present any problems in the editing process?

ME: Not so much in the editing stage, but the QA process became somewhat exciting, to say the least. The character limits for that game were…fluid…to say the least. In fact, I’m not sure I ever got final ones.

On a side note, I really like the dialog in that game. A shame more people didn’t play Jikandia; I thought the Half-Minute Hero crowd would’ve appreciated it, if anything.

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At this point in your career, are there any dream projects you would like to work on?

ME: Not really, if only because I have no idea what games are coming down the pike. I would like to work on another visual novel, though, as I find the process of editing them to be a challenge.

Best of luck Mike, I’m very much looking forward to XBlaze’s release!

ME: Considering how long I’ve been living with XBlaze, so am I…

Xblaze Code: Embryo is expected to release this Summer at retail and digitally on the Vita and PS3. XBlaze screenshots are from the Japanese release, and cone courtesy from the PlayStation Blog. For more from Mike, you can follow him on Twitter at @Aksys_Mike02

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One thought on “Trail Blaz’r: An Interview With Mike Engler of Aksys Games

  1. Pingback: Xblaze Code: Embryo developer Diary is out now. | A Pixelated ViewA Pixelated View

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