On playing video games in a foreign language

by wfgodbold

Some commenters on today’s Xenoblade letter-writing-campaign against Nintendo piece on Kotaku (wow, that’s a mouthful) suggest that the only way to be sure you’ll get to play the games you want is to import, and that people who are complaining should instead spend their time learning Japanese.

Other commenters point out that any Japanese you learn in a few months’ time isn’t going to let you fully understand the game, and so why bother? It’s better to lobby for the localization of the game, so that they don’t miss any of the plot!

I’m of two minds; on the one hand, I play games in Japanese all the time, and understand probably 80-90% of the text. On the other hand, I’ve spent a few years studying Japanese, including almost ten months in a homestay program in Japan. Not everyone has that kind of time to devote to learning a language just so that they can play video games that might or might not come out in English.

On the gripping hand, the argument that you have to be able to understand everything is flat out stupid; most of the actual important gameplay related instructions are going to be in normal Japanese, as are the various quests and such. If you can understand “Go to location X, kill monster Y, and bring me item Z,” then it doesn’t really matter what those MacGuffins are, just that you be able to recognize those names when they pop up again.

I first realized this several years back while playing through Xenosaga on the PS2 in Japanese; at first, I was struggling to pause and translate every bit of dialogue in the cutscenes. After a couple hours of this, though, it struck me: I was translating technobabble.

It wasn’t going to actually mean anything whether I glossed over it in Japanese or strung together a bunch of sciencey English words; it’s all made up as fancy window dressing. You run into the same effect in fantasy games; the magic sword of magic is just as magical if it’s powered by angels or faeries or song or whatever. The details are unimportant.

Aside from technobabble/magicbabble/mechababble, most of the dialogue in video games is going to be standard dialogue that you would go over in a language class; once you’ve learned the right verbs, following the plot becomes easy (unfortunately, my classes didn’t cover important vocab like fight, kill, attack, magic, and such; I had to pick it all up on my own).

While a basic understanding of the language is obviously necessary, you don’t have to be fluent to enjoy import gaming.

All you need is a console that can play import games (PS3, PSP, DS), and a willingness to take a bit longer on your playthrough than you might with a game in your native language.

5 Comments to “On playing video games in a foreign language”

  1. In any media format, I prefer to hear the original voice actors.

    If there is a re-dub its always done by a 2nd Team director.

    • Oh, I agree; redubs are almost always worse than the original (I believe the Cowboy Bebop director actually prefers the English dub to the Japanese, but that’s a rare case).

      I wasn’t really talking about dubs versus subs here, though; I meant more like games that were released in Japan and then never officially translated or released in the US. Like Mother 3, the GBA sequel to Earthbound.

      Not every game fans want gets translated and released, so in those cases, the only (legal) recourse is importing and playing in the original language. Some people think you have understand every single piece of dialogue or exposition to play those games, and that’s not the case at all.

  2. I’ve got to disagree. I used to be of your mindset when I played through import games on the SNES (even making up my own plot on the fly if I was inspired), but I really like to get into my RPGs these days, plot, battle system, and environment combined, and if I can’t do that, it’d be like I’m reading a novel made of mad-libs. Or perhaps going to a 3D movie and watching it with one eye closed.

    I would also like to see the game localized for the reason that it adds more to the “Core games on Nintendo Consoles” table. Nintendo, being the last surviving game-focused company, is bending over backwards to make development easier and more cost-effective for third parties and it’s about time that those third parties start putting their best foot forward on the Wii, Wii U, and 3DS.

    • I agree that it’s better for the games to be translated and brought out in the US than not, but for games that will never be translated or localized, I’m just saying that it’s easier than most people think to play through them without being fluent.

      I’ve given up on Nintendo as far as core gaming goes; they’re more interested in bilking parents and retirees for systems and shovelware than they are in publishing games that fans want. I understand why; they’re answerable to their shareholders, and parents and retirees buy far more consoles and games than even the most die-hard fans do. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.

      The work is already done on Xenoblade; it’s been translated into English for the European release, but Nintendo can’t be bothered. This guy has the right idea; statistics are the only way to get them to listen, and even then it’s a long shot.

      It’s no skin off my nose either way; I don’t own a Wii, and I’m not planning on buying one. Aside from a few first party games, there aren’t any games I’d play, and I’m not going to buy a system just to play a handful of games.

      If their systems were region-free, they’d at least sell me a console; I’ve played as many Japan-region games on my DS, PS3, and PSP as I have American region games. I’m not going to limit my options by buying a 3DS, Wii, or Wii U when I don’t know that the games I’d be interested in are ever going to see the light of day in the US.

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