Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Bravely Default: Get off my censorship and trust localizers

at 7:30 PM
This week Bravely Default is finally making its US debut after what seems like months of buildup and fanfare. Frankly I feel like the game's been out for weeks, the way everyone already seems to have made up their mind about whether it's the savior of JRPGs or just another in the line of formulaic boredom. Much to the chagrin of some fans, however, this Western release will be coming in "censored" form. Forget for a minute that every game is translated and localized and modified to fit the culture and linguistics of the country of its release - as a game that garners interest specifically from groups who follow and even treasure Japanese culture, the localization changes to Bravely Default were bound to be noticed. These particular changes involve the modification of some female character outfits to be more conservative and the adjustment of ages of sexualized characters from ~13 to ~18.

On the right are the original costumes from the Japanese version, on the left are their localized counterparts. Not sure if it was one of these characters or another who looked similar who was aged up.
I don't really want to talk about what is or isn't 'appropriate' content for games/media. We could be dealing with a depiction of intercourse, graphic violence, drug use, overt racism, or any other taboo subject. Today it happens to be sexualized teens. I'm not well-read on the formal ethics, psychology, or legality of these depictions in fictional and animated works. There are those that say they're utterly harmless fantasy, others who say they're tantamount to pedophilia. Some maintain they sublimate inconvenient urges, others say they encourage them, and others say they have no relation to attraction to real teens whatsoever. It's not wildly different from the debate on video game violence except that people are a lot less fond of publicly discussing (and particularly defending) a subject that's two inches away from the words "kiddie porn". For most, "it makes me slightly uncomfortable, but I'd rather just ignore it" is enough said. The debate over content is irrelevant to the topic of censorship itself - we can all agree that sexual depictions of <18-year-olds is highly unpopular in mainstream American media. If you desperately need something more concrete than "unpopular in the mainstream", well, the legal age of consent is 16-18 in just about every state and pornographic depictions of individuals under 18 or presented as under 18 are illegal.

I don't know exactly what Japanese standards are, but we wouldn't be having this conversation if they weren't somewhat different from the above. There's no question that they have a higher tolerance for the sexualization of teenage and even prepubescent girls, particularly in animated media. I have no clue how this content is looked upon by the Japanese public, whether it's driven by the consumer base or considered explicit, tasteless excess, fringe, or actually accepted as fine. I just know it is somehow prevalent and manages to make its way over here - whether because of the wholesale appropriation of the video game / anime / manga subcultures, with their every nook and cranny, or truly representative of its predominance in media is again irrelevant.

All we need to agree upon of the setup is that Japanese media companies sometimes create content that many Americans consider completely inappropriate.

The idea that the changes to Bravely Default were "censorship" probably never even occurred to the localization team. I wonder if, in their minds, they weren't thinking, "let's make these characters a little more relatable to Western audiences, put them in an age range where guy's'll feel comfortable crushing on the girls and the male characters won't all look like predatory pervs". Are the localizers overstepping their bounds here? The fact that this team has been accused of "censorship" indicates that there are those who believe these are not the "creators" of the game and therefore they should have zero input; but isn't editorializing a crucial part of localization? Modifying the content of a game so that it maintains the same feel between regions of release? Of course that's going to include editorialization - if you wanted a literal translation you could go to Google Translate (or just jump back to the late '80s). It's up to the localizers' discretion to determine what is and is not appropriate - do you expect Japanese game developers to be any more knowledgeable about American social mores than an American engineer is about Japanese? Every work of art is perceived through a social lens, so even a concept as seemingly concrete as a 13-year-old girl is totally subjective. Is it not a matter of interpretation (correct or incorrect) to say that perhaps Western players think of 18-year-olds the same way Eastern players think of 13-year-olds? Perhaps it's well-known to the localizers that this type of game is more popular with teens in Japan but with adults in the States. I'm not sure - that's their call. In the extremely global video game marketplace, accounting for the cultural makeup of audience lens is a creative decision in and of itself, and one entrusted to localization departments.

It's funny for the subject of localization to become so controversial and even be labeled as censorship, as I'm sure the decision to adjust an age and a costume as in Bravely Default is utterly mundane compared to the rewrites many games have undergone. While it's absolutely crucial that publishers respect the original writers' intentions and not meddle any more than necessary with their work, this all amounts to part of the creative process. Like it or not, game's are very rarely an auteur's medium. Certainly AAA Japanese RPGs are not. They are a product of dozens or hundreds of individuals who each contribute in their own capacity to a final product. Where do we draw the line at what is the "original" vision for a work and what is an unwarranted rewrite? At best it can only be done situationally, but most of the time it probably can't be done at all. Who's to say that the original concept for Bravely Default didn't star naked elderly amputee bear-women before a producer slapped down the idea as wildly untenable? Sure that's a straw-man, but the point is that changes happen at every phase in a product. Just because you liked one stage better than what ultimately replaced it doesn't mean it was "right" or "original".

At the end of the day, the only way any of us are able to play Bravely Default is because Square Enix decided to localize it. How they did that was entirely in their hands 100% of the way, and if you would have preferred that they not localize the game and leave it in Japan with scantily-clad 13-year-olds intact, well, fuck you. The rest of us want as many games to come to as much of the world as possible. Every decision Square made along the way was ultimately made with the intention of selling a product to as many consumers as possible. Was the game implicitly "censored" by "what people like?" Uh, yeah, in the same sense it was "censored" into being a turn-based RPG with gorgeous hand-drawn graphics and orchestal music etc. How you can call that censorship - a company having full creative control over its products and how and where it will market them - I honestly can't imagine.


  1. I mean the one thing I'll say is that the argument makes more a bit more sense if the original creative team and artists and whoever had absolutely no say (they probably didn't care?) And you're a consumer who demands the authentic voice. But I guess even then its not like they're blessing the text translation or something. I agree with I just can sort of understand the desire to have as close to the artists vision as possible

  2. Surely the more input from as many involved as possible, the better each phase can be refined - there's no reason the original team shouldn't get a pass at the localization - but
    1.) realistically, even assuming the original team is fluent in all appropriate languages (remember, we're not just talking Japanese to English here - just think of the number of languages that go into a EU translation), there's only so much time and money that can be spent on endless rewrites when
    2.) it is the localizers' job to do this and they are a known step in the process, paid for and experienced in preserving voice, and
    3.) the "original artists' vision", if you really want to believe such a thing exists, is still intact in the native version of the game - so this isn't a case of an artist having his work snuffed from existence. and if the audience is truly THAT dedicated to experiencing that original, well, it IS out there for them to play.

    I didn't put this in the article because I didn't think it was terribly relevant, but I'm someone who reads in multiple languages, has read many works in two languages, and is very antsy about reading translations. Why? Because THE ORIGINAL VOICE IS NEVER PRESERVED. It just isn't. It sounds snobby, but to understand a work as written, you have to read it in the original language. You can get the gist of it, you can certainly like and even love a translation, if you can't read the original language, there is still every reason to read a translation, but a translation is NOT the original work. It's just not what was in the author's head. It's a work based on his work. So I don't take complaints about the "authenticity" of subs/dubs/translated video games very seriously, because I realize that essentially I am reading the bipartite work of a translator + a writer and the quality has everything to do with how smart/clever/funny/perceptive the translator was. Again, this doesn't have a lot to do with altering outfits, but that's why I don't give *much* of a shit about "loyal" localizations. It's all about capturing the spirit.