The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles — The trials and tribulations of localization

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Localization is already a hard job. Now imagine doing it for a text-heavy game set around 1900 featuring two distinct cultures. Actually, imagine doing that for two text-heavy games. That’s the task that Capcom’s localization director Janet Hsu and her team faced with The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles.

This compilation came out earlier this week for Switch, PlayStation 4, and PC. It includes the two games in the Great Ace Attorney duology, which debuted in Japan for the 3DS in 2015. Chronicles brings those adventures to the rest of the world for the first time, and it represented a major challenge for Hsu.

Translating these games isn’t just a matter of looking up words in a dictionary. It’s a localizer’s job to capture the meaning, cadence, humor, nuance, and more of a game’s text and dialogue. Hsu explained to GamesBeat over email how she was able to make these murder mysteries ready for an audience outside of Japan.

GamesBeat: How much of a challenge is it to localize a game with so much dialogue? How many people and hours does it take?

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Janet Hsu: Yes, it’s actually quite the challenge given that it’s not simply dialogue. Each line could also potentially serve as a clue to a mystery the player must solve in order to make progress in the game. In addition to characterization consistency, the humor, and other common creative writing issues that arise during translation, there’s the added dimension of comprehending how each line fits into the overall plot and the story twists and tricks that are coming up. Of course, not every line is of the same importance, but you have to be able to write the important ones in a way that doesn’t stand out to the point of shouting, “Look at me, I’m foreshadowing something!” while drawing just the right amount of attention to it so it doesn’t get lost in the text.

The other big challenge in localizing the Ace Attorney series specifically is that our games use a scripting system to control things like when characters change animations, or when a sound effect plays. With The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles, this element was especially important since, compared to previous installments, the scripting of this series is incredibly detailed and precise. The original Japanese team wanted the text to be displayed in a way that mimics the way a person would talk, so there are pauses in the middle of lines and much of the comedy is conveyed through comedic timing, in addition to the text of the dialogue. Recreating that feel in the English version was no small task, and I hope what we’ve done will come across to players — especially if they’re the type to voice each line out loud as they play.

In addition to the feel of the text presentation, the translators and I worked very hard from the initial translation stage to ensure that the animations would also transition between one another without a problem. Again, compared to the previous installments which go for a more old-school sprite animation look, The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles focuses on making the animations look more grounded and smooth, so there are connecting animations between individual poses. They are more expressive as well since we can control the speed of each animation, so a single animation could be slowed down to show weariness or sped up to show excitement. This means that, for example, if a character changes animation in the middle of a sentence in the Japanese, we can’t have the English sentence be shorter than the original or we might end up with an animation bug such as clipping.

Nothing shady about this fella.

Above: Nothing shady about this fella.

Image Credit: Capcom

GamesBeat: Do you have to reference the scripts for past Ace Attorney games when localizing a new entry?

Hsu: I do sometimes reference past scripts when I want to make sure I quote a line of dialogue correctly, but generally, I don’t need to. It’s either already in my head or in a series glossary I keep. The other reason I don’t really have to is because many of the entries are written to be self-contained. This means that other than making sure that the characterization of returning characters is consistent, it’s mostly all new material every time.

But for The Great Ace Attorney, this was very much not the case. Because the two stories of The Great Ace Attorney: Adventures and The Great Ace Attorney 2: Resolve are so intertwined, there are a lot of cross-references between the two games that were crucial to keep consistent. In fact, the translators and I had to develop a referencing system so we could more accurately pinpoint and annotate which lines were related to what other lines. This level of narrative depth is one of the reasons I personally enjoy playing Ace Attorney games. It is even more apparent with The Great Ace Attorney, because you never know what you’ll discover on a second or even third playthrough that you never noticed before.

GamesBeat: How do you keep humor intact when translating a joke that depends on a culture reference that Westerners wouldn’t understand?

Hsu: This somewhat depends on if the joke is important or related to something else, but generally we try to keep to the same tone of the original joke in Japanese. In the mainline games, because it takes place in America, it’s easier to substitute the object of the joke for something more relatable, or to write a more relatable quip if that’s what the situation warrants.

In a more extreme example, there is a play on words in The Great Ace Attorney 2: Resolve around “chicken” (チキン) and “properly/precisely” (キチンと), which are similar words in spelling in Japanese. We went through a few other food ideas initially, but because the entire conversation building up to this pun is basically Sholmes pouting over not getting some “roast chicken” in the Japanese, I decided that we had to find a similar-sized bird to build this pun off. This is partially due to the very delectable-looking centerpiece in the background of the room, and because it had to be a food worthy of Sholmes’s envy. As for what we settled on, well … you’ll just have to play to find out, won’t you?

But besides simple joke substitution, there are a number of different ways to write humor in English that are not as common in Japanese and vice versa. For example, we use alliteration a lot more in English than in Japanese, and we use sarcasm and irony more regularly as well. So, adapting jokes can also come in the form of knowing when to use the right type of humor in the target language.

You have to investigate to find clues.

Above: You have to investigate to find clues.

Image Credit: Capcom

GamesBeat: In what ways were these Great Ace Attorney games more difficult to localize than past Ace Attorney titles?

Hsu: Tonally, stylistically, technically, culturally — everything is just at a higher level of difficulty than in previous games. To make the localized version look and feel as polished as the Japanese version required in-depth knowledge of how the game was constructed and of the Victorian and Meiji eras. So, it was fortunate that I was able to be on the original Nintendo 3DS version’s development team as a scripter for The Great Ace Attorney 2: Resolve and the in-game English text writer overall. Without that extra insight into the story and the scripting, I wouldn’t have had as clear of a vision for what I wanted to do from the start of the localization process.

Tonally and stylistically, The Great Ace Attorney games are much more grounded than previous Ace Attorney games. Not only do the two games draw (very loosely, I might add) on historical events and different cultural elements, the types of mysteries they tackle are also more intimate and are based around the daily lives of the characters involved. This means that the situations and characters are going to be more colorful and outrageous in ways we’ve never seen before, which the English writing style had to reflect on some level as well. These are just some of the reasons why I chose to go with a period piece style instead of a modern dialogue translation. Naturally, this decision resulted in a bit more work on the part of the translators and I, but I feel that the effort was worth it in order to elevate the English text to the level of “period feel” that the art and music exude with such charm and flair.

Culturally and historically, there were a few things we had to look up here and there about both Japan and the UK to make sure the information we were basing our dialogue on was accurate. But the translators and I were already rather knowledgeable going in (I’ve read a lot of Victorian novels in my time and have a love of Japanese history in general), so most of our energy was focused on making sure that important cultural references were being conveyed understandably and correctly.

Another difference between The Great Ace Attorney games and the mainline games is the importance and role of each character’s nationality and culture. In the regular Ace Attorney games, it isn’t as big of a consideration since almost everyone is American and it’s the modern era. However, one of the themes in The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles is the meeting of East and West, as embodied by the culture of Meiji-era Japan. So, we took great care to balance these elements in a way that anyone of any background can enjoy. This includes the use of Japanese honorifics to indicate when a character is speaking in Japanese and keeping Ryunosuke and Susato’s culture shock more authentic by retaining the more familiar Japanese things they compare new objects and experiences to.

He's not Phoenix Wright, but I still like him.

Above: He’s not Phoenix Wright, but I still like him.

Image Credit: Capcom

GamesBeat: Is it different translating a game when it has already been released in a different country years ago, as opposed to translating it while the Japanese original is still in development?

Hsu: It’s definitely a different experience in some ways, but the same in others. It’s the same in the sense that the overall process of translation, editing, implementation, and testing doesn’t change. But one very nice thing about working on something that’s already finished before I start is that there aren’t any updates to the text to worry about. Logistically, whenever I work on a title that is in the middle of development as it’s being localized, the development team and I have to keep track of what’s been updated, and I have to review and possibly rewrite lines as necessary.

On a related note, another bonus is knowing with absolute certainty where things like entire conversations are headed. Usually, Ace Attorney localizations don’t take place as the story itself is still being written, but sometimes in the final editing or testing phases, the Japanese text can change quite a bit. For example, a QA tester might find a contradiction that necessitates a big re-write. When that happens, the English side also has to take another look at that section and determine if anything needs re-writing, or if the change broke any other lines of surrounding dialogue. For example, say there was a cross-examination based around three spoons. Because in Japanese there is no singular/plural form for nouns, they may not need to fix much when it turns out it should’ve only been a single spoon. But for the English version, we obviously differentiate between singular and plural nouns, so that change in the Japanese would have broken the English translation in a way that has a large rippling effect on any lines related to those spoons.

Lastly, one more bonus is in the way I’ve had the time to really sit with the characters and get to know them in a way I don’t usually get to; normally, I only have the chance to play the in-development game once to get an overview before starting. Obviously, I worked with the translators to develop the characterizations for this localization, but I think a deeper understanding of what drives the characters and a stronger sense of how their personalities should feel helped a lot in crystalizing my initial proposals to them at the start of the project.

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