Monday, March 24, 2014

What a Game Translator Sees

There's a man standing against the side of an old brick building at the corner of an alley. He looks around nervously and is doing a bad job of hiding the fact that he's trying to obscure his face with his trenchcoat collar. This must be the blogger you agreed to meet. He sees you and beckons you over before immediately retreating further down the alley. You follow and meet him in the privacy offered by the surrounding buildings.

"Hey," he grunts and looks around one more time. "What are you buyin'?"

"Dunno. What are you sellin'?" you reply, keeping your voice low.

The man's eyes light up slightly, acknowledging your code words. With a decidedly untrustworthy grin, he opens one half of his trenchcoat, being sure that only the outside is visible from the street. Inside, you can see the goods: screenshots of an Excel spreadsheet. You look them over, making sure not to appear too interested, lest he try to raise the price.

"You say you got these without a non-disclosure agreement?" you ask, even though you've already decided that you're buying either way.

"Yeah. Sure. Whatever. That's what I said, right? You buyin' or what?" the man answers quickly. You can tell he's getting antsy and isn't in the mood to haggle over a price or make idle conversation.

"Fine," you mutter abruptly and pull out your heavily-used and partially damaged smartphone. After transferring the agreed upon amount of Dogecoins to his account, you show him the confirmation screen. With a grunt, the man hands over the screenshots and is gone by the time you look up from checking them over.

So what's it like to translate a Japanese game to English? And what did that introductory story have to do with anything? To the first question, it's pretty cool; and to the second, not much, except that I have some behind-the-scenes screenshots of an Excel spreadsheet to show off. Let me say, I am no expert on this subject at all. I have a B.A. in Japanese language, but I've only ever translated games for fun. I did, however, apply for a translation job for a visual novel game for iOS and Android devices, for which I got turned down. As a sort of audition, I was given a sample to translate, which came with general instructions in a Word document (telling me make sure the translation wasn't too literal and sounded natural in English, with various examples of what not to do), specific instructions in a Power Point presentation (telling me which areas needed to be translated, how the relevant coding worked, and about character limits), and finally, an Excel spreadsheet containing the text to be translated. 

Usually, this kind of thing is kind of secret, but in all the instructions and correspondence, no one ever told me not to share this stuff so... lucky you - I'm sharing it!

Keep in mind that this is only one example of one game, in one genre, on one (or two) platform(s). Game text from other games may look completely different.
As you can see, the spreadsheet contains multiple worksheets. This first one is labeled "System Sheet" and contains the "Code Page" table, which explains the meanings of the English variables and parameters in Japanese. On the right, it also explains how to access debug mode and what can be done in debug mode. Nothing on this page is relevant to the translator.

The GAME tab contains character names and image file names. Not shown in this screenshot (on purpose), is also the game's title and ID and other header information. On this page, the translator must translate the character names, which can be no longer than eleven letters. This can be a bit tricky, since some of the names could have multiple possible pronunciations and their intended pronunciation wasn't given to me in this sample (nor were their character portraits, for that matter). Later on in the process, names can also become an issue because it is common to refer to someone by their last name in Japanese at times when it would be weird to do so in English. There are also times when you'd use someone's name in English, but in Japanese, they'd use the person's title (like "brother" or "upperclassman"). In addition to that, a character's gender can be difficult to determine unless explicitly stated, since you can get by just fine without saying "he" or "she" in Japanese.

The bulk of the text to translate is on the numbered "Text" tabs. The part that needs to be translated is only the dialogue in row 13. All of the information above that tells the game which backgrounds, character portraits, font sizes, and effects to use. Although there were no examples of it in this sample text, it is also possible to give the player decisions on this page and redirect them to different text depending on their choice. In the dialogue box, the number in brackets determines which character is speaking and refers back to the character names table. In this example, [0] is the player's character and [7] is some other character. Each line of dialogue can only be up to 90 characters long, so this can sometimes present a challenge when translating, as Japanese words and sentences are written in much fewer characters (thanks to kanji and a lack of articles). However, it is possible to add more lines if needed; you just have to format it correctly.

The other "Text" pages are more of the same, so that brings us to the end. I hope that you found this look behind the scenes to be interesting (unless you're the company that made this game, in which case, you never told me not to do this! I'm innocent!).

"Can't get enough of this stuff, eh?" The mysterious blogger grins and gives a wheezy, phlegm-choked laugh. "How about we make it more interesting this time," the man says while reaching into his pockets to pull out several hyperlinks of varying color.

He continues, "You get a choice. Click a link and you might find something you like. Or," he grins and cackles again, "you might not. 's up to you; I ain't gonna make ya."

"So, what'll it be, you gonna play or what?"

You look into his outstretched hands, compelled by his intense stare. You choose... 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Depths of Boatmurdered - A free horror game not featuring boats

Free Download
I'll be honest, I don't play very many horror games. My experience is limited to a few hours of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, watching my friend play older Resident Evil games, and seeing a few Let's Plays on Youtube. And while I'm being honest, let me just say that the creator of this game was my college roommate back in the day. But don't think that that means I'm going to go easy on his game; he beat me enough times in Smash Bros. that I've been looking for another outlet to exact my revenge.

Depths of Boatmurdered is a free top-down style horror game inspired by the legendary LP of Dwarf Fortress featured on Something Awful, and from what I've seen of top-down horror games, they seem to mostly consist of wandering around and examining every object until you find an item you need or the correct place to use the items you have. Then sometimes there's a jump-scare or you have to run away from some monster. There's nothing particularly wrong with that setup if the items and solutions are intuitive enough, but it still lacks the interactivity that you'd get in something like a top-down Zelda game.

That's the sort of game I was expecting coming into Depths of Boatmurdered. What are the chances that someone I know actually made a horror game that's anything better than average, right?
Next stop, probable death.
So I started up the game and, lo, and behold, my character has amnesia of some kind. That sure is an epidemic among game characters, isn't it? Fine, whatever, the premise was a bit cliché, but I kept going. After a brief walk in a thunderstorm, I made it into what appeared to be mines, which is where the majority of the game is spent (but that's not to say that the structure and design is without variation). Early on, I collected keys and wooden planks to get across a bridge. It's fairly simple item collection and use, but the items are graciously visible and don't require you to inspect every bookshelf and pot in the game. Also, the game features some lighting effects in combination with a fog of war that hides unexplored areas and rooms in darkness. This may seem like a small detail, but it really makes the game feel well above similar games in presentation and overall quality.
This man- (or dwarf-) made area distinguishes itself from the surrounding natural caves.
As I continued, the game continued to impress me and exceed my expectations. The different areas of the mine managed to still feel distinct, and while the puzzles barring your progress were rarely very challenging, they and the surrounding areas felt like believable parts of the world. For example, there are rooms that serve no purpose to you, the player, but do appear to have served a purpose for whoever used to work in the mine. Also, even with most of the game taking place underground, some areas looked as though excavation was in progress while others appeared to be natural caves which had only started to be explored. Still others looked more residential and functional: houses, graves, and developed structures, as opposed to dirty mines.
Crossbow training. Each bolt must be loaded before it can be fired, so you'd better learn to plan ahead.
The gameplay also develops beyond simply finding and placing items when you acquire a crossbow early on. In good horror game fashion, you have limited ammunition and can only stun enemies with the crossbow, so you'll still feel vulnerable to the various fast (or slow) moving monsters throughout the game. There is a healthy variety of enemies and these are made more frightening by the eerie ambient sounds and crescendo of noise when one is suddenly after you. Each new enemy encounter is a cautious affair, as you don't know how each will react or what will set it off. There are even a few boss fights which are quite epic. I won't spoil them, but there are some other new gameplay elements introduced throughout the game as well to keep things fresh.

The story, on the other hand, only progresses through surreal visions and dream-like transitions and doesn't develop too much beyond a functional shell with which to contain a cool game. While there is closure to the plot in the final moments of the game, you'd be likely to forget that there even was a plot during most of your playthrough. Perhaps some things were references to the Boatmurdered LP series which I wasn't very familiar with.
I played through the whole game for your viewing pleasure, but if you have any interest in playing it, 
don't watch too much of this or else you'll have stuff spoiled for you.
Also, while the ambient background audio and monsters were creepy and offered a few scares, I didn't find the game to be all that horrific most of the time (then again, I was playing during the day). Still, Depths of Boatmurdered is consistently fun to play from beginning to end and contains its fair share of cool, epic, and creepy moments, even if they aren't necessarily the scariest things ever. Guess I don't get to have my revenge for those Smash Bros. games after all.

As of the writing of this review, I have only played the closed beta of the game, but it is already very polished and will be ready for public release within the next week or two. 

It's now available for downloadYou can also follow the game's creator,@Eldiran on Twitter.

For more scary stuff (at least to me as a kid) click this link
Or maybe take a look at the adorably terrifying Amnesia: A Machine for Pugs. That is, if you dare...

Monday, March 10, 2014

Spot - The 7 Up NES Game

Sometimes the cool and refreshing taste of 7 Up® just isn't enough. Sometimes you need a 7 Up® themed video board game to go with your delicious lemon-lime beverage. Luckily for you, there is Spot: The Video Game, a multiplayer strategy board game available on Amiga, Atari ST, DOS, Game Boy, and NES featuring the red spot from the 7 Up® logo. This review will focus on the NES version.
The game works similar to Reversi and identically to the arcade game Ataxx. Two to four players, with any combination of humans and computer controlled players, battle over a grid which measures the perfect number of soda ingredients (seven) both up and across. The goal is to have the most tiles of your own color when the grid is filled or to completely eliminate the other players' tiles. Players can select a space adjacent to one of their occupied spaces to copy their color onto that space or they can skip a space and move their tile without copying it. Any opponent-owned tiles that your newly moved piece touches become yours. That's it; simple, yet complex, just like a cool glass of 7 Up®. (By the way, there's also a hidden space that gives the person who first activates it a shot at stopping a slot machine and winning a free turn, but that's pretty insignificant in the long run.)
There can be a lot of thought and strategy involved in playing this game, so if you're taking it seriously, one game could go for a good half hour or more. But if you're playing with your mom and she takes forever to decide on a move, you can actually set a turn timer for each player individually to force them to make a move or else forfeit their turn. The difficulty of computer players can be changed as well. If those options weren't enough, you're also able to design your own board by enabling and disabling spaces beforehand or by choosing from one of many preset designs, in the same way as you can choose from any of the delicious and/or low calorie varieties of 7 Up® soda.
After 20ish years, I once again played Spot with my dad.

Spot: The Video Game replaces the rather macabre scifi theme of Ataxx with its own hip (and family friendly) Spot character who stands on the side snapping his fingers to the music while he waits for you to make your move. There is also a fluid and unique animation and short musical ditty which accompanies each of the possible moves you could take. Apart from the short bits of music that go with the move animations, Spot has one main theme and it's not half bad. However, unlike taste of Cherry 7 Up®, the music does get old after a while.

At the end of the game, the winner is treated with a fireworks show and an animated crowd holding up signs to say "BLUE (or whoever) WINS". It's almost, but not quite, as entertaining as winning Windows Solitaire.

The Final Word
Unlike Itadaki Street / Fortune Street, which expanded on physical board games to a level that could only be achieved with a video game, Spot: The Video Game is simple enough that it could be played as an actual board game without too much effort. That said, there is a fair bit of strategic depth to this easy-to-learn game. If you're a fan of playing board games on your TV, grab a 7 Up® and give Spot a try.

This is part of a series on forgotten games from my childhood. Previous: Super Solvers

Monday, March 3, 2014

23 Things Xenoblade Chronicles Does Right

Alright, you guys hyped up Xenoblade Chronicles enough that I couldn't ignore it any longer. Believe me, I was skeptical. I figured that there was no way this game could be as good as everyone was saying it was. But, well, you were right. Xenoblade Chronicles goes above and beyond my expectations and makes me realize how much room for improvement other RPGs have. Now, I've yet to actually finish the game since it is so gloriously long and full of content, but here are some of the things that make Xenoblade so great. And don't worry, it's spoiler free (and also in no particular order). 

1. It has a day/night cycle
Lots of games have day/night cycles, but, then again, many don't. In Xenoblade, not only are different items, monsters, and quests available at different times of the day, but you also get to see all the awesome views of the game's vast world in different lighting. And there's different music for day and night as well.

2. You can change the in-game time
But having in-game days and nights can be a pain if you have to wait around for morning before you can do a particular quest, right? Well it's a good thing that you can change the time of day from the menu then.

3. Weather
Along with the time of day changing, the weather will also change. Sometimes there are thunderstorms, just like in real life! The weather isn't just for show either; certain monsters only appear when there's a storm. You can't change the weather from the menu though, so if it's storming, you should probably haul butt to that place you needed to go for that one side quest.
4. Exploration is encouraged and rewarded
This game is huge and wide open. For once, it doesn't feel like the world is just a bunch of towns connected by artificially walled paths. You don't have to go everywhere, but if you do, you'll find landmarks, items, creatures, and interesting scenery. You get experience for discovering new landmarks and some also allow you to fast travel. Also, chances are that you'll be completing some quests along the way for even more rewards.
5. You can jump
Rarely will you need to jump, but it's nice that you can. Your movement options are not limited to a single plane, surface, or path. 

6. Exploration isn't limited by invisible walls
There are few, if any, invisible walls arbitrarily stopping you from going places. If there's a cliff, you're free to jump off of it and see what's below (assuming you can survive the fall damage). If you can see it, chances are you can go there.

7. There is fast travel
As I've said, this game is vast, but thankfully you can easily jump between major landmarks that you've been to. There are just enough of these so that you can quickly get to where you want to go, but not so many that running on foot is completely made obsolete.
8. Battles happen on the field with visible enemies (not random encounters)
There's nothing particularly wrong with separate battle areas, but being able to see and engage in battle with enemies right on the field helps the game feel less like a game and more like an actual believable world. It's also nice to be able to pick and choose your battles in certain situations. You'll see huge high level enemies even near the beginning of the game. You're free to challenge them, but since they aren't random encounters, you're perfectly able to avoid them.

9. The battle system is deeper than it appears
I feared that Xenoblade had what I call a "click and wait" battle system akin to that in most MMOs in which you would mostly watch your character auto-attack enemies and wait for your special attacks to finish cooling down so you can use them again. While this game's battles do look like that at a glance, there is much more depth than meets the eye. Different attacks are more effective in different positions, drawing enemy aggro to or away from certain characters can help you get into advantageous positions, using certain moves in combination can inflict stronger status effects, you can get visions of the future and prepare accordingly, and small additions to the core battle system are added as you progress through the game.
10. Collecting crap is rewarded in the Collectopaedia
Apart from monster drops, there are also collectible items just laying around everywhere as little blue orbs. You can use them for quests or just hoard them all, but you could also use them to fill up your Collectopaedia, which generously gives out rewards for complete sets of collectibles.

11. Tons of quests, clearly marked with exclamation points
So. Many. Quests. Any NPC with an exclamation point has a quest for you, and while they do tend to just be "kill this monster" or "get this item", they don't feel like a grind because it's likely that you were going to end up killing that monster or getting that item anyway. It's also a good excuse to explore more. Instead of only getting the experience and item drops from killing things, you get the rewards of the quest as well, usually without even needing to return to the NPC.
12. Time sensitive quests are marked as such
But don't you hate when you miss out on cool sidequests because they were only available during a certain part in the story? Well, fear no longer, because in Xenoblade, time sensitive quests are clearly marked in your menu.
13. Items you'll need for future quests are marked
Since the main character has a magic future-seeing sword, you can also see which items you'll need for future quests that you haven't even accepted yet. You'll get a short vision when you pick up one such item and they'll also be marked in your inventory.

14. Many NPCs have names and relationships
The world isn't just populated by nameless identical people who tell you the same thing over and over. Many of the NPCs have names and they will talk about other named NPCs as well. As you talk to them, they appear on a relationship chart and you can see how they all relate to each other.
15. You can trade with named NPCs
The named NPCs aren't just for talking to either. You can also offer them trades for whatever they might have.

16. The story isn't super cliché
I can't speak for the entire game, but so far, the story isn't the typical JRPG tale. I mean, the world is on two colossal dead or sleeping giant god things, for Bionis' sake. That's crazy. Furthermore, the translation sounds like natural English and doesn't reek of literal Japanese translation like many JRPG translations do.

17. The voice acting doesn't suck
Maybe it's just because European accents in video games are a change from what I'm used to, but it definitely seems like the English voice acting is a cut above most games.

18. There's an option for Japanese voice acting
But if you don't like the English voice acting for some reason or prefer Japanese, there's the option. Every game should have this option.
19. Cutscenes have action and show it
Don't you hate when every cutscene uses the same few animations and all the action happens offscreen in a Star Trek: TOS style flash of light? Well Xenoblade's dialogue may be accompanied by the same few animations, but the game doesn't skimp on action packed cutscenes with characters jumping around and doing cool stuff. Also, you're actually free to enjoy them because they aren't interrupted by Quick Time Events.
20. It overcomes technical limitations of the Wii with strong art direction
The Wii isn't the most powerful console on the market. As such, Xenoblade Chronicles doesn't have HD graphics or super detailed models and textures. But it seems that the developers were aware that the textures would look muddy up close and made up for it by putting the focus on the horizon. With a world as big as Xenoblade's much of the beauty is taken from its sprawling landscapes, huge structures, and far reaching views. It's also bursting with color. Simply seeing the sights is incentive enough to explore and keep playing.

21. It has great music
Art is subjective, so listen for yourself.

22. You can save anywhere
If you're not in a battle, you can save. Why is this not more common?
You can even save in a dead god's lung fluid? This game's an insta-buy!
23. Dying isn't a pain
I hate when RPGs make you reload your last save when you die. Xenoblade doesn't do that, so not only do you not have to worry about saving every time you do something, but you also don't have to worry about dying as much. You don't really lose anything if you die; you just go back to the last major landmark you visited. Or, if it's a boss battle, you go right outside the clearly marked boss area, which, by the way, does not make you rewatch the cutscene on every attempt. I love that so much that it could probably have been Thing #24.

Bonus afterthoughts: Different equipment actually looks different when you have it equipped. It's freaking long.

That's 23+ things and I'm not even close to finishing the game. I know Xenoblade is fairly hard to come by, at least in the US, and that you have to go through GameStop to get it, but if you like RPGs at all, you really need to play this game.

Update: Now for 5 things Xenoblade does wrong! It's only fair.

So you like games with a good story? Have you played Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward yet? Prepare to have your mind blown.
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