Toby Fox is living the dream. Pretty sure that’s stressful.
Toby Fox’s Undertale is a great game. Quirky and fun, it’s a game about a child who falls down a hole into a land of socially awkward monsters. It’s touted as an RPG where you don’t have to kill any enemies, which is true, but not the main reason the game is so popular. More than anything, it’s really an RPG with a ton and a half of charm.
Like many indie games, Undertale was made on a pretty small budget (~$50,000 raised on Kickstarter) and didn’t have incredible ambitions. Certainly no plans to release it internationally.
Then the game went on to achieve a Metacritic score of 92/100 and, depending on your sources, sold between 1 and 2.5 million units. Won a bunch of awards and, much to the chagrin of many people, won that GameFAQs popularity poll.
All that said, give the game a whirl. It’s about 10 hours long and $10, and way better than a sandwich or anything else that only costs $10. It’s not a perfect game, and it’s opening hour is pretty slow, but it’s worth sticking through to the end. And then, after finishing it, realizing all the things you missed.
What I’m more concerned about today is the localization into Japanese that was just announced. In general, when we in America and “the West” talk about localization, it’s from Japanese (or wherever) to English. We talk about what elements were changed or removed, whether it’s the removal of that weird petting mechanic in Fire Emblem or overtness of Kanji’s sexuality in Persona 4.
Often, the term “localization” can feel dirty, as if it’s implied that the new game is less than the original. Where translation deals mainly with words, localization deals mainly with culture. And when the culture is different in different places, things change. Sexual elements often get changed and removed to market things in America, which has pretty conservation views on sex. Unintentional references to things like the KKK get removed when the original creator didn’t realize that something might be offensive in another culture.
It’s not that the words are different: it’s that the creator’s original vision was meant for their culture. So to get that vision as close to the original, ironically, sometimes things have to change.
Some people obviously object to this notion, but it makes sense. Consider a game that deals with political corruption and nepotism. In the culture that made the product, maybe even just mentioning those things is a big deal. On the other hand, putting the product in a culture where nepotism is considered “helping out your family” and is seen as a good thing, the message could be lost entirely without some changes.
Consider the car. In America, the “road trip” is a big part of the culture. Traveling around in a car, not really knowing your direction. In Japan, the equivalent is the train. Just as the car symbolizes America, the train symbolizes Japan.
Where does this fit in with Undertale?
First, the オイラショック. Japanese fans were surprised after debating whether or not the character Sans would use 僕 or 俺 for his name, and finding out that the localization went with オイラ. For many people, mind blown.
But for me, this seems like just the surface. What made Sans and Papyrus funny was their fonts, neither of which have a great Japanese equivalent. Why is San’s the funny guy? Comic Sans! Which is what his font is written in. Nevermind the whole wingdings thing (Undertale spoilers). At least they did their best to recreate a Japanese version of comic sans and papyrus.
On the other hand, many Japanese people will probably be aware of the 三途の川 (さんずのかわ), which also served as a kind of inspiration for his name, so there’s that.
Second, I wonder how references to Japanese media, which appear in Undertale, will be translated. Or, if left alone, will be interpreted. Consider this scene (spoilers) where the player has to answer the question: “Is anime real?”
This scene, though bizarre no matter the context, feels pretty tongue-in-cheek to an English speaker. It feels like a reference. To a Japanese speaker, the equivalent question seems a lot more plain. Anime, instead of being slightly “exotic”, is plain. Common. To get the exact same feeling, perhaps they’ll ask if Marval movies are real. Who knows? In any case, I’m curious.
This is precisely where Persona 5’s localization ran into problems. It asked questions about things like kanji, Japanese politics, and history, when English speakers have absolutely no clue. In comparison, these things have relevance to a Japanese person’s life. While Persona is distinctly Japanese, and fans would feel out of place if they made it “take place in America” or something equally absurd, there are changes you can make that ease people into this. Like an anime subbing community that explains the pieces of cultural knowledge that might be lost to someone outside of that culture.
Localization isn’t easy. But nothing good is.
It’s still a wonder to me that Undertale is getting a Japanese release. And it’s wonderful! I wish more media were unbounded by place and language, able to be experienced by everyone. Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of costs involved. But when something is able to overcome those costs, I think the world becomes a better place.
I also recommend replaying a game you’ve played or watching a movie you’ve seen in English in Japanese. It’s always interesting to see what gets changed, what references are gained or lost, and how the product feels on the whole. If you’re into localization, this is essential.
And best of luck to fellow Northeastern University alumni Toby Fox. Good luck in all your future endeavors.