Interview: Brian Gray on localizing Gotta Protectors
For Michibiku’s fifth anniversary, we’re sharing our favorite pieces from our five years of existence. This was originally posted on 9/9/16.
Graham: We love talking to people involved in game localization and getting a better sense of the process. It certainly doesn’t hurt when the game is a blast and the person is as nice as Brian!
Brian Gray is a veteran of the localization industry, working on big franchises such as Kingdom Hearts and Fire Emblem, cult favorites like The World Ends with You and Jeanne d’Arc and recent releases like Xenoblade Chronicles X and Azure Striker Gunvolt. We talked with him about his latest project: Gotta Protectors, a 3DS eShop release from composer Yuzo Koshiro’s studio, Ancient.
Graham Russell, Michibiku: Thanks for talking to us, Brian! To start, could you talk a bit about your history in games localization and your involvement with Gotta Protectors?
Brian Gray: I’ve been in game localization for about 14 years now. I started out as an in-house translator at Square Enix, then went freelance, which I’ve been doing for about 11 years or so. I’ve worked on something between 60 and 70 games now.
I first heard about Gotta Protectors — called Minna de Mamotte Knight [みんなでまもって騎士] in Japan — from a Japanese friend who talked me into playing through it with him. I think it was something of a cult hit here. Anyway, we started playing on a Saturday morning and basically just tore right through the game over the weekend. The co-op gameplay, the lighthearted story… everything felt just perfect.
So I started thinking, “Somebody should translate this. Why hasn’t this been localized? I want to translate this.” And then strangely, that same week 8-4 contacted me about doing it. It was really weird how that happened, but I was on board right away.
So was Gotta Protectors a solo effort, or were you part of a larger team?
BG: 8-4 had their usual — awesome! — team looking over everything and handling the bulk of communication with Ancient, but the translation was entirely me.
As you said, you’ve worked on games for big publishers, too, like Square Enix. What’s different about working with a smaller operation like Ancient on a passion project like this one?
BG: A lot of things! I think the biggest difference is that this was basically Ancient’s deal at the time. This was what they were working on. So they really cared about it a lot. That’s not to say big companies don’t care about their projects; they do. But right from the start I could tell Ancient really wanted the localization to be good.
The game is written in hiragana [simpler Japanese characters], not kanji. Even for native Japanese, it’s a little bit slower to pick through because you don’t have the kanji for meaning. But someone at Ancient went through and rewrote the whole script in kanji, just for us. Their notes were great, too.
About the kanji thing: is that a technical limitation, a nod to old-school games’ constraints or something else?
BG: It was a nod to old games. Developers didn’t include the whole kanji set in NES games because of memory limitations, so games were largely written in hiragana and katakana.
The first game in this series, Xbox 360 Indie Games release Protect Me Knight, was known — to those who found it — for its unintentionally bad, consistently endearing attempts at English text. Was that a factor at all for you when working on this one, and if so, how?
BG: Not really. I find it endearing, too, but it’s not something I thought about copying. You need to not be able to speak English to produce that kind of English, otherwise it comes off as either fake or insensitive. And the game script was so funny and well done in Japanese that I didn’t want to obscure that behind a gimmick.
The previous game didn’t have much of a story, so maybe it didn’t matter as much.
That’s true! I have to say, though: I miss “TAKE CARE BOTH” and “MORE MORE MORE MORE MORE MORE MORE TORNADE” a bit.
BG: (laughs) It’s funny: Lola has this thing where she swears, right? In symbols. We had to think about stuff like ratings, but we also didn’t want to just cut part of her character. So in the English version, she actually shouts the names of the symbols as swears. “AMPERSAND!” “DOLLAR SIGN!” Stuff like that.
That’s a nice touch.
Did this conscious decision to break the original’s tone contribute to the sequel’s name being changed from “Protect Me Knight 2” to “Gotta Protectors”? Or was it simply that the first game wasn’t known very well? What was the thinking behind that?
BG: Well, I can’t get into that too much. But the Japanese title is a pun. “Mamotte Knight” translates to “Protect Me, Knight,” but it also means “have to protect her” when you say it out loud. It’s a homonym.
So this change is actually more of a faithful localization in that way.
BG: That was my feeling, yeah.
Protect Me Knight made some nods to this, especially with its website, but it feels like the larger Gotta Protectors encounters the challenge of building humor around the way old games were localized or just translating the jokes about Japanese retro games that are already there. That’s a fine line, of course. What was that like? You see a few references in the Princess’ shouts and such. Like the Review Crew thing.
BG: The joke in Japanese was about Famitsu’s review scores, although they didn’t call the magazine out by name, of course. So I went with wording that would remind people of the magazines that were floating around in America at the time. EGM, Nintendo Power.
Personally, one thing I liked about the game is that it didn’t lean on that crutch too much, at least for its jokes. It does have a ton of NES-era nostalgia in it, but the characters and the jokes in the story struck me as more timeless.
While the first game was definitely a spin on the tower defense genre — and really did the Dungeon Defenders thing before that game existed — the larger maps, increased maneuverability and enemy generators make Gotta Protectors a lot more like classic Gauntlet. During the localization process, did you discuss the game’s inspirations with the Ancient team?
BG: We did talk a lot, but like I mentioned earlier, they left really good notes in the file explaining where their ideas came from, so it all went really smoothly. For example, each of the roster’s weapon sets follow a theme. Some of them were really obvious: all the Mage’s weapons are, of course, named for cuts of meat. But they left notes explaining all of that. They also let us in on a lot of secrets hidden in the game. I don’t think the overseas audience has found them yet. Most of them, anyway.
Ah, yes, secrets! I don’t want to gloss over those weapon names — they’re some stellar puns and you should be commended for them — but this game has some great little Easter eggs, like the manual that ages as you use it, and maybe even eventually shows you something special. What else should players definitely try?
BG: Where to begin? (laughs)
Oh, please, lay it on us.
BG: Well, I don’t want to just give everything away. There’s a super obscure cutscene viewer feature hidden in the DLC. There’s a code for a completely unrelated game hidden in one of the endings. There’s the legendary rock-paper-scissors code. Then there’s two hidden scenes, which I haven’t seen anyone post or mention yet.
That’s exciting. Maybe just a hint for one of the hidden scenes?
BG: Honestly, I actually forget! I’m pretty sure you have to beat the game at least once, though.
Fair enough! I had to try.
So hey, let’s talk about the game a bit! It’s interesting that it grew from this very small game to a sprawling sequel with a ton of maps, a robust editor and a bunch of ways it fleshes out its world. What’s your favorite thing about it?
BG: Well, outside of the gameplay, what I like best is its heart. I don’t want to get too spoilery or anything, but underneath all the humor is an important message. When I finished the game in Japanese, I felt really…good? It’s hard to describe.
There are points where the game thanks you for playing it, and not just in some generic way. Ancient did a good job making it feel like they made the game just for you and no one else. I think it’s special.
I get that completely.
BG: This was my first Mamotte Knight game that I had played — I went back to the first game after — so I didn’t really think of it in terms of its predecessor.
I’m a big fan of the Mage from my admittedly numerous playthroughs of Protect Me Knight, but I’ve found the Old Guy to be useful too when I’m playing solo and need some real offensive power. What’s your favorite strategy?
BG: I picked the Ninja my first time through. I invested a lot in Lift, Mizugumo, and speed-related skills so I could level up at the castle and them cart Lola around the map with me.
Also, the Ninja’s bomb. His bomb.
It’s a strong move! I have trouble doing anything other than grabbing the Mage and setting the world on fire… she’s really effective at holding down the fort while my teammates track down generators.
When I get into talking about the gameplay, it makes me feel like my character’s a part of me in a way that’s different from other games.
BG: Yeah, the writer did a good job of giving the characters just enough personality so you can tell them apart and build a good story around them, but not so much that you feel distanced by them.
We can’t talk about an Ancient game without bringing up the man behind the studio, famed composer Yuzo Koshiro. There’s a lot of his work in this game, and you even composed English lyrics for his opening theme.
BG: I did! And one other song, too. I’m still waiting for an English cover on YouTube. Come on, internet.
I was going to ask if you sang it while you were working on it, and if there’s a recording somewhere. Is there anywhere readers can go to hear it as it’s meant to be sung?
BG: I did sing it! But there’s no recording for this one, sorry. I think there are incriminating MP3s of me singing songs for other games sitting on servers across Japan, though.
Time for a heist!
But yeah, I’ve been a Yuzo Koshiro fan since I was a kid playing ActRaiser and Streets of Rage.
In all seriousness, it’s a rare luxury to work on a game with such quality — and quantity — of compositions. It’s enough on its own, but with the FM Sound Pack, the bonus arrangements released here and there and even the elaborate theme cover on the second volume of the soundtrack… it’s a lot.
BG: I agree! All of the composers did a really great job. Do you have a favorite track?
I have a soft spot for Hisayoshi Ogura’s “Retro-Nitro-Girl,” which goes to your point: there’s a whole team of talent contributing to this soundtrack.
BG: That one’s my favorite too.
Anything else you’d like to tell our readers before you go?
BG: Well, if there are any aspiring translators or localizers reading, I’ve got an interesting story.
We’re all ears.
BG: The game is designed to work within NES-era limits. That means the graphics are tiled. They’re on a grid. In the Japanese game, all the dialogue is spaced out as text, blank row, text, blank row. But we quickly realized we wouldn’t be able to fit the dialogue in the same space, so we asked Ancient if they could slide the rows around to make room for one more. But after talking it over, we decided keeping it true to the NES limits was better.
So we ended up putting the extra lines of English dialogue in between the existing rows of Japanese dialogue. (Where there were 2 rows in Japanese, we got 3. If they had 3 rows, we got 5.) Problem is, that meant there was no actual space between the letters. The tiles literally touch each other.
What was the solution?
BG: So I actually went back through the game and rewrote anything where a lowercase “g” or “y” was directly above a capital letter, for example. I’m not sure I caught them all, but that was a thing. (laughs) Honestly, it was a lot of fun. It’s been years since I’ve had to come up with that kind of puzzly solution in localization work.
That’s the sort of thing a player would never really notice if you did your job correctly. Localization as heroic silence.
BG: Thank you! Can I steal that for my business card?
Thanks for talking with us, Brian! If readers like Gotta Protectors‘ localization and want some more of that signature Brian Gray charm, what else should they be playing?
BG: Well, I can think of something coming out in October that might fit the bill. I can’t talk about it just yet, though.
We’ll look forward to it!
BG: Please do!
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. Thanks again to Brian for taking the time to chat, and to you for reading!
Questions? Comments? Talk to us on Twitter or Facebook!