In 2014, five years after the Xbox 360 debut, Steins;Gate appeared on PCs worldwide. It arrived at a time when visual novels were only beginning to find an audience, and within a few years ports ended up appearing on multiple platforms. Its story resonated with people, so much so that follow-ups like Steins;Gate: My Darling’s Embrace even appeared in English. To help better understand what went into such a game, Siliconera caught up with members of Strangely Compelling Multimedia, like CEO Mike McNamara, Editors Kris Knigge and Elliot Gay, and Localization Manager Kana Hotta to go over the company’s history, its experience localizing Steins;Gate fan discs like My Darling’s Embrace and Linear Bounded Phenogram, and working on other projects like BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle and Guilty Gear Xrd: Sign.
Siliconera: How did you get into localizing games?
Mike McNamara: Our company, Strangely Compelling Multimedia, Inc. was founded on localizing video games. Having spent six years of my childhood in Japan, I was fascinated with the manga, anime and video game culture. I’ve been trying to bridge that communication gap ever since to share that passion with an English speaking audience.
The company began with a single laptop and a client willing to take a shot on a kid in his mid-twenties to translate a game from Japanese to English. It certainly wasn’t easy… but 6 years later, we were fortunate enough to be handling some fairly high profile projects and have expanded our services to include PR and community management for clients, as well.
As far as the localization aspect is concerned, however, we’ve got an amazing team now, and they’re going to be helping me answer some questions.
How difficult of a project did you find Steins;Gate: My Darling’s Embrace, considering the only other localization for the series you had worked on was Linear Bounded Phenogram?
Elliot Gay: So we actually worked on My Darling’s Embrace before Linear Bounded Phenogram, which was one hell of a trip. In a lot of ways, it was a ton of fun working on something lighter within the Steins;Gate franchise, but it was also pretty weird being tossed into this huge franchise starting with the romcom spinoff game.
Kris Knigge: Yeah, it was definitely a wild place to start! Steins;Gate has really well-drawn characters, though, and it was fairly easy to find their voices from a writing perspective. It was…less-easy to tackle the massive amounts of references, otaku slang, and circa 2010 netspeak, but it was great to be able to bounce ideas off of each other and try to find solutions that felt right. We were chewing over certain choices right up until script delivery, and it was just as fun as it was exhausting.
Was the process of preparing for this project different than when you would prepare to work on a game like Guilty Gear Xrd: Sign and how?
Kris Knigge: Since I was familiar with both Steins;Gate and Guilty Gear, there wasn’t a whole lot of difference in terms of prep. I’d play previous games to try to remind myself of each character’s voice and check some of the more finicky bits of terminology, but it was a similar process for both.
The real difference between localizing the two rests in how text is handled. While both Guilty Gear and Steins;Gate allow for a lot more text per textbox than your average game, the difference in genre changes how you tackle each box. A lot of Guilty Gear’s lines are tossed off at the beginning or the end of battle, so you want to structure each line to have snap on its own. I also try to avoid being too cute with alliteration or puns or since it’s dialogue players are going to see again and again, and that can be a little annoying.
As a visual novel, though, Steins;Gate scenes need to be tackled as complete scenes. You need to keep an ear open for the music of each conversation, and you’ll lose it if too many lines in a row have the same structure or length. Finding the right music can be a little harder when you’re working on a game with a Japanese dub, since there’s a temptation to match the structure of the Japanese text. Fortunately, Steins;Gate is so well-written, leaning on the Japanese still leads to fun, rhythmic dialogue.
What sorts of materials, research, and outreach did you have available and conduct to ensure everyone sounded in character and the glossary references stayed true to the series’ lore?
Elliot Gay: Truth be told, because the games up until that point had jumped around a bit in terms of publishers out west, getting our hands on materials was more difficult than you’d expect. As such, Kris and I made it a point to go back through the original Steins;Gate and 0, compare notes between the two to see what was consistent and inconsistent, and then try to stick to the prevailing loc choices. There were some cases where there were requests from up top to change things from the original localizations as well, but on the whole, we tried to stick to phrasing and localized lore that already existed as much as humanly possible.
Kris Knigge: Given the different approaches taken by the original, 0, and even the anime, it was a challenge to find the “right” way to localize Steins;Gate, especially since we were basically working backwards from the final published products. In the end, we decided to lean towards the localization of the original visual novel, since both My Darling’s Embrace and Linear Bounded Phenogram are fan discs for that particular game.
Steins;Gate: My Darling’s Embrace was a shadowdrop sort of game, where people didn’t know about the localization basically until it was available. When did you begin working on the project and about how long did it take?
Kana Hotta: We began working on it at the end of May 2017 and finished in mid-July of the same year. As the schedule was tight, given the size of the project, we had two translators and two editors working full-time.
Luka’s Steins;Gate: My Darling’s Embrace route seems like it would be one that could be difficult to approach. How did you ensure that the writing in it came together as well it did and was sensitive to his identity? Were you concerned about how his storyline would be received?
Elliot Gay: So I actually handled Luka’s route in Darling, and yeah, I kind of knew going in that it would be difficult. The problem you run into with characters like Luka is that you’ll have comments in the JP script that aren’t meant to be read as offensive or problematic, but that read as such in English. Making the reader feel that way is not the intent of the Japanese in those cases, so the issue is how to find words that carry the same meaning without all the unnecessary, mean-spirited/bigoted baggage they might carry in English.
Luka is a wonderful, wonderful character, and I truly felt his route in My Darling’s Embrace was one of the more touching ones, so I did a lot of talking with non-binary friends and family about language and what was concerned the proper way to phrase certain things. I think there’s always a concern over how storylines like his will be received, but I had faith in the original Japanese script.
How difficult did you find localizing Moeka’s route, considering her role in the original games and her tendency to communicate through text messages that may limit the space you have available?
Elliot Gay: So one of the hardest things about handling Moeka text is that typically speaking, any of the things she says via text message are actually in a completely different set of files. That means that when dealing with main story text, if she’s in a scene and responding with her phone, her lines don’t show up. Characters are responding to nothing, and there’s rarely any indication that her text was present aside from context clues. And because her text messages were in a greater set of files containing all of the text messages in the game, it was a kind of chicken and the egg situation where you either had to bounce back and forth between files and try to search for the right response, or you edited the files and then had to go back repeatedly to make sure that the conversations happening made sense.
You’ve so far worked on three visual novels, Steins;Gate: Linear Bounded Phenogram, Steins;Gate: My Darling’s Embrace, and World End Syndrome, but also did some localizations for fighting games with campaigns that have quite a bit of text, like BlazBlue Cross Tag Battle. How did you find yourself working within these sorts of genres?
Mike McNamara: It’s hard to say where the industry will take you. A large part of it comes down to word-of-mouth and your own network. I’ve personally had some strong ties with Arc System Works throughout the years, and… despite being a 2D Fighting game, I think we can agree BlazBlue Cross Tag Battle and Guilty Gear have a certain "Visual Novel" aspect to it.
In the case of Steins;Gate, I had a relationship with some people at both MAGES and Spike Chunsoft, and they needed a little helping hand in getting the games fine-tuned for the Western audience. I was able to put together the perfect team and made it all fit into the budget and schedule. The rest is history.
Of the projects you’ve worked on in the last three years, which did you find the most personally fulfilling and why?
Mike McNamara: That’s a great question. Every project comes with its own set of unique challenges, so we’re constantly learning. In the case of BlazBlue Cross Tag Battle, we had to localize the game into English while the writers in Japan are still making adjustments to the script. You can imagine how crazy it can get with version control. To make matters even more interesting, we were overseeing the English voice over production, and once you record a line, it’s pretty much set in stone, so you better be sure you got the translation right.
Similarly, the Science Adventure series has also taught us a lot about localization. With a myriad of terminology, it was a massive undertaking for our team to make sure the terms are correct and always reference the right corresponding term inside the game’s glossary. I can say now that I have a huge respect for all the people in the Japanese to English localization industry working on a game with 1MM+ Japanese characters. It will give you nightmares if you’re not careful.
Are there any particular series or games you wished you could have helped bring to other regions?
Mike McNamara: I think there is still some massive untapped potential when it comes to making games accessible to a wider audience. If the fans show a huge interest in the Science Adventure series, it will allow us to work on even more sequels, like the Robotics;Notes franchise, which… hopefully will be coming out soon.
Joking aside, however, it is one of my personal dreams and missions to ‘localize’ a game on an even deeper level. Adapting the text and voice over bits for a certain audience is certainly rewarding, and gives a different audience a new experience they may not have even known they wanted. However, as fans begin to want more and more tailored experiences in their video games, why not trying collaborating with a local artist? Or musician? We could try changing up the menu design if it’s better suited for the fans of a certain community.
I know that might be wishful thinking, but it’s certainly fun to dream about.
Steins;Gate: My Darling’s Embrace is immediately available for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and PC. In addition, it will be 30% off through the Nintendo Switch eShop between February 3-10, 2020.