Persona, found in translation, over the past 20 years.
Localization is much more than translation; it's also the interpretation of language and culture for a particular region or audience, accounting for context and delivery while staying true to the source material. It's critical to our enjoyment of Japanese games. At a recent preview event for the Western version of Persona 5 Royal, I briefly spoke with Sega/Atlus senior project manager and localization veteran Yu Namba about the series' history and changes made for this new version of Persona 5.
Namba has been with the series since Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, the PS1 game dating all the way back to 2000. He's seen the series evolve over the past two decades and, having taken part in bringing them to a Western audience, played a part in that evolution. As for Persona 5 Royal itself, he explained how the team made new content flow with existing scenes and confirmed some changes to problematic dialogue.
For more on the upcoming RPG, be sure read my in-depth preview of P5R or catch up on everything that's new in P5R with my detailed breakdown. The following interview was edited for readability and clarity.
For Persona 5 Royal, are there any changes to the original script or re-recordings of the existing lines?
Yes there are. There were some [lines] that were kind of awkward, some of the things that, material-wise, we wanted to go over once more, and maybe we could do a little bit different with localization this time around. So, we took this opportunity to get more into the original content. So yes, on certain lines.
How deep does it go? Does that extend to pronunciation of names? That was kind of a big thing.
The general pronunciation guideline has been kept. That was something that the entire team decided together when we first started Persona 5 localization and we decided to go with this route. We basically kept that intact in Royal. None of the characters' [names] that were pronounced one way are pronounced another way this time around.
There were some exceptions that I believe were pronounced in one spot of the game differently than all the other places--we fixed that as much as we were able to.
Aside from all the new content, how much work did that take? Re-recording with the voice actors?
I think the overall recording of this project lasted for about two, maybe two-and-a-half months or so. We had a bunch of different actors coming in on different schedules so it's not like we were front-loading all the old fixes or re-records and then doing new content separately or anything. They were all mixed in. I know that our team went through the entirety of Persona 5 to pinpoint those places that we wanted to fix. We wrote the script, made sure that we had references of what kind of things characters said before and after [for new content]. So, when we did the pickup lines, they would know of the situation.
Actual recording-wise, I think it was pretty smooth, even for all the new characters. They had extensive knowledge about the original game. So we didn't take that much time to explain anything.
How do you blend the new stuff into the existing lines? For example, Kasumi is integral to the story. Her dialogue can't just be latched on to the existing script because of how involved she is in the core narrative. How do you make it work?
I mean, to be totally honest, the majority of the work was made by the developer in Japan. But for localization, we saw when she was introduced in the game and how the characters acted during those scenes, and made sure that all the other characters stayed in that mode when interacting with Kasumi. Just like how the existing characters had a way of addressing each other, like for Morgana saying 'Lady Ann.'
We made all those rules for all the new characters, too, and made sure that even though a character was in the timeline from the original game, we had all them address the new characters, like Kasumi, the way they would during that time.
For you, how has localization evolved having worked on Persona for so long? From Persona 2, 3, 4, and 5, what are some of the key things that you've learned from game to game?
Well, the one Persona that I didn't work on was the very first one, Revelations Persona. That game was heavily westernized--everything, from the town name to the character names. They even made a Japanese character into an African American character. Back in the summer of 1999, when we started working on Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, I believe we wanted to, as a company, start making Shin Megami Tensei a big franchise over here on the Western side. And as we focused on our localization style, we knew that we were dealing with games that have heavy roots in Japanese culture.
At that point, instead of going the Revelations Persona route, we [decided] to stick to the original content, like keep all the character names the same as much as possible and see if that would be accepted by the Western audience. So, Persona 2: Eternal Punishment was, in a way, our test of the brand and our localization philosophy. I'm glad that there are people who liked the game. Seeing the response, we felt that our direction had hope, that we could do something different over here State-side while being accepted. If it was just pure translation, it would be really difficult for an American player to understand what the hell is going on in the game. While making our changes minimal, we did make sure that all the game's content, or as much of the content, could be understood by Western players. From that point on we've gone [with that for] Persona 3, 4, 5.
[It was difficult], especially for Persona 4, because it was set in a very rural Japanese town. It was super Japanese stuff, like outside of the Japan that people normally know like a city in Tokyo somewhere. We made sure that what we wanted to do was all intact in Persona 4. I think we were still a bit scared. Like, would this be a little bit too Japanese? But in the end, I think a lot of people hopefully liked Persona 4 [laughs].
I think it can build up our confidence. In Persona 5, we basically wanted to go all out. Like we decided we'll show the ultra-modern Tokyo, visit all those cool places that people know about while being very rebellious in nature. While showing everything in Japanese, we focused on getting that edge in our localization as well.
There's still content that doesn't go over well for the audience. How much say do you have in whether or not that content makes it in the game? Do you have autonomy in terms of recognizing what won't play well and what to do with it? How do you approach that?
There were certain things in Persona 3, 4 and 5, especially now in 2020, where there would be a lot of talk about the things in those games. As a localization manager, I really cannot do too much about what has already made it into the game.
But in Persona 5, there were a few NPCs that, while we were doing the localization, our team members felt a little bit of awkwardness about when working on it. And with Royal, we were determined to see if we could do something about it at least localization-wise. On our end, it took a lot of effort consulting not just the production department, but talking with our marketing, and how they would feel about it if we changed how things were in Persona 5 to this new way--what would the public reception be, what the company would think, whether it would be okay if we do make the change.
Ultimately for Royal, we did go with it and I think we're pretty happy with what it is. It's not a significant change, but I think there's enough of a change that people who weren't comfortable going through that part in Persona 5 would feel better this time around.
Are you able to say exactly what it is? What part of the game that you were referring to?
So basically, I'm just going to say it right now there are these two gay men who hit on Ryuji. I think the community had a very strong response to that, and you saw that, and that was definitely altered for Royal.
Can you expand on how that was changed?
Unfortunately, those characters were portrayed [as] more like predatory. In Royal--I don't want to say we made it mild--but we made it [as if they're] being very strong enthusiasts for something they like doing. But it's not like they're on the hunt for some young boys or anything.
Have other Sega teams or games influenced Persona localization, like Yakuza? Have you drawn from what the Yakuza team has done and is there crossover?
I'm going to say that our localization team isn't that big. A particular translator may work on Sega title and then go to the Atlus title and then back to Sega--and producers too. I think through this kind of experience working on different things, it does help each individual and group. And I'm sure that there's influence between titles that we've been working on.