Yakuza Q&A

We talk to Sega about how it's giving Yakuza its American voice.

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Yakuza is Sega's upcoming action adventure game for the PlayStation 2 that drops you into a noir-inspired storyline set in the Japanese underworld. The gritty story is crafted by Hase Seishu, an award-winning novelist in Japan, and it casts you in the role of Kazuma, a former enforcer in the Japanese mafia who has just gotten out of prison after a 10-year stint. Unfortunately, Kazuma winds up getting sucked into a deadly plot that finds him smack-dab in the middle of a mystery that involves a gang war and assorted health hazards that have to be dealt with if he's to stay alive long enough to figure out what's going on and how he can save himself. Though the game was released late last year in Japan, it won't be hitting US shores until later this year. One of the reasons for the delay in Yakuza's US debut is the localization involved in bringing it over. One aspect of the localization process is the game's English dialogue, which, as was announced this morning, is being done by a number of well-known actors. We caught up with the game's US producer, Justin Lambros, to find out about choosing the cast and how the process has gone.

In Yakuza, the yummy Eliza Dushku will play Yumi.
In Yakuza, the yummy Eliza Dushku will play Yumi.

GameSpot: How did you approach the voice casting for Yakuza? Was it possible to mirror the approach the Japanese game took in terms of finding respected veteran actors, or did you try something different to appeal to a US audience?

Justin Lambros: Yakuza has a massive and complex storyline, with some very subtle and nuanced performances necessary for the drama to play out as intended. So, we took the approach of finding very skilled and experienced American voice actors for this game. We chose our celebrity cast members based upon that factor as well, and for them being able to bring something additional to the characters.

GS: Did you ever consider just subtitling everything and sticking with the original cast?

JL: We chose to include English dialogue in Yakuza so that the game would appeal to the widest possible audience in the US. The gameplay is engaging and accessible, so we wanted the same thing for the story as well. We were hoping to include the Japanese dialogue as an alternate track, but unfortunately there just wasn’t enough room on a single disc to put both sets of voice files.

GS: What are the challenges in localizing a game like this?

JL: The story and setting of this game are very authentic to Japanese culture. So, one of the biggest challenges is to stay true to that, but also to make the game familiar to a US audience. Also, the sheer amount of different characters throughout the several hours of cinematics in the game was challenging not only logistically, but also in making sure we got the best and most believable performances throughout the game.

GS: What changes were made in the localization and why?

JL: Sega of America didn’t want to change very much in this game, since the goal of it was to give video game players a glimpse into the world of the Yakuza and into Japanese nightlife. We did some polishing of the script after it was translated so the dialogue would sound like Hollywood movie-quality exchanges that audiences are used to seeing in America. But the core of the story and the characters remained as true as possible to the vision of the development team in Japan.

GS: What was the response when you approached Michael Madsen?

JL: I provided a list of over 100 possible celebrities to cast in the game to Hiroyuki Sakamoto, the Sega of Japan producer who was the liaison between the American and Japanese teams. He looked it over for a few minutes and responded with two words, "Michael Madsen." So, we had our marching orders and were thrilled when Michael was very open and interested in being a voice in the game. His unique voice fit perfectly with one of the most colorful (and powerful) villains in the game, and his experience and enthusiasm in working on games was terrific.

Michael Madsen was at the top of producers' list to play Shimano.
Michael Madsen was at the top of producers' list to play Shimano.

GS: How long did the voice recording take?

JL: We recorded for over four weeks down in LA. It took a long time because we had to try to match our vocal performances with what had already been animated in Japan, so it was much slower than a usual recording session. As we were recording the dialogue, we were also editing and sending it to Japan for integration. That way, we were able to play a build of the game with all the new dialogue just a few days after recording wrapped.

GS: How much collaboration was involved with the actors? Was there room for improvisation?

JL: Each of our celebrity actors definitely put a piece of themselves into their character. While we tried to stay as true to the script as we could, there was definitely room for some personalization. For Michael Rosenbaum, his character definitely fed into his Lex Luthor persona from Smallville. And he’s such a pro from all his work on the Justice League Unlimited animated series that he was able to help us massage lines to make them work even better. And Michael Madsen also did some great improv work in his session, adding some extra nastiness to his character in certain scenes.

GS: Thanks for your time.

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