Tuesday, April 28, 2015

[BoRT Apr. 2015] Masao Inaba and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Localization

April is the cruelest month, so for this month's Blogs of the Round Table, I decided to ruthlessly mock what may well be history's worst Palette Swap for your amusement. So grab your popcorn and your schadenfreude spectacles, it’s time to look at one of the worst video game localizations of all time: Revelations: Persona!

As we'll see, having a gimp on the front cover
is the least of this game's issues

Every translation requires a little bit of localization. Maybe the game you’re translating has a play on words that just won’t work in the target language. Maybe there's a reference to a 1980's sitcom character that even the original audience would find obscure. There’s a limit to what a translator can do to preserve the original text. You have to know your audience and make some tough decisions about what they can and can’t handle.
Revelations: Persona (née Megami Ibunroku Perusona) was released in 1996, a time when North American localization teams worked under the assumption that Shinto was a form of Satanism and that non-European names could summon the Old Gods. It was a more innocent time, when Tokyo could be swapped out for New York and rice balls could be exchanged for cheeseburgers.

You see, Mr. Kaiba, it's the added dairy that makes it truly American.

Most of the choices made by the localization team of Revelations: Persona were fairly standard ones for the time. The term “Megami” was dropped from the title, since the Megami Tensei series was mostly unknown outside Japan at the time. The game’s location was changed from a Japanese city to an American city, characters’ names were Anglicized, item prices were changed from yen to dollars, etc.

So far, so reasonable. These were by no means good changes, but they were understandable. The Megami Tensei series was untested in the North American market, so it made sense to try and make it accessible.

Then there was what they did to Masao Inaba, the party's lovable goofball.
This Guy

Here’s the thing about Japanese media, particularly Japanese video games from the mid 90’s: they are not ethnically diverse. American games get made fun of for their token ethnic characters, but if Captain Planet had been an anime, it would have been about five Japanese kids who team up to reduce whale populations to sustainable levels. In Japan, ethnic diversity means having a Japanese character who isn’t from Tokyo.

The original Persona had, by my count, exactly one non-Japanese character who was not also a demon (and come to think of it, most of the demons are Japanese too): a minor scientist NPC named Tesla. I guess this is impressive in that it predates the internet’s Teslamania by a good few decades, but Jesus Christ, Japan, could you be less diverse? Incidentally, using the term “Jesus Christ” qualifies this article for an affirmative action grant from the Japanese government for including a person of Jewish descent.

You may have heard the term “reverse racism” before, but Revelations: Persona may be the first recorded incidence of quantum racism. It began as a Japanese game with a single non-Japanese character. This game was then scrubbed of all mentions of Japanese language and culture by a localization team. This was already kind of racist, but we’re not even close to done yet.

Since Tesla is white and all indicators of the other characters’ Japanese-ness were removed, Revelations: Persona’s team had the uncomfortable realization that all of their characters were now Caucasian. Somehow, it had ended up even less ethnically diverse than the Japanese original. Oh no! What would Captain Planet say?

The localization team of Revelations: Persona thought it would be nice if the game was more diverse, which was fine. Then, using a chain of logic so unintentionally racist it gave the Power Rangers localization team phantom erections, they decided the best way to fix this was to rename the wise-cracking, break-dancing Masao Inaba “Mark” and make him black.

Did I mention that "Mark" is into graffiti?

It was such a powerful collision of good intentions and horrible stereotypes, scientists were able to observe the Higgs boson in the resulting explosion.

Also, that he dances crazy?

The unspeakable power of this quantum racism field revived dead Confederate soldiers long enough for them to re-lose Gettysburg. Apartheid ended in 1994, but it would have lasted another 10 years if the Universe hadn’t been compensating for the racist particles emitting from copies of Revelations: Persona. I’m not saying “Mark” was an offensive caricature, but he’s the official mascot of the KKK’s video game magazine.

To be clear, I don’t think that anyone on Revelations: Persona’s localization team was being actually, intentionally racist. I’m from the South, and if there’s one thing I’ve never heard a hardcore racist say, it’s “You know what this Japanese video game needs? More black people!”

Which is odd, because if any of the hardcore racists I know had been asked to add a black character to Persona, this is more or less exactly what they would have done. Wait – no, they would probably make Tesla black under the assumption that Persona was part of a sting operation set up by government Death Panels to identify and sterilize racists. They're not that dumb, Obama! And yet somehow, this would still be less stupid and racist.

What I’m saying is, it’s insane that erasing all of the characters’ original ethnicities was the least troubling thing about this localization. That’s like finding out that the worst thing about the Trail of Tears was the weather.

There are many ways of dealing with the lack of representation in games, but I think we all can agree that this is the worst one. Picking a character who shares some superficial qualities with black stereotypes and then making them black is racist in ways scientists don't fully understand.

I guess someone sat Atlus USA’s localization team down and explained all of this to them, because the North American PSP re-release of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona restored the game to its original Japanese location and ethnicity.

It was a move that was as expected as it was obvious, but I like to think that there’s a universe out there where Atlus USA decided to double-down and relocate the game to 18th century Ethiopia. It would be an insane decision, and yet still less insane than having a character in blackface dance crazy.

No comments:

Post a Comment