Wednesday, January 28, 2015

[BoRT Jan. 2015] Vincent Libre: A Catherine Drinking Game

"The original is unfaithful to the translation" / "O original não é fiel à tradução"
- Jorge Luis Borges

My friend “Rick" (name changed to protect the guilty) and I are both fans of the 2011 Atlus game Catherine. Well, I say that we are both fans of Catherine, but I played it in Japanese and he played it in English. That’s one the biggest questions in the field of translation, whether a translated text is ever truly the same as the original. To rephrase, is a translation the same work in a new language or a new work unto itself?

This is a big long question with a big long history, so I’m not even going to attempt to answer it. Besides, it’s a question that comes from the translation of textual works, where the reader only has written words to guide their impressions.

When the original text is a video game, the player does not have to rely solely on written text for information and meaning. Meaning also comes from the graphic assets, the music, a voice actor’s tone of voice, or even, dare we suggest, from gameplay. After all, Mario jumps the same in every language. So perhaps a translated video game can be closer to the original than a translated book.

Catherine and Kyasarin 「キャサリン」 have the same music, graphical elements, gameplay mechanics, characters, moral choice system, and the same overall plot, but one is the original and one is a translation. The text is the same, but the context is different. Rick and I have played the same ludii, but have we played the same video game?

So here’s the game-within-a-game: 1). Rick will play Kyasarin in, using his less-than-fluent Japanese. 2). We both must take a drink whenever he needs a translation. 3). We will limit ourselves to Rum, Whiskey, Beer, and Sake – the drinks served at Stray Sheep, the in-game bar.

Rick gets a Great Escape
(note the balling Odie glass)
The Subject:

“Rick,” a single white male about the same age as Vincent who shares his love for Rum and Cokes (nee Cuba Libres). A serendipitous coincidence indeed.

Rick spent some years working in Japan and has a decent grasp of the spoken language. However, he refuses to learn how to read kanji, the non-phonetic semi-pictorial characters that are the bane of many a would-be Japanese student.

Part of Kyasarin’s gameplay involves choosing responses from lists of dialogue choices. Rick will be able to get the general gist of what the characters are saying when they speak, but has no idea what most of his responses mean since they are written instead of spoken. This will make things doubly dangerous for us.

While his previous exposure to the game may contaminate the game-within-a-game, his new responses to a decontextualized situation will help me determine the extent to which Catherine is the same game in translation. As they say, In Vino Veritas.

Voice Acting:

As expected, Rick had little trouble with Kyasarin’s gameplay. The block-shoving and climbing were the same in the original and the English translation. What did change was his relation to the other characters: how he felt about their personalities and motivations and how he responded to them.

After watching Katherine’s first appearance, Rick commented that she was “less annoying in this version” (incidentally, the voice of the Japanese Katherine is Korono Mitsuishi, the voice of Sailor Moon). When he played the English version, he immediately disliked her voice actor and this
influenced his decisions throughout the game. But he continued to warm to her Japanese version throughout the game – in another scene she puts two lumps of sugar in Vincent’s tea, a gesture that was charming in a Japanese context, but controlling and domineering in an English context.

Rick also started to turn against Vincent. He claimed that Vincent's anti-marriage stance makes sense in English, but sounds whiny in Japanese. This does not seem to have anything to do with Vincent’s Japanese voice actor – the argument just sounds more convincing in English.

This difference in impressions extended to minor characters as well. Rick felt more drawn to Paul (the tie-wearing sheep) in Japanese. Paul’s Japanese voice actor uses very masculine terms (ore and omae / I and you, but rude) and has a more confident, commanding tone. In Rick’s words, he is “more worthy of attention” and so Rick pays careful attention to his dialogue.

Conversely, Justin (the reporter) sounds “more timid and less interesting” than his English counterpart. He feels less drawn to help the reporter or even to interact with him at all. Unlike Paul, who uses dominating, masculine language and becomes an object of attention, Justin’s weak language becomes background noise.

Many of the characters strike Rick the same in Japanese as in English; Toby, Erica, Johnny, and even Catherine evoke the same responses in both languages. Although Rick no longer finds Katherine annoying, he is still more drawn to the energetic, carefree Catherine.

Most interesting for me was Rick’s response to Orlando, Vincent’s closest friend: sheer confusion. Maybe it’s his long, rambling sentences, maybe it’s his use of colloquial words like motteki (period of attractiveness), but Rick can hardly understand a word out of the guy’s mouth. Every time Orlando appears on screen we instinctively reach for our glasses.

"What do the squiggly marks mean?"

In Catherine, Vincent receives text messages from various characters. The player can choose from various responses, cycling through lists of preprogrammed phrases. We knew from the start that these sections would be brutal, but Rick gamely tried to figure them out.

His responses to the texts either move him closer to “Law” (as represented by Katherine) or “Chaos” (as represented by Catherine). He was invested in the experience and wanted to give an “honest” response that would reflect his actual intentions.

Even from the first text, Rick and Vincent both grunted with frustration as the selections were entered and deleted. There was always just something slightly off about the available responses, something which fails to express what Rick “really wants to say.” Eventually, he asked for my help in confirming what the responses meant. Drinking ensued, but having the meaning of the responses clarified only increased Rick’s frustration. “Learn to text, Vincent,” he griped, finishing off a Cuba Libre.

Finally, Rick settled on a text message and hits send. His response moves him closer to Law, even though he prefers Catherine. He explained that composing a text in Japanese (even with a translator) was more difficult than in English. “These responses could mean too many things in Japanese. In English, they have more concrete meanings.”

Once again, these pre-set phrases have the same mechanical weight in the translation. Each possible selection moves the player’s alignment towards Law or Chaos by the same amount in both languages. But changing the linguistic context completely changed how Rick felt about what his responses meant. Just as remembering two lumps of sugar seemed controlling in English and endearing in Japanese, the cultural context surrounding the text messages changed how Rick felt about them, thus ensuring I would finish the whiskey much sooner than expected.

Conversations and Morality:

Conversation choices and confessional answers also function like the text messages: certain responses move you closer to Law (and Katherine) and others move you towards Chaos (and
Chose carefully.
This was perhaps the most frustrating game mechanic for Rick. When he encouraged his fellow climbers, it moved him closer towards Law and away from Catherine. Rick was visibly frustrated whenever this happened. “I just said that I don’t think murder is a good idea! Why does that mean I want frumpy Katherine?”

On the next level, Rick came into conflict with another sheep trying to climb the same wall. Rick yelled at the sheep and smacked it mercilessly out of the way. Apparently, his desire to help others did not extend to those who get in the way.

Still, Rick responded to the game’s moral questions honestly even when it moved him further away from his goal. He did seem to take special pleasure when his response to a question in Japanese was the same as his response in the English version. “It's nice to know that regardless of language, my morality remains the same.”

Unlike the text messaging system, with its many different possible combinations of phrases, the conversation choices are binary. The choices tend to avoid “murder orphans/give orphans candy” Manichean dichotomy, but it is still fairly easy to tell which one is Law and which one is Chaos. Even with his limited Japanese reading abilities, Rick was able to successfully navigate most of the choices by himself, thus sparing our livers untold amounts of abuse.


Mixing rum, whiskey, beer, and sake is not a great idea.

Rick was initially of the position that Catherine and Kyasarin were different games – that the original and translation were two distinct works. This was borne out in his feelings about the various characters. Although this was partially because he found some of the Japanese actors more or less appealing than their English counterparts (Paul and Justin), it was also partially because of the differences in Japanese cultural context and English cultural context (the two lumps of sugar).

But there was one thing that did not change between the two versions: Rick’s ultimate response to the moral/personal issues raised by the game. Even though he felt Japanese Katherine was more convincing and Japanese Vincent was a whiner, he still ultimately preferred Catherine. Moreover, he still opted to sabotage this goal by attempting to help his fellow climbers. Even while his impressions changed, his “morality remains the same.”

What conclusions can we take away from this? I dunno. The perennial question of translation remains unanswered, but here are my points of interest:

1). The mechanical elements of gameplay are not effected by translation (although they may be changed by localization).

2), Rick's differing reactions to the two versions of the game had less to do with the quality of the translation (the English version is fairly accurate) and more with the linguistic context in which the story takes place.

3). In addition, Rick's perceptions of the characters were also greatly influenced by the performances of the voice actors, something which the translators presumably had no control over. 

4). Even if translation changes a video game, the player can still chose how they respond to it. Rick chose to roleplay as himself in both versions of Catherine, even while consciously taking into account how the same basic phrase had different connotations in each language.

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