Game localization techniques: text levels

A review of the different functions texts has to play in an interactive media

Videogames contain a variety of texts, ranging from technical to literary. Each level is built on top of the other and needs to be balanced or the whole game translation may crumble like a poorly built tower. Let’s give them a look!

Foundations: the machine

For all the fun, engagement and even emotion a videogame can create, it remains software, a bit of code running on a CPU.

For the machine, showing Leon decapitated in Resident Evil 4 or displaying last year’s taxes on Excel are one and the same.

Load data, process commands, store results.

If we don’t see it this way, it’s because game designers wrap it all in a friendly and engaging way

But the bubble can burst: if you tell Excel to multiply cell A1 by cell B1, but the latter is empty, #ERR will appear.

If you tell Resident Evil 4 to store the saved data on a Memory Card that isn’t there, it will say "No memory card (8MB) (for PlayStation®2) inserted in MEMORY CARD slot 2."

All platform holders provide mandatory translations for these messages and ensure that they are used correctly. Why? Because this isn’t the game talking, it’s the machine itself.

Something went wrong, no time for niceties. Notice how MEMORY CARD slot is capitalized? It matches exactly how it is written on the console itself. You want to give clear orders to the player, suspension of disbelief will resume when possible.

Translation wise, you can’t really go more basic. One source text equals one and only one possible target: it’s almost pure find & replace without much consideration for readability and repetitions.

At this level, precision is king.

This is even more evident in the Italian localization of games. In our language, instructions are written in impersonal form. From manuals, to signs, to medicines, this form is directly associated with reading carefully and executing. Almost all platform holders use it for their messages and, as it’s increasingly rare to use such form in the game itself, it clearly sets the "voice of the machine" aside.

Ground floor: in-game terminology

When we take the controller, our focus is not the machine itself. Tasks like booting it, changing disks or saving data don’t offer much entertainment value.

What we focus on is playing , entering a magic circle with rules and goals devised to entertain us.

This is the game talking directly to the player and (with one notable exception) games are only fun if their rules and goals are clear.

As a translator, this means ensuring consistency.

The first level of consistency is in the words used, After all, if a Royal Flush is always a Royal Flush, a third base is always a third base, and a TKO is always a TKO, why should your game terminology change abruptly? Suddenly renaming a unit or a move doesn’t add variety, it just throws a spanner into the rules and goals of the game.

The second level of consistency is in the metaphor used ( also known as affordance ). Videogames happen in the fictional space on the other side of the screen, and thus are free from all the laws of physics and reality. If we want, they can be completely abstract. However, give a look at the rules for The Sentinel, an abstract game by Geoff Crammond:

"In The Sentinel, the player takes the role of a Synthoid, a telepathic robot who has to take control of a number of surreal, checkered landscapes of hills and valleys, by climbing from the lowest spot, where the hunt begins, to the highest platform, over which the Sentinel looms.

The Synthoid itself cannot move across the level; instead it can look around, accumulate energy by absorbing the objects that are scattered across the landscape, create stacks of boulders, generate inert Synthoid shells and transfer its consciousness from one of these clones to another."

Now compare it with those for Pong:

"Avoid missing ball for high score."

Why so short? If you think about it, Pong is just as complex as The Sentinel: you have two little bars that go up and down on each side of the screen and a little square that changes direction when it reaches the sides of the screen or the two moving bars. When the square goes beyond one of the moving bars, a number above the other one increases by one…

What allows to compress it all into " Avoid missing ball for high score " is a real life metaphor: table tennis. The bars are the rackets and the square is the ball that bounces on it. When the square goes beyond the racquet, it’s lost and your opponent scores a point.

As a translator, you must understand the metaphor and stick to it as much as possible.

Arkanoid shares many game mechanics with Pong, and thus we still use the terms "ball" and "racket". The metaphor wears really thin when we get bonuses that make the ball fly through bricks or turn the racket into a space ship, but it still serves its purpose of easing the player into the game rules.

However, there might cases where you have no choice but to rebuild from the ground up with abstract terminology. Take BIT TRIP FATE: the player controls a character called Commander Video, that crosses the screen along a line called "Vibe".

English is well served in this case, but what about the translation? In order to maintain the original spirit, the Italian version of the game kept Vibe in English, This has substantially stripped the metaphor and made into a game-specific, abstract term.

And that’s just as fine, as long as it’s done consistently. Seeing your racket being described as a bar, or the Vibe as a path of life is just as jarring as a sudden name change. It forces you to shed the filter you used to decode game rules until that moment.

At this level, clarity and consistency are king.

Top floor: in-game narrative

Practically all modern games build a narrative layer on top of their game mechanics. If Pong was created in 2010, there would probably be a Career mode with tournaments, items shops, venue descriptions, opponent rackets, dialogs…

These are characters interacting with your player avatar. As far as you don’t destroy the layers underneath, this gives you the highest level of freedom.

A friendly racket could appear in a pre-game cut scene, jump up and down and say "Watch out with John McEnball, he shoots like a machine-gun!"

In in-game terms, this means that this specific player use many quick balls. Shall we reshape the sentence accordingly during our translation? Absolutely not! All these dialogs should be in-character, magically oblivious of the game underneath. Sure, we must avoid nasty interferences, like in-game terms being misused but a bit of ambiguity is actually desirable. Most of these dialogs are used as gameplay hints, and making them too explicit would ruin the immersion and make the players feel patronized.

At this level, characterization is king

Annex: ancillary, manuals, marketing and web

In some parts, the difference can be minimal, because we maintain the conventions of the game: the controls page inside the manual will stick to the in-game terminology, character diaries and profiles will follow the in-game narrative and so on.

In other parts, the gap is noticeable because we are clearly outside the game. The text might refer to the game as such and compare it with others ("Don’t get fooled by the similarities with other titles! Pong 2010 is in a class of its own") , or even actively unravel the game fiction (" Buying new racket wires in the shop increase the speed of the ball!" ).

At this level, values and target are completely the opposite from the beginning and variety and invention are king.


Alain Dellepiane

Alain Dellepiane @gloc247 23 July 2011
Alain is the founder of team GLOC. Want to read more about localization? You should probably try this blog's Best of, which has a dozen of the best articles ready to read. (View all posts by Alain ➜)

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