When Fantasian was properly revealed with trailers and the marketing finally kicking off, I learned that Jessica Chavez was a part of the team localizing it for an international audience. I’ve been a fan of her work ever since I discovered Nihon Falcom’s The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky years ago and started reading up on how the Trails games were localized. With Fantasian finally available worldwide, the time was right to discuss all things localization with a veteran who has worked on multiple games across different consoles, PC, and mobile and also the Localization Creative Supervisor on Fantasian.
TouchArcade (TA): You’ve had quite a career from working on video games, books, films, and more over the years. How did you get involved with the Fantasian project and Mistwalker again following working with the developer on The Last Story years ago?
Jessica Chavez (JC): Well, it started with a message at a coffee shop. I’d just moved back to Japan after being away for 14 years, and I was waiting during the orientation period for my children at the school I was enrolling them in. The message was from an old acquaintance, Mikey McNamara, who had recently launched his own publishing company, Rocket Panda Games. He asked what my schedule was like. I’d been freelancing for about five years at this point after I left XSEED, but between the move and getting the kids resettled I’d only just become available to take on projects again. He had some interesting stuff, he said. The timing was just about perfect. The rest is history.
TA: With a lot of games from your career including a ton of text like the Trails games, spanning more than 40 video games, what has been the biggest challenge in Fantasian when it comes to localisation?
JC: Fantasian isn’t as text heavy as the Trails games (thank Aidios), but it did have all the unique challenges of working on something in tandem with development. While the dev team toiled to perfect their game, our localization team was trucking on right behind them translating, editing, and reviewing files, and while we were doing this, rolling updates on text we’d already finished would come through along with new text. It was a hectic, complicated process that we were able to navigate smoothly thanks to our project manager Kana Hotta and our contact on the Mistwalker team, Saho Nishikawa.
TA: Did you get involved right from the outset of Fantasian a few years ago or more recently?
JC: I joined the project…just over a year ago now. It’s amazing how time flies! The game was a fair way into the development cycle at this point already, but text-wise they were just approaching the loc phase. During the early months I got to familiarize myself with the mechanics, story, and characters and start hammering down lore and terms. It was a real privilege to get to come on when I did.
TA: How has it been working with translators and developers on Fantasian during a pandemic?
JC: Very smooth, actually! Except for the times when the schools here shut down for months and I had to balance work with having two small children at home full time. Thankfully, my bosses were very supportive and incredibly flexible and did everything they could to work with my schedule and keep me on project.
When work was underway, though, things went very smoothly despite the time difference and distance. Our localization team is split between the West Coast and Japan with the Translator (Yuji Moriya) and Localization Producer (Mikey McNamara) in California and the Localization Manager (Kana Hotta), Editor (John Neal), and Localization Creative Supervisor (myself) spread out across Japan along with the development team. We have weekly internal and external meetings, and since no one is really in an office on the loc side anyway, online meetings were already long the norm (as was communication at random hours of the day). Our West Coast counterparts were also very kind and took the 6PM meeting hits while we warmed up our brains with coffee in the morning first over here in Japan.
TA: Who is your favourite character in Fantasian?
JC: I am so glad you asked! There’s a certain character I’ve been dying for people to talk to. In the later middle part of the game there’s a prison level. If you speak to the occupant in the third cell from the left after a certain event…
I adore this NPC. There are a number of interesting and entertaining NPCs scattered about the game, but he’s just so true to his nature, so pure. The “Unrepentant Thief” is my hero.
TA: In many cases, an English localized release improves on the original not just by making it accessible to an audience that doesn’t speak the original language but also in how we sometimes get additional dialogue or text. The biggest example of this is the Trails in the Sky chests. Can you discuss how you approached that and how it was working with Nihon Falcom on that? It definitely made the English release better.
JC: Thank you! The treasure chests in Trails in the Sky were a bit of a personal project, so it’s wonderful to hear that.
It started when I was working on Trails in the Sky: First Chapter and I noticed a reoccurring line in every file.
宝箱には何も入っていない。(The chest is empty.)
This is a line of system text that would pop up any time a player revisited a chest they’d already opened. It was unusual to see individual lines for what basically amounts to a stock system message. These kinds of lines tend to pull from a single file no matter where an item (a chest for example) is in a game. Trails, however, had its files divided up by location and had a unique line of text for EVERY chest in the game.
Because of this, I discovered that I could custom tailor every treasure chest message in the game if I wanted to. And boy did I want to. Trails FC was a bit of a stressful project, and at the time, thinking about treasure chests snarking off to players (something I’d always thought about when playing RPGs) was a great way for me to blow off steam. I brought it up to my boss as a marketing idea as we were looking for creative ways to engage players, and he in turn brought it up to Falcom. They gave their permission, and I then spent my free time coming up with lines of how I’d feel as a chest if people were always stealing my contents. What resulted was a bit of non-intrusive extra fun for players and some definite amusement for me. People seemed to really like them, and they became a semi-feature in the later games.
TA: Has your workflow changed over the years in localisation? I know you’ve written detailed posts about what it takes to localise a game but would love to know how things have improved over the years.
JC: Absolutely. Every project has different needs, but I think one thing that’s changed in recent years is a better appreciation for what tools a localization needs to bring out the best in the text. Generally speaking, if you work in localization you’re often brought in during the very end of development or completely afterwards. You receive files and pass them back to the client when complete. It tends to be a very isolated, narrow process.
In Fantasian’s case, however, I was brought in not just early in the process, but I also had access to information and the team itself. Being able to set terminology and really get familiar with the world and the development process itself was invaluable. I was given the resources to learn about the characters, world, and the story. I could ask the development team for clarification on key terms and story points. I was able to organize things and create a very extensive bible before translation even really began. Having this kind of context and access before being thrown onto files makes a huge difference when you start.
Another notable workflow improvement we had when working on Fantasian was build access and a streaming text tool. Using this text tool, we could work on files and then insert them directly into our local builds. We were able to play and see our text in motion, tweak dialogue for flow, and make corrections based on the scene. This may come as surprise to many, but you don’t often get to see your work in-game at all, especially as a freelancer. If you only have files to go off of, you lose one of the most crucial things in localization: context. Having this kind of resource available to us was nothing short of amazing. It made for a very smooth (and incredibly fun) localization process.
TA: Out of all the games you’ve worked on, which one is your favourite and which project was the most memorable so far?
JC: Hmmm… That’s a really tough call. I’ve had a lot of standouts over the last 14+ years, but I guess I can narrow it down to four…
- Most unusual: a historical puzzle card game(!) called “Colpo di Stato” by a quirky Italian duo called We Are Müesli. I never thought I’d work on a game about a failed coup from 1970s Italy.
- Most ridiculous/fun: Half-Minute Hero. The text was absurd and so were the character limits.
- Most memorable: Trails in the Sky FC/SC for the size, the enduringly lovely community, and other infamous reasons.
- Most extraordinary: Fantasian for the amazing development work (those dioramas!) and coordination it took over so much distance and during such unprecedented times. It’s been a real treat to see things come together in such a spectacular way and been even a small part of it.
TA: Did writing a full book with Dead Endings change how you approach a specific aspect of localisation?
JC: Oh yes! Aside from just pushing myself as a writer, putting together a proper novel and going through the process of having my publisher edit my work was very educational and is directly applicable to video games, especially when it comes to in-game items such as books. That experience was something I directly applied when working on the memories in Fantasian and the novellas in Trails of Cold Steel, especially “Red Moon Rose.” I tried very hard to pull things into line on that one in particular so that it read like something you might pick up off of any real life bookshelf. The formatting, the flow, the dialogue… It was thanks to my own publishing experience that it turned out the way they did. It’s a really useful area of experience when it comes to game localization and one I hope to put into practice more. If you have a game with books in it, send them my way! I love doing books!
TA: What made you split up Dead Leads, your new book, into multiple chapters?
JC: Doing a sequel to Dead Endings was proposed by my publisher, and like the first book, they wanted to initially release it in monthly chapters on their online magazine “Sparkler Monthly.” Unfortunately, the magazine closed its doors before I had finished the book, but I’m planning on completing the final chapters and shopping around for another publisher to release it as a whole soon. Stay tuned~
TA: What games have you been playing lately and do you check out games in franchises you worked on before but aren’t working on newer entries of to see how they are handled?
JC: To be honest, I find it very difficult to play games lately. Between kids and work I don’t have a lot of spare time, and when I do play, I can’t turn off my editing brain. I’m always scrutinizing text and eyeballing graphics to see how other teams handled things. What I have started doing instead is working on my own game. I figured it was time I try my hand at making something, so I’ve been working on a small point-and-click mystery called “The Library.” As I’m sure you can guess, it involves books. And wine. Perhaps I’ll have a game of my own to announce soon!
Thanks to Jessica Chavez for her time here and Strangely Compelling for facilitating this. This is the first of two interviews we have done for Fantasian. Our interview with Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi will be up early next week.