As the gaming industry has continued to develop and evolve, narrative has become an increasingly important aspect for players across the globe. While not all games put their storyline at the forefront of the experience they offer, even genres that typically focused on pure gameplay thrills are embracing story in an attempt to entice and hook players, just look at how the colourful world of casual games such as Candy Crush Saga helped differentiate them from other match-3 puzzlers.

Story is also a part of gaming that is spearheading the games-as-art movement. As developers continue to push the boundaries of what a game can be, players are becoming more open-minded to new experiences. Games are distinct from other media such as books or film because of their interactivity – the player has to take an active role in any narrative progression, which creates a different experience to the more passive role of the film viewer or novel reader.

Developers large and small are using this interactivity to tell a wide range of stories, from the typical hero’s journey to more challenging fare that tackles complex issues from new viewpoints. Titles such as Papers, Please have garnered respect from inside and outside the gaming industry for how they approach difficult subject matters, while releases such as Journey have garnered praise for how they allow gamers to create their own tales in these expertly crafted digital playgrounds.

An increased focus on narrative poses interesting challenges for game localization however, as dialogue, character names and traits, plot points and graphics used for world building (think road signs and store fronts) need to be adapted for each locale.

It’s easy to assume that video game localization just means directly translating the text from one language to another, which is already a difficult enough task – think of classic lines such as ‘all your base are belong to us’, but it is actually much more complex than that.

Domestication versus foreignization

Perhaps one of the first decisions that a localization team have to make is whether to domesticate or foreignize the game during translation. But what does exactly does that mean? Domestication is likely what most people picture when it comes to localization – a product is adjusted so that it appears as a native piece of content in the new target market. Foreignization however, is a process which sees translations knowingly breaking conventions of target languages or cultures, helping a product to maintain a ‘foreign’ appeal. While less common in most markets, foreignization has a strong foothold in the gaming industry, especially for titles releasing in the West but developed in Japan, and vice versa.

One potential reason for this is that, since video games require the player to take a more active role in the narrative, foreignization helps the gamer feel even more immersed in a different culture. For many gamers, these are valuable opportunities to experience and explore cultures other than their own.


Two Japanese series, two styles of localization

Atlus’ Persona franchise is perhaps one of the most iconic examples of gamers’ love for foreignization during the localization process. The first title in the series, released back in 1996 for the original Playstation, is perhaps one of the most iconic examples of the foreignization versus domestication debate in action. Set in a high school in the fictional town of Mikage-cho, the game is deeply Japanese in its setting. When it was released in the West however, there were massive changes made to characters’ names, ethnicities and speech during the localization process.

As part of a push to cater to a wider audience, there was a bid for domestication of the game (as was quite common at the time). However, as a relatively niche offering with a more hardcore fan base, it’s likely that a more foreignized approach might have worked better. Indeed, in future rereleases, and all future games in the series, the Japanese identity is preserved more fully. Take Persona 5, released in 2016 for the Playstation 3 and Playstation 4, which kept all characters’ Japanese names, and regularly used simple Japanese honorifics in dialogue to enhance player’s immersion in the story’s Japanese setting.

Meanwhile, Capcom’s Ace Attorney series has stuck with its early decision to opt for domestication during the localization process. When the first title in the series came west, the localization team moved the game’s setting from Japan to the US.

This proved to be a successful decision. Sticking too close to the Japanese source would, in this case, resulted in an experience where the humour, which relies heavily on puns and wordplay, wouldn’t have hit with Western audiences.  While there are some naysayers who wish that the game was closer to the Japanese original, changing the location and fully domesticating dialogue and character names allowed the series’ humour to be preserved for an entirely new audience.

In reality, when it comes to localization, neither domestication or foreignization is always correct. These are two options that need to be chosen depending on the game and its audience. By modifying localization styles, games are able to personalize their experience to groups of dedicated fans and build up a cult following that will stick around for future releases. Take the time to consider why players are exploring each world – are they looking for something comfortable, that feels more relatable? In this case, domestication may be the way to go. However, if players are looking to get lost in another world or explore other cultures, foreignization might help them to achieve that goal and feel more immersed.