[In this mammoth GameSetWatch interview, put together by writer John Szczepaniak, he quizzes industry veteran Jeremy Blaustein about his vital translation and localization work on both vital and cult franchises that span Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill, Castlevania, Shadow Hearts, Sky Odyssey, Senko no Ronde, and many more.]

As a married father of three with a black belt in matsubayashi-ryu karate, Jeremy Blaustein will happily speak about his love of Japan, his many cats, and telling his son Pokémon stories. He casts an unassuming figure – just a regular guy looking after his family.

Many people won’t realise the vast number of games he has worked on over the past 18 years. So many games in fact, that there is probably not a single person reading this who has not either experienced one of them or knows someone who has.

While he hasn’t yet reached Creative Director on a project, Blaustein’s work as a freelance localiser, translator, writer and voice director has given him a unique opportunity to work alongside some of the most prominent people on some of the best games in the industry.

He has had a hand in shaping for its western audience everything from established franchises such as Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill and Castlevania, to lesser known cult-classics such as Shadow Hearts, Sky Odyssey and Senko no Ronde. He was even involved with the creation of Shenmue on the Dreamcast.

Read on for a full table of contents for this mammoth retrospective interview:

CONTENTS:

1) Early Years and Jaleco
2) Konami
3) Freelance
4) Metal Gear Solid
5) A renaissance and period of change
6) Too many army games today
7) Prefer to be known for other games
8) Suikoden II
9) Valkyrie Profile
10) Silent Hill series
11) Some say bitter
12) Dragon Quest 7
13) Dark Cloud 2
14) Japan’s downfall
15) Peter Molyneux and Fallout 2
16) Jeremy’s big game idea
17) Shenmue
18) Recent games
19) What his family and friends think
20) ZPang and the future

Early Years and Jaleco

Born in New York, 1966, Blaustein went on to read Asian Studies at University. As he explained it, “I wanted to be able to communicate with a foreign culture of some type, something ‘exotic’ and Japanese was certainly that. I always had the sense that Asian countries may have figured out some of the deeper truths about reality than we had here in the West.”

Fresh out of university in 1991, Blaustein found himself in Chicago when Jaleco USA were hiring. He landed a job as Assistant Producer, though it was to be short-lived. “Oh, man, I was only there for like a couple of months before I got myself fired by getting angry.”

Prior to this, though, Blaustein was given a fascinating view into how the old guard of games developers operated. As he explained, “It’s interesting because it’s a snapshot of a certain kind of relationship during a certain period, that hasn’t existed for a long time. It makes you realise what small potatoes videogames were back then, and how they were viewed. And we were dealing with tiny budgets, tiny amounts of money, tiny bits of memory. Tiny little games, you know? To look at the games we have now, and these huge launches, and these multi-million dollar things, it’s hard to believe they’re the same thing as Shatterhand on the NES, like we were doing back then, or Whomp ‘Em. I remember this meeting with my first boss Howie Rubin, the sound guy on Q*Bert, and he was like, we’ll make a pizza game and call it Delivery Boy! And we’d write up these half-assed little game plans, and send them to Japan asking ‘can you make a game like this?’ And they would maybe throw a little team at you. We’ll give you a team of three guys and they can work up this little game. Games were so innocent back then.”

I asked if he knew who did the Shatterhand artwork. “I do NOT know who did the Shatterhand cover. It was a Chicago art agency I think. At the time I remember talking about making a Sumo game with Sumo wrestlers from all over, many countries, and the Japanese rep there told me it was impossible because Sumo is a sacred Japanese sport with no foreigners. This was, of course, before it became as international as it is now. At that time, there had only ever been one foreigner and he only rose to the level of Sekiwake. That’s a very typical example. [It was the perception] that Japanese stuff hadn’t yet gained the status of being attractive to the west.”

Later on at Jaleco, it was a misunderstanding over an illegible Japanese letter regarding Bases Loaded which led to Blaustein getting into an argument with his Japanese superior, ending his time there. Feeling the need to improve his Japanese, Blaustein went to grad-school in Japan, culminating in a Masters degree in Japanese Anthropology. After this he enjoyed, as he puts it, a three-month stint of general slackery in Kyoto before teaching English as a foreign language. “I did that for about a year. It was one of those chain English-language schools in Japan. I was not asked to teach a second year. I spoke too much Japanese to the students, I think... But, during my time at Jaleco I’d gotten my twin brother, Michael, a job there. He later went on to Konami USA and, in 1993, returned the favour by getting me an interview with Konami Japan in Tokyo.”

Konami

“I got the job at Konami Japan when Super Famicom and Sega were burning everything up in the 16-bit world.”

Rather than work in Research and Development, something which he’d always wanted, the young Blaustein was posted in the international business department – a single foreigner in a company employing over a thousand Japanese people. Recalling the time, he spoke of the difficulty getting ideas noticed by those in positions of creativity. In spite of this though, being a native English speaker meant he was asked to write the text for several Konami games, including Rocket Knight Adventures, Sparkster, Animaniacs, Biker Mice From Mars and others. It also allowed him to get an understanding how Japanese developers viewed the west.

“The minds at Konami Japan were thinking: there are some games that we make that are going to be just domestic, and there are some games that we’re going to make for overseas, because they like violence and we like violence less. We like lots of deep, rich RPG stories, with Japanese mythology, and they won’t buy that. So we need to start developing a sports series. I was there when Konami started talking about developing a soccer series, and we were so far behind EA and companies like that. My direct boss was very big on the idea of getting that going. Look where they are now, with the Winning Eleven series.”

Blaustein’s first official work on a game was as producer on the English version of Snatcher on the Sega CD, with Scott Hard acting as translator. Blaustein had been asked to assess the potential for Snatcher to sell in the west and, in the context of the time, he was blown away by the quality of the story and resonance of the characters. They put a lot of effort into it, hiring some quality voice actors and recording most of the dialogue simultaneously in one room. Sadly the sales were abysmal, thanks mainly to the low user-base of the hardware. After Snatcher Blaustein decided to go freelance, though maintained a strong relationship with Konami.

Freelance

“When I was getting started I basically advertised any Japanese-to-English translation. So I did some patents, semi-conductors, electronics, I transcribed American express consumer complaints. I did all sorts of stuff.”

This was at a time when the CD medium was becoming mainstream, due to the popularity of Sony’s PS1, and an early freelance games localisation effort by Blaustein was Konami’s Vandal Hearts. “It’s interesting for a few reasons, though I’m seldom asked about it. It was a rather early strategy RPG for the American market and a serious effort at doing a good localisation all by myself. I played it a lot so I’m confident that it was internally coherent.”

His next project was Castlevania Symphony of the Night, and I asked if there had been any controversy regarding the religious iconography in it. “Do you just mean the crosses? Castlevania always had that same issue. Yeah, there was definitely some concern on Konami’s part and mine as well, though we didn’t really talk about it.”

Metal Gear Solid

“When translating the script I had to balance things so it sounded as natural in English as the original, while still staying as close to the original as possible to satisfy the purists.”

Metal Gear Solid, of all the games he worked on, brought Blaustein the most recognition. Rather unfortunately, it also proved to be one of the most stressful of his projects and landed him in trouble with Kojima, who didn’t appreciate the changes he’d made. Blaustein did a podcast interview with PushToTalk, where he highlighted some of the heavy goings on regarding the project.

“When you create an environment where people aren’t allowed to question you, you get a translation by committee where the uniqueness of any person’s speaking style is wiped away in favour of a bland approach which doesn’t take any risks. You get something less direct, less stylised, less intentionally suited to that market.”

I asked if Blaustein feels his work on MGS influenced Kojima’s subsequent handling of the series. “Yes, I do! I absolutely do. Because if he proceeded along the lines that: ‘changes were made to my script are not what I want,’ and he’s working under the mistaken view that changes during translation are a move away from similarity, then [he’s going to reign in subsequent localisers]. I started out so well with Kojima too.”

Speaking on the subject of MGS, Blaustein also raised the same criticisms held by the majority of gamers: the series’ over reliance on cut-scenes. As he sees it, “That’s more the fact that Kojima never had [an interest in] gameplay. Look at Snatcher, it wasn’t even a game in the traditional sense. It didn’t even have the complexity of Pong. All Kojima cares about is creating a great feeling, great atmosphere.”

Blaustein also touched upon Kojima’s reliance on the rest of his team to formulate gameplay ideas – which echoes what was pointed out in making of documentaries for Sons of Liberty: Kojima handed each team member a notepad and demanded that every day they come up with a new idea, which eventually led to the bomb disposal sequence.

“It’s like he puts all of his attention into the story and the characters, and then he would gather the rest of his team and say ‘OK, you guys make a great game.’ In the first Metal Gear Solid there were set-pieces where you need to use a gun, then grenades, then a Sniper Rifle – and in that sense it was just a series of minigames patched together and placed into the storyline.”

“It’s interesting, because it’s sort of the opposite of the way games used to be made. When graphics were primitive, game creators would first consider the gameplay, and then they would think of a story that would act as a vehicle to carry people’s interest. This story would be mapped on to the gameplay, and you would imagine that these dots represented a dragon, and these dots represented a shield. And oftentimes there was no story at all. Game creators were experts at understanding the interfaces – understanding what made people’s hearts pump by the simple action of chasing after something, or shooting at something. And I think that in the pursuit of photo-realistic beads of sweat and hair follicles, focus on gameplay has diminished. But, I also think we’re now seeing nostalgia for those well-crafted games of the past, as people yawn at today’s realistic eye candy.”

A renaissance and period of change

“I’m really excited by today’s movements. And I’ve noted as well, for example, more old-fashioned games like Little Big Planet [and the games available for download]. To me it looks like it’s all coming back, and that the last few years will ultimately be perceived as an odd experiment. Maybe what we needed was a levelling off of technology. We can’t continue with this accelerated process of improving visuals, there’s got to be a limit – it can’t get much better than it’s gotten now, right? Plus it gets more expensive, and you get increasing competition from other forms of hardware. It’s going to reach a point where that bubble explodes, it’s the law of diminishing returns, and people are going to say to hell with it, we’ll just create a 2D game that’s going to sell 20,000 rather than aiming for 2 million.”

Despite the slow diversifying of the medium, Blaustein commented on other changes within the industry, especially pertaining to the economy and localisation, which aren’t so positive.

“It’s getting much more difficult because the economy sucks. There’s automatic translation machines, there’s fan translators, and there’s the perception that you shouldn’t have to pay for anything today. If you’ve got a machine on Google which translates a page for free in two seconds, even if it’s not so great, suddenly paying 20 Cents a word for a translation that’s good doesn’t sound like a great idea. Ten years ago the price per word for a translator was twice as much as it is now. Normally it goes in the opposite direction, because you have inflation, the cost of living. Translators have been demolished, and the industry has changed – when I started nobody translated games. I became marginally successful because I left Konami at a time when games were expanding in size, and there were so many opportunities. Even doing just Konami games was more than I could handle, and it paid so well. So I did a few games a year, that’s all. But now I have to work constantly.”

“Things are cyclical, and if you stay in it long enough you start to see things. I saw Square start up their in-house translation team, and I saw how that changed, and how people left Square and started their own translation agencies. Hell, people that I trained in the early days as translators that worked on games, are now out in Tokyo translating games. So these people leave and do their own thing, and big companies start examining how much it costs to run their in-house localisation group versus how much it costs to outsource, considering the number of employees they have, and so on. But it was interesting, because unless I’m mistaken, I seem to recall other companies using Square’s localisation department, including Capcom. Now Capcom has their own in-house localisation team, and they seem to be doing very well. But it’s a hell of a lot of work, because you’re looking at manuals, at game translations. Some companies manage it well, and they might say ‘we have a great team we don’t have to outsource,’ and some companies say this isn’t working out, let’s fire all these guys and we’ll outsource it. The way I see it everything goes through these cycles. I’d guess the prices for translators will continue to drop, because the market is so saturated. I’d say that the good days are pretty numbered.”

Too many army games today

“In a lot of ways the game industry has paralleled MTV. At first it was a counter-culture thing, and then it got bought and became more corporate. Back in 1983 I don’t think anyone thought they’d see US army recruiter commercials wall-to-wall on MTV. And games like Call of Duty, there’s so many damned army games.”

This raised an interesting point, since among the more enlightened followers of games, there’s been growing dissatisfaction towards the industry’s obsession with grey-coloured military games and First Person Shooters. But this seems to conflict with the fact that one of Blaustein’s greatest works, the one he tried his hardest to make authentic, was the military themed Metal Gear Solid.

“My first thought would be there’s a million miles between MGS and something like, I dunno, ‘Call to War, Afghanistan Attack!’ You know, with these games it’s like, ‘Look, there’s Osama Bin Laden! ’ That’s not Metal Gear Solid. They’re not living in the same worlds. Look at Decoy Octopus, Vulcan Raven, I mean come on now, that was like 007 – a highly stylised fantasy.”

Prefer to be known for other games

With so much focus given to Metal Gear Solid, a series which has inspired hundreds of articles and podcasts, and the game which Blaustein is best known for, there is a vast back-catalogue of work which has been overshadowed. I asked if there were any other games he’d rather be known for.

“There are indeed. And the game that comes most to mind when I say that is Shadow Hearts Covenant. I really loved that game and it turned out that, from the moment I read the story, I loved it. It was a great Japanese game, I had a relatively free hand when translating it, and the voice over production I arranged in LA, at a good studio. I even hired a well-known, professional director – this guy named Richard Epcar. He does a lot of anime out in LA and did a lot of voices. I hired him and he directed it and did some voices in it. Anyway, the whole thing turned out very well, with great dramatic scenes, and this very interesting story with tie-ins with real historic figures like Rasputin. It was an awesome game.”

“I think it was released alongside a Final Fantasy, and you literally couldn’t have timed the thing worse if you wanted to. So yeah, I wish fans could have seen that one. And it got good reviews – everyone said it was great, one magazine said it was the best RPG of the year or something. It was critically acclaimed. It was by a real dark horse Japanese company too, some company called Sacnoth did it. And I know those guys worked their brains off too. This represented so much, it had so much effort. That’s the remarkable thing about games – the good ones, the creators put so much effort, so much of their hearts into it, and they’re not recognised. The industry is so rife with irony, the whole situation.”

“Games creators can have a vision and then they come out with something that breaks the mould. It achieves some cult notoriety, it creates a bit of a phenomenon which is then pursued by the bean counters. And at that point it’s no longer a work of joyful creation for the game creators, because they’ve got the bean counters telling them that their market survey people think they can sell a million units of a game that fits these categories. So they then force the creators to make a game, they whip them into working 15 hours a day or whatever, and they get this soulless simulacrum of a game. God, it makes me sick.”

His work on Shadow Hearts also generated hostility from the fans of Koudelka, the game’s predecessor. “In Shadow Hearts I changed Urmnaf to Yuri, because he was meant to be Russian. And yet I had people write me like death threats because of that. Well, not really, but I know that fans were really, really angry about it. Because the original, Koudelka, was like one of these cult hits.”

Suikoden II

After Metal Gear Solid in 1998 Blaustein worked on Konami’s phenomenal RPG, Suikdoen II, a much-coveted title which today sells for over $100. Despite the love the game gets, it also garnered a lot of animosity among the hardcore fans due to some slight errors that cropped up in the scripting. These were a result of it being an extremely stressful project, forced through very quickly – keep in mind the recruitable number of characters, each with unique dialogue and back-story, numbered 108, on top of which were NPCs and the antagonists.

Blaustein mostly recalls being dissatisfied with the names, something he wasn’t allowed to change. “I remember being unhappy about a lot of these names. I was so unhappy about these. I struggled with all those names. I mean, in Japanese you have ‘Appuru’ for example. Now is that ‘Apple’ or is it ‘Appulu’? You tell me! Also, the developers would tend to put in a name like Victor or Edward or Ted, and to me that sounds SO mundane. So I would make it ‘Viktor’ for example. But that still left me somewhat dissatisfied. I was trying to satisfy the demands of keeping it close to the Japanese, but still interesting enough.”

The game featured the deaths of several key characters, which created quite a strong emotional resonance in Blaustein. “As far as the deaths of the characters, I just rewatched the death of Nanami. That was pretty good stuff! Great music. Nice smooth dialogue. Many translators were on this project and they were divided up by character instead of just doing chunks of text. This was to maintain consistency of voice. No one but me was thinking about stuff like that in those days.”

Many agree, finding the portrayals to be heartfelt. By the time the final credits roll, describing each character’s life after the in-game war ends, most players should admit to being quite choked up.

“Isn’t that great? And when you consider Suikoden, graphically it was quite cartoonish, and yet that doesn’t prevent you from experiencing the emotion of the game. Because you knew those cartoons were representative of characters, and they didn’t need to look like your next-door neighbour to feel they were human. It’s a suspension of disbelief, and it’s as if for games today the idea of engaging people to use their own imaginations is a bad thing – it’s a bad word.”

Valkyrie Profile

After Suikoden came another RPG, Square’s Norse-themed Valkyri Profile, another game which deals with death and had a strong emotional impact on the player. And like Suikoden II, the PS1 original also garners high resale prices. I asked if he’s aware of the high resale prices some of the games he’s localised now go for, and if he owns a copy of everything he’s worked on. Games like Snatcher, Symphony of the Night, Suikoden 2 and Valkyrie Profile at times reach triple figures. “Really? Wow. I have copies of most games. There was a time when I could go to Blockbuster and see three or four of my games up on the shelf.”

“I loved Valkyrie Profile. I am a huge fan of Norse mythology from way back. Some of it was frustrating (such as Frey being a girl, so I changed the name to Freya). I sure was disappointed that I wasn't asked to work on the Valkyrie Profile follow-up for PS2. I think the original Valkyrie attracted some good reviews at the time. Enough to make people desire a sequel. I had a lot of input into that one and enjoyed working on it.”

Silent Hill series

“Silent Hill 2 was a game intended from the start for the USA, because it had more blood and everyone was becoming hypersensitive about violence and gore in Japan.”

The other big series Blaustein is known for working on is Konami’s Silent Hill, parts 2, 3 and The Room. The second holds a particularly special place in his heart, since he came aboard as a creative consultant for the team, not only dealing with the English text and directing the voice actors, but helping to formulate early story ideas.

“Forget about having started the game, even while Owaku was throwing around ideas for his story, they called me in to have a big conference and meeting about what I thought would be acceptable themes in America. There was a solid team of about four or five guys, including Owaku and the monster creator guy, Tsuboyama.”

With Blaustein having such a direct influence on the game, I thought it time to clear up a few questions which fans of the series have been asking over the years. Two long-running debates held by fans, such as those on igotaletter.com, pertains to the nature of Angela’s past, and also what is being said during the ‘voice whisper’ which can occasionally be heard while playing.

Blaustein stated categorically that the abuse Angela is speculated to have endured at the hands of her father, did indeed occur as part of Silent Hill 2’s back story. He explained, “This is an easy issue to clear up. From the very earliest conversations that I was in on (the pre-script writing meeting), the team had the intention of including incest and sexual abuse in one of the character's backgrounds. They wanted, remember, to get at the very heart, or maybe I should say edges, of psychological pain. So we all knew precisely what we wanted with Angela in terms of her dialogue on paper and as performed. As you can see, it is also well reflected in her appearance. We thought about it all the time, in every scene. Just watch the scenes again. She gets physically ill when she thinks about her experience. It seems clearly depicted if you know what you are looking for.”

“As for the whisper, I am pretty sure it is just a little loop of one of the actors doing what we called at the time ‘butsu-butsu’ or ‘hitori-goto’ (mumbling or talking to himself) in the recording booth. I think they just snipped a loop and added some reverb. The Japanese sound guys would NOT have known what he was saying either, if I am right, because it was just unscripted adlib.”

“I would say it was without a doubt the single biggest influence I’ve had on a game. I don’t think there was any other game where I was ever asked to have that much of an affect on the story. It was also unique in that series that I did all the translation myself, and I did all the direction myself – the voice direction and motion capture directing. It was completely unprecedented.”

Blaustein went on the share his personal reflections on the game, especially the emotional impact of the letter James Sunderland writes, and revealed an interesting anecdote from the recording booth. “I was reading through a SH2 FAQ and came across ‘the letter’ from SH2. I really loved it and wanted more readers to have a chance to see it. The scene where Maria reads it, if you have never seen it, is one of the three most emotional moments I have ever had with the actors. The actress cried after she read it and many of us were getting a little misty-eyed. Try to listen to it on Youtube if you can. It was a great moment.”

Some say bitter...

Despite the fond memories of working on the Silent Hill series, Blaustein has in interviews commented regretfully on how Konami treated him. Some in the industry, having listened to his candid PushToTalk podcast interviews, have even commented that he sounds perhaps a little bitter at the way things went.

“I think when people say I sounded bitter, they were referring mainly to Metal Gear Solid and Silent Hill, and you know, bitter is just a word. I was certainly regretful, and disappointed, and in a sense felt victimised by a few people. From the beginning, when you’re working as a freelancer for a company, they don’t want to put your name out there. So you’re already kind of a stealth figure. If I’m bitter with Konami over Silent Hill and MGS to any extent, it’s just that they weren’t very honest about admitting my role in it. Watch the making of Silent Hill videos and look for me – you might see me in a couple of scenes, I appear in it, but it’s as if I pop up in the way and they can’t get rid of me. But I did everything for those games, and so it would have been very hard to make those videos without my appearing in them, but the fact they managed to do it is an indication of how hard they tried to get me out of it. My question is, where the heck am I in those videos? I was there every single day, so yeah, it bothers me a little bit.”

“The bitterness comes out because I was playing the role of a director in a very unique way – and I didn’t get any credit for it. If I had been a Konami employee, I would have been in those making of videos, and they would have said: here’s a central figure from the localised versions of the games.”

Dragon Quest 7

After Silent Hill 2 Blaustein was tasked with working on Dragon Quest 7, an instalment in Japan’s biggest and most popular RPG franchise, eclipsing even Final Fantasy in terms of popularity. Bringing Japan’s darling of the genre to the west was a phenomenal, responsibility-laden task.

It was a gig he landed as a result of one of DQ’s producers being impressed with his work on Valkyrie Profile. The project though was considerably more difficult than he anticipated. There were 70,000 pages of text, with 20 translators and 5 copy editors working late nights to complete it. Was it stressful?

“Yes, exactly. Over a million words! What a nightmare! I feel so bad about Dragon Quest 7. It was more than anyone could handle. No one wanted to take it on, but I took it on. Along with my new business partner, a software designer, we named our company Wordbox, which was also the name of the software which we created to work on the game.”

Blaustein went on to explain that while he was happy with the quality of the translation itself, several other things hampered them. The nature of the assets, quantity of work and also problems with the newly developed editing software meant some extremely late nights before deadline, just to make sure all the text would synch with the game’s code when being re-inserted.

Dark Cloud 2

After Dragon Quest 7 Blaustein worked on several games, including Shadow Hearts, unique horror game Fatal Frame, Ape Escape 2 and then RPG follow-up Dark Cloud 2. Like all RPGs, doing a good job required a lot of effort, and there were problems along the way. The examples he gives highlight some of the sticking points encountered with Japanese.

“We had lists of items to translate. They were devoid of context and in one example the word ‘denkigoma’ in katakana was translated by someone on my team as ‘electric sesame’. Well, it turned out that it was an electric top: a combination of the words denki and koma, with koma undergoing a shift which changed its ‘K’ sound to a ‘G’ sound, which is common. It wasn’t electric sesame, or ‘goma’. Oops! But such errors are largely unavoidable on the first run around and need to be flagged later during the debugging process. Another mistake may be that we called something a ‘Georama’ which SOUNDS right because you think ‘Geo = earth’, but the Japanese (jio-rama) is actually just how they phonetically spell the English word ‘diorama’. Anyway, I still think Georama sounds better.”

Japan’s downfall

Being so closely linked to Japan and the fortunes of prominent Japanese companies, Blaustein has a unique insight into the world of Japanese games development, and also the downward spiral they’ve found themselves in. His analysis of the situation makes for sad reading.

“How long has it been that Japanese games have started to take a nosedive compared to American games, sales wise? The real tragedy of this is for me – and I’ve read huge amounts of Japanese history, being a Japanese anthropology major – the real issue which I feel strongly about, is the Japanese view of themselves. It’s a huge crisis of confidence.”

“When the Japanese started to realise that Americans and others were loving their games, they were actually leading this massive movement. The best games made in Japan were games made by Japanese people for Japanese people. And then we just happened to say: whoa, they’re making really cool stuff! And they were making this cool stuff unconscious of its affect on the wider world.”

“So you look at the Japanese developers of today, the Xbox 360 comes out and Americans start buying nothing but war games and nothing but sports games, and the Japanese are shut out. All of sudden, no one cares about their creations. Metal Gear Solid has an interesting place on that continuum. Take the Grand Theft Auto games, before those came out, Kojima had done the most realistic 3D shooting games on a console.”

“But the thing is, a Japanese developer cannot in any way, shape or form ever create a game, no matter how good the localisation is, that’s got a guy running around saying ‘Yo, Vinny! Get me a canolie!’ It’s not going to happen, because it’s not within their ability. Nor should they do it. But this is where the American market has turned, and Japan’s like, ‘what the hell do we do? We can’t make a better Grand Theft Auto than those guys.’ Any yet it’s in the nature of these companies to try to follow the leader. So it’s like a worsening spiral, where the Japanese stop making things which interest themselves, and they become worse and worse creators, because they have no confidence in their own abilities. And when they do create something really special, we in the west don’t take notice of it.”

Blaustein reflected further on current trends in gaming, noting the parallel to modern society’s intellectual degeneration. When I talked with Blaustein, his observations to me were right on the money, and call to mind the satirical statements made by writers such as Mike Judge in the film Idiocracy. It would seem we’re heading for a future where people satisfy only their base desires, and anything which is delicate or higher minded is branded by forumites and loud teenagers with microphone headsets as being ‘gay’. More worrying still is the point Blaustein raises regarding the West’s military actions in the rest of the world, and how this influences the populace.

“There’s quite a lot of narrow-mindedness and bigotry today. When you speak to a lot of gamers now, they always say stuff like: ‘That’s so fucking gay, that game’s gay.’ I don’t know, it’s the way kids talk these days. Online gaming? I don’t want to do it. I think we’ve become a dumber society in the last 10 years, we’ve become much more xenophobic. And I don’t think it’s unrelated when you look at the number of war games. When your relationship with the rest of the world is going around shooting the hell out of things, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for studying pretty Japanese characters, forming and reforming in mist-like environments.”

Fallout 2 and Peter Molyneux

Blaustein also shared his views on some of his favourite games, and the creators he most admires.

“I really liked playing Fallout 2. Great humour – I think that very little is required to engage with it. I think there’s two types of game playing: there’s constant button smashing, direction moving and keeping your focus on things in real-time. Think of a coin-op or a shooter. And then you’ve got a game where you can control the pace that the game is going at, and can put your attention on and off of it at the pace that you choose. So, I tend the prefer the latter, and I think they’re very different animals.”

“I think that there’s so little thinking in game creation these days – I think Peter Molyneux is a great guy, and he’s trying to achieve something which few else are. He pushes the envelope of what a game is, and I think there’s not many who can take games in different directions, but he’s one of them. He hasn’t gotten what he wants yet, but every game he gets a little bit closer to it, a kind of gradual refining of what he’s trying to do. His Fable series, it speaks to me.”

Jeremy’s big game idea

Of course, Blaustein also has grand ideas for a game of his own. “I do have one or two big ideas for games, but it requires a lot of resources and involves great risk. And it’s frustrating to never be able to work on them, but I haven’t given up – maybe if I meet the right person.”

“My big idea is, for example, most people’s online behaviour could be described as surfing the internet, right? Well imagine you have an online avatar that represented you, and this avatar gained experience from your online activities, just like when you dungeon crawl. What if your behaviour online, just through a passive process, was able to form a character that represented you via a series of invisible attributes? Perhaps if half of your online behaviour is checking sports scores, maybe you’ll become strong. But whatever, we map some sort of internal, logical system onto the creation of these avatars that grow and change and evolve in accordance with your game playing and web surfing.”

“Have you ever found an RPG game where you love the character creation screens so much, you just do it over and over? Because what you’re really in love with is creating an avatar. You ever have fun making a Mii on the Wii? I would find it interesting if, through the creation of this avatar, we could expose some of the unconscious behaviours that we do in our online surfing, general computer use and gameplaying. Our surfing is like our game playing in some sense – we follow things that we want to follow. That’s what human beings do, they follow things that interest them and they push away things that disgust them. And so a representation of this that went with us, on that journey, and changed with us, and their changes mimicked what may be happening inside of us.”

Blaustein’s vision is – in one sense – creating a connection between the avatars people use for Home, Xbox Live and the Wii, and other things related to the games they play, for example the trophies and achievements they receive. “I think it would be interesting to hook those things up, because they should be hooked up. I think it would be interesting.”

I asked Blaustein if he’d intend for these avatars to be controlled within specific games.

“Absolutely. It’s my big idea that you’d be able to use them in a consensual reality world – the characters would be exportable and importable into different situations. And not just games, but even things like Amazon shopping if the website had a hook to detect your character. So you would have to design it forward looking enough so that people could grab these things and exchange them between websites. I think it’s a sound idea based upon certain logically consistent ideas of what players enjoy. If you make posts on a forum, you already have an avatar online, it just doesn’t have any representation.”

Shenmue

Of all the games Blaustein has been involved with, it’s Shenmue which is likely to generate the most interest among fans – even more so than Metal Gear Solid.

As Blaustein explains, “It was a weird time. I think if you look up Shenmue you’ll see that it was localised by IMagic. I was one of three company owners at IMagic, and I’ve got interesting anecdotes. Shenmue was such a problematic project, you could write a whole book about how messed up things got. You know what the budget on that thing was? $70 million dollars I’m told. And I don’t know what its sales were like, but it didn’t even come out on hardware that sold well. So how much of a disaster was this? This is like the videogame equivalent of that famous western movie, Heaven’s Gate.”

“Suzuki was coming off of huge past successes, and he was the man. And so this was going be THE thing. And surrounding us at the initial meeting were, of course, people from Sega, but also all sorts of outsourcers: localisers and sound people and recording studio people. People to make this, and people to do that. And everyone wanted a piece of that $70 million, you know? And of course that’s like the worst thing you could do, is to start out a project saying we’ve got all this money, and then just keep throwing more money at it.”

“I’ll never forget the meeting for this, it was the oddest thing. I was at the meeting – the let’s kick it all off meeting. And what IMagic did for Shenmue was, we were hired to handle the voice acting... Now, of course with games there’s the localisation itself, and then there’s the voices. The localisation is what we’d normally do, along with the voices, but we didn’t get the initial localisation work.”

Blaustein was reluctant to give specifics, but speculation at the time was that Yu Suzuki gave the text translation to a family member, possibly his brother-in-law, who owned a translation company. This left the voice work to go to a separate company. Unfortunately there was the added burden that Suzuki insisted that all voice acting, including the English, had to be recorded in Japan.

“The reason we did it in Japan by the way, was because Mr Suzuki wanted access to it while it was being done. He probably thought that if he could go and quality control it himself it would be better. Or I dunno, maybe he just wanted to leave his desk and go see how things were going. It was done around his schedule. It wasn’t done because it was the best thing to have done. It wasn’t done because we didn’t have the money to do it in New York. It was simply done because that was his decision. Nobody that was doing that thought it was a good decision. And clearly it wasn’t. Add that to my regrets, that we could have done a great job. It’s like, if we had gone to New York or LA and did it, they’d all have been great actors. We could have had a great script and... Let me ask you and the readers, would Shenmue have done better if it’d had better actors, or wouldn’t it have made a difference?”

“I don’t remember how many characters were in that game, but it’s hundreds. And there simply weren’t enough English-speaking voice actors. In Japan you already don’t have the cream of the best actors, what you have are people who were models who turned into actors, and people who were teachers who turned into actors, or people who were actors and couldn’t hack it as actors in the West and so left to become actors in Japan – and those are the best actors in Japan. So the best ones you have are the ones who failed in America and went to Japan. So it was such a stupid proposition to do it there.”

“The auditions go ahead, we hire basically every single person that exists and calls themselves a voice actor. The people that are doing the translation are late, and I remember it was such a messed up situation, it was so bad that stuff was going directly from the translators, without being checked, faxed to the studio and having actors just read the stuff. That’s how slapdash it all became. And there were actors that had no place at all doing the acting. There was no time for direction – it was like, get it done! When you’re doing it right, like with Metal Gear Solid or something like that, you set up the situation – you’re not doing anything by the seat of your pants.”

“I didn’t direct it, but I’m sure the director was having one cut for everything: OK here’s a line, read it! OK, next. It wasn’t ‘let’s get the best performance for this line’, it was just a massively messed up situation, and the end results wound up being what they are. So, play the game, listen to it, and you’ll know exactly why it got that way.”

Of course Blaustein wasn’t at all happy with the actor situation, so in a desperate attempt to salvage the project and find talent who could fulfil their needs, he flew back to America to round up some voice actors and then fly them back to Japan specifically for the job – something which was unprecedented in the localisation industry.

“And here’s a thing about Shenmue that made it even more complicated, and I can’t recall why this was the case, but for some reason we were also looking for voice actors who would physically look like the characters. I think Suzuki was planning to do some kind of non-videogame media thing. Like there’s that guy Corey Marshall, who played Ryo. And Debora Rabbai too. I hired these people. I came back to America, right, and I found some unknowns and some knowns. There weren’t enough actors in Japan and it was the case that Mr Suzuki wanted a good looking, young unknown. Like an actor. Not even an actor, a young newbie... I don’t know what he was thinking, actually, because if you look at the page of actors on Shenmue Dojo, they’re all good looking people. And Deborah Rabbai, I remember interviewing her in America, she’d had a lot of experience working with animes. Look at these people, these are voice actors that were hired partially because of their looks. Doesn’t that seem strange to you?”

“The one thing you can do to make hiring a voice acting cast even more difficult, you can add this condition: they have to be good looking. So here we are with this ridiculous thing added on top of it. But we weren’t going to say no. So I went back to America, I put out advertisements and I got a couple of people. And the people I got were Deborah Rabbai, and certainly Corey Marshall. And he did martial arts, that’s one of the reasons why he got the job. So I wrote contracts and sent them back to Japan. Corey had never been to Japan, he’d never done acting. We were doing some weird stuff, and that’s just how weird a project Shenmue was. Nobody else was doing anything like that – flying actors from one country to another.”

Despite all the hard work that went into finding Corey, the end result was not without irony, as Blaustein notes. “Now, let me recap. We’ve done a worldwide search for this guy, we find a complete amateur, not hugely talented but good looking enough to be called good looking. He did martial arts so we could say he did them. He satisfied a lot of the checkmarks, and then they changed his voice electronically at the end of all this, to make him sound younger! Isn’t that ironic? Isn’t that hilarious, that after all that work they change his voice?”

“I’ve done a lot of these projects, and a lot of the times we’ve talked about my past work I’ve complained about how the budgets are low, and there isn’t enough money, and here’s a case where they made so many mistakes in the opposite direction. There was poor management and too much money thrown at it. It was rushed, and I know enough about games to know you’re unlikely to get a consistent product. You have bits of it that were translated well, but there were probably 20 translators touching it, would be my guess. And with that many translators, working on that many characters, with a story that diffuse, you’re going to have huge problems with consistency, huge problems with the story, huge problems with characters speaking.”

As Blaustein recollects, no amount of budget could save Shenmue. “Thinking that more money would solve the problem of doing it in Japan, was a mistake. I was not exaggerating when I said it could be an outstanding metaphor for the excesses that videogames reached. The last thing I’d say about it is this: its development is a fascinating story. It’s one of a kind. It may be much more of a disaster than even you know. Didn’t it deplete most of Sega’s finances? What a story!”

Recent games

Senko no Ronde:

I think that piece of work came through Haruhiko Inaba, he’s a guy that I worked with at Konami, in the business division, and we used to talk a lot about our games ideas. In many ways he’s like a Japanese version of me. We worked together in the same company post-Konami for a while, doing freelance translations together, so we were kind of partners. Senko no Ronde would have been a game where he picked up the sales from Japan and said, here Jeremy, translate this. I don’t have much recollection for that game besides the name, so it’s quite likely that I simply hired some translators to translate the game for me. Among the games that I list on my company’s credits, even among the Japanese to English games, there are some games I translated entirely myself, and there are others where the company said to me, we’ve got a million words and need it done in two months, can you do it? Obviously I can’t do it all myself, so maybe I’ll be one translator among six. I’m arranging the translation and co-ordinating the team.

Invincible Tiger and Velvet Assassin:

Yeah, I remember, the Legend of Han Tao. Well we did it from English into French, Italian, German, Spanish, Japanese and Korean. I didn’t do any translation myself. I wore my president’s hat for that. Same thing for Velvet Assassin. Sad fact is that very few big games are given enough time to be localised by one person these days. We just worked on a MMORPG called Uncharted Waters from Japanese to English. I did some work on it, but had to work with many others.

What his family and friends think...

“Everyone thinks it’s cool. Although I’ve got to talk quietly, my wife’s around here. You know, it’s still difficult enough being a freelancer that you go through ups and downs. As you know, it’s not the most stable economic situation, however I’ve been doing it for 15 years. So mostly people close to me all think it’s very, very cool. It’s great.”

“People always ask me, do you get a copy of the game you’ve worked on. And it’s like no, not anymore. Even back in the day I rarely got a copy of the game. You know, they just don’t do that. They don’t give it to people on the R&D staff either, it just doesn’t happen. My family thinks it’s really cool. Although, it’s funny, my kids, in some ways they don’t really realise how cool it is because they’ve been growing up with it. But they’re starting to get old enough to realise it’s cool. Gives them playground credit .”

ZPang in the future?

“I’m in videogames, I don’t want to look like a Wall Street banker.”

Blaustein’s current company is ZPang, which is undergoing a shift in direction. From the new year Blaustein has moved with his family from America over to Japan, where the heart of videogame localisation work is. He also has several exciting works in the pipeline, especially for Apple’s iPod range.

One such game, which can’t be disclosed yet due to an NDA, is a classic title with deep Japanese roots, which most people would never have expected to ever reach the west. And yet, Blaustein is concerned about Apple’s hardware. “Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of confidence that iPod apps will necessarily pay. It reminds me a little bit of the 1980s glut that caused the whole crash of Atari, because there’s just too many apps. It takes time to design games/apps and the perceived value of these things is being really degraded by the sheer glut of free or 99 cent games. So I’m not very confident that it will work.”

“I’m also looking into more dubbing of anime, TV programme and so on, as well as potentially some interesting music-related material. I know some interesting people, and as an entrepreneur, you always think about the connections you have and how can you put people together to form more powerful opportunities.”

“I regret the fact that I don’t do as many games these days. I regret the fact that game companies don’t consider a translation to be a work of art – they consider the original script something that should be done by a script writer, and it’s well written for the story. But for some reason people still think that the process of localising the script into English, from the Japanese, or creating the French or Portuguese, somehow is not an art. They think that the translation is something that can just be given out to two or three translators. That to me seems remarkably small minded. You’re talking about a game that was created for the Japanese, a population of 130 million people, and then it’s going out to 300 million Americans and several million Europeans, and they ask for it to be translated in three weeks, a game that was worked on for two years! I don’t understand what people are thinking when they do that. How can it be given such short shrift?”

With Blaustein’s move from America to Japan, you’ll now likely find him giving games and other media the attention they deserve when being localised. He’s got several games planned, plus work in anime and a few things he’d rather not disclose just yet. Otherwise you can follow his work on the ZPang website.