Scott Strichart, senior localization producer at Sega of America, still remembers watching that viral YouTube video where a woman chronicles 10 hours of walking around in New York. While the clip is less than two minutes long, her trek across the city consists of nonstop, wall-to-wall verbal harassment. The men have no idea who the woman is, but they feel entitled to make comments on her appearance left and right. When he was watching it, Strichart had no idea that he’d later have to bring a similar scene to life in a video game.
Strichart’s job requires him to adapt Japanese video games for Western audiences. It’s not enough to simply translate dialogue word for word: Strichart has to consider the meaning, spirit, and cultural context of a scene. The wrong word choice can change the entire nature of a sentence, if not the game as a whole. It’s not a light job, especially as video game audiences bring more scrutiny than ever before to how video games differ across markets.
Judgment, a detective action game spun from the cult hit series Yakuza, places players on the streets of Tokyo. While much of the game is spent investigating crime scenes and punching baddies, there are also a bevy of offbeat moments that add texture to the whole experience.
At one point roughly 15 hours into the main game, for instance, the protagonist is tasked with sneaking in a friend, Saori Shirosaki, to a hostess club in order to get information crucial for a mission. Saori takes some convincing, but in the end, she’s game. The problem is, not just anyone can pass off as a hostess — it’s a specialized role where beautiful women entertain men. In a twist, Judgment allows players to dress Saori to the nines. You can pick out everything from accessories, makeup, hair, and even a dress for Saori. Easily, you can sink a lot of time into making sure Saori looks spectacular. After all, you want the whole thing to be convincing, right? While the game never outright says it, the implication is that you want to make Saori seem sexy for the people she’s about to encounter.
But then something curious happens. Instead of controlling Yagami, the protagonist, through a third-person camera, the game suddenly gives you control of Saori in first-person. And when you walk to the hostess club, the men on the streets catcall you the entire way through. It’s a bizarre experience, especially after the player likely puts effort into making Saori look good.
Upon witnessing the scenario, Strichart knew that the team at Sega had to take special care with the scene.
“Sensitive scenes are tricky to get right,” Strichart told Polygon. “I knew right away we had to be careful with it.”
One of the major things that the localization team had to consider were the aims of Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio, who originally developed the game. Sega of America knew that Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio prioritizes humanizing the people and places depicted in the title.
“People talk about how Kamurocho feels real, lived in, and we get a lot of praise for the attention to detail in everything from the dirt on the windows to the reactions of NPCs when you point your camera at them,” Strichart said. “But with that realness comes the unfortunate reality there’s sometimes there’s an ugliness too, and not every character in this city is meant to be sympathetic.”
The catcalling scene then became an opportunity to showcase the “ugliness” of the city, all in the hopes of fleshing out a believable and realistic space.
“Even if it’s uncomfortable,” Strichart said. “If the writing makes us uncomfortable during translation, as sometimes it does, that’s something we have to make sure comes across in our word choices too.”
Beyond considering the aims of the creators, Strichart also has to consider how the scene comes across for anyone playing it in Japanese. What makes this complicated, however, is that the scene isn’t neutral, which puts translators in the position of having to comment on an experience they might be unfamiliar with. For Strichart, the sensitive scene became an opportunity.
“In a weird way, I saw something of an educational experience here, because our player base is primarily male — and I do kinda hope that being thrust into the first-person perspective of a woman being catcalled felt a little gross,” Strichart said. “I hope there’s some level of sympathy for Saori, and on the larger scale, empathy for women who deal with it on a regular basis.”
One of the first things that a man says to Saori is, “Hey, smile for me, beautiful.” According to Strichart, as a whole the original Japanese dialogue didn’t quite sound like what it was supposed to be when translated to English, so he had to rely on his personal knowledge of what verbal harassment would sound like for a Western woman. That’s where the “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman” clip ends up coming into play. The viral video has a very similar line unfold within it.
“That video was the first thing I thought of when I saw that none of the catcalls, at least as directly translated, were really ‘catcalls’ in the traditional English sense,” Strichart said. “You’ve got a dumb guy with his wife, played for humor, a distracted tourist who is also played for humor, and lastly, a sleazy barker.”
If you listen to the Japanese audio track in the game, the staunch translation of the first catcaller would be, “Fuck, she’s hot.”
“In the English dub, though, this was changed to ‘smile for me,’” Strichart said. He knows it’s not exactly one to one, but the overall intent is still captured.
“It’s admittedly a liberal change, and maybe I’m just still kind of haunted by the gall of that sentence [in the video], but I think that kind of codified it as catcalling a little more for an English speaking audience who would choose to play the dub,” Strichart said.
“I guess I couldn’t fathom the arrogance.”