If you were an anime fan during the late 90s through the early 2000s, the debate between subtitles and dubbing most likely came up. If you were anything like my gaggle of friends, it probably got heated to the point some very nasty things were thrown at you if you dared to speak of a dub. When the DSTV channel Animax rolled around, it was a clear “enemy” pushing forward the “ruination of Anime in its purist form”.
The argument with regards to anime has become a moot one, with streaming services like CrunchyRoll pushing to have subtitled releases within an hour of the Japanese release. Physical media, which was the key dub market, met resistance with pricing going at odds with the rise of the internet. Streaming services became key and the old otaku finally won one of the most idiotic nerd wars to spread across message boards.
While the anime scene seems to have finished the argument of subbing or dubbing, the video game world still has its own considerations. There are many factors that goes into the behind the scene decisions of what truly is the best way of conveying a story from Japan. From the game’s place in a crowded market, to costs associated with each decision, to the audience itself. Which is the better way to go? Provide the closest to the original experience or try and open up a game to a new base through their own language?
Recently, I found myself in a conundrum with Persona 5, the sequel to one of my favourite games of all time. Do I play it in English for a more engaging experience, or do I download the Japanese voiceovers and play it for authenticity of the setting? I bounced back and forth finally landing on just accepting the English option and I am very glad I did. Yet the question still gets many a player going. What is the best option and why don’t more companies allow the choice?
Localisation is never that simple
A snippet from the Kotaku article on Trails of the Sky localisation.
It is first key to differentiate two key points arising when the topic of bringing over a Japanese property to the west. It is the contentious issue of translation and localisation. Although they are interchanged through most of the internet, they are very different. The Japanese and English language are at constant odds with one another. Direct translation from one language to the other is a majority of the time, impossible to fully adhere to.
There is a chance you have heard of the famous example of “I love you” in Japanese. Natsume Soseki, a scholar and lecturer from the late 1800s once asked his students to translate “I love you” into Japanese. Most of the class provided numerous examples but Natsume brought the closest true translation to the phrase – he stated that the purest verbal showcasing of affection translated to “The moon is so blue tonight”. That is the direct translation of “I love you”, and that one example emphasises the need for localisation efforts. Direct translation is impossible, localisers must go out of their way to present the most authentic intention of the creator while changing the very words used.
It is because of this that not only is localisation hard, but can too be costly. It is here that the real conversation of dubbing and subtitles come through in full. It is incredibly difficult to gauge the cost of any project due to numerous factors that are present in development. One game’s issues do not translate to another project. Yet there is always one factor that creates a key difference in price, the inclusion of English voice acting. This adds a whole new layer of localisation with not only the script trying to capture the intent, but not the voice actors have to be directed to match it.
It’s subs or nothing
Fans of niche anime games (or just people who own a Vita) are more than happy to accept subtitles only. The core reason for this is because of a constant mentality that they will get these games anyway they can. If this means that the game is subtitles only, then it is perfectly acceptable. Publishers look at what the game will do for the market and who the intended audience is. Subtitles themselves are not easy as established with running around a phrase like “I love you”. For a good understanding of the difficulty of localisation, Jason Schreier of Kotaku did a phenomenal piece in 2015 about the localisation of The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky the Second Chapter. It is a must read for anyone interested in the localisation process, but what it fully illuminates is that subtitles alone are still a difficult undertaking. From not only a writing perspective, but from an implementation into the game system.
The people who love Visual Novels, weird Japanese mash-ups and just the general lunacy to come from the land of the rising sun, don’t really care whether it has English voices or not. It is because of this fact the publishers take the subtitle option. These games are generally niche in nature and while Japan has made a serious comeback in the video game industry, there is still a fear of putting more money into games that, for the majority of the last decade, have never hit the heights of the “glory years”.
Subtitles are also considered to many to be the most authentic experience. If the game is set in Japan, surrounding Japanese characters, then obviously it should be in Japanese for the sake of authenticity. The common joke surrounding this comes from the Persona franchise with English lessons. There is often a break in immersion when English speaking characters are unable to read English and refer to their current conversation in Japanese. It is a minor detail, but for many a fan this is a crucial element to keeping the immersion in check.
There is however, a big knock against the “authenticity” argument in that for most English speaking players, they will never know how good the subtitles really are. There is no way to check unless there is a proficiency in both languages or through third hand reports. Subtitles do no always match a level of quality many assume they hold. Recently, Persona 5 has met some ire with the translation sometimes being awkward for the sake of keeping original sentence structure. This is hardly to talk about Digimon: Cyber Sleuth and the litany of issues with those subtitles. Subtitles do not always hold up in a way many of the true believers want them to.
A dub can be a useful bridge
While for the most part, this topic has focused more on the reasoning behind original voice over with English subtitles, dubbing does have many a benefit. The first and most obvious one, is the focus of the player. For those that have a particular love of Japanese game, ask yourself how many times the subtitles have been more a distraction in cinematic events? It is a knee-jerk reaction to read the subtitles, to confirm all aspects of story and character, but with video games being a visual medium, how much is lost in that focus?
Recently, playing through Yakuza 0, there are times when having to look at the bottom of the screen made me miss some of the finer details of the action. From visual design to slight details to even full-blown action scenes. With Yakuza 0, the prominence on the faces is clear with the actors hamming it up in the goofy crime world of Tokyo, yet you might miss the subtle details as you read the bottom of the screen to keep up with the plot. As a person who adores this franchise, I will still take a subtitle over the game not coming at all, but there is no denying a bit of disappointment in missing some visual moments.
The player’s ability to empathise has also been put into question through subtitles. Studies have been done that prove that when viewers and players cannot understand the character’s language, there is a loss of empathy. It becomes harder to feel for the plight of the character in moments driven by performance, because they just might not fully realise the verbal cues in place.
The final reason dubbing can be a huge benefit, is that it allows new audiences a chance to try games out. That statement might illicit a reaction of superiority of the “casuals” and the “hardcore” but let’s put aside the petty pissing contest for a second. Any fans of these games would want them to do well and sometimes that means appealing to a wider audience, even if that means time and money goes into English voice acting. A Japanese audio only game becomes a much harder sell for those wanting to just play a game.
Options are always the best course of action
In saying all of this, there is of course the best of both worlds, providing the player the choice between original language and the player’s native language. This has become a more prominent trend although it still does not encapsulate the majority of the releases sent over from Japan. A core line of logic comes from if the game does have a dub, why not provide players the option to play in Japanese. It will be subtitled anyway so what really causes the hold up?
Once again, there are numerous factors at play that can prevent the best option from coming through. Over the years, many have inquired and the reasoning differs. From considerations of space like what happened with Final Fantasy X HD Collection on the Vita, to developers just not having the time to incorporate dual audio effectively or localisers not having the ability to do so. Sometimes that authenticity is a big part of the Japanese developer’s belief, the feeling that English voices cannot capture what they are intending through the performance of the actors.
How Persona 5 and World of Final Fantasy handle the issue, is to provide players the option via DLC. Those who want the original voice over can shoot on over to the relevant storefront and purchase a free pack. If it is important to them, they are more than able to grab the data themselves and download the voice packs. Once again, this really is the best for all players, allowing a freedom that most games should offer. It can still be upsetting for some to go the extra distance and add the additional time to download, but they still have the option.
In both instances of subtitles or English dubbing, there are often those that will dismiss the game outright if it falls either way. Some players do not want a game that does not offer English voices, while other won’t touch a game that only offers the English voice acting. There is no simple answer to this debate when looking at an “either or” argument.
So what is your preference? Do you go out of your way for the subtitles or do you look for the English when the choice is given? Does either option amount to a deal break for you? Let us know in the comments and remember that the moon really is blue tonight for all you lovely people.