Cries of censorship have grown louder with the recent release of Fire Emblem Fates. A few changes have rubbed gamers the wrong way, as gameplay elements and a story beats were removed to match American sensibilities.
After years of fighting to recognize games as art, it’s easy to see why this could be viewed as censorship. The original vision has, by appearances, been compromised for the sake of cleaning up a narrative and not offending the sensibilities of some. There are good arguments to be made against this practice, to be sure. However, the moves have been decried with a level of vitriol we don’t often see. Amidst record sales for the series, social media has been flooded with calls to boycott the games and stop these seemingly corrupt practices.
The story goes a bit deeper than these arguments allot for. Despite fan backlash, these changes are comparatively minor. We have seen larger changes implemented in the name of localization before, and these decisions can come from any number of sources. Not only does the background to these decisions matter, but the unique nature of the game industry can show us why these changes are not necessarily the dastardly “SJW machinations” they may seem. Even if they are misguided decisions, perhaps a frenzy is not the way to argue them.
Let’s start with some light background, for those that haven’t seen the crusade unfold. Fire Emblem Fates first caught the public eye during its Japanese release, when a certain scene was uncovered and made the internet rounds. In this scene, a female character is attracted to other women and has trouble speaking to them. She is slipped a drug that makes her see men as women and vice versa, allowing her to become attracted to the male protagonist. Even after the drug wears off, she remains attracted to the man and becomes a romance option. This rang a bit close to gay conversion therapy to some, leading to the scene being removed in the Western release.
Furthermore, the Western release removed an odd face-touching minigame, wherein you could tap your teammates faces with your stylus to raise affection. This was meant to recreate… the wanton face-touching part of courtship, I guess? Either way, it was deemed too odd and/or creepy for Western audiences, and it got the axe.
Both of these are fairly minor edits. The argument, however, is that if a game is capital A Art, any changes from the original vision can and should be considered censorship. These changes were by appearances made to prevent offending a group, sacrificing the artistic vision to boost sales. In extreme cases, some have compared it to putting pants on Michelangelo’s David.
So as not to fight some loony straw man, I’ll direct you to Erik Kain’s nicely rational piece on why the edits are a poor choice. In short, it touches upon editing an artistic vision, appeasing a subset of fans for monetary gain, and the slippery slope of good intentions. These are all valid points, and I really do recommend reading his article to get a good feel for both sides of the argument here. I can hardly do it justice in a single sentence.
The problem with this, however, is in how we think about art. When we think about art, we almost inevitably think of single-artist endeavors like paintings or sculptures. Video games, on the other hand, are more akin to movies. These are works by a huge group of highly specialized people. Games are even farther from a single vision than movies, as a game director often has less control over the feel of a game than a movie director does. In most cases, a director can’t possibly oversee every interaction that a player will experience. Entire sections can be created without a united oversight having a strong hand in it.
None of this is to say that video games can’t be that level of pure art. Hideo Kojima is probably the closest the Triple A space has to pure directorial oversight, but there are a handful of games that transcend the business constraints they are put under. Furthermore, indie games like Undertale and The Stanley Parable (among dozens of others) have found opportunities to reach huge amounts of people with a clear message and an untouched vision.
However, most games are released as entertainment. That’s not to denigrate what these games do, but to highlight that their main purpose is to reach as many people as possible and give them an enjoyable experience. Not only is this the goal, it’s the livelihood of hundreds of people. Decisions are regularly made, at every step of the development process, for reasons outside of artistic direction. Major game and story points are edited due to budget, release dates, entertainment value, logistics, fan reaction, publisher mandate, or any other number of reasons.
For the most part, these decisions are made for one reason: sales. While most people don’t get into the industry without a passion for entertaining people, or for making something meaningful and beautiful, ultimately there is an understanding that every undertaking needs to make enough money to feed everyone who worked on it, and to justify further titles. It’s not what we want to hear. We like to think of games as meaningfully crafted art driven by a united vision, intended to elicit specific emotions and give a player a unique experience. For the most part, however, they are meant to entertain people and make money. Video games can be art, much like movies can. However, for every Citizen Kane looking to challenge you there are ten Paul Blarts and comic book movies just looking to show you a good time.
Neither is better than the other, either. Sometimes I’m in the mood to feel something, and I’ll pop in Grave of the Fireflies and get my cry on. But it’s far more regular an occurrence to throw Hot Fuzz or Guardians of the Galaxy in my PS4 and take a load off. If I were to play Shadow of the Colossus and the death scenes were altered to make them less depressing and impact, it’d be a true issue in my mind. But it’s hard to get worked up about the absence of a minigame that would have had me, and many gamers like me, rolling my eyes. These decisions are made to make a game work better in a new territory, and they happen constantly.
This is not significantly different from other localization changes over the years. Story beats that don’t make sense in the west are changed. Character traits that seem alien to us are altered to be more culturally relatable. This most often occurs in a game’s humor. Japan’s humor leans heavily on puns that are incredibly specific to the Japanese language. In the localization process, these are usually changed to more suitable American puns or replaced with some other manner of joke: cultural references, catch phrases, or old-fashioned American silliness.
While the removal of an entire scene or a gameplay mechanic is more extreme than most of these, it is done for the same reason. It’s not often that this is against any original artists’ will. Most developers would prefer that their work is enjoyed by as many people as possible, even if that means some piece of their original intent is lost. After all, that original intent is often lost by the simple act of changing languages.
This isn’t to excuse major changes, however. While there is a line to be drawn, it is impossible to get everyone to agree on where the line is. Some people are OK with the subtle language changes of localization, but draw the line at any gameplay edits. Some people want straight translations without replacing the original voice cast. Some would even welcome sweeping gameplay changes, if it were to improve the game. Sometimes, an international release is even used to add to the game. In Final Fantasy VII, the West got additional boss fights with Ruby, Emerald, and Diamond Weapons that weren’t present in the original game.
It’s easy to come up with reasons that edits were made. We assume that changes were made to appease the easily offended. We assume that edits were made because the translator didn’t understand intent. The fact is, however, that we don’t know. The publisher has no obligation to explain their process to us. Changes could be made by the translators, the publishers, even the developers themselves. And while the reasons might be anything under the sun, the two most likely culprits will always be profit and budget.
I usually speak to others in preparation for any blog post I make. In the course of doing some digging for this article, I spoke to plenty of people about their least favorite edits in gaming. The one that most caught my attention was for Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, where entire extended script conversations were hacked down to use only the basic version. The reason provided by the fan was simple: the translators were lazy.
There’s a big problem with this assumption, however. If you’re lazy, you don’t look for a job like localization. The hours are brutal, the deadlines unforgiving, and the tasks are immense undertakings. People pursue careers in the industry primarily out of passion. Localizations teams are not given unlimited budgets, and sometimes this means making sacrifices to ensure the game comes over at all. It’s easy to assume that these games should have a larger budget. Within the RPG fandom, Fire Emblem is a heavy hitter. Compared to the real Triple A properties, however, the genre remains niche. Fire Emblem never hit the big time until Awakening, and even with the record-breaking Fates it sits far behind the Mario and Zelda games of the world, much less the likes of a new Call of Duty. The publisher can’t be sure how much a game from a relatively unpopular genre will sell, especially when that genre contains the largest scripts and the most complex translations in the business. The publisher is footing the bill, so they get to decide how much they spend.
That also means they get to decide if something changes. Misguided or not, they’ve done more research than any fan or journalist has and their rising profits proves to them that they are making the correct decisions. If you’re a fan dedicated to the purity of the original experience, the best option is still to put in the work, study Japanese, and play the original.
Ultimately, letting yourself get worked up and angry is an unnecessary emotional drain on yourself and will do little to change Nintendo’s mind. So what can you do if you look at these changes and still decide they pass the line you’ve drawn for yourself? Luckily, there are still plenty of options.
First, and most obvious: don’t buy those games. If you don’t support these localization practices on principal, don’t support them with your wallet. And on a personal note, don’t pirate it either. It’s not just cheesy, it shows Nintendo that you still want what they’ve got. They’ll never assume those piracy numbers are due to their localization. They’ll just assume it’s because the pirates are unscrupulous.
Second, be calm and empathetic. It’s totally understandable to want to spread your opinion, and why you think something crosses the line. Getting worked up and screaming at people for not sharing your opinion gets you nowhere. Write something thoughtful, like Kain did, or make a reaction video on YouTube. Join a podcast, or discuss on Twitter. The important part is to understand that not everyone will share your opinion, and to be willing to listen to why they disagree. Even if you can’t change their mind, you might make them understand your side. If you open up communication with anger and your feet set in, you’ll lose them right away.
And finally, let Nintendo know. They have avenues for feedback, from email to social media. Don’t start with accusations. Don’t go ham on the caps lock and spit that you’ll never buy a product from them again. Just calmly, professionally let them know that you don’t agree with their actions and that it’s a deal breaker for you. Maybe it won’t do anything. Again, their sales will determine far more than your words could. But it’s far more likely to be heard. It’s less likely to go in the spam folder with the trolls asking for Waluigi in Smash Bros.
That’s not a good example, Waluigi in Smash Bros would be fucking boss.
Before we leave things here, let’s talk about the new 3DS game on the block getting flak for censorship: Bravely Second. Bravely Second has seen two major changes. First, a handful of costumes have covered up cleavage and exposed skin. Second, sidequests have removed the possibility of a bad ending as a result of player choice.
The first edit is easy to cry censorship at. It’s exactly what you’d expect: covering up the human body because it will make people uncomfortable. But again, we find ourselves not knowing the reasoning. Did these costume changes save the game from getting a harsher ESRB rating, and thus open up the number of potential fans? Or did they just decide that fans in the US wouldn’t jive on super-cute, SD characters with boobs hanging out? And ultimately, how much do these changes affect the experience?
The localization also changed the Native American Tomahawk class to the cowboy-inspired Hawkeye class. Cry censorship all you want on that one, but let’s be honest. It’s probably a good call. Japan doesn’t need to care about racial sensitivity, as they don’t have a history of mixing ethnicities living in a single country. What would we do if we had a character in a Nintendo game that looked like a woman in black face?
Yeah, changing that one was probably a good idea too.
The changes to those sidequests is harder to defend. My first impression is that it’s on over-the-top change. There was no ready answer as to why they would remove such a thing.
And that’s why I thought about it. Why would they change it? Rather than assuming the publisher is moronic, I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt and figure out what would make me consider that course. Was the translation too expensive? Maybe, that could add a lot of extra text. Was this a gameplay decision? Maybe the original devs heard reviews from the Japanese version didn’t appreciate this gameplay feature and changed it. And heck, just because I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt doesn’t rule out the fact that maybe they were just being overly reactionary to something that could gather negative attention. But ultimately, it’s better on my blood pressure to assume there was a good reason and seek it out than to assume the worst and blow a gasket.
In the end, I took my own advice. I cancelled my pre-order of Bravely Second. I’m still not sure why they made the change, and how much it affects the overall experience. If I don’t have an answer by the time the game is released in the US, I’ll try to dig a bit deeper. Ultimately, I’ve found my line, and I’m voting with my wallet.
What really feels right about it is taking the calmer path. I’m not letting the decision work me up, I’m taking a step back and assessing. I’m digging into how significant the change is. I’m asking others’ opinions, and giving mine in return. I’m having some really interesting conversations, and learning about localization history I had never seen before.
The internet is pretty cool. You can utilize its anonymity to let your worst habits hang out at the fore, or you can use it to control your gut reactions. You can slow down before you type. You can look up sources before you quote something. You can be much calmer, much cooler, and much smarter than you are in person. You can convince people, you can discuss things with them, you can learn. If you don’t agree with my opinions, I hope you reply. Write a comment, sound off on Twitter, publish a rebuttal. One of the best things that the internet has over print is that opinions don’t have to be the end of the story. They can be the start of a conversation.