What It's Like Updating a Classic Like 'Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne' for 2021

Many of the same localizers who worked on 'Nocturne' in 2004 are still with Atlus today
May 28, 2021, 6:32pm
A screen shot from the video game Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne HD
Image courtesy of Atlus

It's taken for granted these days that Atlus and its eccentric brand of JRPGs are beloved and successful, but that's hardly always been the case. When Atlus decided to bring Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne for the PlayStation 2 outside of Japan in 2004, it was definitely a risk. These games were weird and dark, a sharp contrast to the whimsy of Final Fantasy.

I was in college when Nocturne came out. I'd spent countless hours of my youth playing JRPGs like Final Fantasy, and Nocturne just seemed...edgier? More adult? Much of what I'd  heard about the game was that it was hard as hell, which is why I ended up walking out of the campus GameStop after class with a copy of the game and a strategy guide to help me through. I made it as far as the game's first roadblock, a boss named Matador.

I got my ass kicked by Matador a bunch of times—and never touched Nocturne again.

Prior to Nocturne, Shin Megami Tensei had only existed in Japan, and it's to Atlus' credit the company didn't try to westernize the name to make it more palatable to audiences. It also didn't modify the difficulty of Nocturne to make it more approachable. The game was the game, and it ended up finding enough of an audience that Nocturne became a cult classic, even if I was one of many folks who tried to stare down Nocturne and decided to walk away.

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Nocturne's renown, including the legend of Matador, has only grown in the nearly 20 years since its original release, and will likely find a much larger and more receptive audience when Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne HD arrives on PC, Switch, and PlayStation 4 this week. 

What's unique to Nocturne's update is how many of the same people who worked on that original game and were central to keeping its tone intact while it left Japan are still working at Atlus, and are part of this new version. It's rare to see localizers still around for so long, providing an opportunity for Nocturne's revival to have the benefit of history and hindsight. 

This proved helpful for this version, because Nocturne HD is fully voiced, which was not present back in 2004, and necessitated changes in order to make everything sound natural.

I had a chance to fire off questions to several folks who were involved with both the original release of Nocturne in 2004 and the updated version arriving in 2021 about their process.

Bill Alexander is now the VP of production and business development at Sega of America, but was once in the trenches as chief editor on Nocturne. James Kuroki is a localization producer at Sega of America, but back then, was one of two translators assigned to Nocturne. New to this version is lead editor Josh Malone at Sega of America, who's spent a lot of time on Yakuza. (I also recently conducted an interview about Yakuza's localization!)

The exchange provided fascinating insight into how localization has (and hasn't!) changed, and what it means to revisit a game released so longago.

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Among fans, there is often debate and confusion over the role of localization. Some view the process as strict translation, from one language to another. Localization, however, is a lot more complex, and what that means varies from project to project. Can the broadly talk about your philosophical approach to localization?
Bill Alexander: As you say, the approach may vary from project to project and depends on the target audience, although in general I like to start with the creator’s original intent. What emotional response were they trying to elicit? I think a good localization will try to replicate that response by relaying the same idea in a parallel but more familiar or culturally relevant way, without drastically altering, adding to or removing from the original message. It’s more about how it’s said than what is said. 

Our team tries to capture the spirit of the original material and respect the creative vision while presenting the same message in relatable terms. If translated too directly, a message can be jarring—removing someone from immersion—or misunderstood. If too many liberties are taken, then not only may the message fall out of alignment with the creative vision, but it may also lead to bugs and inconsistencies in other areas of the game or story timeline.

Josh Malone: To me, the biggest thing that can make or break a localization is dialogue, and creating good dialogue requires knowing the characters inside and out. Backstory, traits, habits, relationships, goals, motives, conflicts—these all influence how a person speaks, and more importantly, why they say the things they do. To ensure characters maintain a consistent “voice” across multiple files and editors, we read ahead, compile notes, and look back at what we’ve done, cross-referencing the work as a whole. Along the way, our team hashes out any major details or minor points of interest that affect how a character might be perceived. This way, we can narrow down our choices when deciding on how to convey a line, helping us bring out the most impactful delivery while staying true to the original writing.

More specifically, then, can you talk about how that approach translated to Nocturne?
Malone: The original Nocturne has been considered a pinnacle of localization since it first came out, leaving little to be desired in terms of quality. I felt that deviating too far from its initial presentation wouldn’t have done justice to the game’s enduring legacy. At the same time, keeping the text unchanged would have wasted the opportunity to rectify dated conventions and apply new localization lessons learned over the years. 

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So I opted to strike a delicate balance; while reworking the text, I aimed to keep as much intact as possible while adding realism and flavor to the dialogue wherever it needed it most. To do that, I studied the major characters across their respective arcs, with the goal of helping them come across as believable and even sympathetic in spite of all their flaws and contradictions. Mostly, I wanted to make their arguments compelling and indicative of their inner struggle—making the player’s choice to side with or against them that much tougher.

James Kuroki: Unlike a lot of projects I have been on, this one started with the game fully translated. So what we decided to do is keep as much of the original translation as possible. The text we looked at the most was the voice lines. Sometimes, things that work on text doesn’t sound quite right when spoken. And since we were adding voices we need to make sure those lines sounded good. Other text was mostly updating some terms and generally smoothing out what we could. This game is definitely more polished than the original game, thanks to the fact we were able to work off of the original translations.

Bill, my understanding is you worked on the original script for Nocturne. Can you talk about that experience, what it was like when you undertook it? What was the biggest challenge?
Alexander: That was a long time ago! But, let me think back… I remember really getting invested in Nocturne, as it was not a typical RPG.  It was clear from the start that it was intended for a more mature audience, and I found the complex philosophical ideas fascinating, but challenging to capture in English rewrites without extensive Q&A with our translation team, who had played through the entire game in Japanese.  Those concepts were intertwined throughout the story and your choices directly affected the ending you received, so I felt strongly compelled to understand them and capture the nuances as best I could.  To this day, the game is one of my favorite to have worked on, and I am super excited to see it reimagined and fully voiced. I’ve been giving Josh a hard time about “not screwing it up.”

Malone: As if I wasn’t nervous enough already! Nocturne is one of my all-time favorite games, so getting the chance to polish it up was a pretty surreal experience.

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How many differences are there between the original script and what's in the updated version of the game, and can you talk me through how the changes were handled?
Malone: Yosuke, my translator partner in crime, went over the script line by line in Japanese while I scoured it in English. Although our directive was “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” there were many instances where we both agreed—or debated—over whether certain lines strayed too far from the Japanese intent or didn’t go far enough to replicate it. In reference to the “strict translation versus creative interpretation debate,” the two of us are aligned a bit opposite of one another, so meeting in the middle allowed us to see both sides of the equation and come up with the best solutions. 

A lot was put up for consideration, including the possibility of relocalizing certain demon races, but in the end we opted to table that discussion, as making legacy changes to an earlier game would conflict with later entries in the series. However, we did make several retcons, most noticeably to certain demon names, in order to keep the lore as accurate as possible.

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The original game was text-only—no voice acting. Did the addition of voice acting necessitate any changes to the script, or did the voice acting conform to the words?
Josh: With or without voice acting, Nocturne is a solitary, almost meditative experience. So, I wanted the dialogue to reflect the somber, ephemeral mood evoked when reading through the game unvoiced. However, the script had to be adapted to the spoken word—pleasing to the ear, appropriate for dual audio, and in the spirit of the original localization. The biggest challenge was reworking some of the cryptic, expository monologues into smoothly flowing passages of drama. Thankfully, our incredibly talented voice actors delivered captivating performances that walked the line between fantastical and grounded, breathing new life into the characters. Having Reuben Langdon reprise his role as Dante was a real treat, and hearing Gouto voiced for the first time (aside from his brief cameo in Soul Hackers) was very fulfilling. [Editor's Note: Langdon has been known to push baseless conspiracy theories.]

What was that relationship like on the original game? Did those conversations happen?
Alexander: At the time, I was not privy to the producer’s conversations with the development team, but I know he was very respectful of their creative vision and expected as much from the rest of the loc team.  I am not aware of any “changes” to the game that would have required deep discussion, although for the West we did opt to wait for the Maniacs version of the game that included Dante.  The Atlus brand was starting to gain momentum outside of Japan, and though still considered hardcore, this title helped achieve that.  It went on to become somewhat of a cult classic that was sought out by collectors long after it was out of print.

Nocturne, like a lot of JRPGs, includes religious references and terminology, i.e. Satan, menorah, etc. I suspect references like this require a sensitive touch, and I'm curious what the approach is like, trying to respect the original writing against a more global audience.
Malone: From what I understand, the writers go to great lengths to depict gods and other spiritual beings as faithfully as possible according to how they appear in their respective sacred texts and legends. Although creative liberties are sometimes taken to adapt these religious icons to fulfill a certain story role, or reimagine them in a modern art style, Shin Megami Tensei games never frame a particular god as good or bad, right or wrong, superior or inferior—they are always agents of choice designed to influence the player.

In addition to the obvious gods and demons, Nocturne features a blend of themes and iconography from Judaism, Christianity, Satanism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and even Nietzschean philosophy, putting them all on equal footing. But the game’s metanarrative focuses on the player’s struggle to create their own value, and the religious references ultimately serve as the backdrop. I believe my job as a localizer is to help these references come across clearly and authentically, rather than add a particular slant to them. So if a game full of complicated occult jargon actually starts making sense after a while, then I think I’ve done my job well.

What's the biggest change in localization that you've noticed since you first touched the script for Nocturne? What were you thinking about the most while revisiting this?
Kuroki: Nocturne was before the time we had proper methods and rules to localizing. We now have tools and standards that both help speed up our process and keep everything consistent across the board. This is necessary now, since we need to be organized in order to handle localization in other languages in a timely matter. I thought about how much we have grown as a company since we first released this game. I swear it was just yesterday when we were tossing floppies at each other. I thought technology couldn’t get any better then, but I’m sure glad it did!


Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561)