A screen shot from the video game Nier Replicant
Screen shot courtesy of Square Enix

What It's Like to Localize a Yoko Taro Video Game

John Ricciardi's company, 8-4, has been working with the 'Nier' designer for more than a decade. It's been an especially wild ride.
May 3, 2021, 1:00pm

The night before boarding a flight to the United States for a lengthy voice recording session for the then-upcoming Nier Replicant, John Ricciardi, co-founder of the localization company 8-4, was on a last minute call with designer Yoko Taro. Ricciardi's flight had already been delayed several weeks, a precaution regarding a new virus people were calling "COVID-19."

"We were just talking over some details about the characters and stuff," said Ricciardi. 

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Ricciardi was meant to travel to Los Angeles, but in the morning, news broke that COVID-19 was spreading like wildfire overseas and the area was headed into further lockdown. The plan was to push the flight back another few weeks, and things would work themselves out.

Things did not work themselves out. That was March 2020, and Ricciardi would not step foot into a proper recording booth that year. Instead, that work would be handled remotely, as 8-4 put the final touches on the English version of Nier Replicant ver. 1.22, which came out last month. It would be the culmination of a collaboration between 8-4 and Taro that's lasted more than 10 years, one in which Riccardi's company has worked closely with Taro to refine the finer details you might expect someone leading a big game project to not bother themselves with. 

One such example: Taro was listening to the remote voice recording sessions that were coming in, trying to determine, according to Ricciardi, "does it sound like they're in a closet?"

(FYI, Ricciardi used to work in games media, so no big shock: we're friends.)

This attention to detail has become the cornerstone of 8-4's relationship with Taro, after localizing the original 2010 release of Nier—long before Taro had become a cult rockstar. The project came about after 8-4 helped with some other Square Enix games, including 2009's Star Ocean: The Last Hope. Still a relatively new localization outfit, 8-4 hoped for some additional creative control on its new projects. During Star Ocean, the voice acting was taken out of their hands, and with Nier, Square Enix was more open to 8-4 taking the lead.

"When we were working on it, it was just another game," said Ricciardi. "I mean, in fact, the codename was Nier, which is kind of funny. We were like, 'OK, I wonder what the real game is going to be called.' [laughs]"

The localization process begins before a game is finished, and what became clear early on was Taro's understanding of the story he was telling, even the parts that weren't in the game.

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"Maybe less so now, but 10 years ago especially," said Ricciardi, "we would come into these projects and it'd be like, 'hey, OK, so there's this thing in the story that obviously, we don't understand, the players not going to understand. What's the background? Just so we know and we're not [assuming].' And a lot of times developers would just be 'uh, we didn't think about it.'"

"We got an email early on in the project, and they were like, 'OK, here's a list of things that are in the script and maybe we have to remove a few of these for rating purposes, so we don't get in trouble and everything.' [laughs] And so we toned it back a bit."

That was never the reaction from Taro, who "always has an answer." Ricciardi described meetings with Taro where he'd lay out "expansive" details about the broader Nier universe and why certain things were the way they were. (It was at this point Ricciardi caught himself, because he wasn't allowed to share too much.) Besides being personally inspiring, it gave 8-4 guidance on how to localize Nier's storytelling and remove guesswork from the process.

Traditionally, Japanese games have their accompanying Japanese voice acting recorded ahead of other languages, and those languages then have to conform. Style, tone, lip sync—all of those are traditionally driven by the Japanese voice overs. But in Nier's case, happenstance led to the English voice acting being recorded first. When Ricciardi was flying to Los Angeles for the first recording sessions for Nier, Taro actually accompanied him.

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"We went out to Burbank [California] together for the movie scenes on the first Nier—the parts that were CG," said Ricciardi. "Partly just to get his help at what's going on and stuff because the game is still in development, and then partly also to make sure that he was happy with the voice performances and could steer things in the right way."

Scrutinizing the voice acting is a practice that carried over to Nier Replicant, too. When Nier was released outside of Japan, strange marketing pressures resulted in altering the main character from being a brother to a father. Nier Replicant aligns with the original vision, and so a few hours into the game, there's a five-year time jump, where the central character transforms from boy to man. Ricciardi and Taro had different ideas on how to handle that.

"I was telling Yoko-san 'it probably makes more sense in English for this to be the same voice actor,'" said Ricciardi. "There are people who can do a younger voice and an older voice, but you don't want to sound that different at the end of the day. And he was like, 'no, I want them to be different. I do want them to sound different. In fact, I want the player to feel like [it's jarring].'"

These types of back and forths, where Ricciardi found himself convinced into Taro's position, were a regular occurrence. Not all localization projects involve the localization team working so closely with the original creator, but it is more common these days than it was in the past.

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Most famously, perhaps, was the moment when Ricciardi realized a character in 2017's Nier Automata was named Jackass, a memorable character with a penchant for drug creation.

"My wrong instinct at the time," he said, "was just to say 'OK, they're just not understanding what that word means, there's no way they're naming this character Jackass. Maybe they saw the Jackass show or something." [laughs]"

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In most cases, the result would be a quick conversion and, likely, deference to the localizers hired to interpret the original work and find a way to make it expressive in other languages.

"Me being all like, 'oh, I know what's going on here. I'm going to go talk to him,'" said Ricciardi, "And I was here, 'you can't name it Jackass, and this is why I'm blah, blah, blah.' And of course, he [Taro] was like 'no, I want to name it Jackass.' And I was like, 'well, do you understand this, this, and this?" And in the end, he successfully convinced me."

Jackass's name stayed in the game, part of a long list of fan favorites in Nier Automata.

But it's not always the case that Taro's preferences won out. He could be convinced, too.

Kainé is one of the most colorful characters in a very eclectic Nier cast, perhaps best known for kicking ass in lingerie and spouting loud expletives while doing so. Kainé rules. But in the Japanese version of Nier, Kainé's swearing, which is tied to the character's arc and personality and not simply a way to grab attention, was censored on purpose by Taro.

"I tried to do it with 'beep' from the beginning," said Taro in an interview with Game Watch. "Also, I've never seen a beeping sound in a serious game, so I wanted to try it once."

Some game localizations, including those handled by 8-4, have been criticized, typically as convenient ammunition in a larger gaming culture war, for "censoring" the original Japanese. In this case, the reverse is true and has led to some humorous comments by some players.

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"I like the japanese voices more, for me the western voices ruin the immersion," wrote one confused Nier fan on Reddit. "I met Kaine once and i swear i heard a beep when she was talking, if the whole japanese audio is censored, that would ruin my immersion even more."

When it became clear the bleeping sounded awkward with the English voices, 8-4 was given creative latitude to let Kainé swear a whole shitton. 

"We just went nuts in the first draft," said Ricciardi, "because they told us they're like, 'yeah, go crazy. The whole point is for it to be shocking.'"

Ricciardi himself did not localize the script, but he oversaw the production. 8-4's first pass actually pushed the line far enough that Square Enix later asked them to tone it down.

"We got an email early on in the project," he said, "and they were like, 'OK, here's a list of things that are in the script and maybe we have to remove a few of these for rating purposes, so we don't get in trouble and everything.' [laughs] And so we toned it back a bit."

I asked Ricciardi for a copy of the email, but he declined to share it. 

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Early on, there was a discussion about whether the bleeps should be part of Nier Replicant, because this updated take on the game was more closely adhering to the Japanese version of the game, but it was never seriously considered. The uncensored swearing was Kainé.

"There were questions like, "how much should we stick to what we had before because people loved it? Or should we veer a little bit closer to the Japanese?'" said Ricciardi. "Because 10 years later, I think the gaming audience is a little bit more mature and maybe keen on these finer points of localization, to put it nicely. But in the end, there were so many lines that were just like, 'oh, this line was too good. People love this line.'"

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When Ricciardi was approached about Nier Replicant, one of the first questions from Taro and series producer Yosuke Saito was about the original cast. An early concern was whether a character like the foul-mouthed Kainé would be someone that voice actress Laura Bailey, now a popular and well-known voice actresses even outside of games, would want to return to.

It proved to be an unfounded concern, with Bailey telling Ricciardi during one recording session that Kainé has become one of the characters she's most asked about by fans.

Those sessions largely took place remotely, with Ricciardi guiding folks like Bailey over Zoom, while they recorded from home. It was an awkward process for many reasons, not least of which was a five-week stretch where Ricciardi, who lives in Japan, pulled a graveyard shift, working midnight until sunrise, because the actors were in Los Angeles.

"No one was like, 'hey, you have to do this,'" said Ricciardi. "But I knew that if we didn't do this, the game is not going to [make it]. Maybe the English version has to come out later or something. Nobody wants that. We all want this to be on time."

The end result was Nier Replicant, an excellent update to a modern classic. It's a game that seems to be finally getting its due after the unexpectedly electric reception to Nier Automata has resulted in a collective re-examination of Taro's work. There's a reason people keep asking what he's working on next, because what's expected from Taro is the unexpected.

"Yoko-san's planning and world building are, I think, second to none," said Ricciardi. "He's just a joy to work with because he has a plan. It sounds like I'm talking about Jesus or something. [laughs]"


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