Games are becoming more and more about words. And words, as Mars: War Logs developer Spiders found out, are important.
It was the prison rape scene that made the two men giggle. A frightened teenager is sprawling on a prison shower-room floor being taunted by a much, much larger man, a cavorting, ridiculous thug. They couldn't help but laugh.
The two writers understood that this ought to have been a menacing moment, an opportunity to feel empathy and fear for the poor lad. But the would-be rapist's absurd lines, his drawling, old-fashioned American gangster accent — it was a joke.
Spiders, the French developer that created Mars: War Logs, certainly wanted to create an abiding impression of fear and helplessness. In video games, rape scenes are rare. It's a bold thing to include in a game, not least with dialogue that directly references the details of an assault.
In its original French version, the scene had played out as a deeply unpleasant encounter with a big house archetype. But here it was, translated into English, rendered as something approaching slapstick.
The men had been asked by Spiders CEO Jehanne Rousseau to sit down and watch the intro and play the game. Rousseau told them that, following the English-language launch of the game, the message coming back from reviewers and gamers in North America and the U.K. was that the dialog stunk. She was concerned.
Although both men had plenty of work on their schedules, Rousseau asked if they might be able to rewrite the translation, get into the studio and re-record all the voice-overs.
Kurt McClung is a Californian living in the south of France. His writing partner, Simon Mackenzie, is a Scot who has spent many years living in California. Together they make up a company called Taliespin that writes dialogue and plots for video games, among other things.
As they played the game and read the reviews from English-language PC gaming sites, they understood this was a big task. They were going to have to rewrite vast sections of Mars: War Logs, a role-playing game with plenty of characters and lots of branching dialog trees.
"Everything that could possibly go wrong between the French translation and the English production of the voices went wrong," says McClung. "Every single thing."
"When I first saw the original English translation, I just watched it in horror," says Mackenzie. "And it wasn't the horror that Spiders wanted, either."
"We laughed for quite a bit," says McClung. "And then I was really sad, because I knew how much work Spiders had put in it, a year and a half of their lives. This is the project they'd wanted to do from the beginning, when they created Spiders. This wasn't just some project they pulled off the shelf."
"Unfortunately, they [the French translation company] had just translated the words," Mackenzie says. "You can't do that. You lose a lot of the nuances of the language, the character and flavor of what's there and what the creators were trying to achieve."
McClung has been living in France for two decades but he rarely bothers with translation work. He and Mackenzie both prefer to create original content. But they had a relationship with the people at Spiders; they admired their work and the bold vision of Mars: War Logs and the writers who had worked on the French original.
"In France everyone loves them," says McClung. "They have the ambition to use games to tell better stories. That's totally French. We need that kind of company so that games go further."
So he and MacKenzie said, sure, we'll do this. They're writers. They understand the importance of words, the difference subtle changes can make. And they're gamers too. They want to see games that make use of all the tricks used in novels and TV shows and movies. The two writers believed they could create something that was true to the French original, that truffled out the emotions intended by its development team.
Spiders told them it needed to be done in four weeks.
Innocence and fear
In the opening scene of the game we meet Innocence Smith, a boy soldier who has been captured and is on his way to a Martian prison camp. The look of the game is dark, almost medieval. He muses on the terrible events that have brought him to this miserable pass. There are lots of lingering shots of his face, a certain Gallic quality to the cinematography.
Old translation (U.S accent): "Politics was never my thing and Guild rivalries were always over my head. I had my own problems, more along the lines of acne and girls."
New translation (London accent): "I was never much for politics. The rivalries between the Guilds was something that didn't concern me. I was a teenager and I had my own set of problems."
Old translation: "Now I look back I realize the fact that not much going on in my life was a good thing."
New translation: "Thinking back, I was a pretty carefree kid living a good life."
Old translation: "Then one day the soldiers came and got me and a bunch of other guys from around there. They wanted us for the Company."
New translation: "Then one morning the soldiers came to take me away. Me and a lot of other guys from the neighborhood, to defend the Guild."
Old translation: "At first I was proud of the soldier's uniform and the weapon they gave us. Then I caught on. War's got nothing to do with being a hero. It's just about crawling forward with blood everywhere."
New translation: "I think I was actually proud at first. They gave me a uniform and a gun. And then, I understood. Up close, war doesn't make you a hero, it makes you tired. It's nothing more than bloody marches."
What went wrong
Mars: War Logs sells for $15 on PC. The reviews generally state that it's set in an interesting world with lots of characters, decent combat, crafting and character systems. Compared to, say, Mass Effect 3, it lacks visual polish. The environments are not as rich or textured, but the story works.
Alas, the dialogue and some of the voice acting in the first translation was a real problem, one that reviewers seized upon. Games Master noted its "weak writing." Strategy Informer complained that "too many lines are told without any emotion whatsoever, even if a character's just found out their parents are dead."
Michael Cromwell is editor-in-chief at U.K. site PCGMedia. His website's review declared that the game suffered from "unintentionally funny voice acting and script," but scored the game at four out of five.
"It's worth playing. It's definitely the best RPG I've seen for the budget," says Cromwell. "For me the biggest problem was Fatso [the rapist], who joked about sodomy and rape, quite adult subjects. When you're touching on this stuff, if you lose the nuance that you're trying to aim for with mature content, some of the dialogue ends up being risible."
In one scene a character tells another to "go back to the turbine." In Paris, this idiom means, "get back to work." In English, in a game without any turbines, it's nonsensical.
"When we released in France, the feedback was pretty good," says Jehanne Rousseau, CEO of Spiders, who wrote the game. "But when we got the reception from the U.S., a lot of people said the text and the actors were not so great. It was really a pain for us because we really like this game. We want it to be loved by the players."
Rousseau talked to the publishing team at Focus Home Entertainment, also in Paris. They agreed that the first translation had been hobbled by a lack of any native English speakers directing the script or the actors. They agreed that the job had been rushed. Then they agreed on an extremely unusual step in games publishing; that it required a post-release re-recording.
They wanted to fix the PC version — already available on Steam — as quickly as possible, but also they wanted to make Mars: War Logs ready for PSN and Xbox 360 versions. (The Xbox Live Arcade version goes on sale July 26, the day after this feature goes live.)
Rousseau knew of an American writer living in France, who'd done extensive work on Ubisoft games. She called Kurt McClung.
"There are 90,000 words in the game," says McClung. "90,000 words is like three weeks of studio time, just to record all that. That's too much money to just throw away."
There was not enough time to rescript and re-record the whole 90,000 words. The team decided to make a list, with three columns. In the first column they jotted down anything that just had to be changed. The rape scene and Innocence's introduction were top of that column.
The second column was filled with stuff they ideally wanted to change, if they found the time. Mostly, this involved side-quest dialogue, minor characters.
Finally, the third column was for work from the first translation that they actually liked, that didn't need to be redone. In this column was a one-word entry that made their lives a whole lot easier: "Roy."
Roy is the central character, a drawling gruff antihero. They really liked the voice actor David Coburn and so kept him and some of his lines as they stood. Others they rewrote and had him come by the studio to re-record, this time with more direction.
In the game's dialog trees, in the simplest possible terms, the player can trigger Roy as brotherly, cynical or badass. "The actors they got were some of the best actors in the business here [in France]. The casting was not a problem," says McClung. Trouble was that they had not been given direction on how to deliver the lines. Brotherly, Cynical and Badass Roy just came out all the same way. "It was a mess. You'd ask the guy for the time of day and he'd yell it at you," recalls McClung.
During the original recordings, Coburn had actually tried rewriting some of the original scripts himself, seeing that they were a mess. But without playing the game in each and every possible variant, he couldn't know what was required in each scenario.
When he works with voice actors on video games, McClung always gives them clear directions on every line. They often have to deliver tight, succinct reactions to players' choices, loaded with meaning, be that anger or sarcasm or sorrow. The script alone does not convey enough.
It's not unusual for a non-player character to react to players' various choices with almost the exact same line, delivered in very different ways. There are many different ways of delivering even the simplest remark or word, like "yes."
"It was important for us that when this problem showed up, we were super reactive to offer a quick fix for the players."
"With a movie voice-over, actors can figure it out from reading the script," says McClung. "But in a game where you have three possible ways of answering in every situation, it's nearly impossible for the actors to understand. If it's poorly translated, there's no way you can get that out of the text."
Mackenzie and McClung spent over a week picking their way through the game, looking for the biggest problems. Then another two weeks going through the rewrites and finding the right voice actors. Finally, they went into the studio.
"It's interesting how video games work," says MacKenzie. "The standard thing is, you have the actors by themselves. They're in a little booth, and they've got the script and the written intonations. But you have to give them constant feedback. Actors need that and so do writers. When I write for a client, I want to hear, 'OK, that's working' or, 'We need this to change.' It's all based on feedback. Making video games really is a team effort. Everyone has to be pulling together to make the best job you can."
Luc Heninger, head producer at Mars: War Logs' publisher Focus, says the biggest problem with the borked translation, looking back, was a lack of feedback mechanisms, so project leaders could get a fix on the problems as they arose.
"The QA alerts did not ring in time," he says. "So we have learned a good lesson, and we'll spend more time and effort on QA in the development process to make sure this isolated problem does not occur in the future any more. But it was important for us that when this problem showed up, we were super reactive to offer a quick fix for the players."
Voyage au Bout de la Nuit
In Mars: War Logs, McClung and Mackenzie saw an attempt to create a dark game that pays homage to some of French literature's greatest achievements. They saw, in Innocence Smith's journey into this dark foreboding prison-camp and in his subsequent travels, shades of the writer Celine, whose most famous work Voyage au Bout de la Nuit (Journey to the End of the Night) is a semi-biographical story of a man who has been seriously damaged by experiences in the trenches during the First World War.
"Celine wrote a story about a young man in the trenches going through the hell of war," says McClung. "I understood what Jehanne was doing, setting the bar really high. The first scene especially had to capture that tone. We had to replace Innocence entirely."
The team decided to go for a "less Hollywood, more HBO" approach. The British actor, Tom Hudson, is able to deliver an American accent, but McClung and Mackenzie wanted him to use his natural voice, southern English, a slightly higher pitch, something that would not have seemed amiss in, say, Game of Thrones.
This quality of naivete contrasts with the dark mentor character Roy and sets them apart more clearly than in the original. Roy speaks gravelly American, a cowboy antihero, while Innocence is a boy from the streets of London.
It's in the rape scene where the two meet for the first time. Up to that point, we have seen Innocence on his journey to the prison and heard his inner thoughts of despair. Now, in the shower room, it's Fatso, the rapist, doing all the talking. His long monologue is sexually abusive, crude and offensive.
'There was too much swearing," says Mackenzie. "When everything's 'fuck' or 'shit,' it loses the effect. I've found that when you meet a really threatening personality, there's usually not a lot of swearing; it's not used as punctuation."
MacKenzie had spent some years living in the rougher areas of London's East End. He says that the Jason Statham style of British gangland menace is now understood code throughout English-speaking countries for someone not to be trifled with.
"If this guy is basically running the inmates, he doesn't need to prove himself so much. It was to tighten that, to really to give him a sense of menace, without him having to just say, 'I'm a threatening guy.' We wanted to get that into his words and his intonations."
There's one particular swear word from Fatso that the new translation does introduce, a word that is very, very rarely used in video games. The word is "cunt."
This was an entirely new addition by the writing team. The original French does not include any version of the word, although Voyage au Bout de la Nuit made use of extremely earthy language, for its time.
"Some people were uncomfortable with this," says Mackenzie, who stressed that it was mainly the men on the team, rather than the women, who questioned its use. "For me, it's one of the most revolting words in the English language. But I wanted to use this because it's not nice. I've always thought that the scariest word in the English language is 'cunt.' It's such an ugly word, and I wanted it to be an ugly scene."
For Spiders and Focus, the lessons within this experience have been logistical, organizational stuff about hiring native English-speaking directors and writers to handle translations.
In the past, they have generally made games that did not use reams of dialog, so it's a useful lesson. A large company, like Ubisoft, will write its games in English, even though it is based in Paris, with its largest studio in Quebec. Ubisoft then uses vast translation departments to localize the games for non-English-speaking countries, including France, according to the company's localization manager Irina Cretu.
"We have expert teams and processes in place that allow us to localize our games in more than 20 languages and adapt localized versions to the respective audience whenever possible," she says.
Smaller companies are learning to replicate this system for the all-important English-speaking markets. Ten years ago, there were very few games with more than 10,000 words. Now, that's normal.
"We're dealing with the forced sodomization of a teenager. There has to be a sense of barely contained violence."
The lesson is a timely one, because there's a bigger issue at play here. Words have never been as important as they are now in video games. A $15 RPG includes as many words as a reasonably sized novel. Audience expectations about the quality of writing and acting in games are much greater than in the past.
This is what drew McClung and Mackenzie to the project.
"The thing we had to do was reassure Jehanne and the team that we weren't going to make a Hollywood game," says McClung. "We weren't going to water it down. We wanted to respect what they tried to do. When I read the script, I thought that this game deserves to have a proper localization, deserves the extra time to make it happen."
Mackenzie is happier now that the rape scene doesn't come off like a comedy sketch. "We're dealing with the forced sodomization of a teenager. There has to be a sense of barely contained violence. He's telling another person, 'You're my property now.' Even if Fatso is showing off in front of his crew, putting some humor into the situation, that has to be scary for the player."
Editing: Matt Leone, Charlie Hall
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan