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Yakuza localizers dish on bringing Japanese politics to Western audiences

The challenges of making a modern RPG

Yakuza: Like a Dragon protagonist Ichiban standing inside of a maid café Image: Ryu ga Gotoku Studio/Sega via Polygon

The Yakuza series broke into the Western market as a modern-day, dramatic beat-’em-up partially because Sega has been so good about localizing the games at a record pace. You could say the localizers, at this point, know what they’re doing. But the upcoming Yakuza: Like a Dragon isn’t an action game of that ilk. Coupled with a storyline that grapples with sensitive subjects, Like a Dragon’s localizers say bringing the newest game to English-speaking audiences presented a special type of challenge compared to what came before.

It is, partially, a tangle of expectations. Some folks picking up Like a Dragon will undoubtedly be series veterans who will be used to navigating the streets of Kamurocho. Some might see the RPG as a good starting point for the series. Others might still be newbies to the series, while also being completely new to, well, Japan.

The localizers have to find ways to onboard everyone without, as Sega’s Scott Strichart recently put it to Polygon over email, “dumb[ing] that down” or potentially erasing the “Japanese experience” that existing fans expect from Yakuza.

“Ideally, it should feel a little foreign to the average Western player, but it should also feel like we’ve built a pretty smooth road between you and what the game has to offer,” Strichart says. “Your job as a player is just to walk across it, and hopefully you’ll feel rewarded by what you find on the other side.”

Part of what made it all difficult, Strichart tells Polygon, is that Like a Dragon is “undeniably political at times, perhaps more so than previous entries have been.” As our review explains, the RPG tries to take on subjects like classism and government corruption, especially as it relates to the in-game yakuza. There’s a nationalist organization that ends up butting heads with the protagonists of the game, in addition to a few other sensitive situations.

“For us, this whole thing was tricky,” Strichart says. “Any time it veered into a political take, whether it be from the game’s villains or heroes, we did what we could to ensure we were accurately depicting that take in a way that represented what the devs were out to say. Our localization philosophy was that we were doing a game discussing Japanese politics and we strove to ensure that we weren’t there to give it any spin.”

It helped, he says, that some topics like immigration and deportation are universal, or at least familiar to all players, regardless of background. The team tried to make the nuances of the Japanese experience legible to the average player while also retaining the cultural magic that makes the series so compelling in the first place.

In our review, we found that Like a Dragon’s bouts with politics had mixed results, but it probably didn’t help that the team was, in some ways, venturing into unexplored territory for the series. And, in some ways, for RPGs themselves. While the genre has many set conventions, they typically exist in societies that don’t fully mirror the real world. There’s an element of fantasy to contend with, that tinge of “not quite here.” Like a Dragon tries shifting those conventions to a realistic setting, and the results can be as amusing as they are unusual.

“For example, ‘drunk’ isn’t a status ailment in a lot of RPGs,” Strichart explains, adding, “but here we have three levels of it: drunk, plastered, and shitfaced. Or there are a quite a few different ways an enemy can verbally provoke the player’s party into a rage status, which were localized as everything from ‘[the enemy] talked a lot of shit!’ to ‘[the enemy] said very unprofessional things!’”

Whether or not the team was fully successful in making Like a Dragon palatable to Western audiences will ultimately be decided by players themselves. But that so much of a game’s success and legibility could hinge on a localization is not lost on Strichart.

“Ultimately, I’d like to think we succeeded in keeping ourselves impartial, but on the same token, every translation, across games, literature, and any art really, is more than just words on a page that perfectly encapsulate the source, because the translator has to choose those words,” Strichart writes, noting “and their choice of words is almost never the binary ‘source word = target word’ decision that many think it is.”

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