Last Friday afternoon, an earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 rocked north-east Japan. Minutes later, the coastline was hit with a tsunami, leaving death and destruction in its wake.
Much of the foreign television media's coverage is using words like "desperate" in describing the attempts to cool down the Fukushima reactors. "Nobody's running around like a chicken with their heads off," game translator Matt Alt tells Kotaku. "There's no panic." This weekend in Tokyo was sunny and relaxed - the north-eastern part of the country is an other story. Rebuilding houses and shops will take months. Rebuilding lives may never be completed.
This weekend, television coverage of the tsunami aftermath, as well as the Fukushima nuclear plant crisis, was continuous. Tokyo-based Alt, whose localised games like Dragon Quest VIII and Ninja Gaiden, spent most of Saturday and Sunday on Twitter, trying to give those outside of Japan a more accurate depiction of the events as they transpired.
The images coming from northeastern Japan's coast and rivers have been heartbreaking. Stories of a man who was walking with his wife and child who were washed away. A woman who had only been married three hours when she was separated from her husband... who is still missing. Children who saw their classmates and teacher swept off by the undertow. Houses and farms and lives were destroyed. Unlike the 1995 Hanshin Earthquake, rebuilding in these remote rural locations will be more difficult and take longer.
"Instead of translating a game," Alt says, "I'm translating the news." As the world's media descends on Japan, a country that is already doing a fine job of covering and handling the aftermath itself, Alt focused more getting the word out about what's really happening and what's really being reported on NHK, adding that he felt he had to be a counterpart to what's being reported on American television. "This feels like I'm all doing," says Alt. "Game clients are like, look, don't worry about your projects."
Twitter, something the game industry has traditionally used to disseminate PR or minutia, proved itself essential later on Friday. "Living in Japan, you feel so many quakes it's hard to know if the one you're experiencing is the 'big one'," John Davis from Tokyo's Grasshopper Manufacture tells Kotaku. Last Wednesday, a quake hit Tokyo without incident. Nobody was fussed. That is, until the company's 11th floor Nishi-Shinjuku office began rocking furiously on Friday afternoon.
"We could see other high-rise buildings through the windows teetering back and forth like a Jenga puzzle," says Davis. "We had a lot of people decide to leave, others who stayed at their desks, and a bunch of people stuck in the middle of those decisions." In the confusion, the staff - over a hundred strong - got split up. Goichi Suda, the designer behind No More Heroes, was out of the office on Friday on business; however, Grasshopper was able to check in with him and all its other employees through Twitter.
"It was the most effective way to let everyone know we were safe," says Davis. "On Saturday we had all of the staff check-in via email and phone to let us know they got home safely." The studio has been in contact with all staff ever since. This week, Grasshopper - which is currently developing action title Shadows of the Damned - is closing its Tokyo offices until further notice.
Grasshopper isn't the only game studio to do so. Sega and Square Enix are among the companies shutting down for the time being. Capcom even closed ten arcades due to flooding damage. With aftershocks all weekend long, some separated by only 15 minutes or less (and with a 70 per cent chance of a big aftershock with a magnitude of 7.0), having game staff work from home is the safest option. "It feels like you have vertigo," says Alt of the continuous aftershocks. "Like you are stepping off a boat." Not everyone can work from home, though. Some like game producer Esteban Salazar are still without running water. This morning, with many trains not running, taxis brought in those living out in the suburbs. "I have deadlines," says game localizer John Ricciardi, who walked forty-five minutes to his office in Shibuya. Last Friday, the 8-4 office was turned topsy-turvy, games knocked out of cabinets, everything shaken up. When Ricciardi got out of his office, he sent two emails: one to his parents, and the other to his client.
"People haven't been panicking. They're politely waiting or lining up. "
Today, it seemed like any other Monday in Shibuya. "It's a little quiet," adds Ricciardi from his office at 8-4, "but that's probably because the department stores are closed." A quick look in supermarkets and convience stores shows perishable being snapped up over news of major aftershocks. However, there hasn't been a mad rush, and it is easy to get bottled water. "People haven't been panicking and there's been nothing like looting or anything," he's quick to say. "They're politely waiting or lining up."
Understandably, Sony is postponing the release of Motorstorm 3: Apocalypse, which was due out on March 17, while game developer Irem is cancelling the release of Disaster Report 4, a game that was scheduled for this spring and which actually climbed up the Japanese pre-order charts in the days following the quake. Other game-related events like a Monster Hunter festival in Fukuoka and a Blazblue Continuum Shift II playable demo in Osaka were canceled — even though neither area was hit strongly by the earthquake. "I just don't really feel like it," wrote Yakuza Toshihiro Nagoshi upon announcing the cancelling of a meet-and-greet in Osaka.
With blackouts starting in Tokyo to conserve energy, online games like Metal Gear Solid Online and Final Fantasy are going offline in an effort to help. People in Tokyo might be having it rough with the blackouts, but they know that they're not dealing with anything like what the people are going through up in north-eastern Japan.