The Curse Of Kiseki: How One Of Japan’s Biggest RPGs Barely Made It To The West

The Curse Of Kiseki: How One Of Japan’s Biggest RPGs Barely Made It To The West

One day in March of last year, video game writer Andrew Dice wrote out a check for all of his company’s money. He stuck it in the doorframe at his business partner’s apartment in Portland, Oregon, then went back to his own place. (They live in the same complex.) He closed all the windows. Then, as he tells it, he laid down on his bed and picked up a knife, preparing to plunge it into his chest.

He was interrupted by pounding on the door, he says: It was Robin Light-Williams, his partner. Dice thought for a few seconds, then put the knife down and let his friend in. They talked for a while, and Dice decided not to kill himself.

“I’m doing fairly better now,” Dice told me last month, recounting one of the darkest memories of his life. “I still have some rough periods, because I’ve had rough periods since I was like 14 years old… But in March of 2014 I was feeling like I’d fucked up. I’d led us onto a bad project. I hadn’t formatted things correctly… I was kind of a wreck.”

Up to that point, Dice and Light-Williams had spent nearly three years working on the English localisation for said “bad project” — a role-playing game called The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky Second Chapter. It’s taken nearly half a decade for Second Chapter to come out in English, and those who have worked on localisation of the game say it was a hellish undertaking. Given the size of the script — over three million Japanese characters — and the many obstacles the game faced on its route to Western shores, employees at the publisher XSEED saw it as their white whale. To describe SC’s localisation as “challenging” would be like describing the Pacific Ocean as “damp.”

Trails SC finally came out last week in English for the PC and, unbelievably, the PSP, Sony’s second-most-recent handheld gaming system. That it came out at all is nothing short of a miracle.

The Curse Of Kiseki: How One Of Japan’s Biggest RPGs Barely Made It To The West

In May of 2010, the publisher XSEED sent out a press release saying they’d secured a deal to bring the Trails in the Sky trilogy to Western audiences. All three games — massive turn-based role-playing games for the Sony PSP — had been released in Japan to critical and commercial acclaim. The developers behind the game, a Tokyo-based studio called Falcom, wanted to expand to an international audience, so they turned to XSEED, a small company that had spent the past six years translating and publishing the English versions of Japanese games like Valhalla Knights and Half-Minute Hero. In the press release, XSEED said they’d release the first Trails in the Sky game in 2011.

It wasn’t long before the editors at XSEED realised just how much of a burden they’d put on their shoulders. At 1.5 million Japanese characters, the first Trails in the Sky was much bigger than anything they’d published before, more akin to a visual novel than a traditional RPG. There were hundreds of non-player characters, each with their own names and personalities and lines upon lines of dialogue to translate and edit. XSEED editor Jessica Chavez spent nine months crunching non-stop — 14 hours a day, six days a week — just to get through it all.

“When I finally finished it I’d dropped ~10% of my body weight and was down to 99lbs,” she told me in an email earlier this year. She said she cut off 45cm of her hair “in some sort of retaliation for the headaches the weight of it had given me while working.”

Trails in the Sky First Chapter came out for the PSP in the US on 29 March 2011, and Europe on 4 November 2011. Players raved, lauding the game’s scope and charm and comparing it favourably to beloved RPG classics like Grandia and Suikoden. Here was a game where every shopkeeper had a name and personality; where random NPCs would move and get married and have little ongoing mini-stories that unfolded over the course of the main plot. For a certain subset of RPG fans, it was really special.

If only more people had bought it. Perhaps because of the generic title or because the PSP was on its last legs in North America, FC was a retail flop. “It was actually quite a huge letdown based on how much work we put into it and how much work Falcom had put into it,” XSEED executive vice president Ken Berry told me during a recent interview. “At that point, both sides started to [wonder] if it was viable or not to continue the series.”

Problem is, FC ends on a tantalising cliffhanger. While the first Trails in the Sky is perfectly great as a self-contained game, it’s also the first part of a two-part story. (The third Trails game is connected to the other two but not pivotal.) As fans started to realise that the story was incomplete — and that it ended on a brutal cliffhanger, with the fates of several main characters in question — they mobbed XSEED, begging them for updates on the second chapter. “Any announcement we make on our Facebook page, almost always the first post replied to it is ‘Where’s Trails SC?’” Berry said. “No matter what we talk about, the first post is always ‘Where’s Trails SC?’”

Nobody at XSEED wanted to leave plot threads dangling, but with the PSP on its way out and finances strained, what could they do? Trails in the Sky First Chapter had taken so much of their time and energy, and SC‘s script was twice as big. After FC‘s sluggish sales, how could they possibly justify tackling something double the size?

In the spring of 2011, a solution emerged. Andrew Dice, the co-founder of a brand new company called Carpe Fulgur, had approached XSEED about helping localise some of their games. He and his business partner had found success releasing a niche action game called Recettear that had outperformed expectations on the PC, selling over 100,000 copies, and they were looking to take on more games — especially the ones that might not make it outside of Japan without their help. The massive, unwieldy Trails SC seemed like the perfect candidate.

The Curse Of Kiseki: How One Of Japan’s Biggest RPGs Barely Made It To The West

After some negotiations, the two companies came to an arrangement in June 2011: Carpe Fulgur would localise Trails SC from Japanese to English with hopes of publishing the game within the next year or two. But there were some wrinkles. For one, XSEED would need to convince the developer, Falcom, to commit a few programmers to the project. No matter who handled the script, the publisher would need Falcom to crack open the code and actually implement the text, at least on the PSP. But the Japanese developers were resistant.

“Falcom was still so disillusioned from the less-than-stellar launch of Trails FC on PSP earlier that year, they weren’t ready to commit to SC just yet,” Berry told me. Falcom also wouldn’t commit to greenlighting PC versions of FC and SC, which would be essential to make the finances work; everyone presumed they wouldn’t sell many copies on the PSP, but they thought maybe they could carve out a nice audience in the world of personal computers.

So the two companies came to an informal agreement without an official contract. Carpe Fulgur began plugging away at SC‘s script, with Light-Williams translating the text from Japanese to English and Dice editing it. (Localisation is typically a two-step process: First, translators convert raw text from Japanese to English; then, editors go through it to add life and personality.)

“At the time, I didn’t think it would take very long for Falcom to see the light and to sign off on doing Trails in the Sky for PC,” Dice told me. “It was the only real way Trails was going to make money. I had faith that we’d get that sorted out maybe within a year.”

A year went by. Then another. By June of 2013, they still didn’t have any sort of contract.

Although Carpe Fulgur had been working on the script for two years, progress was inconsistent. Dice partially blamed his doubt that the game would ever come out in America. “The uncertainty has been eating at us and preventing us from getting anything done,” he remembered thinking. “This has been in a state of limbo for two years. We legitimately don’t know if this is going to happen.”

Two months later, buoyed by a string of XSEED successes on the PC like Ys Origins, Falcom finally agreed to the deal. In August 2013, they had a contract. In September, XSEED took the news public, announcing that SC would come to both PSP and PC by the summer of 2014. Fans were ecstatic.

That’s when the real problems started.

The Curse Of Kiseki: How One Of Japan’s Biggest RPGs Barely Made It To The West

In late 2013, Dice started sending script files to Chavez, who quickly saw significant issues in what Carpe Fulgur had done. For starters, the file format was incorrect; Dice and Light-Williams had worked in text mode on a CSV-formatted file rather than the spreadsheet mode that XSEED and Falcom had requested. “The way they had it set up was three lines in three separate columns, and all three lines are supposed to be in the same cell, so you just need a hard line break,” Chavez said. “So I just had to cut and paste, cut and paste, cut and paste.”

It took her two months. Chavez would wake up every day, open up OpenOffice, and copy-paste thousands upon thousands of words, all the while making tiny tweaks and corrections as necessary. Cut, paste, cut, paste. “It was very tedious,” she said.

“That comes down on my head,” Dice said. “I should have been more careful about making sure the files we submitted were readable in spreadsheet format from the get-go. I should have tested all those files more cautiously before sending them over to XSEED.”

The Curse Of Kiseki: How One Of Japan’s Biggest RPGs Barely Made It To The West

At that point, Dice and Light-Williams had finished localising the entire main scenario, but in Trails SC, the main scenario comprises only 50% of the game. The other half — NPC dialogue, menu text, item descriptions, and so forth — remained unfinished. By the end of 2013, XSEED wanted to know what was taking so long. “They were asking,” said Dice, “‘You guys have been working on the game for two years; why isn’t it done?’”

Soon, another major problem emerged — one that would be significantly more difficult to solve. As Chavez went through the files, she started finding inconsistencies in terminology. Titles, items, and concepts had different names in Carpe Fulgur’s SC script than they did in the first game, which was unacceptable to XSEED. The Trails series — or “Kiseki” in Japanese — is set in a large, consistent world with stories and characters that carry over from game to game. Maintaining that consistency was paramount for XSEED.

The two parties disagreed over the necessity of a series bible — a set of reference documents containing all the essential lore, names, and other details behind the Trails games. Dice said he had asked about a series bible when he started back in 2011, and he’d asked again in 2013, but XSEED didn’t have one. They didn’t think it was necessary. “We just reference the system text of the previous game,” Chavez said. “Any number of search engines make this easy to do. When the project started, I specifically made this clear to Carpe Fulgur when I handed over the text. They had no issues with this at all.”

Over the next few months, thanks to disagreements over this bible and other key issues, the relationship between Dice and XSEED grew strained. Dice, dealing with anxiety and depression, would take weeks and even months to respond to Chavez’s requests. “I started dodging [Chavez’s] emails,” Dice told me. “I was taking forever to get back to her, the stress was piling on… Eventually in [early] 2014 she reached out to Robin [Light-Williams] and Robin got rather cross with me because he thought I was being lazy.”

That March, Dice took a knife to his chest. He later wrote about the experience in a blog post, explaining that he’d sunk into a cycle of depression and self-loathing triggered in part by his work on Trails in the Sky SC. “A thousand, thousand failures haunt me,” he wrote. “Failures that caused others pain, discomfort, distress. Failures so many I can no longer count them all.”

In the summer of 2014, three years after they’d first formed a partnership, Carpe Fulgur and XSEED agreed to part ways. It had become clear that things weren’t working, and Dice hadn’t made much progress on SC since December, so Carpe Fulgur sent over everything they’d done and XSEED took back the reins. Publicly, the publisher maintained that the game would be out by the end of the year, but after what they’d been through, that seemed unlikely.

Chavez, who at that point had moved from LA to Australia and was working for XSEED on a freelance basis, reluctantly took over editing on the project. At that point, she said, Carpe Fulgur had still only finished around 50% of the game. “I had about six months to do it,” Chavez said. “For reference, about half of SC is 1.6 million [Japanese characters], which was about how much was left. FC was 1.5 million, and that took nine months.”

Chavez crunched and crunched for half a year, editing text until her eyes bled. She tweaked dialogue, fixed typos, and started correcting all of the terminology mistakes that remained in the script. She estimates that the script clocked in at 716,401 words, which is roughly the size of 10 novels. For context: the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy is 455,125 words. Tolstoy’s War and Peace (New American Library Version) is 587,287.

The Curse Of Kiseki: How One Of Japan’s Biggest RPGs Barely Made It To The West

In January of 2015, Chavez completed her final edits, and by March the developers had implemented the text into the game. After four years, the finish line was in sight. XSEED’s staff had called it “The Curse of Kiseki.” It’d haunted them. And now it was nearly over.

Over the next half-year, the people at XSEED would go through a brutal quality assurance phase, checking every in-game line of dialogue for typos and terminology issues. They also had to squash bugs that had emerged during the localisation process. Even the simplest things — like the length of a line of dialogue — could compromise the game’s stability.

XSEED handled the PC version on their own thanks to freelance programmer Sara Leen, who had been working with the company for several years and had facilitated the PC ports of several games including the first Trails in the Sky. But for the PSP version, they needed to rely on Falcom, which became an ordeal. Every time XSEED had finished a round of bug-checking, they’d need to wait for Falcom to implement fixes and then send over a new build. Then, they’d have to check that build not just for new bugs but to ensure that Falcom’s programmers had successfully zapped the ones they’d already reported.

“Falcom’s been extremely busy this year, so it’s been a little hard to figure out when the next build will be coming,” Berry said. “We were never completely stalled, but there were quite a few times when we wished, especially during the QA process, that things could’ve moved a little faster, ’cause a lot of the bugs that we’d been reporting wouldn’t be addressed for a while.”

They had all hands on deck for this one, even bringing in an external QA house for several months. The game was so big that the outsourcing company didn’t even have time to finish it all, Berry said.

XSEED’s Brittany Avery, a self-proclaimed Kiseki fangirl, played through all of SC multiple times just to check terminology and ensure that all the pieces fit just right. It was a rigorous process, exacerbated by all sorts of bugs and issues that XSEED has documented on their blog. (One of my favourites: random text blow-ups.)

The Curse Of Kiseki: How One Of Japan’s Biggest RPGs Barely Made It To The West

“The more you play it, the more you QA it, the more issues you’re gonna find, especially with the text,” Berry said. “For example someone like Brittany here in the office that’s a huge Kiseki fan, the more she would dive into the text, the more she would want to make adjustments, saying well this isn’t quite right because in FC this happened, or this is foreshadowing something that’s gonna happen later in the game but it’s not written the right way.”

In June, after five months of intense QA, Chavez called everyone at XSEED for a meeting. That was it, she said. They had to get this game out.

“We just had to set a firm date,” Berry said. “We said, ‘OK, after this date, that’s it: No more text changes. No more addressing of any bugs unless it’s something that’s very major. We need to get this product out. Not just for the fans that are waiting but for our own sanity.’ Brittany was staying til past midnight every night for like two months trying to rewrite and fix as much of the dialogue as possible. It just wasn’t healthy.”

They set the deadline for July 10, and from then they dedicated all their time to bug-squashing. The process was sluggish on both platforms: the PC port was full of glitches (like purple butt blasts) and for the PSP version, they had to wait for Falcom every time they wanted to implement changes. XSEED’s staff were particularly worried about the latter — although it was more stable than the PC version, they knew there was no way to issue patches for a PSP game in 2015. Whatever issues shipped with the game on PSP would remain there forever.

By September, they’d put together a master build — a finalised version of the game — and in mid-October, they had a date. On Friday, October 23, XSEED announced the news: Trails SC would be out in a week.

On 29 October 2015 at 12pm ET (30 October at 4am AEDT), Trails in the Sky SC released on Steam. Hours later, it showed up on Sony’s online store for the PSP. The game was finally in people’s hands, much to the relief of everyone involved.

“For everything that happened, for all the twists and turns over the years, I’m still enormously proud of the work I did on Trails in the Sky SC,” Dice said. “SC has had more twists and turns getting out the door than just about any game I’ve heard of… But the game still is going to come out, and it’s going to be great fun, and it’s going to leave a lot of people satisfied.”

So far, other than a few complaints about bugs and crashes, reactions to SC have been uniformly positive. But people at XSEED are still waiting for the other shoe to drop. They’re still haunted by the Curse of Kiseki. After a four-and-a-half-year journey, it feels surreal — and unbelievable — that the game is actually out.

“I’m happy it’s over and trepidatious about the launch because I want people to finally enjoy it, but I know, KNOW, Kiseki is gonna Kiskei,” Chavez said. “Aidios have mercy.”

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