From Japan, With Changes: The Endless Debate Over Video Game ‘Censorship’

One of Nintendo’s biggest releases in 2015 is the sprawling 100-hour adventure Xenoblade Chronicles X, released earlier this year in Japan. It’s great-looking and fun. That’s not in dispute. The most heated debate about the game — making it the latest flashpoint in ongoing skirmishes over censorship, creative freedom and sexual politics — involves a pair of changes made for the American release.

Players of this new Xenoblade can choose to play as a woman, if they’d like, as they could in the Japanese version of the game, but can no longer adjust the size of her breasts. They can still hike through the monster-filled world of Mira with the 13-year-old fighter Lin at their side, but among her customisable outfits, they will no longer find a skimpy bikini.

Lin usually looks something like this:

But in the Japanese version, Lin can optionally wear a bikini that looks like this:

As with many JRPGs, it’s possible to customise the look of your character. It’s also common for Japanese games to include bonus costumes for characters — some silly, others more risqué. This is one of them.

To many in the West, eliminating that bikini option might be a welcome change. A game targeting grown-ups that features a sexualized 13-year-old might be a bit much. To others, however, a change like this is the definition of censorship, an unneeded modification of art.

For a taste of the reaction, here’s a commenter from the website Dual Shockers:

Xenoblade Chronicles X is one of several games that’s central to an ongoing Internet argument about the artistic, social, and commercial merits of changing games as they are sold on other sides of an ocean. What’s common among these games is that they come from Japan and the details changed involve female characters’ sex appeal. But they’re also part of a longer continuum of games changed from region to region, sometimes to cut religious references, sometimes to cut violence. These days, the debates about sex are at the fore, as the discussion of how women are presented in games has gained traction in the West.

The creators of these games have largely kept quiet, leaving most of the arguing to fans and critics. The company making many of these changes lately, Nintendo, has said very little about it. Caught in the middle of this are gaming’s translation referees, localizers, the people who work on translating and, at times, rewriting games for their new audience.

“Outside of Japan — and especially right now — you have one loud segment of the market saying, ‘The artistic integrity of the game is more important than the feelings of the people playing it,’” said localizer Brian Grey, who worked in-house at Square Enix — he was the lead translator on the Kingdom Hearts games — before opening his own studio. “And the other segment [is] saying, ‘Games have no integrity unless they respect the feelings of people playing them.’ As a translator, it’s kind of a terrifying debate to be in the middle of, because someone is going to be upset no matter what choice you make.”

The Threat of Censorship

This ideological debate has been going on in the localisation and translation of games for years. At the heart of this topic is a complex question: what constitutes censorship? That usually is intertwined with whether fans are getting the best version of a game or, in some cases, whether they’re getting access to the game at all.

The Internet blew up recently because of a single comment on Dead or Alive‘s official Facebook page. The comment suggested Dead or Alive Xtreme, a sexy fantasy spin-off of the fighting game, wouldn’t come over to the West because of “how many issues with regard to how to treat female in video game industry”. This fed an ongoing fear amongst a set of gaming purists that conversations about sexism and other sensitive topics were scaring off some game companies.

Though I found no evidence of a coordinated effort to campaign against Dead or Alive Xtreme‘s release, there’s plenty of evidence that Japanese games are being changed in subtle ways.

With 2014’s Bravely Default, Nintendo changed the ages of some girls from 13 to 15-years-old and modified their costumes to cover them up.

In Project Zero: Maiden of Black Water, lingerie bonus costumes were removed.

Most recently, it’s rumoured that Bravely Second: End Layer was altered, with a Native American costume removed in favour of a cowboy outfit. We can guess it was changed to avoid criticisms of cultural appropriation — look no further than debate over NFL’s Washington Redskins — but since Nintendo didn’t respond to my request for comment, I can’t say anything for certain.

These kinds of edits have been going on for decades, and it’s possible we’re just noticing more of them now thanks to the every-watchful eye of the crowd-powered Internet. Kotaku‘s Jason Schreier wrote a piece in 2013 railing against some older changes, like 1990s Super Nintendo role-playing-game Earthbound‘s change of the game’s bars to cafes.

When games are released in different regions, it’s not as simple as slapping the text through Google Translate and calling it a day. Language is nuanced, with words and phrases taking on different meanings, depending on where they’re said. (Speed, for example, translates to “fart” in Swedish!) That’s why we have experts. It’s up to the localiser (or localisation team) to guide a game from one language to another, trying to preserve the integrity of the game along the way.

Maybe She Meant “I Love You”

“The ideal localization walks a fine line,” said longtime localiser Alex Smith, who’s worked on Final Fantasy X, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, and others. “It’s subtle and intended to reproduce the game’s experience as faithfully as possible in the new language. So, if not changing something in the English version of the game would result in a lesser or otherwise altered experience for the English-speaking gamer, that’s grounds for ‘localizing’ whatever the problem is.”

Localisation changes can be tricky. When Smith was helping translate Final Fantasy X, there was an internal debate about Yuna’s final words to Tidus. In Japanese, Yuna says “arigatou”. Plainly translated, this means “thanks”.

“And yet,” said Smith, “‘arigatou’ has connotations that go beyond the phrasebook definition of ‘thanks.’ Literally meaning ‘there was much difficulty,’ the word encompasses a sense of shared experience. If the patriarch of a family was on his death bed, looking up at his children and grand-children, the word he might say in Japanese is ‘arigatou.’ It has the weight, and finality in this case, that we associate with the words ‘I love you’ in English.”

The phrase “I love you” hadn’t been uttered in a Final Fantasy game before. Complicating matters, the shot where Yuna speaks is a close-up, so the words needed to closely match the original Japanese cut-scene in order to line up properly. Thus, “I love you”. Smith consulted with Kazushige Nojima, who wrote the script for Final Fantasy X, and pitched the idea. He approved.

“I’ve had to back down on other changes in other games because the dev team wasn’t so open-minded,” said Smith. “So not every localization decision takes place in such an ideal environment, but that doesn’t mean localizers shouldn’t try.”

But with Xenoblade Chronicles X and Bravely Default, we’re talking about 13-year-old girls sexualised for an audience who, generally speaking, is much older than 13. It’s not hard to suggest most people find that creepy, but by changing those details, have you altered the art?

“Something intended to be simply humorous or risqué in a Japanese game might come across to an American gamer as creepy or worse, as pedophilia,” said Smith. “Keeping the problematic content in there with the intent of preserving the creator’s original vision is misguided, because the creator presumably didn’t intend for the audience to feel uncomfortable or offended. The original vision is better served by making adjustments so the new audience appreciates the work on (as closely as possible) the same terms as the original audience.”

Multiple translators I talked to pushed back on the idea of increasing the age of a character, instead preferring to remove the age entirely, allowing the detail to remain ambiguous.

Niche Gamer, a website largely dedicated to JRPGs and other games released for smaller crowds, regularly bangs the censorship drum, demanding that companies stop altering games like this.

“I’m of the volition that we should celebrate other cultures and let media from such cultures exist as is, and not have it be altered or sugar-coated for foreign audiences,” said Niche Gamer‘s editor-in-chief Brandon Orselli. “It’s a catch-22 when trying to appeal for people who may not appreciate things alien to their culture goes and alienates the people who enjoy experiencing other cultures.”

To Orselli, it’s a moot point whether or not anyone — in the West or otherwise — thinks it’s creepy. Orselli’s perspective is essentially the strict constructionism take, where the original text — in this case, the original Japanese video game — is sacrosanct, should be respected and left largely unaltered.

To that end, Niche Gamer recently wrote about a petition called “1 Million Gamers Strong For Japanese Gaming” that seeks to unify players who agree with Orselli. It’s at 5280 supporters and counting.

Three Years Older, If That Makes A Difference

Tom Lipschultz is a localisation specialist at XSEED Games, known for bringing over games for Niche Gamer‘s audience. That includes everything from Falcom’s famed Ys series to Senran Kagura, a beat ’em up famous for its depiction of barely clothed women with exaggerated proportions. It’s a game developed explicitly because the creator wanted to show boobs on the 3DS.

I learned about Lipschultz after interviewing XSEED vice president Ken Berry, who revealed Lipschultz almost quit over his beliefs. XSEED had hoped to test the American waters with Senran Kagura as a downloadable eShop-only game. To help the game operate with less controversy, Berry planned to remove the ages from the profiles of the game’s female characters. In that game, Senran Kagura Burst, many of the characters are 15 years old and most are under 18.

Berry believed this to be a “minor” change, but it drove Lipschultz up a wall. As a compromise, Berry let Lipschultz publicly criticise the decision, so the community understood there were divisions.

Lipschultz told me he wasn’t against removing the ages, but altering them. One changes a game’s plot, the other doesn’t.

Senran Kagura Burst is, at its heart, a coming-of-age story,” said Lipschultz, “so changing a 15-year-old to an 18-year-old would suddenly recontextualize a lot of character actions and motivations, turning characters who come across as ‘well-meaning but young and inexperienced’ into characters who simply come across as immature and misguided. Three years makes an awful lot of difference in human development, after all, and I just felt like making drastic alterations of that nature would irreparably harm the narrative. And I didn’t want to be part of a company that would consider making artistic changes of that magnitude for no other reason than because cultural differences might make people feel a little uncomfortable.”

While what Lipschultz is saying has merit, let’s be clear about the game we’re talking about. Senran Kagura Burst, besides being a beat ’em up, is designed to titillate. The visuals knowingly wink at the audience to say “we’re here to turn you on.” That’s not to condemn erotic games — not long ago, we praised one on Kotaku but upfront, it’s about gigantic breasts. (Side note: When I’ve read discussions about Senran Kagura, fans have praised its story.)

“It’s an artistic vision — not one I personally agree with, but an artistic vision nonetheless,” said Lipschultz. “And I don’t think it’s right for us to say, ‘that’s going too far,’ because when we do, we set a precedent for others to follow — and others may be just a little bit more conservative, drawing their lines in the sand a little farther up than you did. And then others will follow their example, but draw their lines in the sand even farther up.”

On the message board NeoGAF, Lipschultz took his argument further, suggesting the age of virtual characters doesn’t matter and that you could even consider a fictional character’s age based on the year the character was first drawn.

(By the end of that message board thread, Lipschultz had been banned from NeoGAF.)

Are we to presume pornographic images of Lisa Simpson are acceptable because The Simpsons has been on the air for 27 years? It’s hard to imagine many people buying that, and this opens the door to the thorniest issue of all: cultural differences on sex in popular media.

In this case, at least, the creator of the game has spoken up. Senran Kagura creator Kenichirō Takaki is marvelously clear about his intentions.

“So, first and foremost, I want — I need, really — to create a game that’s actually a solid game, and not just a vehicle for sexual content,” said Takaki in an interview with Nintendo Life. “I didn’t want to make a half-assed game with cute girls fighting and their clothes ripping off for no reason, just because it’s visually pleasing. I wanted there to be a reason why they’re fighting, and why each individual is different. I wanted to have a story that explains why they’re fighting, why their clothes are ripping off, why the sexual aspects are there — I always want there to be a reason why. And because of that core essence, that reason why, players can relate to each of the characters, and I can tell a bigger story.”

Takaki’s aware of what’s happening in the West, admitting it’s “a topic that comes up on Japan’s side too, ’cause there are people who aren’t into the sexualization of the game or eroge.” (Eroge is a term for Japanese pornographic video games.)

“I think as of right now I’ll keep going on the path that I have been, but in the future it might change,” he told Operation Rainfall, another outlet that covers Japanese games. “It really comes down to, I want to create what I want to create and it’s not a take it or leave it. I do understand what this group of people [in media criticism] are trying to say, but I don’t want to change everything to please them, because that’s what dilutes everything that I am trying to make. It is a series that is still new in the West. There’s a lot confusion about the game. There is a core mechanic of the game that I will not be influenced by the naysayers just because they are a naysayer.”

Takaki is happy to defend his work in public, but not every developer can or will. If more developers did, it might lead to a better understanding on both sides of the argument.

Auteurs Vs Sports Coaches

“One huge misconception out there is that every director of a Japanese game is a Hayao Miyazaki who labors over every aspect of his creation,” said localiser Brian Grey, who’s worked with some of Japan’s most eccentric game designers. “There are auteurs in the industry — among the people I’ve worked for, Tetsuya Nomura and Goichi Suda jump out — but actually, to a large extent, their work is mostly devoid of awkward, out-of-context pandering just because auteurs are all about context.”

Suda’s games, for example, are full of attractive women and eyebrow-raising features, such as Killer Is Dead’s “Gigolo Mode.” But Grey had no problem working on Suda’s games because his intent was clear and the sexualized part of the games seemed to fit with the ideas and themes the creator was exploring. Given the vast scope of games these days, that’s not true of every single one, which can lead to the unexpected outfits or ages that raise eyebrows and questions about how integral they are to the game’s artistic purity.

(Thanks to omegaevolution for the clip.)

“For every auteur title, there are nine more titles that are helmed by directors who are more like sports coaches,” said Grey. “They don’t create every single piece of content; some of them don’t even look at every piece of content. They delegate. And those are the titles where you run across things that feel out of place, like they ought to be reconsidered.”

When it comes to sexualixed content, he tries to figure out where exactly it came from.

“Is it the director, or is it Horny McHornHorn over in the corner?” said Grey. “Was it only left in because it didn’t need to be removed in Japan, or was it left in because it’s actually a defining component of the game’s identity? I don’t mean to imply that these directors don’t have vision, because they do, but if their products are so big that no one person can ultimately even look at it all, then of course you are going to find some strange things out in the fringes of that universe that might not be what they intended to make at all.”

Who Takes The Blame?

What bothers fans — and to be honest, what also bothers me — is Nintendo’s continued silence on the issue, which makes it hard to tell just what is going on with the “small” changes being made to games like Xenoblade Chronicles X and who is calling the shots. In response to this story, Nintendo would only give the vaguest of statements.

“Different regions make different localization choices based on a variety of factors,” said a company spokesperson.

The company refuses to discuss the changes or announce them ahead of time.

In the absence of any rational explanation, desperation can lead to conspiracy theories.

Alison Rapp is a product marketing specialist in Nintendo’s Treehouse division. Though the Treehouse is commonly referred to as Nintendo’s internal localisation team, these days, its responsibilities are far broader. Rapp is one of many who work at Treehouse, and despite zero evidence suggesting that she’s been involved in the localisation of Xenoblade Chronicles X, let alone influenced its content changes, it hasn’t stopped some from viewing her as an enemy.

It’s unclear how or when Rapp became a target; she’s been with Nintendo over two years. The most vitriolic discussions happen within places like 4chan, where threads are regularly deleted.

Why Rapp’s a target is more clear: she’s an outspoken woman with progressive-leaning politics who fits into the narrative that “social justice warriors” are leading to the censorship of games. An 8chan thread from earlier this year that was started after Rapp had appeared on one of Nintendo’s E3 livestreams featured a group of people worried Rapp would “infect” Nintendo of America. They found reasons to dislike her:

Tumblr diss? Check. Mocking queerness? Check. Problem with gender issues? Check.

When it was clear Xenoblade Chronicles X would see changes in the US, it didn’t take long for Rapp to get connected, a misguided conspiracy that’s gone on for months. Again, while there’s no evidence Rapp had anything to do with Nintendo’s decision, she became a boogeyman.

Some went as far as writing up a (wildly unsuccessful) petition to have her fired.

Rapp still works at Nintendo. When I contacted her last week, Rapp explained she hadn’t worked on Xenoblade Chronicles X. In fact, she doesn’t work with the localisation team — period.

It’s impossible to know if Rapp would have avoided becoming a villain if Nintendo was more forthcoming about localisation changes, but other publishers err on the side of transparency.

Earlier this year, Atlus was faced with erotic RPG Dungeon Travellers 2 getting an Adults Only rating, which would make it largely unsellable in America. The ESRB, the group that rates video games in the U.S., asked them to make four cuts to secure a Mature rating. Such ratings distinctions are important, because retailers and platform holders won’t stock Adults Only games. Atlus decided it was better to make the cuts than cancel it, but crucially, it issued a press release transparently outlining the changes and even answered my questions about them:

Dungeon Travellers 2: The Royal Library & the Monster Seal presented some challenges during the localization process — specifically, adapting some of the fan service content to western sensibilities. Localization by nature requires some changes to be made for content to be understood en masse, which is why ATLUS worked closely with developer AquaPlus to preserve the game’s themes and content to its fullest.

In order to comply with restrictions set forth by rating boards, ATLUS made concessions on just four in-game images. On these images, some minor edits were made (and approved by the developer) to adjust the overt graphics to within acceptable ranges for the game’s M-rating.”

Warning: What’s featured below could be considered pornographic. It’s not safe for work.

In terms of cuts, we’re not talking about an occasional panty shot. No, it’s more like this:

“Atlus actually consulted with the ESRB prior to submitting,” a company representative told me at the time. “They helped identify which images would be an issue, and we took their feedback to the developer to change the images appropriately.”

Whether or not you agree with the changes, the alterations were communicated to players.

“I think if more publishers would at least talk about the changes they make and why they made them,” said Niche Gamer‘s Brandon Orselli, “people would be a LOT more understanding, at the very least. Instead we mostly get quiet edits/changes/removal of content, and most people avoid talking about it.”

It’s a fair point.

This is all not a one-way street, either. In Japan, there are concerns over violence and cultural taboos. Later Resident Evil games had decapitations and other gore removed. A Fallout 3 quest where players could defuse or detonate an atomic bomb was changed so players couldn’t detonate it. There’s no way to come up with a set of rules applicable to every game and every localisation.

Localisers have much to consider, and each one I talked to seemed to approach the job with deep respect. They believe games are art, and want to maintain that art. The considerations are vast, from the business realities of a company hoping to sell a bunch of copies to individuals trying to preserve the creativity of the games they’re working on.

“The best translators I know in the business are hopeless perfectionists,” said Grey. “They pick apart the dialogue and see the pros and cons and different reactions people can have; they step into the shoes of different gamers from different walks of life and agonize, and I mean really agonize, over what the right way to represent each line is. I’m personally against content that degrades or hurts people — who paid money, and are expecting to have fun — but I also know that I have a responsibility to maintain fidelity to the original — because other people also paid money, and are expecting that.”

“There is no striking a balance,” he continued, “so all I can do is present the argument to the creators or publisher, whenever possible, and see how they want to handle it. Sometimes it goes one way, sometimes the other. Usually it goes in the direction of not degrading people, and I can only assume that’s because the market is still responding more positively to that course of action.”

This topic isn’t going away anytime soon. Idea Factory International president Haru Akenaga recently told Operation Rainfall it won’t bring over some Compile Heart [a Japanese developer known for Hyperdimension Neptunia and Record of Agarest War] games because they “don’t want to censor anymore because we know that’s not true to the original developed art.”

What constitutes acceptable editing or unacceptable censorship remains unanswered.

Illustration by Sam Woolley

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